23
Mar

Desire and suffering

I remember learning once about the Eastern philosophy relating to the nature of suffering. It was during a religious studies course that I took during my senior years of high school. Part of the course involved a study of Buddhism, and the Buddhist / Hindu ideas about what causes suffering. Those of you that are somewhat familiar with this, you should already have an idea of what I'm talking about. Those of you that are very familiar with it, you probably know far more than I do (I'm no expert on the matter, I have only a very basic knowledge), so please forgive me for any errors or gross simplifications that I make.

In essence (as I was taught, anyway), Buddhists believe that all suffering is caused by desire. It's really quite a logical concept:

  • we desire what we do not have;
  • we suffer because we desire things and we do not have them;
  • therefore, if we free ourselves from desire (i.e. if we do not desire anything), then we become free of suffering (i.e. we achieve the ultimate level of happiness in life).

I haven't read the book The Art of Happiness, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (I'm waiting for the movie to come out), but I'm guessing that this is the basic message that it gives. Although I could be wrong - if you really want to know, you really should just buy the book!

The concept is so simple, and when you think about it, it's kind of cool how it just makes sense™. Put it in the perspective of modern Western culture, which is (in stark contrast to this philosophy) totally centred around the consumer and the individual's wants. In Western society, our whole way of thinking is geared towards fulfilling our desires, so that we can then be happy (because we have what we want). But as everyone knows, the whole Western individual-consumer-selfish-driven philosophy is totally flawed in practice, because:

  • as soon as we fulfil one desire, it simply leads to more desires (the old OK, I've bought a Mercedes, now I want a Porsche example comes to mind here);
  • there are heaps of desires that everyone has, that will never be fulfilled (hence you will never truly be happy).

Then there is the great big fat lie of the consumer era: things that we desire aren't really desires, because most of them are actually things that we need, not things that we want. Justifying that we need something has become second nature. I need the new 40GB iPod, because otherwise I'll go crazy sitting on the train for 2 hours each way, each day, on the way to work. I need a top-of-the-range new computer, because my old one is too slow and is stopping me from getting my work done productively. I need a designer jacket, because it's nearly winter and my old ones are ready for the bin, and I'll be cold without it. I need the biggest thing on the menu at this restaurant, because I'm really hungry and I haven't eaten since lunch. We know, deep down, that we don't need any of these things, just as we know that having them won't make us "happy". But we kid ourselves anyway.

And this is where the whole Buddhism thing starts to make sense. Hang on, you think. If I just stop desiring that new iPod, and that fast PC, and that designer jacket, and that massive steak, then I won't have the problem of being unhappy that I haven't got them. I don't really need them anyway, and if I can just stop wanting them, I'll be better off anyway. I can spend my money on more important things. And so you see how, as I said, it really does just make sense™.

But all this got me thinking, what about other things? Sure, it's great to stop desiring material objects, but what of the more abstract desires? There are other things that we desire, and that we suffer from because of our desire, but that don't lead to simply more greed. Love is the obvious example. We all desire love, but once you've found one person that you love, then (assuming you've found someone you really love) you stop desiring more people to love (well... that's the theory, anyway - but let's not get into that :-)).

Another is knowledge. Now, this is a more complicated one. There are really no constants when it comes to knowledge. Sometimes you desire knowledge, and sometimes you don't. Sometimes fulfilling your desire (for knowledge) leads to more desire, but other times, it actually stops you desiring any more. Sometimes fulfilling a desire for knowledge makes you happy, and sometimes it makes you realise that it wasn't such a good idea to desire it in the first place.

Take for example history. You have a desire to learn more about World War II. You have a thirst for knowledge about this particular subject. But when you actually fulfil that desire, by acquiring a degree of knowledge, it leads to a desire not to know any more. Learning about the holocaust is horrible - you wish you'd never learnt it in the first place. You wish you could unlearn it.

Take another example, this time from the realm of science. In this example, assume that you have no desire whatsoever to learn about astronomy. You think it's the most boring topic on Earth (or beyond :-)). But then someone tells you about how they've just sent a space probe to Titan (one of Saturn's moons), and how it's uncovering new facts that could lead to the discovery of life beyond Earth. Suddenly, you want to learn more about this, and your initial lack of desire turns into an eventual desire for more knowledge.

Clearly, knowledge and the desire for it cannot be explained with the same logic that we were using earlier. It doesn't follow the rules. With knowldge, desire can lead to no desire, and vice versa. Fulfilment can lead to sadness, or to happiness. So the question that I'm pondering here is basically: is it bad to desire knowledge? Is this one type of desire that it's good to have? Is there any constant effect of attaining knowledge, or does it depend entirely on what the knowledge is and how you process it?

My answer would be that yes, it's always good to desire knowledge. Even if you cannot say with certainty whether the result of attaining knowledge is "good" or "bad" (if such things can even be measured), it's still good to always desire to know more, just for the sake of being a more informed and more knowledgeable human being. Of course, I can't even tell you what exactly knowledge is, and how you can tell knowledge apart from - well, from information that's total rubbish - that would be a whole new topic. But my assertion is that whatever the hell knowledge is, it's good to have, it's good to desire, and it's good to accumulate over the long years of your life.

Buddhist philosophy probably has its own answers to these questions. I don't know what they are, so because of my lack of knowledge (otherwise known as ignorance!), I'm trying to think of some answers of my own. And I guess that in itself is yet another topic: is it better to be told the answers to every big question about life and philosophy, or is it sometimes better to come up with your own? Anyway, this is one little complex question that I'm suggesting an answer to. But by no means is it the right answer. There is no right answer. There is just you and your opinion. Think about it, will you?

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