Careful discernment is the order of the day when you want to separate spiritual materialism from pure aspiration.
Q: In your book “Awakening to the Sacred,” you relate a story about a monk who found it impossible to please his master by his efforts because he was “clinging.” If desire is one of the sources of suffering, is “desire for enlightenment” a stumbling block on our path? Do you need to not want to be enlightened in order to become enlightened?
A: Buddha’s first fact of life, clearly expounded in the Four Noble Truths, is that life is difficult because of our clinging, craving, attachment, and resistance. These four terms are all pretty much synonymous, in terms of being the root cause of suffering. The desire for enlightenment, therefore, can become another ambition that, like all ego-based ambitions, can get in our way on the spiritual path. Spiritual materialism, where egotism and self-centeredness masquerade in spiritual garb–like a wolf in sheep’s clothing–can be an obstacle, just like more ordinary forms of materialism. And spiritual ambitions can sometimes hinder our development.
The desire for enlightenment can become another ambition that, like all ego-based ambitions, can get in our way on the spiritual path.
To find more peace of mind, Buddhists all over the world work to cultivate nonattachment, unselfishness, gentleness, and equanimity in both formal meditative practice and daily life. Through the cultivation of mindfulness–paying careful attention to our moment-to-moment experience–we learn to let go more and let be. We train ourselves to simply be aware, rather than always give in to our judgmental and reactive habits. Through this inner training, combined with ethical self-discipline and restraint, we gradually let go of desire (attachment) and aversion (anger and hatred).
This, in turn, can free us from the incessant pattern of pushing away what we don’t want and pulling towards us what we want, and slowly erodes our propensity for selfishness and materialism. We become keenly aware of how the law of karmic causation works–how our actions, words, and thoughts produce observable results. This realization helps us become masters rather than victims of circumstances and conditions, leading to greater freedom and autonomy.
But we should not paralyze ourselves and obstruct our spiritual quest by prematurely cutting off all spiritual ambitions and aspirations just because they seem, on the surface, to be like desires. There are already enough obstacles and hindrances in our way, without creating any more for ourselves! Careful discernment is called for here, so that we can discriminate more wisely between ordinary desires and achievement-oriented attachment and striving, on one hand, and authentic spiritual aspiration on the other.
In the best case, genuine aspiration includes the welfare of others. For example, if we want to alleviate our own suffering, we need to recognize that we cannot be truly content as long as our loved ones, neighbors, or others are unhappy. As labor organizer Eugene V. Debs said, in the best bodhisattva spirit, “As long as a single soul is in prison, I am not free.”
Genuine aspiration for enlightenment is simply a higher form of desire, and a very useful one, which should be cultivated and further developed. In fact, one of the Dalai Lama’s favorite prayers is this short four-liner:
“May the precious aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta)
arise where it has not yet arisen;
and where it has arisen, may it flourish
and develop more and more.”
This is something we chant every day as part of meditation practice.
It is true that in the final stages of the path of enlightenment, the desire for realization is recognized as a pair of golden handcuffs. Handcuffs which, like any other kind of manacle, must be shed if one is to complete the spiritual quest. But until the penultimate stage of the path, the aspiration for enlightenment (Tibetan Buddhists call it bodhicitta; Zen Buddhists call it “the Way-seeking mind”) is a vital force propelling us along the path. To suppress the desire for enlightenment too soon is like ending a journey before arriving, in the mistaken notion that you have already arrived; spiritual progress remains to be accomplished.
Enlightenment is not exactly what we think it is. Nirvana is beyond the mind and concepts. We need not think about it too much right now. The journey of a thousand miles is made step by step. So let’s just keep our eyes peeled, follow the Path, use the road maps provided by the masters and sages, stick with our fellow sojourners, do our spiritual practice continuously, and have a safe trip. Then I pray that we shall all together complete the spiritual journey. In fact, I’m sure we shall.