In my previous post, "Mindfulness & Desire", I summarized the classical Buddhist worldview. The human condition is desire, and desire is a movement away from itself, from a state of lack to a state of satisfaction. The desire for pleasure is actually a desire for power, the ability to create and recreate pleasure, and therefore all desire is desire for selfhood, the desire to be a persistent being with the freedom to determine its traits and experiences. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness, or insightful contemplation, makes our desire an explicit object of awareness, and reveals it to be quite the opposite: annica, dukkha, and anatta (impermanent, painful, and unfree). Buddhism analyzes and opposes the ignorant, contradictory belief that it is possible to be a persistent and autonomous self by pursuing desirable situations which are nothing but momentary and contingent. Once the futility of this endeavor is seen, the self-reinforcing karmic cycle is broken and winds down toward cessation and liberation from desire.
Of course, no matter how you slice and dice it, the Buddhist equation that desire = suffering is problematic for most secular Westerners. For isn't desire life itself? If you take away desire, would there be anything left, or at least anything worth living for? No appetite, no evolution, no growth, no creativity -- aren't love, art, and poetry nothing but the expression of desire? And what about Buddhism itself? Isn't Buddhist practice rooted in the paradoxical desire to transcend desire? If desire is suffering, then isn't it best to suffer? To address these questions, I would like to discuss an approach which takes the basic ideas of classical Buddhism and pushes them to their ultimate extent. This approach is not to avoid or eliminate desire, but to "dwell" within it, to fully realize it by making it universal. In other words, desire as a finite thing is overcome only by desire as an infinite thing.
Let me explain, starting with the concept of the center. Any interpretative system requires a master term or signifier from which all terms receive their significance and identity. This is the center -- the independent variable. Without a center, everything remains undefined and ambiguous. For instance, if you are a Marxist, then "class struggle" would be the center of your interpretative system. You would explain everything in terms of class struggle; even political issues such as the environment, the economy, race or gender relations would be seen as forms of class struggle. In this case, I am suggesting that desire (as suffering) is the center, and that everything else is nothing but a particular expression of desire. But if you push this interpretation as far as you can, and explain everything as a form of desire, then desire turns out to be, not the most meaningful term in the system, but the most meaningless. Desire becomes a null signifier with no specifiable meaning or content, since it literally means everything. In fact, it is the dependent, noncentral terms which give meaning to desire, since desire is nothing but what it is appearing as.
This is where things really get interesting. When the centering of an interpretative system (desire, suffering, class struggle, patriarchal oppression, the exploitation of nature, sexual repression -- take your pick) fully succeeds, when it can be used to explain anything and therefore means everything and nothing, than any other term in the system can function equally well as the center. So if I say that "all is desire" and explain, say, class struggle and the exploitation of nature as forms of desire, then "desire" really means "desire-class struggle-exploitation of nature," with an emphasis on the central term of desire. But when I name any one of these three, I am really referring to something that includes all three. If I now say "class struggle," since class struggle is just desire and desire is just desire-class struggle-exploitation of nature, I can equally say, "All things are class struggle." Any term can be the center, since each of the three really refers to all three at once. Any starting point can be a point of reference used to explain the others. Desire ends up revealing not just the character of desire, but the fact of interconnection itself. Everything is always appearing as something else. This is what certain Buddhist thinkers mean when they say that Emptiness (the central term of Mahayana Buddhism) is self-emptying.
And so I agree with the critics of Buddhism. Yes, desire is life itself. The universe is restless, discontent -- a constant movement away from itself, a constant shifting and sliding from center to center. Even physicists and cosmologists can agree with this, for they are all well aware of the uncomfortable fact that the known universe, on the largest scale, is defying the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy. We know that any small, isolated physical system moves from a state of order to a state of disorder, to a state of thermodynamic equilibrium. But the universe is not moving toward equilibrium; the universe is becoming increasingly ordered and more complex. It seems to be moving relentlessly forward, exploring all of its possible forms. This is seen not only at the level of astrophysics. It is quite obvious in the earthly realms of biology and the social sciences, both statistically and in everyday experience. Life is an explosion of diversity, an insatiable reaching beyond itself. Desire is beginningless, endless, unavoidable, inescapable. And so, from a Buddhist perspective, "the more one dwells in it, the more one is liberated from it." Realizing that there is nowhere one could rest more contentedly than this moment is the precondition for resting contentedly in this moment. Desire is everywhere, and so desire is empty.