Buddhist Etymology and the Differences Between Desires

Desire is typically considered a universal evil. It is desire which the Buddha denounced as the root of suffering. It is desire which led to the booting of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It is the fighting of desire with unshakable self-discipline which the Stoics prescribed for every aching soul. Maybe the numerous New Age gurus who promise to reveal the meaning of life if only you buy their book for $49.99 don’t mind desire too much. For any other religious practitioner, however, it is considered among the most pernicious of influences. The solution is simple, then, right? Just defeat desire. But alas, the word “desire” covers far more than one concept, and if we do not distinguish between its subsets, we can never reach the states the wise men of old tried to lead us to.

“Desire” is, as will soon be proven, a problematic word, for it lumps together two very different concepts. We must distinguish between those conscious desires and those unconscious ones; our ambitions and goals as opposed to our cravings and lusts. When the Buddha said that desire was the root of suffering, he was not using English. The exact language of the Buddha is actually still a matter of scholarly debate, but many of the principle texts of Buddhism were written in the Pāli language. It is from Pāli, then, that we’ve had to translate Buddhist doctrine, and unfortunately, we’ve done so pretty poorly.

It is commonly said that the second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that “desire is the root of suffering”. In the Pāli, though, the word for desire is taṇhā, and in this, we find a problem. Taṇhā does not mean any and all desires. It specifically refers to what was deemed in previous paragraphs as unconscious desires; it descends from the Proto-Indo-European root suffix -ters, meaning dry, which is itself a distant ancestor of the modern English word thirst. Hence, we arrive at the translation “thirst is the root of suffering”.

We can again examine this all-important truth’s translation in its last word, suffering, or in Pāli, dukkha. This dukkha is a term with ridiculously varied applications and an origin shrouded in secrecy. There are, however, several theories explaining its genesis, with one in particular rising above the rest. This theory posits dukkha to have originally roughly meant discomfort, stemming from the discomfort of bad axles on Indo-European chariots. This definition of discomfort eventually expanded greatly, with dukkha coming to mean any sort of unpleasant experience, including sensations such as suffering, pain, stress, frustration, uneasiness, unhappiness, and more. So, in truth, there is no catch-all word in English to equivalate with dukkha. The most common modern translation, however, as proposed by a host of scholars and the Dalai Lama himself, is unsatisfactoriness. And so, we come to a translation of the Second Noble Truth that reveals its real meaning; “thirst is the root of unsatisfactoriness”, or perhaps, “thirst is the root of the unsatisfactory life”. They might not pack the same auditory punch, but their accuracy is what’s important.

The Buddha, then, did not advocate against desire, but instead, thirst, or the animalistic cravings of the unconscious mind. The Buddha was not against ambition. He didn’t want you to sit around on the couch for your entire life because it’s bad to have goals or be unique. He wanted you to eliminate the thirsts and cravings that control your unconscious mind and negatively impact your life. Thus, we see that the most famous take on desire in all of history does not see desire as just one unified feeling.

Very simply put, you thirst to survive, and you aspire to thrive. Either one of them can get in the way of a life of fulfillment, but neither can ever be completely controlled by those of us not enlightened. Now, there are innumerable methods out there for curving craving — most notably, of course, in Buddhism. But what about curving ambition? Is ambition even something we should be curving in the first place? Surely, ambition has its place. If not for ambition, no one would do anything out of the ordinary, and humanity would still be eeking out an existence in the savanna. Ambition is very necessary to an extent, but past said extent, it tends to take control of life and suck the joy out of the present by always fixating on the future. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

The key, then, is not to let aspiration take so much control of your life that you find yourself chasing after ever-more improbable achievements. Instead, it is to simply aspire to the end of aspiration; in other words, to desire only that which will render you desireless. Aspiration without end is the enemy of fulfillment. Thus, we must aspire toward fulfillment; not the things we think will make us fulfilled, but the feeling of fulfillment itself. And, when we do finally feel fulfilled, we must learn to let go.

So we come to see that desire is a most unhelpful term. For those unconscious desires to satisfy animalistic needs, we should adopt the words thirst or craving. For those conscious desires to achieve something special in life, ambition will do just fine. But making sure we don’t turn these two very different things into one is absolutely crucial if we want to make any progress in beating back their influence on us.

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Writer of the most eclectic mix of material this side of the Mississippi. Author, 2016–2019. Blogger, 2017–2020. Columbia University, 2020–2024.

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