Much of what I have learnt as Buddhism over the years appears to be topsy-turvy. Although there is a well established idea of what Buddhism is, this is deceptive. There is a hidden meaning within Buddhism that most do not see. The hidden meaning is more obvious than the commonly accepted one, but as people are blind, they do not see what is straightforward.
Take, for instance, the idea of overcoming craving or attaining freedom from craving. This is supposed to be the key to liberation and freedom from suffering. There is, however, a twist in the idea of freedom or liberation. On the one hand, it can mean an absence. Thus freedom from craving could mean that one no longer experiences craving, that it does not arise and is a sensation that has disappeared from one’s repertoire of feelings. On the other hand, freedom from craving could mean that craving continues but that it no longer dominates one’s life. In this understanding, one is liberated in the sense of not being enslaved by it, even though it is still present.
When I consider actual people, it does seem to me that there are no people who are free in the first sense, though the second sense might be possible. Craving is part and parcel of life. Everybody experiences at least a vague hankering that never goes away for long as well as intense feelings that occur occasionally in particular circumstances. It can be possible to convince oneself that one has banished the second kind, but when the circumstances come along, one still cannot sleep at night.
Regarding the first, more persistent, hankering, each person tends to interpret it differently and mostly people seek remedies for it according to their implicit interpretation. Many do so in sex and in relationships. Others in drugs, medical or non-medical. Then there are those who seek to smother it with food and, in the process, become obese; or, on the other hand, by seeking a kind of purity and extreme control and fall into anorexia.
One might think these are pathological conditions, but, in fact, in varying degrees they are extremely common. Most people think, secretly, that they can get rid of this hankering if they just find the right solution. However, nobody does so. Perhaps one thinks one has done so for a short time, as when one falls in love, but this euphoria passes.
WISDOM OF NO ESCAPE
In fact, the nearest one can come to liberation lies in recognition of the fact that craving is part of life. No matter how wonderful a sexual partner you find, no matter how much food you consume, no matter how you organise your lifestyle, no matter what, there is no escape. Liberation begins with this recognition: the wisdom of no escape.
When one has arrived at such a recognition, one no longer has to feel guilty, nor consider oneself a failure for being normal and human. For sure, one has to put up with the sensation of lack and to make decisions from time to time how to moderate it or arrange temporary relief from it, but it is no longer the ruler of one’s life.
WHAT IS FREEDOM FOR?
Now, as modern, self-indulgent people, we might consider this a partial blessing. We like the idea of having freedom in order to enjoy ourselves. This, however, is not really the Buddhist priority. Self-indulgence, entertainment and enjoyment can become simply another slave driver. To indulge one’s whims one needs money and certain circumstances and one soon finds that one’s life is organised around providing these. One spends more time in gaining the necessary recourses than one does in spending them. In any case, the pay-off is short lived. What is the point?
Buddha taught the way to live a noble (arya) life. In order to live a noble life one has to renounce, or cast off, the chains that tie one to an ignoble one. It is not ignoble to have the hankering feeling, but it is ignoble to allow it to be your master. It is not deluded to recognise its presence, but it is deluded to think that you can abolish it by your favourite fix.
The reason for attaining a saner relation to craving is that it may permit the living of such a noble life. The noble person does not expect to have a life of endless pleasure. Circumstances come and go; some are pleasant, some are not. This, in itself, is not important. What is important is to live honestly, to purify the mind, to benefit others, and to make offerings to the Buddhas.
To make offerings means to make one’s life itself into an offering. Even our craving can be an offering. Even though we do not know what to do with our craving, still Buddha knows. Therefore we offer it to him. Although we are foolish beings, we offer it to Buddha who knows better than we. Then we can also offer our foolishness. Our foolishness includes even the small wisdom that we have; indeed, the small wisdom is the greater foolishness. In being a wise person one is a fool and the wise person offers the fool and the fool offers the wise person. The one who is free of craving offers the craving that he still has and the one who has craving offers the non-craving that he never had. The free one offers the craving that he never had and the fool offers the non-craving that he has had from eternity.
FAITH TO BE
In the topsy-turvy world of Buddhism, we all seek the state of Buddha. To be in the state of Buddha is merely to do what Buddha did, does, and will do. It is not to do anything more and not to do anything less. However, to do as much is also to do much, much more. Never to do anything that Buddha does not do includes recognising craving, offering craving, receiving craving and letting go of craving. Letting go includes return. If it did not return, the letting go would not have been real. Do you have the faith to be what you are and to be what you are not, as and when?
So we might loosely say that Buddhism is about overcoming craving, but it is important to understand what this really means and not to be unrealistic about human nature. By accepting human nature as it really is we can save ourselves a lot of unnecessary trouble. We shall not, thereby, become the wisest person nor the most stupid, but we shall live a real life and not spend all our time chasing the fantasy of our own ego ideal.