This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Zenways Sangha on the 15th of January 2022

Hi everyone, did you all have a nice festivity period? I really hope so. 

This evening, I would like to talk about something I have been exploring during this last festivity period, desire or desires. And of course, exploring desires from the perspective of our practice, to me, does not mean determine what we might consider good or natural desires versus bad and “unnatural” ones, but rather how to use desires in general for our own practice when desires arise, moment to moment. To use desires to clearly see what we really are versus what we are really not. Of course, as a result and in the practice process, we might then become aware of our natural and harmless desires in opposition to those desires that can be the cause of our own suffering and delusion. 

We could say that one of the “promises” of Zen practice is to develop a profound sense of happiness regardless of our external circumstances. Many times, I heard Daizan talking about ‘that happiness that nobody can give you and nobody can take away from you’. So, I feel that this happiness that Daizan is talking about, the happiness that nobody can give us or take away from us, is not the result of satisfying a desire we might have but something else. So, let’s see how desires specifically can “assist” us in entering this unconditioned happiness. 

When considering desires, we might have the tendency to try to discern good desires from bad desires, distinguish what we might clearly see as natural desires from unnatural ones. Natural desires being drinking water when feeling thirsty, eating food when feeling low in energy. And, unnatural desires, perhaps all those desires which we might relate to greed, ego and so on and that, in the long run become unquenchable as we realise that once we have satisfied one desire, another one would arise not long after. However, Zen practice is not about separation and discrimination, we are not really here to judge and determine in a fixed way “good” and “bad”. Through our practice we rather want to be developing a skilful way to respond to what is arising moment to moment, here and now. And desires can become useful for us, first to notice this unquenchable quality in us. Unquenchable quality, perhaps determined by our own attachments to fixed ideas we might have about ourselves and about things in general and second, desires can be useful as we can start using them to develop more skilful ways to respond to what is arising, moment to moment in every present moment, which is after all, all we really have. Let’s see….

I find it very interesting and not coincidental at all, the fact that the word for desire often used in Buddhist texts is Tanha which means desire but also means thirst. I find it interesting because it seems that desire as well as thirst ‘behave’ in exactly the same way. Thirst keeps arising in us after a while we have not drunk something. In the same way, and here I can easily speak about myself, different desires keep arising in me, something that unconsciously seems to tell me that ‘the satisfaction of this desire will bring me happiness, will make me happy!’ As well as thirst, that lasts just for a period of time, another desire, another feeling of thirst, another thana will come. After a while, one can easily see how “dangerous” it can be to be under the impression that whatever desire arises in us must be satisfied. Dangerous because it is never ending, it becomes a constant race after something, it becomes a constant chase after a fixed idea we might have or experience. It is very easy to see that suffering is very much related to this constant wanting or desiring the next thing because of course, what we have is never good enough. So, we easily become anxious to obtain or satisfy what we think is going to quench that thirst. If I don’t satisfy that desire a sense of unsatisfactoriness arises. And this to me is the first important realisation or discovery, wow, there is a constant flow of desires coming through this consciousness, even without me being aware of it, the flow continues. Desires for material things, desire for sensual sensations, desires for things to be different than they are, it can be constant and can really drive me, completely. Because the “problem” with desire isn’t that desires exist, but that they can drive us, that they can control us and make us suffer in the process. 

During the Christmas break, I happened to see a documentary about the recently died Brazilian football player, Pele. One thing he said during an interview really made me reflect on this desire business. Talking about the period before winning his third World Cup, he said that the moment he and Brazil won that, it was not the prize they won that really stood out in that moment but rather the sense of release. He wanted that so much for many different reasons, that that desire took his sleep away, made him anxious, relationships were difficult, mood quickly changed. All of him was driven by a desire, he was blindly enslaved by this desire. Satisfying that desire was the only thing that would have made him happy, but was it really? When we are trying so hard to satisfy a desire are we not also feeding our own delusions at the same time? Once again, I want to reiterate the fact that our practice is not against desires, as far as I understand it, of course. It is not about sitting as a lemon and try to eliminate all the desires we have. In our practice, in fact, we don’t fight what is, we just want to learn to develop a healthier approach to desires, an approach that undo the attachments, the expectations, the suffering that can arise with strong desires. A desire arises in the present moment, this is the present moment, we are not running away from it, we are not suppressing it, we are not manipulating it, we just remain present and respond to it in the most skilful possible way, a way that hopefully is not conducive to our suffering and the suffering of others. Desire becomes the key that opens the present moment up to us, fullycompletely.

In a moment, we are going to chant the 4 vows, the second one of them is ‘Desires are inexhaustible I vow to put an end to them all.’ Of course, I might easily misinterpret this vow myself, desires are inexhaustible, that is true, but are we really going to put an end to our natural desire to drink water when feeling dry or putting an end to desire for food when feeling low in energy? Perhaps this second vow is rather talking about those desires that make us act in such a way that cause suffering. Can we see these desires that are causing suffering? Can we vow to put an end to them all for the benefit of all sentient beings? I read this vow as not getting pushed by all our desires blindly but rather being skilfully guided by our vow to put an end to these desires that keep feeding delusions. Reminding ourselves to deal with desires skilfully, even the natural ones. Not being totally enslaved by them but rather having the aspiration to understand them, allowing them, being present with them but not controlled in such a way that they will have a negative effect on our wellbeing. 

To conclude, in a moment, we are going to sit. I would recommend to use that time to watch desires coming and going. For the period of your meditation, vow to yourself not to be driven by desires that might arise. If desire to move arises, don’t move. If desire to check the time arises, don’t check it, if you have an itch, don’t scratch, just sit and be one with the itch, be the itch, you are the itch in that moment. Use the itch as the key that opens the door to the reality of the present moment, as it is. Just sit and see what happens. Our training is to learn to be with each moment as it is, letting go of the desires and the aversions that hinder our just being present, being here and now, totally. Desires are unquenchable and just reinforce a certain idea we might have of ourselves. Things are supposed to go the way I want, only then I can be happy. However, when we loosen our attachments to desire, we start loosening that fixed idea we might have of ourselves as being separate from the rest of the universe. We can start seeing what we really are and, eventually, starting developing that sense of happiness which is not dependent on external circumstances, it is not dependent on our quenching all the desires we might experience arising in us. Our practice is to align with ‘that happiness that nobody can give you and nobody can take away from you’ Here, now, simply totally present with how things are right now. Desires can become the key to this alignment. 

Wishing you all the best in exploring your own desires and use them for your own practice towards liberation!