Statement XVI

by zenquaker

Derivative 11: Letting Go of Desire Relieves Suffering (The Detachment Derivative)

So if we cannot avoid desire (P7, The Desire Principle), and desire causes us suffering (P6, The Cause Principle), how do we put an end to our suffering? Obviously, you have to do something with the desire once you have it. You have to let go of it.

Take the example of hunger (the desire for food) from the explication of the Desire Principle. Sometimes you’re working really hard on something you’re really interested in, and you get hungry. But you want to keep working, you don’t want to take the time to eat and interrupt what you’re doing. So you let go of the hunger and keep working. You accept that you are hungry and move on. Obviously, it is a bad idea to do this for very long, but it serves as an example of how to avoid suffering.

More to the point, say you see a nice new car, or whatever other material possession you tend to lust after. You desire the car, but you don’t have the money to buy it (or perhaps you recognize that buying a new car when you already have a serviceable one is wasting the limited resources available to us). If you continue to want that car, you will suffer because you don’t have it and you don’t have the money to buy it. But if you let go of the desire, and accept that you don’t have the car or the money to buy it, that desire will cease to cause suffering for you.

I admit that this is easier said than done. Many of our desires are ingrained in us by our evolution or our upbringing, and wishing them away isn’t always that successful. I once heard someone say that the solution to life’s problems didn’t exist, because if it did exist, we would have discovered it by now, and everyone would have used it to solve their problems. In some sense, I guess they were right, because letting go of your desires doesn’t solve any of your problems. All of your problems are still there. But if you can let go of your desire for your problems not to be there, you don’t suffer because of your problems, and your problems become a lot easier to deal with.

But to say there is no solution is wrong, it’s just not the solution you wanted. And not everyone makes use of the solution for the simple fact that it’s not easy. If you would guarantee to everyone that they could stop suffering, if they worked at it hard for an hour a day every day for ten years, most people wouldn’t bother. And many of the ones who might otherwise put in the effort would refuse to because it goes against their deeply held beliefs.

This solution is my understanding of enlightenment. You are enlightened when you are able to recognize reality for what it is, accept it for what it is, and let go of your desires long enough to not suffer. Enlightenment is a tricky word in American Buddhism, perhaps in all Buddhism. Many will tell you that there is no enlightenment, there is nothing to “get.” Some go to extreme lengths to avoid even using the word enlightenment, coming up with odd, unintelligible phrases like “stream entry.” And I agree. Enlightenment is not something you get, it’s not some you are. It’s something you do.

Am I enlightened? Sometimes. Sometimes I can manage it and other times I either can’t or I forget to. And sometimes I don’t want to. There is a perverse pleasure to being sad. It can be addictive. I’ve been a hardcore addict of that pleasure in my past, and occasionally I relapse.

Am I enlightened? I don’t think so. I’ve heard there are three levels of enlightenment, which I will probably misstate horribly. The first is the enlightenment of Dogen, which is that you are enlightened while practicing seated meditation (zazen). The second is when you realize the nature of reality and put that into action in your life. I’m assuming that enlightenment as I see it is this second kind of enlightenment. I’ve heard this is a third kind of enlightenment, where knowledge and practice of the second kind coalesce into a deeper understanding or something.

Am I enlightened? I don’t really care. I have everything I need, I understand everything I need to not suffer. If I am not enlightened, I can’t imagine anything that enlightenment could give me that I don’t already have.