Ajahn Sumedho: Letting go of Desire

The one who pleased God was loved; Living among sinners, he was transported, snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind
 or delusion beguile his soul;
 For the witchery of petty things obscures what is right
 and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind. (Wisdom of Solomon, Cp. 4 – On Early Death)

In this talk, Ajahn Sumedho helps us to understand desire (tanha) to better enable us to let go of it.

The first point he makes is that first there is desire, and then there is attachment. Desire is a feeling: it is either wanting to have something or wanting to avoid something—the desire to avoid is aversion. Frustrated desire, either not obtaining what we want or experiencing what we don’t want, gives rise to fear, anger and grief.

With desire arises attachment, which is a thought that we hold on to like an obsession. Because the thought is rooted in dissatisfaction, I try to push it away. But when I try to push it away, my attachment to it grows stronger; the harder I try, the stronger my attachment to it.

Another point Sumedho makes is that we experience feelings about a thing, and then we perceive it as “beautiful or ugly, pleasing or painful.” But our feelings cannot be trusted. Events have no inherent characteristics: our feelings about them are entirely subjective. We call it knowledge—“I just know it’s bad”—but what we mean is, “I feel that it’s bad.”
Now, our feelings about something can be based on experience or on what we have been told. A mystic named Amanda Freitas asked God for guidance on how to vote in the 2020 presidential election, and she had a vision that God favored President Trump. For the previous four years she had “felt” that Trump was bad because this is what the mass media said; but when she experienced her vision, her “knowledge” of Trump changed.

Steven Spielberg gave a great example of the untrustworthiness of our feelings about people in an interview about the making of “Schindler’s List” (1993):

Many of the German actors who [were] interviewed for Schindler’s List . . . apologized for the generation preceding theirs and talked about their guilt and talked about their feelings very openly. . . . When I got there and began to work on [the movie], once those same German actors put on the uniforms of the Waffen-SS, my attitude changed and I couldn’t talk to them. And between shots they would be schmoozing with me, trying to ask me questions about E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark [other films Spielberg had made] . . . and I didn’t really want to make small talk. I couldn’t get past the uniform. And then my prejudice began to come out and I began to look at it. I began to say, “My goodness, how can I be [laying] the sins of the fathers onto the sons and daughters? Why do I feel this way?” And yet I felt anger. When I saw the uniform, and I knew there was a German in that uniform, I felt anger. (https://youtu.be/Jf_ntUGfV1Q)

When we understand that our feelings about things are completely subjective and that they are entirely within us, it is easier to let go of them. Sumedho says, “Letting go means to be able to be with what is displeasing without dwelling in aversion.” This is only possible if I let go of the aversion. And the only way to let go of an aversion is to embrace the feeling—otherwise I am pushing it away. Another way of looking at it is that I must move my focus off of the source of my aversion and onto myself and my feeling. Because the reality is that events have absolutely no significance and no purpose except to cause my feelings to rise up so that I can release them.

“What is the truth concerning the things of this world except how they are experienced in our own consciousness?” – Deepak Chopra

The Buddha says there is a craving for becoming and a craving for not becoming—tanha vibhava. This is the craving to put an end to rebirth and gain liberation. Arvind Sharma (1996) explains that a human being has the ability to attain liberation by applying the principles contained in the scriptures, whereas an animal does not. This makes it imperative for a being to utilize the precious occasion of a human life to the fullest to reach the ultimate goal, and explains the desire for liberation from earthly existence. (Arvind Sharma)

This talk has been edited for brevity and clarity. A few Pali terms have been replaced with Sanskrit. To read the abbot’s talk as it was given, follow this link: https://www.wisdomlib.org/buddhism/essay/letting-go-of-desire. – The Editor

* * *

Samudaya (origin): Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving (tanha, “thirst”) which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and covetousness, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for not becoming. – Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

The arising of dukkha, suffering, is due to the grasping for that which we desire. And the insight is that since the arising of suffering is caused by desire, we should therefore let go of desire. This is the Second Noble Truth; it is the insight knowledge of letting go.

Some people think that all I teach is: Whatever happens, let go. But the teaching involves a real investigation of suffering. Insight into letting go occurs through that understanding.

The vibhava tanha, or desire for liberation, is quite subtle. But wanting to get rid of our defilements [passions] is another kind of desire. Letting go is not a getting rid of or putting down of aversion. Letting go means to be able to be with what is displeasing without dwelling in aversion, because aversion is an attachment. If you have a lot of aversion, then you will still be attached. Fear, aversion—all this is grasping and clinging.

Dispassion is acceptance and awareness of things as they are, not wanting to change anything, letting go of the aversion to what is ugly or unpleasant. So letting go is not dismissing things, but it is a deep insight into the nature of things. Letting go therefore is being able to bear with something unpleasant without being caught up with anger and aversion.

Being an entity with sense organs which come into contact with objects, we experience feeling. Feeling (vedana) is the experiencing of things as pleasant, painful or neutral. This applies to all the senses: taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell and thought. Memories are thoughts, and are also experienced as pleasant or painful. So, vedana, I use that particular word as the concept for all that attraction/repulsion we experience through the senses. And if we are heedless and operate from ignorance, we react to things with desire. I want the beautiful, I want the pleasant, I want to be happy and successful, I want to be praised, I want to be appreciated, I want to be loved. I don’t want to be persecuted, unhappy, sick, looked down on or criticised. I don’t want ugly things around me. I don’t want to look at the ugly, to be around the unpleasant.

Consider the functions of our body. We all know that these functions are just part of nature, but we don’t want to think of them as being ours; we try to dismiss them. But rejecting some aspect of the body is still attachment to the body. Instead of liking this and disliking that, we should begin to pay attention and observe the way we react to the things that we experience in our life.

In mindfulness, then, we are opening our mind to this, to the whole of life, which includes the beautiful and the ugly, the pleasing and the painful. Thus, in our reflection on the paticcasam paticcasamuppada, we see it is connected to the Second Noble Truth. This is where the sequence tanha, upadana, bhava (desire, attachment, becoming) is most helpful as a means of investigating attachment.

We can hold on to or be attached to something we don’t want just as much as something we want. Any time we try to mentally push away or get rid of anything, we are holding on to it; it is still attachment. So attachment is both seeking after the thing we desire and trying to get away from the undesirable.

The more we contemplate and investigate attachment, the more insight we have into letting go of desire. In the Second Noble Truth it is explained that desire originates suffering and that it should be let go of. Then, through the practice of letting go, we have the third insight: desire has been let go of. And that is what practice is all about: realising those three. This applies to each of the Noble Truths. There is the statement of what is, what to do, and then the result of that. The First Noble Truth: “There is suffering; it should be understood; it has been understood.” The Second Noble Truth: “There is an origin of suffering, which is desire; it should be let go of; it has been let go of.” The Third Noble Truth: “There is cessation; it should be realised; it has been realised.” The Fourth Noble Truth: “There is the Eightfold Path; it should be fulfilled; it has been fulfilled.” This is the knowledge of insight.

Paticcasamuppada is a really close investigation of the whole process. Now, it is grasping on the part of the five skandhas that is the problem. The five skandhas are dharmas; they are to be studied and investigated. They are just the way things are. There is not a self, they are impermanent and to know the way it is, is to know the truth. And so the grasping of the conditioned world is based on delusion or ignorance, the delusion that the five skandhas are what I am. And because of that we live our lives based on ignorance.

We suffer from our attachment to the body and our fear of death. If there is no identification with this body then there is no suffering. There is no feeling that there is anything wrong with the body getting old. It is not me, it is not mine, and whatever happens to it doesn’t affect me. The thought, “I am getting old” is a conventional way of talking about the body. But if this is what I think I am, then everything is coming from that “I’m getting old”; “I want to be young”; “I want to live a long life.” Why? Because of my identification with the body.

And then, “I am going to die.” That’s a morbid thing; let’s not even talk about death! Of course we are all going to die but that’s far away. When you are young you think of death as so far away—let’s enjoy life. But when anyone we know dies, or we nearly die, then death can be very frightening. And all that is from the identification, “I am this body”.

Then of course there are all the views, feelings, biases and memories we have. Not only do we suffer from attachment to the body, but we suffer when we become attached to the beautiful and to feelings: I want only the beautiful; I want only the pleasant; I do not want to see the ugly. I want to have beautiful music and no ugly sounds, only fragrant smells. Moreover, we become attached to what the world should be like: opinions about everything going on out there. Attachments to all of these views and opinions and perceptions make up the vedana, samjna, vijnana sequence of the five skandhas. And we become attached to all that in terms of the self—it’s “my” view, what “I” think, and what I” want and don’t want, what “I” think should be and should not be. So we get grief, anguish, despair, depression, sorrow and regret from that illusion of the self.

The insight into the Second Noble Truth is that there is a cause of this suffering—it is not permanent, nor it is not something that absolutely always arises. The arising of suffering comes from our grasping for that which we desire.

You can see the desire that arises to seek the beautiful and pleasant on the sensual plane, through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. Kama tanha is sensual desire. Sensual desire always wants some kind of pleasurable, or at least exciting, experience. Kama tanha: you can see it in the movement that we have of going towards and grasping the sensory pleasures.

Bhava tanha is the desire to become. This is to do with wanting to become something. As we do not yet know what we are, our desire is to attain and achieve and become something we are not. In this Holy Life the bhava tanha can be very strong. You feel that you are here to become enlightened and achieve and attain something. It all sounds very good. But even the desire to become enlightened can come from this ignorance, from this identification with a self—“I want to become enlightened”; “I’m fed up with this world”; “I don’t want to be reborn again”; “I don’t want to go through childhood again.” That desire to become something can be bhava tanha.

As you understand the peace of non-attachment, of letting go, the Second Noble Truth leads to the Third. The more you let go of desire, the more you become aware that you are not the self. Then the insight into the Third Noble Truth of cessation arises. There is cessation; this cessation should be realised.

So our practise leads to realising cessation. That is when we talk about emptiness: we realise the empty mind where there is no self. There is no sense of the mind being anybody. As soon as you think of this as “my mind,” if you grasp that thought then you are deluded again. But even if you have “my mind,” if you see it as that which arises and ceases and there is no grasping of it, then that is just a condition. There is no suffering from that; it is peaceful.

When there is no self, there is peace. When there is me and mine then there is no peace. Worry, anxiety what are they? They are all from me and mine. When you let go then there is cessation of me and mine. There is peace, calm, clarity, dispassion, emptiness.

I observe that when there is no self, no attachment, then the way of relating to others is through metta (kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (joy at others’ happiness), upekkha (serenity). These do not come from a sense of self; they arise from selflessness. As the illusions of self fall away, then this becomes the natural way of relating to others, but there really is no “self” which relates to “others.”

I am not a great blessing. All I can do in this conventional self is to let go of delusion. To be mindful and not become attached to things, to see clearly—that is what I can do. That is the practise of the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path. It amounts to that vigilant, mindful seeing of things clearly. Then what happens depends on other things. There is no need to go around trying to become Sumedho the Good Guy any more. Goodness can manifest through this form only if there is no delusion. And that is not a personal achievement or attainment at all, merely the way things are. The way it happens to be. It is Dharma.

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