Earthly desires are enlightenment – really?

The Buddha Shakyamuni teaches that suffering is Nirvana. Without suffering there could be no cause for the desire to end suffering. Without the desire to end suffering there can be no understanding of the causes of suffering. Without an understanding of the causes of suffering there can be no realisation of or enlightenment to share the path that ends suffering. Therefore, it can be plainly seen that the Buddha’s words are intrinsically true.

So, Nichiren’s line regarding “Desires are enlightenment” would appear true in the sense that the desire to end suffering will eventually lead one to enlightenment. Even Daisaku Ikeda has said;

I believe in the existence of another kind of human desire: I call it the basic desire, and I believe that it is the force that actively propels all other human desires in the direction of creativity.

So, perhaps the basic desire he alludes to is the fundamental desire to end suffering for all beings. This basic desire perhaps equates to the concept of Bodhicitta, the driving force behind the motivations of those on the Bodhisattva path.

However, I start to lose the plot a little when “Desires are enlightenment” is applied to our impure desires; those that are based upon our various mental afflictions. It is explained in the Gosho background, thus:

Nichiren Daishonin teaches that, when one bases one’s life on Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, earthly desires work naturally for one’s own and others’ happiness.

This, I feel, might lead one to imagine that as long as he/she is chanting thousands of Daimoku a day that the desire for that new TV, that job, or the desire to pass an exam are all perfectly legitimate fodder for the great transformation machine of the Law.

This one single major misunderstanding is perhaps responsible for the materialist and misguided notions of Nichiren Buddhism that still exist to this day in some areas. In effect, a syllogistic shortcut has been perpetuated, made possible due to a blind reliance on some Mystic Law that will “make it alright”.

Some cars are fast; speed kills; therefore fast cars kill you. The conclusion is only true when the car is driven fast. Or to put it another way, desires create suffering, suffering leads to enlightenment, therefore desires are enlightenment. So, if you mistakenly think that your sullied, and impure desires are going to help you experience nirvana without the necessity of traversing suffering, think again!

The Gosho says;

These are also the two elements of reality and wisdom. Many Treasures is reality; Shakyamuni is wisdom. It is the enlightenment that reality and wisdom are two, and yet they are not two.

Reality here represents the Madhyamaka school’s view of emptiness – the true nature of all phenomena, and wisdom here represents the compassion to share this understanding. The Gosho goes on to say;

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo during the physical union of man and woman is indeed what is called “earthly desires are enlightenment,” and “the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.” “The sufferings of birth and death are nirvana” exists only in realizing that the entity of life throughout its cycle of birth and death is neither born nor destroyed.

This is just such a funky passage, it makes me smile. Chanting Daimoku with my wife during sex might raise an eyebrow, but sounds like a wild party.

Orgasm is a fascinating state of mind. Indeed, the French have a term for orgasm, la petite mort – meaning little death. In a way, when we experience orgasm with someone we truly love, then all other matters of the world dissolve, even if only for a moment. In that state we are left in perfect bliss, knowing no other desire or fear or anguish or jealousy or delusion – we are singularly focussed on expressing our deepest connection with another human being. It is a nirvana-like state, and perhaps is how one should enter death, so the French may have a point!

But the Gosho passage goes on to state that the true absorption of “The sufferings of birth and death are nirvana” only exists through an understanding that the [true] entity of life throughout its cycle of birth and death is neither born nor destroyed. Here Nichiren alludes to dependant arising – that all phenomena (including us) are essentially empty of independent existence, and are merely the temporary manifestations of various causes and conditions.

It is this understanding of emptiness – of interconnectedness – that gives rise to compassion for other beings. When we harm another, we harm ourselves. Only when we investigate and begin to understand these concepts can we begin to practice a more mindful existence.

And when we can begin to practice mindfulness, then we can begin to create desires based on bodhicitta (a desire to benefit others) – desires that do not create suffering (or very little!), but instead happiness. In effect, enlightenment actually leads to us creating better earthly desires!

This reverse relationship makes a lot of sense. Indeed, Nichiren said “Earthly desires are enlightenment” – he didn’t say “Earthly desires lead to enlightenment” – a subtle difference which implies the understanding that just as earthly desires do eventually (via suffering) lead to enlightenment, then so too can enlightenment lead to desires based upon bodhicitta rather than delusion.

Please work to understand the logic behind this statement, and that no matter how much you chant, if you are unfortunate enough to make impure causes through your desires, then you’re still gonna suffer.

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14 Responses to Earthly desires are enlightenment – really?

  1. David June 10, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    Nice post. For many years, I contemplated the phrase about the entity of life is neither born nor destroyed. It really helped when my mother passed away. Your interpretation about dependent arising is good. I’ve always thought it also related to the continuum of consciousness because I think the end of the phrase is “throughout the cycle of birth and death.”

  2. steve June 24, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    I recently read another interpretation of “Earthly desires are enlightenment” and this was based upon the notion of Original Enlightenment. The idea is that since we are originally enlightened, that our mind is that of the Buddha – although our subjective experience of our consciousness, our thoughts, words and deeds might lead us to suffer simply because we don’t understand why we do the things we do…

    I dislike this notion as it offers the possibility of giving up responsibility for ones thoughts, words and deeds. One can only imagine the disasters and abuse that await students of such teachers.

  3. Matt August 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    I’m not sure your interpretation is correct.

    The metaphor I’ve come across in several places is that the desires are ‘burned’ in order to achieve enlightenment. This feels very different to the desire -> suffering -> enlightenment path you talk about.

    E.g. from the Gosho: ” ‘Now Nichiren and others who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo… burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom.'”

    Furthermore, the SGI website explains a little bit more about what the term ‘earthly desires’ means:

    “The deeply ingrained tendencies of attachments and desire (Jpn bonno) are often referred to by the English translation “earthly desires.” However, since they also include hatred, arrogance, distrust and fear, the translation “deluded impulses” may in some cases be more appropriate.”

    Hence it is not ‘pure’ or ‘unsullied’ desires alone that Nichiren is talking about as being burned in order to attain enlightenment.

    It seems as though Nichiren is saying that we should chant for what we want, for what’s in our hearts, sincerely, and reap the effect of enlightenment. Obviously, this by no means sums up Buddhist practice! And I’m sure that this matter is more complex than I understand. But you see why I’m sceptical of your interpretation.

    I’d love to hear more from you about this. Thanks for your website.

    • steve August 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Hi Matt, and thanks for writing.

      I think Nichiren could produce some lovely turns of phrase, but sometimes I find his metaphors are inconclusive. Using your example, “burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom” if interpreted literally would suggest that the mere [harmful] earthly desires themselves can be transformed into enlightenment without any interceding suffering.

      This presents two possibilities:

      1.) that harmful desires, through being contemplated and chanted upon are negated, and in being so are revealed as a catalyst for enlightenment. In this sense, our harmful desires are not (at least wholly) acted upon, and instead (like any obstacle) become a vehicle for advancement.

      2.) that harmful desires are contemplated and chanted upon, AND acted upon but instead of suffering we become enlightened (possibly getting what we want, too!)

      You said, “It seems as though Nichiren is saying that we should chant for what we want, for what’s in our hearts, sincerely, and reap the effect of enlightenment.” This seems to suggest option 2, which I personally find naive, and appears on the face of it to be no different from “cosmic ordering”. As I said, I think this interpretation led to the materialistic application of Nichiren Buddhism in the last century (which still persists today) and is deluded.

      I personally support option 1, and perhaps I should have mentioned this in the article. In this mode, one might chant to get the big car, or for their boss to fall off a cliff, but through the act of daimoku negates and overcomes these harmful desires and reveals their buddha nature in the process, thus finding a more enlightened approach to the problem.

      I hope that explains my understanding more clearly 🙂 Have a great weekend!

      • Matt August 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

        Thanks for getting back to me so quickly!

        I can consider more than 2 possibilities here.

        If somebody wants a Ferrari, chanting for it might help them reveal that their desire for a Ferrari is only really a manifestation of their lack of self-esteem. And so this might map onto (1), as you say.

        Or, chanting for a Ferrari might not immediately reveal to them that their desire for a Ferrari is only a manifestation of their lack of self-esteem until after a considerable amount of effort. But through chanting and accessing their wisdom, they improve their financial karma, improve work relationships, serve people better in their job, overcoming all sorts of impediments and really improving their lives for the benefit of everyone. Then, after creating all this value, they realise from their new position of profound self-esteem that they didn’t want the Ferrari anyway. This would be another way of interpreting the Gosho quote.

        Or, they are chanting for a Ferrari because they genuinely appreciate the beauty and capacities of that car – ie it is actually not really a deluded desire. And, through chanting for it they are able to control that desire and harness it, so that they do not suffer from the lack of it now, but rather are able to enjoy and appreciate what they have now, and also what they will have in future.

        I suppose what I am saying is: it isn’t just what you desire that’s important, but how you desire it. And it isn’t just what you pursue that’s important, but how you pursue it. These factors are also reasons why we chant for what we want. If you feel a strong desire to do something, isn’t it generally better to use that as a springboard to your human revolution?

        I suppose I suspect there is a spiritual danger in leaving your desires untackled.

        I also think the SGI are very right in refusing to set themselves up as arbiters of what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ desires. Only we can decide what we want. How could anyone else be in a position to really know what is right for our lives?

      • steve August 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

        That we could chant for a Ferrari and enjoy such an enlightened outcome is a nice thought indeed 🙂 but one which I suspect is fraught with peril. No matter “how” you go about it, if we pursue a harmful desire, then we are going to suffer.

        If we truly reveal Buddha nature when we chant, then how could we continue desiring a luxury? Satisfying our desires to overcome the suffering of the sense organs (heat, shelter, clothing, food etc.) is necessary for survival, but our foolish attachment to trinkets is not. I think that when we chant for a desire, we should not focus on the desire itself – which may be without merit – but on how the outcome can benefit others.

        Once you have got your car, what are you going to do with it? Spend your time taking terminally ill children on joyrides? That would be great! Or, are you just going to enjoy cruising up and down town looking cool? Or just sit in the garage mindlessly polishing and marvelling at something which is only, after all, impermanent?

        I think it is important to remember that the Bodhisattva Way is to benefit all living beings – the way of self-only enlightenment (or happiness) is the realm of the śrāvaka or arhats.

        Regarding “spiritual danger in leaving your desires untackled.” I would agree wholeheartedly in the context that we should remain vigilant of our desires, and any which persist should be contemplated carefully to determine whether they are likely to be virtuous (in terms of the 6 paramitas) or deluded. Only when we have drilled through our desires with the burning sword of wisdom can their true nature be revealed. Of course, our lives are filled 24/7 with subtle desires, and it is often these that cause the most persistent trouble!

        I think the SGI has been perfectly clear regarding what is good or bad for its members, if not at the mundane, then certainly at the soteriological level – just as Nichiren did. This contrasts against your statement “How could anyone else be in a position to really know what is right for our lives?” 🙂 Personally, I’m with you on this one – provided one practices and studies Buddhism sincerely.

        “isn’t it generally better to use [strong desires] as a springboard to your human revolution” –

        We can’t become enlightened without suffering, and we can’t suffer without desires. Those desires might be gross in the form of attachment to things (I want a car) or subtle in the form of self-clinging (ego driven suffering – e.g. how dare you say that about me!) – but they are ever present. If you want to jump off the high diving board of strong material desire, then be assured, you will certainly gain enlightenment from it at some point, but it’ll probably hurt like hell!

        I think the chinese finger puzzle is an excellent metaphor for the desires/suffering/enlightenment argument. If you want to really pull hard (strong desires), then your fingers are going to hurt (suffering), but eventually you will learn that by not tugging so hard, you will have less pain (enlightenment). Likewise, the same enlightenment can be attained by not pulling so hard in the first place. The trouble is, we all pull a little without knowing it, and some of us, through our Karma, are born with achy fingers 🙂

        I hope I haven’t sounded too harsh – it is not my intention to discourage debate. Take care!

  4. Matt August 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    I’ll provide a longer response soon but wanted to say immediately that you don’t sound harsh.

    I’m currently out of the UK for the next year in a country with no SGI (there are still a few of those left), so it’s really important to me to get the chance to discuss Buddhism with other people.

    Thanks for providing that! I really appreciate it.

    • steve August 4, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

      Thanks Matt. I’m perhaps not the best SGI member to talk to as I have a some fringe attitudes to a lot of core SGI thinking. Regardless, I value your questions, and points of view 🙂

  5. Matthew Wootton August 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    Perhaps our different positions partly unfold from our different understandings of what the word ‘are’ is doing in the phrase ‘earthly desires are enlightenment’. You suggest above that what this boils down to is pretty much already given in the provisional teachings: we desire, therefore we suffer, therefore we have an opportunity to become enlightened in the suffering.

    My approach is that chanting sincere and strong daimoku immediately brings the effect of enlightenment. To me, this seems like it is in accord both with the principle of the simultaneity of cause and effect, and with Nichiren’s metaphor of burning ones deluded impulses. It is not simply that we gain the absence of deluded impulses from burning them, but that we actually convert them into warmth and light. If we have a desire, chanting for it strongly can awaken our wisdom.

    To me, this seems borne out by the practice of myself and other people. As for your comments on suffering – suffering is around every corner; the solution is to develop a really powerful practice.

    I don’t think that desires for ourselves beyond survival are always only delusion. And even delusions can fuel the fire in a way that brings far more joy than suffering – we can respond immediately to them in a way that brings value to ourselves and to others by chanting for them and making other powerful, good causes in order to bring about our desires in a way that helps everyone. Conversely, desires that we might think of as virtuous contain a negative aspect in that we can respond to them by making bad causes.

    In some places, it seems like your reasoning rests on an implicit harsh distinction between ‘practice for oneself’ and ‘practice for others’. Although your suggestion that one can focus on the impact of your desired outcome on other people seems to transcend this distinction, if I have understood you correctly.

    I am sure there are aspects of your position I’ve misunderstood, and of course my understanding of Buddhism is always changing and developing. I hope you’re well and thanks again for your help. I hope I can get around to answering you on the other thread soon, too.

    PS I don’t think my position differs from the SGI in this particular place – they do of course offer important guidance on the general issues relating to desire, and this is a good thing.

    • steve August 4, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      Matt, thank you for making me sit and rewrite this reply several times! I think whether “earthly desires (equal, are the cause of, or are the effect of) enlightenment” is academic. Our Karma is unfathomable, so the exact linkage between a desire and any enlightenment is in truth, equally unfathomable and subtle. We can debate what constitutes virtuous or deluded desires, but this would be futile as our views are relative and not absolute.

      As I said in the original post – if we have desires that are based in delusion then we will suffer, either now, or as a result of karmic retribution. This is immutable and stems from the Four Noble Truths. This is just my view.

      The argument that desires are enlightenment is also made more complex when we consider what we mean by enlightenment.

      Bliss aspect – An enlightened mind will experience suffering not as suffering – but as enlightenment – and I agree this can happen at any time, instantly – we all have that capacity, and this can happen suddenly due to Daimoku. However, this doesn’t seem to be related to the context in which Nichiren promotes it. This idea of instant enlightenment/bliss isn’t limited to Nichiren Buddhism either.

      Compassion/Wisdom aspect – An enlightened mind also recognises when others are experiencing suffering as suffering, and this is the root of compassion, because we want them to experience suffering as enlightenment too.

      Omniscience aspect – which is what a lot of Nichiren Buddhists go for when chanting – the ability to “find an answer” to a problem. Certainly, a spell of chanting over a desire could lead directly to this kind of enlightenment.

      Ultimately, all desires (even good ones) can lead to effects that the unenlightened mind experiences as suffering. That suffering however leads to enlightenment. Once enlightened, the mind does not suffer from the same effects any longer (bliss/nirvana), is less likely to make bogus decisions (omniscience), and becomes more sensitive to the sufferings of others (compassion).

      Considering enlightenment from these three aspects, I’m not entirely sure how we can convert deluded desires into warmth and light, other than by fundamentally changing that desire?

      I think the “burn the firewood of earthly desires and behold the fire of enlightened wisdom” so very open to interpretation, it could easily be perverted into a dangerous laissez-faire approach to our desires. We burn our earthly desires as fuel – i.e. we use them up, realising enlightenment from each one (through suffering), and gradually transform our tendency (karma) to instead create desires for more noble or virtuous goals. The fire is actually the effects of our desires (the fuel), it can be experienced as suffering (and burn us) or we can experience the warmth and light as enlightenment. The fire doesn’t change (like samsara doesn’t change) but our experience of it can…

      Take care 🙂

  6. Michael February 16, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Hi again, Steve!

    I hope you are doing well!

    Thanks for opening up this great dialogue! I have wrestled with much of what this post and discussion seem to be about. My wife and I have had many discussions surrounding aspects of this topic. I believe that some of what is touched upon here is layered with many interpretations of the practice, including one’s understanding of prayer, the Lotus Sutra, the gohonzon, daimoku, faith (Shraddha) and earthly desires (klesha). I’ve actually opened up a similar discussion with Jason and Karen Jarret (A Buddhist Podcast) that they read on their October 8th, 2012 show titled, A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering – Part 2.

    My wife and I recently dedicated a post on our website to prayer to delve deeper into much of what this post touches upon (although we are not official authorities on Nichiren Buddhism). We try to approach the topics we cover from a broad, yet relevant angle that considers all perspectives on a topic. We are trying to research Nichiren Buddhism somewhat independently to try to get to a more complete understanding of the practice beyond some conflicting perspectives that I’ve encountered so far. With that being said however, I have come across some incredibly wonderful people with great insights on the practice who are indeed members of the SGI, including an anthropologist from Brazil who approaches Ichinen Sanzen through a theory of cognition. We sometimes encounter some very rich perspectives and sometimes very shallow perspectives, but have to keep reminding ourselves that just because someone says something is Nichiren Buddhism, it certainly doesn’t mean that it is. My perspectives is probably guilty of this as well, but as long as what I share keeps the dialogue open and encourages people to keep digging deeper then I am ok with that.

    I am not officially a member of any organization, but rather someone who is attempting to better understand Nichiren Daishonin through the traditions and philosophies that shaped his ideas/practice and continue to do so. Identifying with a specific group is not what is important to me, but ironically it is because of a specific group that I have even encountered Nichiren Buddhism in the first place. Ha! Anyhow, the philosophy and practice is what is important in my mind and I am going to continue to focus on that for now.

    If you’re interested in reading our post, you can read it here:

    All the very best, Steve! Keep up the great work!

    Michael in Canada

    • steve February 17, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

      Thanks Michael… I’ll take a look. As always, the people and the organisation are one, but not one, two but not two… not wanting to sound all Vulcan, but Buddhism (even Nichiren Buddhism) is what you make of it – it’s what I make of it – it’s what Ikeda makes of it. It’s everything and nothing. Ultimately there is only one reality and one pursuit that is worth while – and that is the pursuit of happiness and the lessening of suffering. Real suffering in the here and now is what we must focus on, and the happiness aimed for has to be understood through personal experience. We cannot act in a prescribed manner for the happiness of others just because we are told the prescription is good for them. We have to touch our suffering and the suffering of others fully, without bias, and without agenda – Fresh as a daisy without the preconceptions that so often em-burden us (no matter how well meaning they may be), and that freshness, I think, transcends any particular doctrine. As you are in Canada, maybe you will meet Jason and Karen. They are beautiful people and do a lot of hard work for the cause of happiness.

  7. Yuri April 22, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    I side with Matt here. For a few points.

    You are concerned about people chanting to receive something, but you don’t simply chant and get something, you chant to see your situation from a more enlightened point of view.

    I am bewildered that some people think chanting is some sort of lottery-well of course that would only lead to suffering(Which by the way no one is going to rid their lives of suffering anyway, only excess suffering to the best of their ability)

    No one can chant for anything other than peace and wisdom, Buddha and Nichiren are not Genies…

    If I want a ferarri, or even a hybrid, and I expect chanting for it will “bring” it to me, I’m looking at the world through rose tinted glasses-doesn’t mean they won’t find ways to enlighten themselves or get what they desire. Wishful thinking brings optimism after all.

    The Chant is telling us, cause and effect, happen simultaneously and presses us to take responsibility and control. We are subject to suffering in the world, and influenced by it and so we are just another octave in the relationship of cause and effect.

  8. Blanche Quizno December 12, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    Make no mistake about it enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. Its seeing through the facade of pretense. Its the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true. [Source](

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