Life Is Suffering, Suffering Is Caused By Desires, Or Maybe Not

The title of this article is a basic principle of Buddhist teachings. The common interpretation is that unfulfilled desires cause pain and suffering. This is very easy to understand, that desires themselves are the cause of suffering and we have to remove all desires to end suffering.

However, I have a different view of this teaching and will present some indications in Buddhist parables to substantiate my view which may totally change the common thought that we have to eliminate all desires in order to find happiness.

I, and many people, have found that trying to eliminate all desires causes far more suffering than simply having them by adding guilt or frustration to the already overwhelmed mind.

Desires will always be in our mind, as long as we are a human, even living alone, self sufficient without any hassles of life, we will always have desires. This is a natural part of being a human. We will always need to eat and will always prefer nice food rather than cardboard.

If it is the un-fulfillment of desires that causes suffering, and desires are impossible to eliminate, then the answer is in allowing and accepting the desires, while also accepting that you cannot have what you desire, and being comfortable with this.

A child throws a temper tantrum if they do not get what they want. This is painful for the child and parent. On the other hand, if we can accept that there will be a part of us that has desires, but another part which has the wisdom to accept that the fulfillment of that desire will cause more pain and suffering in the long run, and is thus not a good desire to have, then with wisdom and maturity, we can allow the desire to exist while not actually wanting the item desired, and thus the end of suffering.

It is not the desires that we must eliminate, but the childish demand of getting everything we desire.

The indication that this is the real teaching that Buddha was trying to give is in the parable of when he was sitting in the final stages of his enlightenment and Mara sent his beautiful nymph daughters to tempt Buddha to break his meditation and have sex with them.

In reply, Buddha turned the young girls into old women, and said; ‘For these old women I should give up eternal freedom?’ He did not say, ‘I do not desire sex or young girls.’

He did have the desire, as all humans would, but he saw that the end of the fulfillment of this desire with very temporary pleasure would lead to eternal suffering, while although the desire was there, he was mature enough to allow the desire to call, yet not to respond, and thus ended the suffering caused by desires.

If we could treat all our desires the same way, not to fight or deny them, not to try and suppress or reject them, but to listen to them as you would a radio in the background making noise, hearing but ignoring it, you too would find a permanent end to suffering caused by desires.

This is pure acceptance. Accepting that a part of you will always have desires, but another part is in control and does not have to listen.

There is no special training as such to attain this freedom, it is a decision you have to make, accepting that this is a condition of being human, that we are designed to torture ourselves in this way, and so choose to stop inflicting this torture by accepting our limitations.

I have written another article on this subject that you may like to read;

Suffering, The Cause Of Suffering, And The End Of Suffering

Your thoughts on this would be very interesting to hear.

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2 Responses to Life Is Suffering, Suffering Is Caused By Desires, Or Maybe Not

  1. Chris July 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    This makes a lot of sense.

    I like how you’ve made the distinction between “good” desires (like the desire to improve oneself, or to be of service to others) and “bad” ones, where fulfilling the desire will actually lead to more suffering.

    I think being conscious of the difference in good and bad desires, and consciously choosing to ignore the bad desires in favor of the good ones could have a profound effect on a person’s life.

    This explains the internal conflict of how I want something, but I don’t want it at the same time. I want it, but feel that getting it may cause more problems.

    Perhaps the conscious mind wants it but the subconscious mind knows it will bring more problems, and thus prevents the person from ever obtaining it. A viscous cycle of unfulfilled desires and longing.

    Instead with this understanding you’ve given us, perhaps we could align our conscious and subconscious desires, become unified in this way and have greater strength to achieve our “good” desires, thus living the life we envision.

    • David Samuel July 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

      Thank you for your comment. You have ended with exactly the problem, you want to live a life you envision.
      I know, everyone will have desires and a vision of how they want their life to be, it is pretty much impossible to avoid this, but the point of the article is to show that as long as you have any vision, which is a desire, and want to have that come to reality, and it is not, you are going to suffer, according to the Buddha’s teaching.

      When you can live each day with what there is that day, without wanting any outcome or avoiding any event, but rather just dealing with whatever you have each day, then a person will find the eternal bliss that is known as enlightenment.

      As long as there is something that you want and you are striving to get or attached to having, then you will have suffering in your life. But if you can allow that desire to be in your head but then be totally comfortable with what you are living with right at this moment and disregarding the vision and desires, then you will be totally free and you may find that whatever you have at that moment is far more satisfying than any of the things you could ever envision for your life.

      But I know, perfecting this is for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (not quite a Buddha but almost there) only. For the rest of us, we can only keep this in mind when we have desires and find some suffering from that, then remember this and at least ease the pain.

      Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to find a moment of that eternal bliss and experience enlightenment, even if it fades away a little while after. Then you will know the truth of what having no desires or attachments means.

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