Desire November 24, 2021

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In Buddhism, desire is said to be dangerous because it can leads us to attach ourselves to things which are in passing away. Everything is impermanent. What we want will not be with us forever, and when it is gone, we will suffer because our desire will no longer be able to be fulfilled.  Desire would not be so dangerous if it were not so powerful. It motivates us and encourages us to act, even if our action does not prove to be in our long-term best interest. We establish faulty reasons to justify our actions, to justify our desire; we essentialize reality in order to justify our attachments. Nonetheless, since what we do is based upon ignorance, but faulty beliefs, though we might achieve some element of happiness, it will be short lived and then we will find ourselves tending towards misery. Life, after all, is suffering, and it is suffering because of our actions. Nonetheless, since desire is powerful, since it can motivate us, when properly employed with wisdom, it can be a useful tool, and it is this realization which has lead Buddhist tantra to work with desire and find a way to use it to encourage our proper spiritual development (and even serve as a tool for enlightenment):

Tantra’s approach is very different. Instead of viewing pleasure and desire as something to be avoided at all costs, tantra recognizes the powerful energy aroused by our desire to be an indispensable  resource for the spiritual path. Because the goal is nothing less than the realization of our highest human potential, tantra seeks to transform every experience – no matter how “unreligious”  it may appear—into the path of fulfillment. It is precisely  because our present life is so inseparably linked with desire that we must make use of desire’s tremendous energy if we wish to transform our life into something transcendental. [1]

This should help us also understand how and why Christianity, and Christian spirituality, ooften seems to use desire, indeed, selfishness, as a reason for people to become Christians. For we are shown something which is useful and good for us as a goal, our salvation (and even, our deification), something which we then desire and will do whatever it takes to achieve that desire. We will follow the path Christ showed us that leads to our desire. Along the way, we will find ourselves changing. Our desires will change, even as the reasons why we desire what we desire will change. We will go from engaging the Christian faith merely out of a selfish desire for our own private good to engaging the Christian faith out of love—love for God, and through that love for God, love for everyone and everything in creation.  It is true, if we follow the path, we will receive what was promised to us; the rewards being offered are real, but as we follow through the path, we will slowly change our focus and our desire, so that the reason we are on the path will not be for the rewards themselves. It is likely we will not even be thinking about them, at least in relation to ourselves (we will think of them in regards to the way we can make sure others receive them, for our desire will have us move from seeking our own good to seeking the common good).

Thus, we will find most of us our rather selfish when we begin our journey, but if we follow it to its end, we will become selfless; we will begin by looking out for our own good, because we will be attached to ourselves, but we will end up dying to the self and looking for the good of all and only in that regard will we have any concern for our own particular good. When we have become filled with grace, we will become perfect, and in that perfection, we will act out of pure love, thinking of the beloved without any special consideration for ourselves.

It is clear, therefore, many people are initially attracted to the Christian faith because of what they think they can get from it for themselves. They will follow what they are told to do because of the rewards they are promised. But the actions themselves are transformative in nature. By doing them, they change us. It can be said we become what we do, and when our actions are actions of love, we become creatures of love. We will find ourselves becoming selfless; we will love God for the sake of God, not out of any concern for ourselves. Then, through that love, we will love all that God has made, including ourselves. This is why it is said that the spiritual journey will have us die to ourselves. The expectations we are given are the expectations of love. When we fulfill those expectations, we love, and in that love, we overcome the false, egotistical self, for love, when it is pure, is free from the taint of any and all forms of selfishness. And in this fashion, the spiritual path not only gives us the rewards which we are promises, it makes us fit for those rewards by having us become people who love with such a pure love, we will not be attached to those rewards and use and abuse them for selfish gain:

God is not loved without reward, even though he should be loved without the thought of reward. True charity cannot be empty, but it does not seek profit. “for it does not seek its own benefit” [1 Cor. 13:5]. It is an affection, not a contract. It is not given or received by agreement. It is given freely; it makes us spontaneous. True love is content. It has its reward in what it loves. For if you seem to love something, but really love for the sake of something else, you actually love what you are pursuing as your real end, not what is a means to it. Paul did not preach in order to eat; he ate in order to preach. He loved not the food, but the Gospel.[2]

The great lovers of God, when they are rewarded by God, will be rewarded because they are great lovers of God, and so they will continue to act in and with great love. What God gives them will only help them serve others in and with even greater love. All that they have will be used to love everyone. Likewise, others, seeing them rewarded, seeing them for what they have become, will desire what they see, and so will be encouraged by their example to begin their path to holiness. They will begin, like everyone else, with a selfish desire. “But because nature has become frail and weak, man is driven by necessity to serve nature first this results in bodily love, by which man loves himself for his own sake.” [3] But if they follow that desire, they will do what is expected to become holy. They will find themselves dying to themselves, until at last, the desire leads to the destruction of the selfishness which inspired them and in that destruction of that selfishness, they will be truly open to grace and become holy through it. They will find themselves loving God, and through that love, they will love everything in and through God.  There will be nothing they hold onto which would separate them from God, and if nothing separates them from God, then they will be separated from anyone who is also united with God in and through such love. This is why, in the eschaton, we will see all who have received God’s grace, all who have joined in with God through love, will come together as one in such a perfect communion that God will be all in all,. This is a part of what theosis entails. All who have joined in with God will participate in and experience the divine life, and in that participation with the divine life, they will love all and be united with all through that love for there will be nothing, no egotistical will, to get in the way of that experience

[1] Lama Yeshe, Introduction to  Tantra: The Transformation of Desire. Revised edition. Ed. Jonathan Landaw (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001), 9.

[2] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God” in Selected Works. Trans. G.R. Evans. Ed. Emilie Griffin (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 67-8.

[3] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God,” 73.


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