It looks like a loop. We know desires cause us suffering, however the desire to abandon desire looks like a desire too, right?

I'm sure there is a trick, something to explain why it is different, so... who can help?


7 Answers 7


Isnt the desire for giving up the desires, a desire?

Yes, it is. A wholesome one that ends when you reach the 'park':

"If that's so, Master Ananda, then it's an endless path, and not one with an end, for it's impossible that one could abandon desire by means of desire."

"In that case, brahman, let me question you on this matter. Answer as you see fit. What do you think: Didn't you first have desire, thinking, 'I'll go to the park,' and then when you reached the park, wasn't that particular desire allayed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Didn't you first have persistence, thinking, 'I'll go to the park,' and then when you reached the park, wasn't that particular persistence allayed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Didn't you first have the intent, thinking, 'I'll go to the park,' and then when you reached the park, wasn't that particular intent allayed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Didn't you first have [an act of] discrimination, thinking, 'I'll go to the park,' and then when you reached the park, wasn't that particular act of discrimination allayed?"

"Yes, sir."

"So it is with an arahant whose mental effluents are ended, who has reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who is released through right gnosis. Whatever desire he first had for the attainment of arahantship, on attaining arahantship that particular desire is allayed. Whatever persistence he first had for the attainment of arahantship, on attaining arahantship that particular persistence is allayed. Whatever intent he first had for the attainment of arahantship, on attaining arahantship that particular intent is allayed. Whatever discrimination he first had for the attainment of arahantship, on attaining arahantship that particular discrimination is allayed. So what do you think, brahman? Is this an endless path, or one with an end?"

"You're right, Master Ananda. This is a path with an end, and not an endless one."
-SN 51.15, To Unnabha the Brahman

You might also want to read AN 4.159 which also touches on this theme and is an interesting read.


It's kinda simple. The desire to abandon desires also causes suffering. But it is a good kind of suffering, the suffering of growth, the suffering that burns away other suffering, like fasting. So first we abandon desires. Only then we abandon the desire to give up desires.

Although if you want to be precise, it's not desires that cause suffering, it's attachments (as in your tag). Desire is like: "I want this toy". Attachment is like "I highly respect expertise and clarity and can't stand it when people don't know what they are talking about". See the difference?

But let me ask you this question:

Do you really want to abandon desires/attachments? Or do you only want it because it will help you get something else? Ask yourself sincerely: "What do I want? What do I really want? What do I really-really want?" Keep asking until you get to the root. My teacher gave this to us as a kind of koan.

  • +1 for your first paragraph, but when you say "first" and "only then" that implies they're separate events in time. There may be two different answers on two times-scales: in the short term, i.e. in this instance/instant, they are both types of "desire" and must both be abandoned simultaneously; but in the longer term, it's as you said (and as said in what Unrul3r quoted).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 13:29
  • Of course they are separate events in time. As per the traditional instruction, you should not leave the raft until you are safely on the other shore. My point was, it is only a paradox in theory, when we try to build a CSP (constraint satisfaction problem) model in our mind. Men are known to be fond of building pale lifeless logical models of reality. But once we get to real kitchen-level practice, to action -- there is no paradox.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 14:16

I'm going to tackle this question from a few different angles.

First, is it desire or clinging to desire that causes suffering? If it's clinging to desire, then it's possible to not cling to a desire to not cling to desire. No problem there.

However, what if desire is the problem -- what then?

Is this "paradox" just a verbal game? Doesn't the desire to end desires automatically exclude the desire to end desires as one of the desires to be ended? Even if it didn't, once the other desires ended, wouldn't the desire to end desire end as well? Why would that desire still be active if I ended all my other desires? Does it make sense to say I have a desire to end desires when I have no other desires?

So really, isn't the goal the desire to remove all other desires -- which is not paradoxical? But assuming this isn't so, where does this leave me?

Can I gradually benefit from the path? If so, then it doesn't matter if there's a left-over desire, because I am still much better off. At this point, the question becomes equivalent to worrying about whether I'll get $99 or $100 -- it's such a trivial thing, it doesn't matter.

Also, why do desires cause suffering? Because..

  1. They can be thwarted
  2. The object of the desire can be lost
  3. I worry about 1 & 2

1-3 are largely a function of how much the object of my desires is out of my hands. Well, isn't the desire to remove desire more in my hands than anything else? If so, then it would seem that it's much less susceptible to 1-3 than other desires. So it seems this is a relatively innocuous desire, and to the extent that it supersedes or replaces other desires, is a good thing to have.

A version of this question made up the bulk of Archie Bahm's "Philosophy of the Buddha". He wrote of desiring that which would not be attained, then took the "desiring to stop this desiring more than that stopping will be attained" head-on, deriving (his interpretation of?) The Middle Way as the result of this apparent paradox.

Finally, why does this question matter? At worst, it's not a real problem, just a play on words. At best, it's a trivial matter that's not worth worrying about. Yet if it still seems important, then maybe it's a sign of clinging to concepts, of reifying, of taking either/or distinctions too seriously. If so, then that clinging is the real problem, one that will cause pain, so energy is better spent addressing that, rather than worrying about the possible ramifications of a possible minor residual desire.

Put another way, the question itself may be a symptom of clinging :)


This question or thought trips people up often. The key here is to practice the middle path, that is to neither attach nor avoid your desires. Desire is not inherently suffering.

Suffering, like all things, comes together dependent on causes and conditions. When desire is combined with either attachment or aversion, suffering is caused.

  • 1
    +1 for all those sentences except "Desire is not inherently suffering" which I'm not sure is true. That might (I don't know) be the kind of topic which people find debatable ... it's certainly one that I find questionable (silly me).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 10:54
  • Thank you for your praise. If suffering were inherent in desire, that would mean that the essence of desire is suffering. Essence is untenable in the school that I follow, which is the middle way. The emptiness of suffering specifically I believe is analyzed in the apex of the MMK (last third). I don't pretend to know everything in the vast expanse of Buddhism, there could be a school who disagrees with what I've said. Feel free to disagree openly. I enjoy discussion. Have a wonderful day. Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 16:57
  • I suppose you're right. I misunderstood "is inherently": I [mis]interpreted it as "co-arises with" or "causes", and so I thought that sentence contradicted the second noble truth.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 11, 2014 at 17:46

I was wondering the same issue.

Please note, I write from an Zen viewpoint. I am no teacher, nor enlightened or anything. This is just my personal view, coined by my school: Soto-Shu in the line of Deshimaru.

If you do zazen, do zazen. That is all there is. If you do zazen in order to overcome your desires, to become a better person, to become enlightened, whatgotcha.. you will fail. If you do so, you are still attached to desires and concepts (I am, for sure). Thereore, you can only practice for the sake of practice. This is called muhotoku, translating to without a goal or with no profit. You do zazen, because you do zazen. And that's all there is, shikantaza, just sitting.

I even raise the stake: There is no satori to achive, no samadhi, no big transformation, no hammer of enlightment the ends all your suffering with one blow. Nothing like that when you are away from shikantaza and zazen, and while you do zazen, you have reached satori already and your suffering stops.

To be fair, there is a loop. Everybody starts something new, because of goals and desires. Someone has noticed, he is suffering (Every fullfilled wish isn't enough.). Naturally he looks for a way to stop suffering(I stop wishing now!). He may start to go the zen-way (Buddha said, that will stop suffering.). If he does so, in order to stop his suffering, he will notice, the suffering does not simply stop (I'm still suffering!? Even my legs are suffering, and my back!). This perception causes even more suffering (Not even this works, Buddha was a liar!).

But if he manages to stay on track and continues his practice, he might notice his attachment and entanglement with the world. He might percept, how this causes his suffering. He might be able to reduce the entanglement. On the other side, he might notice, how the world stops, while he sits, how the loud and busy world isn't so exciting any more.

This comes not easy and is a hard way to learn. But it comes naturally. It can't be pressed, it can't be explained. A step at a time. The important point is, it can't be pressed. The wish to achieve it (at best now and not somewhere in the future) tries to press it. It is human to have he wish, but it cause suffering, no more or less, then every other wish.

If one could let got that desire, but continues to go the path (mushotoku), one will be a Buddha, sitting zazen, not suffering, shikantaza. Gazing the moon.

Edit: Just one more thought: For me there is a difference in "overcome desire" and "have no desire". Since English is not my native language, it's hard for me to explain. But it boils down to something like this: I will still have desires, I will still be entangled with the world, I will still be attached, but it will not dictate my life or who or how I am. I will see the mechanisms, know how they work and life with them. Nothing, not even desires, attachment or entanglement is inherent evil. There is no such thing as inherent evil. It's our behaviour towards those things, that let us suffer.


Liking is different than needing.

Believe it or not, this is all there is to it, but has to be directly known. If you understand the concept, it will dispell the contradiction.


Isnt the desire for giving up the desires, a desire?

Yes, certainly. That desire is what causes one to give up.

If I use the term Tanha for desire, then Tanha is the cause of existence.

Tanha is eradicated only reaching the statuse of Arahant.

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