In contemporary Western discourse, the complex and culture-bound term desire is sometimes used as an approximate equivalent for Buddhist concepts that denote different aspects of appetite,
in preference to older, and more common, renderings of Asian concepts such as the passions, lust, sensual pleasure, and craving.
Terms in the latter family of words have been preferred perhaps because of their association with Western notions of asceticism and abstinence.
In religious traditions with ascetic leanings the disappointments of love are seen as signs that attachment is inherently painful.
But even the trite aphorism that “love always brings pain” may be seen as only a vague reference to the set of complex problems one faces
when considering the psychological and philosophical relationship between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, longing and disappointment, attachment and love soured or lost.
Attempts to understand and control the longing that leads to disappointment and pain, form an important dimension of ascetic and philosophical ideals in the West, among the Stoics and their Christian heirs, and in several strands of Indian religious thought:
Among these strands, the principle of the primacy of desire takes a particularly important place among Buddhist traditions, where it assumes the position of a canonical creed:
Desire is the root of rebirth and suffering.
In its strongest form the doctrine may state that:
“the world is lead by thirst (taṇhā),
the world is dragged around by thirst;
everything is under the power of this single factor, thirst”
(Suttanipāta 1. 7. 3 Taṇhāsutta, vol. 1, p. 39).
The “burden” of the skandhas (aggregates) is defined as craving,
an unquenchable “thirst that leads to repeated birth, is tied to delight and passion, desires now this now that. This is the thirst of sense desire, the thirst for existence, the thirst for cessation” (Suttanipāta, 3. 1. 3).
The juxtaposition of formulas of this kind suggests that the central concept is not “desire” in its normal, restricted sense,
but “desire” in the broad sense of the drive or impulse that makes us want to achieve or possess, including the drive to live on and the wish to stop the pain of living.
Although the dominant theme in Buddhist traditions has been desire as sense desire,
it is often presented in complementary contraposition to displeasure (hatred, animosity, disgust), and indifferent ignorance (cognitive stupor or blindness).
These 3 modes of thinking, feeling, and acting may be summarized in the 3 terms:
2) disgust, and
—a triad known as the “three poisons” or the fundamental kleśas (defiling afflictions).
These three summarize or epitomize the factors that lead to suffering and rebirth.
Thirst is therefore a superordinate term that includes and signifies primarily passionate desire, but that also includes the drive to hate or repel, and the wish not to know (the drive to remain unaware).
It is wilful desire and passionate desire and delight, but it is also the mental act of holding on to that which is wanted and the complex process of claiming possession, dwelling on something, and being inclined or predisposed to something.
As the tradition shifts emphasis to either one of the fundamental kleśas, its understanding of desire changes in important ways:
Desire as concupiscence is associated with the ascetic leanings of the monastic tradition;
an emphasis on the noxious effects of disgust and displeasure is associated with the Bodhisattva’s compassion and toleration for the vicissitudes of Saṁsāra;
and, more consciously in the development of the tradition, an understanding of desire as unawareness is associated with the idea that insight liberates from craving and suffering.
Thus, the famous lines from the Mahāvastu,
“desire I know your root, you arise from conceptual representation,”
is quoted by the Madhyamaka school as proof that the royal road to vanquishing suffering and craving is seeing through the emptiness of the constructions that underlie the objects of desire.
This particular turn in the Buddhist understanding of desire is characteristic of Mahāyāna and is also expressed in more radical and paradoxical statements, such as the idea that awakening is nothing but the kleśas themselves:
Such notions may be seen as leading naturally into the doctrinal rethinking of the body and desire in the tantric tradition,
where earlier ascetic concerns with the body and the passions are transformed into new ways of turning the profane human being into the sacred body of a Buddha.