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Ask A Buddhist: Desire for Enlightenment

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By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

If desire for enlightenment is desire per se, and if Buddhism asserts that desire is bad as it causes dukkha, isn’t that contradictory? Or must we passively (and not actively pursue) enlightenment by solely following the eight-fold path throughout our lives?

In Buddhist teachings, we often find words that have different meanings depending on the context.  With a little study and reflection, we can understand the different uses and avoid confusion. “Desire” is one such term.

On one hand, as you mentioned, there is desire that is useful, such as desire for personal liberation and awakening or enlightenment. This kind of desire admires things that are worthwhile—like love and compassion—and inspires us to make effort to abandon afflictions and dukkha, and establish true peace in our mind. Without this kind of desire, or “wishing mind,” we wouldn’t have virtuous aspirations.

On the other hand, afflicted desire—also called desirous attachment—is a type of desire that we want to avoid. By its very nature it disturbs our mind and causes suffering. Desirous attachment exaggerates the good qualities of a person, object or situation above and beyond what actually exists. And then we cling to that projected exaggeration, not wanting to be separated from it because we think it can provide real, lasting happiness. When this type of desire is active in our mind, we can’t see that the exaggerated qualities of the person, object, or situation  exist only in our mind,. Therefore, we are bound to be disappointed when it doesn’t live up to our projection. In this way, we can see how this kind of desire leads to dissatisfaction and suffering in our mind.

They say it’s impossible to exaggerate the good qualities of liberation and awakening because their qualities are limitless, so in effect, it’s not possible to generate desirous attachment for enlightenment. We can actively desire and pursue enlightenment throughout our lives!

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