Newsletter - No. 36 April 1984
Love and Desire
Lecture Given on December 4, 1983
In the reading from the sutra today, Maitreya Bodhisattva asks how human beings came to exist. This is an extremely important question, and the section of the sutra which discusses it has had great influence in Buddhism. Condemnation of human existence is not the concern of Maitreya here. Rather, his goal is to urge sentient beings to cleanse their wisdom eyes and endure patiently the "uncreate," the changing world of name and form. Before discussing the response to Maitreya's question, let me clarify this two-fold goal.
The sutras describe five stages of attainment. The first and most impure stage is that of the physical eye -- the level of most sentient beings. After having performed rigorous practice, supernatural powers may be obtained by which one perceives beings in the heavenly realms. One is thus said to have developed heavenly eyes and achieved the second stage. When freedom from birth and death is finally achieved and all vexations are terminated, one is said to have reached the third stage, wherein the wisdom eye is uncovered. If, once free from samsara, from birth and death, he remains in the world to help sentient beings, the Bodhisattva is said to possess the Dharma eye, more pure even than the wisdom eye. Finally, when the complete purification of the Dharma eye is realized, the Bodhisattva is said to have attained the Buddha eye, the final stage.
Such a Bodhisattva is free from discriminations. He has no idea of Buddhahood, terminating vexations, or helping sentient beings. He may have achieved much but he will consider that nothing has been done. People may expect much from him, but be will feel that there is nothing to do.
The sutra mentions that both the wisdom eye and a patient endurance of the "uncreate" should be developed. Patient endurance is the experience of no-vexation and no-wisdom; it is the recognition that there is no creation in the present or the future. It is not correct, incidentally, to think of this patient endurance as wisdom. Were wisdom to exist here, vexation would of necessity also exist. Indeed, the common notion in Buddhism is that wisdom arises after vexations are terminated, that only with freedom from samsara is Bodhi realized. For the practitioner who sees with the Buddha eye, all such distinctions disappear.
The goal is to see with the wisdom eye and patiently to endure the uncreate. In order to illuminate the path towards this end, the sutra addresses the question of the origin of human existence, of samsara. The remainder of this lecture will be devoted to this subject.
Love and desire are the causes of samsara. They impel us to strive for survival and for happiness, yet they are the root of all vexations. There is a story of a lazy person's quest for a means of livelihood. He asked a friend for assistance. The friend replied, "Sure, I can find you an easy job. You don't have to do much at all; just watch over a cemetery for me." Since a cemetary consists only of old tombs and dead people, he had practically nothing to do. Nevertheless, he quit after a month. He said, "All those dead people just lie around. They have nothing to do. Yet I have to stay there and watch over them. It's not fair!" His friend said, "But if you don't work, how will you live?" He responded, "1 worked last month and got money, so I don't have to work anymore." But when he spends all his money, he will surely come back for his job. Even the laziest person, then, will want some kind of occupation simply to survive. But the will to survive is just a desire for life. We may conclude, thus, that all sentient beings, even the most lazy, feel desires.
Desires are of two kinds: physical and psychological. The physical desires are limited and can be satisfied, but the psychological desires are unlimited and hence insatiable. As the psychological desires intensify, so do the physical desires. These mental desires impel one not only throughout the present life, but they lead one over the span of countless lives.
Most people do not think about rebirth. They may have other beliefs or they may have no opinion at all about their fate after death. The intensity and insatiability of sentient beings' desires, however, generates a force which binds them in the cycle of samsara, irrespective of their beliefs or' attitudes. This is the force of karma.
Love and desire are complementary. Desire indicates an aspiration for future gain, and love indicates attachment to something already possessed. Karma comes to pass by the force of both love and desire. Nevertheless, society without love in particular could not maintain even the minimum amount of harmony which it experiences presently. It appears, then, that love is both beneficial and deleterious.
It will be instructive at this juncture to distinguish between undefiled and defiled love. Undefiled or unselfish love is identical to compassion. Defiled or selfish love is restricted in scope and is itself subject to gradations. At its most base, defiled love is directed entirely towards the self; at succeeding stages, defiled love can be directed toward a spouse, family, group, an entire race, or the whole of mankind. Yet even the love of mankind remains selfish because it is still limited. To be sure, however, love of mankind is certainly preferable to love which is entirely selfish.
Few of us can love all humanity. Life for us cannot but be centered around ourselves. Indeed, if we do not have a love for our own life, we cannot survive. So we should start with at least a love of ourselves, and thereafter we can try to expand our love to all of mankind.
Once there was a woman who married an older man. She loved to go out dancing but her husband had neither the time not the energy to join her. When he forbade her to spend nights dancing with other men, she complained, telling him, "You don't understand. Love is supposed to be a sacrifice of oneself; if you love me you should sacrifice yourself for me." What should the couple do? From the standpoint of the husband, the wife should sacrifice, and from the standpoint of the wife, the husband should sacrifice. How will they settle their argument? They probably will not, because both are actually quite selfish. In this story, we perceive the contrast between two types of love: that which is directed only towards the self and that which attempts to incorporate others.
Real love is giving, not just taking. But in the context of one's own life, wealth and love, how many people can say, "All I want to do is give, not take"? Certainly not the couple in our story. Many people may actually be capable of this altruistic attitude, but only to a certain extent and at certain times. It is virtually impossible always to be so disposed.
The Buddhist sutras classify giving as external and internal. The former is the giving of alms, property and even family, and the latter is the giving of parts of one's body or even one's life. It is easiest is to give money. Donating one's help or talents requires a little more effort. The most difficult is internal giving. Yet it is only when one is capable of great internal giving, when one can relinquish even one's life, that pure, undefiled love may flower.
Sentient beings, however, have strong love for life. This love is comprised of two important elements: desire for food and for sex. As soon as the body is sufficiently well fed, the sexual need arises. The desire to procreate not only ensures that other sentient beings will be born, but it impels our own rebirth. The sutras state that there is no rebirth if after death there is no sexual desire. If sexual desires remain, however, then as one perceives couples copulating, the attraction felt will draw one again into the womb. This does not mean that sexual need is actually experienced after death. Rather, sexual desires during our life generate a karmic force which results in a consequence. Causing the birth of children in one life generates the force by which others give birth to one in the next life.
We have seen how love and desire cause our continued rebirth. But perhaps rebirth is not so bad after all. "Is it not all right just to stay in samsara?" one might ask. If you want to stay, it is quite easy. Just continue to love. But liberation from samsara is difficult. To be liberated and yet remain in samsara for the benefit of sentient beings is even more difficult.
If we can purify our love, striving for liberation will be easier. However, if the scope of our love and desire is narrow, and if we are afflicted by great attachment, then we may not attain even a human birth in the next life. For example, it may be that you love a girl, but because she will not return your feelings, your own love turns to hate. Thus you kill her and her parents. In this case, you will definitely fall into the lower realms.
What begins as defiled love may end in hatred. It is never easy to distinguish between the two. There is a fable about a wolf and a rabbit. One day the wolf said to the rabbit, "I love you with all my heart." The rabbit responded, "1 really appreciate your love." "In that case," the wolf said, "1 want to eat you. Then you will never leave me and I will feel entirely secure." The same kind of relationship as suggested in this story exists often between men and women, parents and children, and between friends. No doubt, love exists in the beginning: parents always love their children, couples fall in love at first sight. But love becomes possessive because of attachment and desire, even to the point where it becomes hatred. Eventually love may indeed bring harm to others.
Defiled love is the foundation of samsara. If we cultivate undefiled, pure love, however, we shall no longer generate the hatred which arises out of the second nature of defiled love. Untroubled by hatred, all beings can coexist peacefully, free to strive even for liberation.
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