A Universal Truth: Desire in Buddhism, Taoism and Stoicism

Jared Barlament
7 min readFeb 16, 2019

Desire has long been the downfall of many a good man. As such, many a system of philosophy and religion has tried to curb its influence. And, of course, many a follower of such beliefs has tried to stomp it out entirely. These efforts have, for the most part, failed, and a prevailing reason for this is that consensus is not often found among strict systems. Their practitioners may realize the similarities between them, but they very rarely voice the conclusion that they all tap into a universal truth. Plenty of the systems of wisdom of old are simply different spices on the same basic food. But what is this universal truth, specifically in relation to desire, and how may it be applied to our daily lives?

Desire is perhaps most famously tackled in the teachings of Buddhism. It is, in fact, paramount to the Four Noble Truths the Buddha himself laid down. In the First Noble Truth, life is equated with suffering. In the Second Noble Truth, attachment is identified as the root of suffering. In the Third Noble Truth, it is asserted that this suffering is, indeed, treatable. Finally, in the Fourth Noble Truth, the Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed as the treatment for suffering (and, by extension, attachment). It is in the Fourth Noble Truth that most people tend to disagree, for can the Noble Eightfold Path really be the only route to the vanquishing of attachment and cessation of suffering? This is a question that has turned many a speculative spiritual seeker away from Buddhism, and for good reason. Obviously, there is no one specific path that can work for everyone, especially in such an all-important area. However, this does not render the other three noble truths unusable. They retain their significance, and their wisdom is still vital to anyone attempting the long road of personal growth.

One great takeaway from the teachings of Buddha is something the Four Noble Truths don’t explicitly cover to the English reader. This is the difference between craving and aspiration, as desire is a word often used to describe both of these very different mindsets. Taṇhā is the Pāli word used in the sacred Buddhist texts, which is often but somewhat erroneously translated into English as desire. Its real meaning, however, lies much closer to craving or thirst than desire, which throws off many Westerners’ assumptions that Buddhism conflicts with the natural desire to achieve. Buddhism seeks not to snuff out aspiration, but instead to snuff out craving so aspiration can be pursued…

Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.