The Bonfire of Desire

I slide a DVD in the temperamental player, on the life of Siddhartha Gautama, because I’m prepping for an upcoming lesson on Buddhism. I already know Siddhartha abandons his young wife and newborn son in search of enlightenment. I sit down with this preconceived, judgmental attitude about abandonment, and pursuing ones own selfish interests (women’s solidarity). I watch with one eye on the television screen as I browse Facebook and Twitter on my cell phone. Just as I thought, he leaves his family to follow some wandering ascetics, and proceeds to starve himself to death. I roll my eyes. He is punishing himself for his own selfish behavior. Am I the only one who sees this? They called them the anorexic ascetics. It forces me to consider anorexia as a veiled attempt to rid the body of suffering?

An inch from death, he has a vision of his family, and is flooded with misery. A young girl offers him a bowl of rice, somewhere between me getting up to pour a glass of wine and enjoy a few slices of cheese (all this starvation is making me hungry), he decides there must be a middle way. Brilliant. My mother has always preached the benefits of balance without a decade of wandering the desert. Can’t he find himself in the midst of family chaos like the rest of us? But no, he continues on this solo journey, in search of some unattainable solution to suffering. I am annoyed. Another thirty minutes pass, I’ve switched to solitaire, this is turning into an episode from the X-files. He is never going to solve the mystery. It finally hits me, I am annoyed with a myth, a story, a search for truth. So I stop rejecting the teaching and start injecting myself in the story. What am I in search of?

Interestingly, my husband is doing a cleanse tonight, in preparation for a procedure tomorrow, if you are fifty you will understand. If not, don’t worry, your time will come. The synchronicity of it all is amusing. I realize my sense of humor is undeveloped but you can’t deny the irony of Siddhartha and Larry’s overlapping suffering. Siddhartha claims our suffering is directly related to our disordered attachments. As I glance around the room, I am forced to admit, I am attached to everything I see. The lladros, the photographs, the rug, even the dog chewing up my favorite sock. It is the things I see with my eyes that ignite my desires. Things like an exquisitely designed diamond bracelet, mahogany writing desk, or simple adirondack chairs facing an expanse of water. A decadent box of chocolates, Chanel No. 5 perfume, the aroma of a perfectly spiced roast all invoke an internal hunger that is never fully satisfied. Is this a design flaw? I come equipped with a body, mind, and soul all on fire for the things of this world. What can quench these burning desires? 

By the way, I did not call the fire department, I’m comfortable with my interior bonfire. I thoroughly enjoy the pleasures of this life. Apparently more than I should according to Buddha. As I’m listening to the program I start to realize it is my greed, ignorance, and anger that fuel these desires, turning them from simple pleasures, to insatiable obsessions. I can not deny these poisons.

As I listen more intently, actually put my cell phone down, I start to learn that the way out is to turn them around. The reversal of greed, ignorance, and anger is generosity, wisdom, and compassion. This sounds really handy, like the reverse gear on a car, but try driving backwards for the rest of your life. It all starts with the realization that life is suffering, there is a cause, and there is a way out. The cessation of suffering involves following the noble eight fold path. Living wisely, ethically, and intentionally. Now I want to be a buddha (more disordered desire).

I’m trying to string this whole thing together. The four noble truths, the eight fold path, the practice of deep mediation, all lead to nirvana or enlightenment. Meditation is like base camp for the summit, it acclimates your attitude, for the higher realms, or heaven. These are the safety ropes, that keep us on the right path, even when we fall. Apparently suffering is the force that drags us up the mountain in the first place, in search of a solution, and a better view. Maybe we are all Buddha? We just don’t realize it yet? 

Spending time wondering in the mythical desert might be a good practice. These are strikingly similar to the practices of Lent where Catholics pray, fast, and serve during a period of forty days. Or women like Sue, Taylor, Gretchen and Marcy who set out on foot, a forty mile journey, in search of a cure for cancer. In the span of three days they ignite wisdom, generosity, and compassion in themselves and others. I think they found the fast track to enlightenment. I might need to redefine my lenten journey for 2016.

Buddha’s last words to his followers, “Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own salvation.” So true, the roast will be consumed, the bracelet lost, our health compromised, and a fortune can disappear with a turn of the market. If suffering is directly related to our degree of attachment, learning to let go, move on, and relinquish our selfish desires is enlightened work in a dark world.

“Culture lives in human beings, 
if you change the human heart, 
the culture will follow.”
Jane Hirshfield

Have you decided to attain enlightenment or drive in reverse for the rest of your life? Park a few ideas in the comments. 


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  1. Interesting read Cheryl. I would love to discuss this with you. Unfortunately there are not enough characters here in the comment line. Perhaps we should get together. I'm sure we could spend hours in conversation!


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