Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts: Two Faces of Desire

A common question for students of the Buddhadharma is the following:  If desire is the source of suffering and is to be rooted out, what about the desire to be awakened to the true nature of reality without which one will not perservere in the practice?  What about bodhicitta, that praised desire to be liberated and to liberate all beings?

Desire is an unavoidable part of being a human being.  It may be the source of our suffering, but it is also the source of our liberation.  It seems to me to be a tool capable of enslaving or liberating.

The place of desire in practice is a serious inquiry.  It is serious because in spiritual practice, no less than in any other field of human endeavor, desire can enslave us.  One can easily become attached to externalities in spiritual practice and seek "things" in the hope that they will free us from suffering.  For example, there is the confusion that comes from seeing liberation as something to be obtained from another, from "out there" rather than something already present within.  And there are a related set of competitive behaviors: ambition for advancement, desire to be recognized for one's level of spiritual "achievement", wanting to be close to the paramount teacher,even to be the paramount teacher.  This is enslaving desire at its most ordinary; in Chogam Trungpa's words, "spiritual materialism".

Yet absent some drive, some desire, one will not enter and continue spiritual practice.  It is hard and often frustrating work.  To stay with it requires that one look beyond this moment toward something that is not seen as present, toward a different state of affairs, and to deeply want to attain it.  How do we differentiate between healthy and unhealthy desire within ourselves and others?

I recently came upon something written by Zoketsu Norman Fischer that I think is helpful in probing the distinction.  Fischer is a respected Zen teacher, a former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and a writer and poet.  In an article in Tricycle, he draws distinction between "imagination" and "fantasy".
Imagination draws its energy from a confrontation with desire. It feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire's power. Fantasy does the opposite; it avoids desire by fleeing into a crude sort of wish-fulfillment that seems much safer. Fantasy might be teddy bears, lollipops, sexual delights, or superhero adventures; it also might be voices in one's head urging acts of outrage and mayhem. Or it might be the confused world of separation and fear we routinely live in, a threatening yet seductive world that promises us the happiness we seek when our fantasies finally become real. Imagination confronts desire directly, in all its discomfort and intensity, deepening the world right where we are. Fantasy and reality are opposing forces, but imagination and reality are not in opposition: Imagination goes toward reality, shapes and evokes it.
I find resonance in this distinction between imagination and fantasy, which Fischer characterizes as the difference between energetically turning toward rather than away from reality.  It touches on a truth about desire's place.  A spiritual seeker is on the right path when desire for a condition of mind other than what is present is channeled toward penetrating what is actually present, and off the path when that desire is channeled toward creating what is not present.  It seems to me that the element that differentiates these, the element that is implicitly assumed by Fischer, is wisdom, insight into the nature of reality and our participation in it.  In Fischer's words, imagination is desire engaged with a reality seen with clarity; fantasy is desire engaged with a reality seen through delusion.  For me, desire partnered with wisdom, with clear seeing, is the path to being awake.

How to see that distinction in our practice?  A useful question to ask ourselves regularly is, "Am I bringing to my spiritual practice the same worldview, the same perspective on self and other, that I bring to everything else in my life, or am I assuming a radically different perspective on myself and my relation to reality?"  If the answer is the former, we are likely engaged in practicing fantasy in our spiritual lives just as we do in the rest of our lives, simply deepening the neuronal pathways that made us masters of that which is ultimately insignificant, that which gave rise to our impulse to seek for something else.  If the latter, we are more likely on the path, deploying desire as a goad to laying down new pathways, fresh ways of seeing that will liberate us.


  1. Seeing the difference between fantasy and imagination has been very motivating to me. Imagination is what drives me to keep working on my spiritual growth, it is the "eros"that moves me to find a more real and honest way to relate to myself, the world and others. It is through the constant awareness of where I am "fantasysing"instead of "imagining" that I can begin to live every moment with wisdom. Thank you Sensei for your words of wisdom..

  2. Dear Patricia:
    Thank you. The deeper I look into the objects of my desire, the more I find that while some objects are clearly fantasy, others shift under my gaze. Reality is revealed as tinged with fantasy, and vice versa. I am constantly seeing how the two fade into one another, with no clear margins.