Sutra of Eight Realizations – Part Two – Desire and Craving

Second and Third Realizations

Desire and Craving

by Wayne Ren Cheng

The Second Realization:

Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei,
Bodymind are at ease and free.

The Third Realization:
The mind is insatiable,
Always seeking, thirsty for more,
Thus increasing our cravings.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should renounce such conduct.
Always remember to follow the way,
Be content and at peace with poverty,
With wisdom as the sole vocation.

The second and third stanzas of the Sutra of Eight Realizations (of Great Beings) direct us to meditative practice designed to expose our excessive, or unnatural desires and cravings that stem from greediness. Through rigorous self-honesty and committed practice we can stay on the Middle Path avoiding the suffering to the bodymind that comes from unquenchable desire and craving for permanence.

The Second Realization speaks to desire and the cravings that can arise in an uncontrolled bodymind.

The Buddha teaches in the Four Ennobling Truths that there is craving, craving leads to suffering, there is a way to alleviate it, the Eightfold Path is the way. But . . . what is craving and how is it different from desire?

We’ll start with a contemporary definition of craving from the Oxford Desk Dictionary: strong desire or longing. Then craving is a fixation, an unhealthy want for something (think addiction).

Desire according to the same source is: longing or craving. Craving and desire are inexorably linked.

Craving is an activity of the mind that can lead us into unwholesome states of being like anger, depression, fear and anxiety. These states arise when one doesn’t get what they want, they don’t get it when they want, or it undergoes changes or is lost after it is obtained. It is the result of not recognizing that cravings are also subject to the realities of impermanence and dependent causality. What we crave can become impossible to find or hold on to (whether it is love, drugs or a host of other things) dependent on the circumstances of their arising and falling away. With the unique freedom that human beings have we can choose to let go of craving, make the changes physical and mental (bodymind) that release us from all unnatural cravings and attachments.

Some contemporary Buddhist scholars and masters are telling people that desire is BAD. They do so without making clear that it is when desire becomes uncontrolled and without realization of dependent causality and impermanence that desire becomes craving and thus a negative disposition. Desire itself, when creatively re-described as desirable leads to a positive disposition when used for goal-setting while recognizing causality and impermanence. Desirable is having such quality as to be worth seeking, worth waiting to do, and worth letting go of when it becomes a burden.

Would Siddhartha Guatama have worked so hard and long to find the answer to human suffering if he hadn’t seen a desirable outcome? Desirability, when put to positive use is the aspiration to make things better. Desirability becomes the initiative necessary to make good things happen. There is nothing wrong with desire leading us to make and keep goals that lead to our own positive personal development, then on to a more encompassing and corrective human flourishing.

Desiring an outcome begins with the individual and optimally it leads to a socially encompassing result. Desirability is desire + positive intent = encompassing action.

We are human beings with imaginations and the ability to plan future actions and this leads to WANTING. To want is not negative, just as to desire is not negative. Letting it reach the point of craving is when the negative begins, suffering begins. Craving is a psychoemotional, psychophysical state of intense want that becomes the delusion of an intense need.

In the Second Realization “birth, death” are not seen literally. Our desire when channeled positively can lead to the “birth” of new directions in life and new ideas that contribute positively; through mindfulness we learn to recognize when desire becomes craving that can lead to negative consequences. “Death” of negative dispositions and situations can happen only when we recognize craving and eliminate it from our bodymind.

Wu-wei” is taken from the Dao de Jing and brings a particular nuance to this stanza about desire. In early translations wu-wei was inaction, one relies on the cyclic nature of reality for results rather than engaging in direct action. Contemporary scholars like Roger Ames translate wu-wei as, “non-coercive actions in deference to the particular focus of things”. By practicing to desire less we can avoid the suffering that is brought on by craving. Further, we shape our desires, be they aspirations, goals or wants with the knowledge that impermanence WILL play its role. This is where acting wu-wei becomes important. We don’t cause further suffering by trying to take coercive actions to change the outcome as long as that outcome has positive potential.

Third Realization reminds us that craving ultimately arises in the mind, affecting the bodymind as a whole:

“The mind is insatiable . . .” so it is up to each of us to feed that insatiable mind with wholesome, valuable input. Feed the bodymind with the realities of form and emptiness that is the dharma. Practice the ways of the Middle Path. In these ways we train the bodymind and avoid the suffering of craving.

In our practice we meditate to learn to recognize our cravings and to realize our ability to change them. We practice to also recognize the positive desires we have and our ability to realize those desirable goals while keeping the reality of impermanence and causality in mind.

Learning and applying the Dharma to our everyday lives is a positive thing. Becoming so attached to one aspect of it, not realizing that it to, the Dharma is subject to impermanence can lead to suffering of ourselves and others.

Follow the Middle Path. Don’t take the word “poverty” too literally. As we’ll learn in later stanzas of the Eight Realizations, poverty too can lead to negative consequences beyond the scarcity of material goods. If for a time we “don’t have” that shouldn’t lead us into anxiety and worry because we are empowered by the teachings of the Buddha with the knowledge that change is not only possible, it is probable.

Training the bodymind to engage in non-coercive actions in deference to the particular focus of things, to be wu-wei will cause the falling away of cravings and unnatural attachments. The Middle Path is one of actions taken with positive intent, actions taken with the dharma of impermanence and dependent causality always in clear view.


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