Beware of Desire - People Lose Sight of the Purpose

Q: There is no end of examples of people who have thrown their lives away, slaves to lust. Surely we who seek to accomplish life’s purpose must beware of desire. Please tell me more about it.

A: Let me illustrate with three stories.

People of Borneo have an interesting way of capturing orangutans. The islanders are fond of a strong drink called arrack, and they set a jug of water containing a few drops of it at the base of a tree where orangutans are. Enticed by the aroma, the animals come down and start to drink. From the next day, the islanders slowly increase the percentage of arrack. The orangutans are not born drinkers, but as their alcohol consumption rises day by day, before they know it they have acquired a taste for strong drink and are heavy drinkers. Eventually when a jug of pure arrack is set under their tree, they chug it down. When that happens, the animals become woozy and, like humans, get drunk. They go on drunken rampages, throwing rocks and breaking tree branches just as they like. Then they fall asleep with loud snores and can be captured easily.

Flypaper catches large numbers of flies who gather in search of food. Once stuck, they try to escape, but itʼs too late. Some flap their wings furiously while others drag their feet in a desperate attempt to get away. The more they struggle, the more firmly entrapped they become. The sight of their peers suffering that way does not deter other flies from following in great numbers.

In a famous story by Tolstoy, a chieftain once proclaimed that he would give his peasants as much land as they could run around while the sun was in the sky. One peasant quickly responded. As soon as the sun poked its face above the horizon he was off like a shot, bounding from the hillock that marked the starting point. If he failed to return by sundown the dayʼs effort would be wasted, but there was no arguing with the conditions. He ran like a madman, determined to claim as big a tract of land as possible, and finally made it back to the starting point only to collapse and die on the spot.

The chieftain ordered his men to dig a hole and bury the farmer, murmuring, “He didnʼt need a huge tract of land after all. All he needed was a plot big enough to be buried in.”

We humans pride ourselves on being the sovereign of our world, but we are in no position to laugh at either orangutans or flies. Nothing is so dangerous as to become unknowingly drunk on the wine of the five desires - desires for food, wealth, sex, honor, and sleep. People chase after sexual desire and are trapped, chase wealth and suffer, chase honor and status and fret. We writhe in misery, struggling to satiate our endless desires. And in the end we find ourselves trapped in a world of distress with no way out. Whatever it is that we seek be it money, things, or honor by the law of desire and attachment, the more we surrender to our thirst, the stronger it grows.

And so it is that people lose sight of the all-important purpose of life and fritter away their lives, slaves to the five desires.

Are people better off in favorable or unfavorable circumstances? The answer is not obvious. Those who become attached to comfort and so fail to seek out true Buddhism will fall straight into the abyss, while those who are roused by adverse circumstances to a shocked awareness of the urgent question of lifeʼs meaning and so encounter Amidaʼs salvation will end up as lifeʼs victors.

Let us be very clear: the eternal fate of old and young, good and evil, rich and poor alike hinges on whether or not each one has heard and believed true Buddhism and so resolved the question of his or her soul.

(Petals of Shinran, The Cherry volume, Chapter 25)

Kentetsu Takamori

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #17 | 2012, Beware of Desire - People Lose Sight of the Purpose

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