But the real goal of that desire, of that energy, is not the object of desire itself but the gratification and pleasure found through encountering that object. The object is most often functioning just as a vehicle for pleasure or a means to avoid pain. The Buddha said that all our sense-experiences are either pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Our attachments that arise out of those desires are to either seek more pleasure or to avoid pain. We can say that avoiding pain is really just a different kind of pleasure. So in a sense, all of the energy that flows through the senses is seeking pleasure. And furthermore, in the apparent gratification of our desire, we find more pleasure. It is pleasing, in and of itself, to have satisfied our desire. It’s a very strong system which, because of our consciousness, our conditioning and our attachments, perpetuates itself over and over.
The ultimate embodiment of this is the hungry ghost, the being whose whole life is reduced to trying to satisfy an unquenchable thirst. In this state, the arising of desire and the satisfaction of that desire are both painful experiences. It’s like the whole system has become so folded in upon itself, so entrenched and convoluted, that even the basic human experience of pleasure has been lost. All that’s left is the unceasing and unfulfilled energy of that desire.
This is one reason why, if our practice is motivated by self-serving desire or the quest for pleasure, we will experience practice as painful rather than joyful. If our practice is based in grasping at happiness or on a desire to feel calm or peaceful, or even to avoid pain, it becomes just another conditioned cycle that creates disappointment. Thus, our motivation for practice needs to be practice itself. To study and realize the Dharma, to directly discover reality, is its own fulfillment.
Our teachers tell us that we should never confuse what should be done with what should not be done. This is practice. This is the Buddha’s teaching on right effort. It’s extremely simple on the one hand and yet challenging, because to do this we must see with a clearer eye. We need to understand the deeper workings of mind, the laws of causation, our interdependence, and our intention. Indeed, the great illumination⎯of the Buddha was seeing that desire, the object of desire, the consciousness of that desire, and the one desiring are all one great emptiness, one unified dharma.
These things create suffering: killing, stealing, aggressiveness, misusing sexuality, being dishonest, clouding the mind, speaking of others’ errors and faults, elevating the self and blaming others, withholding that which we could offer to another, being angry, and defiling the three treasures. These actions consistently bring suffering and obstruct the spiritual journey. Within Buddhist practice, and in virtually all sincere religious practice, there is no debate about this. The way these actions do harm is sometimes very tangible and obvious and sometimes very subtle and hard to see. In all cases, these actions do not lead toward disciplining the mind, nor do they help us to work with the energy that flows through the senses in the form of desire. They do not help to settle the mind, but rather they agitate it. They create anxiety and worry, doubt, suspicion and jealousy. They don’t give rise to insight, but rather cloud our inherent wisdom.
The precepts help us see what phenomena truly are and the way they function. And this is not just based on the Buddha’s own discovery, but also on the evidence of many years of human experience. That’s why the first five of these precepts appear in all the major religions and in virtually every human community that’s ever existed. That should carry some weight and help us trust them.
The discipline of the precepts is not just in ceasing from harmful actions. Affirming actions are also inherent in these teachings: to affirm life, to be giving, to honor the body, to manifest truth and so on. These are the things that should be done. This, too, has been seen to be true over and over again. This, too, is what we should not doubt but should have faith in. These actions are by their nature affirming of life because they are in accord with the Way. Affirming actions are how we work with and skillfully navigate our desires; they help to settle the mind and develop concentration because the mind is not agitated. They arise from and help illuminate our wisdom.