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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