Apr. 21, 2007

Desire (Reposted Tale of Two Similes)

Some good discussion about the nature of desire in the comments section.

Let's remember that the Buddha was very clear in his formulation; the second noble truth says that the cause of suffering is desire (dukkha, tanha). I detect a little bit of wanting to have your cake and eat it too in attempts to shift the problem away from desire to attachment or something else.

Here is an old post from October, 2005 with some salient points;

A Tale of Two Similes

I previously blogged about my trip to the Exploring the Mind conference, and mentionedespecially Mark Epstein's lecture, which I quite enjoyed although one or two points bothered me.Well, I'm currently reading his new book "Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life" and I'm finding more than a pointor two to be bothered about. (For example, that title)

But for now I'll just focus on one symptomatic point that illustrates most of my problem withthe "psychologized" form of Buddhism. Dr. Epstein quotes a well-known story from the Zen tradition.This is a great favourite of western Buddhists and shows up a lot in slightly different versions.But there is a subtly different version in the Theravada literature that is not nearly so wellknown. Read the two versions below and then I'll add a comment or two;

Zen Version, as retold by Dr. Epstein There is a famous storyfrom Japan that expresses the peculiar delight with which desire is held in the Buddhist tradition.A young woman, it is told, is walking through a field when she encounters a tiger that eyes herhungrily. She runs and the tiger pursues her. She comes to a cliff, takes hold of the root of awild vine and, in a single motion, swings herself over the precipice. Dangling there, clutching thevine, she sees the tiger sniffing the ground above her. Trembling, she looks down. It is a long wayto the bottom, and she feels momentarily dizzy. Then she , sees something else. There is anothertiger below, presumably a hungry one, who has also noticed her plight. The tigers prowl, one aboveand one below; waiting for their feast. She clings to the vine. Suddenly; two mice appear at theedge of the cliff and start to gnaw at the roots that hold her. The woman notices a wildstrawberry growing nearby on the side of the hill. She reaches with one hand to pluck thestrawberry, still clutching the vine with the other, and places the fruit in her mouth. She takesone bite. Ahhhh! How sweet it tastes. This is the end of the story. We never learn what happens or,rather, we are told exactly what we need to hear.

The story, as I understand it, is about desire. As a Buddhist teaching story,it is obviously about other things as well. It is about being in the moment and the fragility ofeveryday life and doing one thing at a time, but it also seems to be a metaphor for desire. Thewoman encounters her desire and it appears as a tiger. In psychoanalysis, the tiger would be calleda projection. Fierce, wild, devouring. A beast. just as with desire, there seem to be only twooptions: to flee or to surrender to it.

Our protagonist runs from the beast, only to encounter a second tiger. There isno escape. Cornered, she hangs on for dear life. But desire continues to torment her. It changesform, multiplies, threatens her as she struggles to avoid it. Even in the form of the mice it isdangerous. How can she escape? The solution lies in the strawberry. What does she do? She tastes itand it is good. She takes one bite, not even knowing if she will have a second one, not knowing ifthere will be a next moment at all. With complete attention, she savors the flavor of the fruit.Desire is the tiger and the mouse, but it is also the strawberry. When the young woman stopsrunning and gives up the fear of being devoured, she can finally taste it. The flavor of desire isgood.

Theravada Version; from the Avadana A man is lost in a drearydesert for a long time, being persecuted by misfortune. Then he comes to a dark and dense forest.Exhausted from the scorching sun, he is at first delighted to enter the cool shade. As he wanderson, however, thorns and jungle undergrowth cause him difficulty so that he can progress only withgreat hardship. As he struggles like this, wild animals come closer from all sides. With flarednostrils, glinting eyes and greedy jaws, they get closer and closer. Full of fear , he tries toescape , but the jungle becomes even more dense.

On this desperate escape from the desert, from the thorny forest and from thewild animals he finally comes to a half-overgrown well. In his fear he seeks refuge there. But ashe hurls himself into the well, one of his feet becomes entangled in a creeper wine, and he findshimself hanging upside down in the dark well. Although almost unconscious from fear and despair,his eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, and he sees a poisonous snake winding itself slowlytowards him, flicking its tongue in and out. Full of terror, he looks up again only to see the headof a huge elephant with two enormous tusks looking over the edge of the well.

Among the vines of the creeper in which he became stuck, wild bees swarm busilyand occasionally one of them stings him. Whenever he is stung, he flinches from the pain. At thesame time, however, droplets of honey drip from time to time onto his face. Greedily he licks themup, enjoying their sweetness, and concentrating completely on their dripping on hill.

Suddenly he notices two mice-one black and one white gnawing on the roots of thecreeper holding him. It is just a matter of time before the roots are chewed through and he fallsinto the abyss and into the snake's reach. But on the pinnacle of despair, yet another drop ofhoney drips onto his face. He sticks out his tongue to get it and for a moment forgets his hopelesssituation.

All of a sudden he notices that the wild animals have disappeared. A merciful manlooks into the well and shouts down that he will free him from his terrible peril. The man caughtin the well shouts back: "Just a moment! Wait till I've enjoyed this honey!"

The explanation of the similes;

The arid desert: the cyclic existence of beings .
The dense jungle: humanbirth.
The cool shade: childish carelessness.
The thorns: the necessity to wind oneselfthrough life .
The wild animals: manifold diseases.
The well: lust for the body.
Thecreeper: hope and expectation.
The poisonous snake: the inevitable decay of old age .
Theelephant : an expression for the power of death.
The bees: changing fate .
The honeydrops; the five sense desires, longed for, loved, thrilling, belonging to desire , charming.
The two mice: day and night, sun and moon, that gnaw away at one's life .
The merciful man:the Awakened One .

These two stories illustrate the point I previously made in this blog about the importance ofThird Noble Truth. In the first version, there is no escape from the well (no faith in Third NobleTruth or Nibbana) whereas in the second (older) version a man representing the Buddha appears tooffer an escape; transcendence.

Notice how this turns the point of the story one hundred and eighty degrees. In the version usedby Dr. Epstein, eating the strawberry becomes an almost heroic act of existential engagement withthe present moment. Given the assumptions of the story, the best thing you can do is enjoy thesweetness of the strawberry. But in the Theravada version, continuing to lick the honey becomes anact of supreme folly. There is a man offering a way out, and only a fool would hesitate to take it,no matter how sweet the honey.

As Ajahn Chah put it; if you stop and smell the roses along the way it may be dark before youfind your way home.

Apr. 17, 2007

Right Speech and the Internet

Good news, since I reluctantly activated moderated comments, I've only had to delete one post. Bad news, that was a piece of spam for some financial scam, so the spam bots are finding their way past Blogspot's letter-code entry system.


It was unfortunate, but all too common, the way the comments threads had started as an intelligent discussion and degenerated into a peta-realm of insults and trolls. We've all seen this kind of thing far too often on the internet. Is there something about the medium? The anonymity is a factor, no doubt, and also the casual ease of posting which means a person can upload something in a bad mood they might later regret.

But remember, Buddhists, there is karma attached to speech. Speech is a power we have of inserting dhammas directly into another being's mind-stream. The internet if anything multiplies this power, and the karmic repurcussions.

One of the formulas for right speech is the four-fold one of what speech a Tathagata would utter. A Tathagata only speaks (a) that which is true, (b) beneficial, (c) meaningful and (d) either pleasant or if unpleasant, spoken at the right time. In the context of the internet, and of this blog, I take (d) as permission to disagree but with respect and care.

Another point, and one I've addressed before, is that I occassionally get criticized for raising political questions here. Although I may sometimes slip up, I try to do so with discretion and care. Buddhism, and Buddhist ethics, ought to practical and relevant to real-life. And it seems to me that there are two very important areas of concern, war and climate-change, that could urgently use the application of Buddhist ethics. If we can't apply those ethics to the momentous issues of the day, then they are only museum relics. So, I don't intend to stop.

Apr. 15, 2007

Time to Play Nicely Children

The comments coming into this blog have descended to a level where a reader has to wade through screenfuls of nasty insults and vague threats to find the few gems where someone has actually said something meaningful and sensible.

Barry has suggested that I do something about it. I've gone a step further than his idea of disallowing anonymous posting; I've enabled "comment moderation" so that I will now preview postings before publication.

Hopefully this will be a temporary measures until the trouble-makers mend their ways or go away and find another forum to vent their spleen. I don't really like the idea of moderated comments, which is too much like censorship.

You are still free to disagree with me or with each other; but address ideas not personalities.

Here are the new rules;

Any post will be deleted which;

1. Is an ad hominem attack or insult
2. Constitutes "hate speech"
3. Contains threatening language

If these types of posts stop coming in, I'll go back to unmoderated comments.