Age Is No Guarantee of Wisdom — Unskillful & Skillful Desires

We observe reality from a point denied by our species (and cultural, and individual) makeup, our observations can only be made through representations, and representations always both add to and subtract from what they represent.

—Derek Bickerton

The idea of a skillful desire may sound a little off beat, but a mature mind intuitively pursues the desires it sees as skillful and drops those it perceives as not. As the Buddha explains when discussing Right Mindfulness and appropriate attention, a skillful desire is a way of fabricating a better delusion, one that is helpful to us on our journey towards the other shore. Fundamental to all living beings is the desire for happiness and avoid pain. Every other desire can be seen as a strategy for attaining that happiness. You want a new car, a better job, a sexual partner, or even have the desire for inner peace because you probably think it will make you happy — or at least happier. 

There is a new trend in the New Age community to try to attain human divinity or divine humanity. The desire to be a “divine human” comes out of the position of deprivation, poverty, the feeling of lack and limitation, a “contemptible emptiness.” This is the very foundation of dukkha, the feeling that something is missing and if only we that that missing piece we would be happy. It doesn’t work that way. Like all desires this desire employs our power of perception to identify the cause of our lack & limitation. Then we use our powers of creative imagination to conceive a solution to it, “If only I were divine.” The desire to be “something,” anything but what I am, is a common desire guaranteed to create dissatisfaction and emotional pain. It works from the perspective of one not being comfortable in who they are — who they really are — on both the conditional level and the transcendent realm.

Each desire presents a different perception of what’s lacking in our life & gives us a different picture of what the panacea ought be. A desire for a dinner comes from a perception of hunger and puts forward a steak to solve the problem. Other desires may present more complex patterns of hungers or cravings; like the hunger for a romantic relationship, which appeals to a different range of satisfaction. Whatever the desire, if the solution really leads to happiness, the desire can be said to be skillful. If it doesn’t, it’s unskillful. What seems to be a skillful desire in the moment might lead to a false or transitory happiness and bring us even more suffering in the end. 

Some of our most common desires cause suffering in a myriad of ways. Longing for the impossible (not to grow old or die); opportunities requiring unwholesome actions (such as lying or cheating to get ahead) are a couple of examples. Even becoming divine can be disappointing. Even if it doesn’t disappoint, it can’t last forever. When it’s over all that is left are memories, that will only change over time and then fade.

Desires are often conflicting. The desire for a romance can often be in conflict with the desire for inner peace. Our desires know just how to speak to us, persuade us, to argue with us or bully us into submission. Just because a desire is seems to be a skillful one, it may not be as skillful at arguing its case than unskillful ones. The unskillful desires are more stubborn, some even rabid. 

We must be wise and learn how to develop strategies to strengthen skillful desires will be more successful in their presentation than the less skillful ones. Desires can be trained to cooperate in the attaining the goal of greater happiness. This is how a mature and healthy mind works: conducting a dialogue not so much between reason and desire as between responsible desires and irresponsible ones. So wisdom starts in learning how to recognize skillful and unskillful desires for what they are. 

Age is no measure of wisdom: Samyutta Nikaya 3.1.

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About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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