- All life is empty, meaningless suffering.
- The origin of suffering is desire.
- The way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire.
- The way to eliminate desire is through the eightfold noble path.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments
I was going to title this piece “On Covetousness” and there is much to say there, but on further reflection this piece is a piece about desire.
To start with, I would like to look briefly at Buddhism. I do not wish to advocate syncretism or carelessness about differences, but the combination of similarity and difference between Orthodox Christianity and some of Buddhism is instructive. Now to be clear, when I took a course in Asian philosophy, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta was the one I met with clear recoil and not with any sympathy: for those of you who do not know the term, it immediately means that there is nothing divine inside of us, and ultimately means that the heart of reality is not a heart of reality at all, but nothingness: life is like an onion, where you peel off layer after layer and find that there is nothing inside. And for that matter, the Orthodox understanding of demons may be a nobler matter than what Buddhism makes of mankind.
But for all of this there are real points of contact between Orthodoxy and Buddhism. There is a profound contact between the silence in Orthodox hesychasm and the silence of Buddhist meditation. What Orthodox say about the Western overgrowth of the logical mind is well enough to be found in Buddhism as well. That much may be worth exploring, but it is not my concern here.
What is my concern here is the point of desire. Nine out of the Ten Commandments dictate what outward actions are required or forbidden; the last commandment in Exodus does not mention any act at all, but only covetousness, a desire, an inner state, a disposition. And the list of things we are forbidden to covet barely scratches the surface of what we covet today. St. Job says, “I made a covenant with mine eyes? Why then should I think upon a maid?” (31:1), and lust is forbidden, at very least by implication. But the other enumerations of covetousness, one’s neighbor’s house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, or any possession is just the beginning of the list, or at least it is today.
What else do we covet? One acquaintance talked about a Western visitor who was with a group of pastors, out on motorcycles in very rural Africa, and the visitor did not know their language, but there seemed to be one term they were using quite a lot. Finally one of them cued in to what it was they kept talking about, and it was, “the pill, the pill” which is what they were calling Viagra. I have not heard him talk about anything sexual on any other occasion (though I admit a brief acquaintance), and he talked about how Iraqui workers said that the condition they required to work with U.S. troops was Viagra, which the troops dealt with by crushing up Smarties and giving it to them as Viagra.
Years before our spam filters swelled with offers of Viagra, some observers of social culture said that it used to be that our ancestors were concerned that their desires were too strong; now we seem rather to be concerned that our desires are too weak. And “certified male urologists” handing out Viagra like candy lands us squarely in the kind of desire where orthodox Buddhism has the most to tell us.
Buddhism does not offer help fulfilling desires; it offers help in eliminating desire. And is not just Buddhists but Church Fathers who see a tie between pleasure and pain, a link between desire and disappointment. If there is suffering caused by desiring more than you possess, then seeking to acquire what you desire is not the only strategy, not the only game in town. You can also subtract from the sum of your desires.
Buddhism’s picture of suffering is wrong as its picture of anatta and emptiness is wrong: it portrays a suffering that is empty and futile, like the Roman doctrine of Hell instead of Purgatory. And while the Orthodox Church does not believe that people die and go to Purgatory before entering Heaven, there is a great case that people go through some purifying suffering like Purgatory before they die. Purgatory, called “Heaven’s bathroom” by some, is a place of cleansing and purifying suffering and it is a full suffering with Heaven inside. And the nature of suffering in the service of God is precisely opposite the nature of suffering of Buddhism.
There is much else that one can covet besides the original list, and not only Viagra. We can covet honors; we can covet a romance that will banish all unhappiness just as we can imagine; we can covet imagined worlds of science fiction and fantasy; we can covet the pleasures of movie and video game, iPhone and Xbox. Our possibilities for pleasure, and the idea that such entanglement with pleasure is the norm, are as much stronger now than in the days of the Bible as 151 (rum at 75.5% alcohol) is stronger than the 4% lacto-fermented wine that pagan Greeks recoiled from drinking undiluted. It is a provocative statement now to tell the Resident of SecondLife: “Fornicate using your own genitals!”
But the solution represents one final departure from Buddhism. Buddhism sees no way to sweep away selfishness but to extinguish the self and extinguish desire. Orthodoxy transfigures desire and attaches it to its proper end, God. Pascal, heretic perhaps, lives only centuries away from us; he lived near the occult genesis of modern science, and he has a more encompassing view of what we may drink spiritual poison of covetousness besides our neighbor’s property:
All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever the different means that they employ, they all go to this end. This makes some go to war, and others do not go, and it is the same desire, which is in both of them, accompanied by different means. The will never makes the slightest deviation but to pursue this goal. This is the motive of all actions of all men, even to the point of those who go to hang themselves.
This is the motive of all the actions of all men even including those who go to hang themselves. And despite this after such a long number of years, no one ever, without faith, has reached the point that all continually have their sights on. All complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, weak, strong, educated, ignorant, healthy, sick in all countries, of all time, of all ages, in all conditions.
A test that is so long, so continually kept and so uniform should convince ourselves of our powerlessness to reach goodness by our efforts. But the example instructs us little. It is never so perfectly believable that there is some delicate difference and it’s there that we expect that our expectation will not fail on this occasion unlike the others, and the present never satisfies us ever, experience goads us, and from sadness to sadness brings us to death which is an eternal pit.
What then do this avidity and this powerlessness cry out to us,except that there was once in man a true happiness, of which there no longer remains to him anything but the empty mark and trace which he futilely tries to fill with all that is around him, seeking in things absent the salvation which he does not obtain from things present, but which are all incapable because this infinite void cannot be filled except by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself?
Pensées, VII: Morality and Doctrins, 415 [ 377]
There was contact between the East and West well before the twentieth century; Pascal’s contemporary Leibniz owned a copy of the I Chingbrought by Jesuit missionaries. However, Pascal shows a singular innocence of Buddhism. And at a time when Reformers tried to recruit Orthodox, Christian West and East also had contact. However, Pascal, who evinces little if any serious contact with Orthodox hesychasm, no less has his finger on the solution.
His statement is sweeping, too much on a literal count, but this bespeaks more his experience than rhetorical exaggeration: it is a crude reading that says Pascal speaks of those who hang themselves but did not really mean his observation would apply to Buddhists. In the realm of Pascal’s experience, he saw a uniform law, where men did not obtain relief from suffering no matter how much they chased their desires, but he saw the solution: not that desire or pursuit is to be eliminated, but that they are to be fixed to their proper object, their proper end: an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
We think of Pascal as coming from another world. Yet I assert that historians may treat him as a close contemporary of ours; his list of things pursued in covetousness comes much closer to the traps set for us today than the list provided in the ten commandments, which lists six things in particular, seem almost like six pebbles on a beach compared to what we are enticed to covet, and chase in vain.
Not, perhaps, that we may never reach them. It can happen that we do. But something we covet brings us brief pleasure and then an even greater sadness; covetousness and desire feed our pleasure-pain syndrome, and covetousness that reaches its desire finds sorrow close on its heels. There is a common enough saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, “There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get one’s desire. The other is to get it.” This is true of anything one covets. But not of desiring God, who is the right and proper goal of desire.
Humor was once very important to me; I had, at least, a subtle sense of humor and several submissions to the highly moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. But in one reading of the Philokalia, I saw that they, like St. John Climacus in the Ladder, viewed humor as not at all innocent. It wasn’t just that some jokes are dirty; it is that humor, like covetousness, is not as good as it looks on the outside. And since the time that I wroteOn humor, something has shifted and I have in large measure lost my taste for humor, and am more, not less, happy for it. There is something in humor that is like a scream and is not joyful, and there is something inside covetousness that says, not really “I will be happy if I have this,” but “I cannot be happy with what God has given me now.” Except that this is hidden from us; covetousness seems a conduit of happiness when it is actually its thief.
In the Prologue, one saint says that we should desire whatever God gives to us, or as he puts it, whatever happens to us. I seem to almost never stop planning, coveting, a better future. But the only moment we can obey God is now, and the only time we can accept God’s providence is now. And the Orthodox treatment of desire, unlike Buddhism that seeks to extinguish desire, but to clear the field of distractions so we can rightly and properly desire God himself, and here monks say something to us all. Monasticism and marriage alike provide a crown of thorns; they are meant not to fulfill selfish desires but transform them away from selfishness. The married person has an icon by which to transcend himself; the monk dispenses with the icon, but marriage and monasticisms are not opposite, not here, but two paths to the same goal. The real value of marriage, like monasticism, is to free a man from living for himself, for pursuing immature covetousness instead of maturing to a desire that is greater, not less, than the desire for plans, Viagra, SecondWife, education, a pay raise, financial security, a postmodern sweep of experiences, pleasures that linger on the palate, honors, recognitions, and achievements, revenge for a wrong (or at least one that is coveted in imagination), music and media always with us, “Orthodox” humor, and any number of things Orthodox ascesis is meant to free us from. But the freedom is not a freedom to desire less and less, but more and more, a freedom that is only parodied, even obscenely parodied, in the covetousness we know today.
St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all evil“, and we have unleashed a Pandora’s box of it. But the path of ascesis, of freedom of covetousness, of desire freed for God, is ever open, and ever abounds.
Let us let go of more and more covetousness to be free to grasp God himself.