Beautiful Desire

There is a story from Vajrayana Buddhism about the poisonous plant.

A Theravada monk will see it and turn back afraid, unwilling to pass it.

A Mahayana monk will see it, but being careful will step past it.

A Vajrayana monk will pick the plant and use it as a medicine.

This is supposed to show how the monk (or any practitioner) sees desire.

One is afraid, one allows it to be there, and the last transforms it into something beneficial.

As usual, this Vajrayana teaching picks on Theravada (or Hinayana) as the buffoon … and makes itself the champion. Yet as with practically all the Vajrayana teachings, they come from the original Buddhism, as recorded in the Pali texts; the Pali texts being the most accurately recorded word of the actual Buddha himself.

Theravada Buddhism is the ‘Way of the Elders’. This line of Buddhism maintained the original teachings of the historical Buddha in the Pali texts – a fact not disputed by either Mahayana or Vajrayana. This is the basis of Buddhism in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. It is also the basis of ‘Vipassana’ or Insight meditation as taught around the world. Note that the term ‘Vipassana’ is also used by other schools of Buddhism.

The image of a yogi fearing and running from Desire is wrong. In the Pali ‘desire’ is not considered as an entity in itself, but in relation to the object of the desire. It is not like you have a pot of desire in you, that you can change one way or another – but you can develop desire based on a suitable or an unsuitalbe object. Thus unwholesome desire is to be abandoned, and wholesome desire to be cultivated. Basically, you can say this is a ‘transformation’ of desire  if you wish.

Here is one typical instance of Theravada on this subject:

here the Ariyan disciple dwells resolute in energy, every striving to abandon bad qualities, to bring about good qualities, strenuously exerting himself, not throwing off the burden in good qualities.

He starts desire, strives, sets going energy, lays hold of thought and exerts effort to prevent the arising of bad qualities.

He starts desire, sets going energy and lays hold of thought and exerts effort for the persistence of good qualities, for their more-becoming, for their increase, development, for their perfecting

S Vol V p134 (eng version)

2 replies on “Beautiful Desire”

  1. I began thinking about the three yanas after first listening to HHPCR at Tai Pan – 2 years ago. It seemed clear to me that what HHPCR was considering as Hinayana was not what I considered to be Theravada Buddhism. I am intentionally being subjective here because of my knowledge limitations, both of Theravada and Tibetan. I have never liked the term Hinayana, as a lesser yana compared to a greater yana, so have always preferred the term, Theravada. In a previous thread someone referred to another term used by Ringu Tulku Rimpoche, but I can’t find the reference – a much better term.

    What became clear to me is that what Tibetans refer to as Hinayana is not the same as what Theravadans refer to as Theravada. I tend to see that where Theravada and the Hinayana yana of Tibetan coincide is that both refer to details, it is necessary to be mindful of details. In a discussion about Zen – Mahayana, the Zen practitioner said that not much attention was paid to the 4 Noble Truths and much more attention was paid to Nirvana/Nibbana and Buddha Nature. If this is the case this might indicate why there are some western Zen teachers who have crossed the line, it is doubtful whether Genpo Roshi has the right to claim he has sila. I contend that Theravada and Mahayana are only discussing emphasis, there was a discussion here ( about Buddha Nature, Unconditioned and Amata. The way Tibetans define Hinayana and Mahayana there appears to be a clear delineation, a delineation that does not apply when I consider Theravada Buddhism. Perhaps it is necessary to look beyond the words.

    As for Vajrayana I believe that refers mainly to the meditation techniques used by Tibetan Buddhists – Mahamudra and Dzogchen – meditation techniques that make desire beneficial? I understand that Tibetans believe these techniques are better. Maybe they are, but as Bhante says “the Vajrayana teachings …. come from the original Buddhism, as recorded in the Pali texts”. We could be discussing the same Buddhism rather than differences. It is necessary to look beyond language whilst at the same time being careful how language is used. I am sure that Tibetan Buddhists would not like it thought that they consider Theravada Buddhists “buffoons”, careful language usage could avoid that.

  2. It’s good to know that everything changes .. what might be beneficial in one set of circumstances might be harmful in another. This applys to both religious practices(Buddhism’s ability to adapt to different cultures has helped keep it alive) .. & desire, for that too, as an expression of primal source energy must remain flexible so as not to die .. perhaps the goal is the creative process rather than an an end(of desire?), otherwise Buddhism would be nihilistic, would it not?

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