Noah Smith: Buddha Was Wrong About Desire

In    this image   , the one on the elephant represents Noah Smith.

In this image, the one on the elephant represents Noah Smith.

I am pleased to be able to publish another guest religion post by Noah Smith. Noah's other guest religion posts on are

  1. God and SuperGod
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell

My favorite of Noah’s religion posts is still “God and SuperGod,” but Noah’s personal favorite is this one, right here. Here is Noah’s tussle with classic Buddhism:

“Sun/ Felt numb”  – Nirvana

One of the central tenets of Buddhism is that tanha, or desire, leads to dukkha, or suffering. Much of Buddhism, as it was originally conceived, is about eliminating suffering, in part by eliminating desire. If you extinguish all suffering, you reach Nirvana. This idea has appealed to many in the West in recent decades, especially among those who are looking to make a break with Christianity, Judaism, and other traditional Western religions. It dovetails with the idea that consumerism is a “hedonic treadmill” - that our modern society encourages us to buy more stuff, which just makes us want more stuff. It also seems to promise a relief from the stress of capitalist competition. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just leave all these cravings behind? 

No, it would not. How do I know that? Because I’ve been there. I have achieved Nirvana. And let me tell you, it was a lot more like the band than the Buddhist state of enlightenment. 

I’m talking, of course, about clinical depression. Most people think of depression as a very severe sad mood, or some other form of negative emotion. But mostly, it’s not like that. Mostly, it’s a feeling of emptiness that is unlike any emotion that non-depressed people experience. But it’s not an enlightened emptiness, or a neutral, robotic emptiness - it’s an awful emptiness. Here is a pretty good (and grimly entertaining) description of what it’s like by Allie, the writer of the blog Hyperbole and a Half. Here was my briefer, less colorful attempt. Though I hadn’t read her post when I wrote mine, you’ll quickly see that we’re describing exactly the same thing. Depression, basically, is a total lack of volition and desire. And it’s the worst thing that it’s possible to experience. 

Now, I’m sure Buddha didn’t intend for people to eliminate their desires by becoming clinically depressed! But he probably simply did not understand how human desire works. Now, with the help of modern science, we know a few things. For example, we’ve learned that the nucleus accumbens is responsible for many of our feelings of pleasure and happiness. But it’s also responsible for our feelings of desire! From Wikipedia:

The activation of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is central to forming desire for something. Dopamine release in the accumbens occurs in anticipation of reward, and facilitates many kinds of approach and goal-oriented behaviors like exploration, affiliation, aggression, sexual behavior, and food hoarding. Lesions to the nucleus accumbens reduce the motivation to work for reward.

This sort of desire is exactly the “tanha” that Buddhism tells us we should get rid of. But in experiments, this kind of desire is essentially indistinguishable from pleasure:

Rats in Skinner boxes with metal electrodes implanted into their nucleus accumbens will repeatedly press a lever which activates this region, and will do so in preference over food and water, eventually dying from exhaustion.

In other words, desire is not the cause of suffering; it is the opposite of suffering. Desire is what feels good. And so it’s no surprise that stimulating the nucleus accumbens is an incredibly effective treatment for depression. Anyone who has been depressed will not be surprised in the slightest to hear that result. 

The truth is, desire is good. Desire is what keeps us going in life. It’s not getting stuff that makes us happy, it's wanting stuff, hoping for stuff, dreaming of stuff - stuff like love, success, adventure, or meaning. Desire itself is the payoff!

Sure, sometimes we’re frustrated. Sometimes we get what we want, only to find out that it’s not as great as we thought. But to try to eliminate the central feature of a good human life just because of these stumbling blocks is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These stumbling blocks are a necessary cost of leading a good human life.

So I think that the main tenet of classic Buddhism is totally wrongheaded, and reflects a deep lack of understanding of what constitutes human happiness. But like all religions - maybe more than other religions! - Buddhism is fluid, and subject to revision, interpretation, and improvement. So it pleases me to report that Soka Gakkai, a Japanese form of Buddhism, has this to say about desire: 

But can such desires and attachments really be eliminated? Attachments are, after all, natural human feelings, and desires are a vital and necessary aspect of life. The desire, for example, to protect oneself and one’s loved ones has been the inspiration for a wide range of advances–from the creation of supportive social groupings to the development of housing and heating. Likewise, the desire to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos has driven the development of philosophy, literature and religious thought. Desires are integral to who we are and who we seek to become.

In this sense, the elimination of all desire is neither possible nor, in fact, desirable. Were we to completely rid ourselves of desire, we would end up undermining our individual and collective will to live.

The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. Desires and attachments are seen as fueling the quest for enlightenment.

Damn straight.