Buddhist Psychology On Selfish Desire

Stephen Ruppenthal provides us with a beautiful interpretation of the Buddha’s thoughts about “thirst” in The Dhammapada (trans. and ed. Eknath Easwaran). In the introduction to the Buddha’s verses on thirst (pp. 227-33), Ruppenthal begins by observing: “It has been said that Buddhism is essentially a psychology of desire” (p. 227).

Eknath Easwaran’s gloss of the Second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is “selfish desire.” We might compare this Buddhist understanding of the cause with Advaita Vedanta’s or Kashmir Shaivism’s; the latter two will say that the cause of suffering is ignorance (avidya). It seems to me that, quite helpfully, these various traditions are looking the same phenomenon from a different angle. In the first, the focus is on the volitional while in the second, it is on the cognitive. Both are right in that the ego-self, apparently veiling Buddha-nature, arises just as selfish desire arises.

Let’s continue with our discussion of selfish desire. According to Ruppenthal, “All the Buddha’s teachings round to this one practical point: to find permanent joy, we have to learn how not to yield to selfish desire” (p. 228). The Upanishads will say something similar when it is suggested that permanent joy differs from transient pleasure and also that permanent joy is only experienced when one realizes the True Self. Again, we see the phenomenon from two different angles. If we can stop seeking and come to complete rest, then we can, as Zen urges, see precisely What Remains. And, from another angle, if we can maintain ourselves in dhyana, then Divine Grace may absorb “ourselves” into Itself.

It’s edifying to think about the three kinds of selfish desire that we need to cease trying to satisfy. These, Ruppenthal tells us citing Samyutta Nikaya, are (1) the desire for sense pleasure, (2) the desire for separateness, and (3) the desire for extinction.

Concerning (1), we know that no sense pleasure–be it that arising from gourmet food, sex, or intellectual pursuits–can satisfy. Case 1: the desire is fulfilled, yielding pleasure, only to quickly fade away. Case 2: the desire goes unfulfilled; in which case, we experience frustration and possibly disappointment. Case 3: the desire is fulfilled, yet we experience boredom. In all three cases, whatever pleasure comes is succeeded by either whatever is neither pleasant nor unpleasant or by the unpleasant. In brief, following the path of sense pleasure–that is, the hedonic path–is inherently and necessarily self-defeating.

The same analysis applies to pleasures associated with status, prestige, wealth, and so on. They’re all losing strategies.

Concerning (2), the contemporary spiritual teacher Francis Lucille, at a retreat my wife and I attended in February/March 2020, said: “The separate self is addicted to the pet project of being [and remaining–AT] separate.” And: “The problem is that we [identifying ourselves as separate, limited consciousnesses–AT] love to be separate.”

At this point, we return to the cause of suffering. For Francis, who is following the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, “If you suffer, it’s only because of ignorance.” For the Buddha, it’s because of selfish desire: the desire to remain separate from all others is precisely what perpetuates your dukkha.

Concerning (3), Ruppenthal states, “In Buddhist psychology, any activity that is potentially self-destructive stems from the urge for extinction. Even that second double martini intended to deaden the strains of the day is an example of the urge to escape oneself for a few hours” (pp. 232-3, my emphasis). Noteworthy in Ruppenthal’s interpretation is that the selfish desire for extinction amounts, in many cases, to the more jejune matters of wanting to escape oneself, and one’s situation, for a short while. Therefore, daydreaming and fantasizing, even for a few minutes, is what keeps samsara alive.

We are left, therefore, with a question that is also a practice. Can we see all manifestations of selfish desire as they arise and, seeing them clearly, can we let them melt away?