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!

About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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