Reply to Wayne Alt's "There is no paradox of desire in Buddhism"

By John Visvader
Philosophy East and West
volume 30, no. 4
1980 October
P.531-532
(C) By The University Press of Hawaii


P.533 Mr. Alt and I apparently both agree that by adding to one's desires one can sometimes give them all up, at least in the sense required by the Buddhists. In my article I thought there was some practical necessity in doing this for anyone with less insight than a Hui-neng. It certainly seems odd for someone to begin to give up desires by first adding to them. The characterization of this oddness seems to be the main disagreement between Alt and myself. His own suggestion is that it is similar to the case in which we tell someone to jump in the air, and he begins by bending his knees, that is, he begins to obey our instructions properly by doing something that is opposite. This is a very good analogy because it displays the practical psychology of the situation, but it also obscures some logical characteristics of the instruction which are important to some schools of Buddhism. To bend my knees in order to jump in the air is to do something "opposite," but it is not "opposite to the instruction;" it is merely to move in the opposite direction first in order to obey the instruction. The instruction says nothing about what else I am to do in order to obey it. I could do all sorts of things first, some of them even more surprising than bending my knees. I would have more trouble with the command to jump in the air without moving. But if in the instruction to give up all desires, I begin by desiring to do so or by desiring to practice a certain technique to do so, I am going "opposite" in a different sense. I am violating the instruction itself. In this sense I am caught in a practical paradox of having to disobey the instruction in order to obey it. This may, however, be the only practical way for me to obey the instruction. It is similar to the case of someone telling me to possess no more tools and to get rid of the ones I already possess and I find that the only way I can do this is to buy another tool, a tool-carrier. This goes against the instruction, but what else can I do? With the tool-carrier I carry out all my tools then when I'm finished I can put down the tool-carrier as well and will have been successful in obeying the instruction. Alt would agree, I believe, with this analogy, though he does not want to recognize the paradoxical nature of the request or of my actions. But the paradox is important because it is far more difficult to put aside the desire to get rid of desires than it is to put down my tool carrier. It is naive to think that my final desire to give up desires will just disappear when I have gotten rid of the other desires, for from the Buddhist point of view I have really not gotten anywhere by merely eliminating particular desires if I still have the desiring mind, that is, the mind of ingorance which has been expressing itself the whole time in the desire to give up desires. Though it is theoretically possible for the final desire to just disappear, the student has been so convinced by the efficacy of using the desiring mind that P.534 he or she will either not see that it is still functioning, or he or she will try to get rid of it by desiring to do so. At this point the student needs to be shaken up, and intense and seemingly absurd paradoxes which require the student to perform an action from "no-mind," or to express the truth of Buddhism without speech or without silence, may be used. These kinds of "intention paradoxes," which are not contradictory, in a strictly logical sense, will be used to pry the student out of the desiring mind. It is a kind of practical therapy which the existence of paradox in the original instruction makes possible. These are only paradoxes as long as the student remains ignorant of his or her self-nature. The paradox is introduced loosely at the beginning so the student won't be paralyzed in action and tightened at the end to help students despite themselves. A brief word concerning the intelligibility of the goal of giving up all desires. Through thousands of years many people have claimed to be successful at this goal, and it would be silly to doubt their claim. The word "desire" as used by Buddhists is a technical philosophical term and is not coextensive with the ordinary use of that word in English. It is to be expected that an enlightened person, being free of such things as graaha, kaama, kle`sa and t.r.s.naa, will still desire to do such things as drink tea, go for a walk, or help other people.