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By Wayne Alt


Buddha taught that everyone encounters suffering and disappointment. He also taught that these dissatisfactions have causes and that they will be eliminated if their causes are. Although he recognized that a number of different factors combine to cause dissatisfaction, he singled out desire as the principal cause.

Some critics of Buddhism have found it difficult to accept the Buddha's prescription. They point out that to eliminate desire one must desire to do so; they then argue that this is somehow paradoxical, and conclude that Buddha's prescription cannot be followed. Two recent formulations of this criticism have appeared in this journal.

John Visvader and A. L. Herman both agree that desire can be eliminated only by the desire to do so.(1) This seems paradoxical to them since to get rid of one's desires one must begin by adding to them. But since desire causes suffering, by attempting to eliminate desire, one simply adds to one's suffering. Was the Buddha's prescription therefore misleading? Is suffering, after all, unavoidable? In places, Visvader suggests that it is, though he nowhere argues the point. Herman, on the other hand, presents an argument which is designed to show that desire can never be eliminated. Neither Visvader nor Herman marshal any considerations that would establish this strong conclusion. If it is true that human desire can never be eliminated, this must be established in ways other than those proposed by Visvader and Herman.


Visvader compares the Gnostic serpent, Uroboros, coiled in a circle swallowing its tail, to certain therapeutic philosophies, which, because they take a skeptical stance against philosophy, are in danger, like Uroboros, of consuming themselves. It would be paradoxical to suppose that Uroboros can swallow himself. But his attempt to do so apparently has interesting consequences: for Uroboros is also shown transforming himself into a salamander. To Visvader, this imagery suggests parallel transformations brought about by certain therapeutic philosophies. He tries to show that it is through the use of certain "uroboric" paradoxes that these philosophies not only put an end to themselves, but in doing so they raise the student who has encountered them to transcendent levels of understanding:

These philosophies that I wish to explore to a small degree do more, however, than merely refute themselves. They seem to transcend themselves in a profound way and leave the student in a place he was not in before. Philosophy is used as a means for putting an end to itself in a nontrivial way.(2)

Visvader construes the word "paradox" broadly. In the full sense of the word, a paradox is a statement that is true just in case it is false. He cites a Wayne Alt is Assistant Professor at Soochow sUniversity, Taipei, Taiwan. Philosophy East and West 30, no. 4 (October, 1980), by The University Press of Hawaii, all rights reserved modern-day version of the liar's paradox, ''This sentence is false," as an example of a paradox in this full sense. In addition to this full sense he also recognizes two versions of a limited sense. On the one hand, some statements are paradoxical because they are self-refuting. For example, if I tell you that everything I say is false, my statement will be true only if it is false. On the other hand, some imperatives are paradoxes because they condemn themselves. For example, if I advise you not to take advice from anyone, you should begin by ignoring what I say.

The advice to take advice from no one is infelicitous because it extends to itself. Not all infelicitous instructions involve problems of self-reference, however. Some, according to Visvader, are infelicitous because they "cannot be done intentionally."(3) He thinks that examples of this kind of paradox are met with in both Taoism and Buddhism, and that some schools of Buddhism actually make use of them to raise devotees to new levels of understanding and practice. As a basis for considering the use of paradox in Buddhism, Visvader postulates what he calls "the intention paradox." Unfortunately, his treatment of this alleged paradox is marred by a number of errors, which once exposed, cast doubt on his remarks about Buddhism.

If someone tells you to raise your hand without intending to, what should you do? Visvader says: "Raise your hand without intending to, " unlike "Neither raise your hand nor not raise it," is not a contradictory instruction, though it places us in grave difficulties if we try to carry it out.(4)

But it is a mistake to suppose that "Raise your hand without intending to" is not a self-contradictory instruction. For I can raise my hand only if I intend to. Of course, my hand might be raised even if I don't intend it to if you raise it, for example. But in that case I have not raised it. To tell someone to raise his hand without intending to is like telling him to speak without using his voice. The former cannot be accomplished without the latter. Hence, by instructing me to raise my hand, you require that I intend to raise it. But this contradicts your requirement that I not intend to raise it. Your instruction, in other words, is self-contradictory. Because of his failure to recognize its self-contradictory nature, Visvader is misled to a muddled explanation of the way in which "Raise your hand without intending to" is infelicitous. He says:

To raise my hand in attempting to obey the instruction I must intend to do so, yet if I do it with intentionality, I will not be obeying the instruction.(5)

But the plausibility of this explanation trades on an ambiguity of the word "it" in the phrase "if I do it with intentionality." The phrase may be interpreted as:

1. "if I do (raise my hand) with intentionality" as

2. "if I do (attempt to obey the instruction) with intentionality"

Interpreted in the latter way there is no problem. For in attempting to obey the instruction I might do many intentional things, such as discuss the instruction with others, ask that it be repeated, and so on. By doing these things, however, I do not thereby disobey the instruction. But, of course, as soon as I raise my hand I do disobey it, for I can raise it only if I intend to. Hence, raising my hand cannot be counted, as Visvader's words suggest, among the things that I do "in attempting to obey the instruction."

It is important to realize this, for then one sees that the instruction is simply absurd, and that the best course of action is to ignore it completely.


Visvader is especially interested in an instruction which he says occupies an honored place in Buddhism as well as some other religions. He formulates this instruction as the imperative "Give up desires," and claims:

The statement "Give up desires" raises difficulties of a similar kind as does the intention paradox of "Raise your hand without intending to" (or the instruction of the Zen school to act from no-mind).(6)

In the last section it was shown that Visvader not only fails to recognize that "Raise your hand without intending to" is a contradictory instruction, he mistakenly thinks that it is infelicitous because one who tries to obey it thereby disobeys it. In the present section it will be shown that Visvader fails to show that "Give up desires" is infelicitous. By comparing it to the so-called intention paradox, Visvader suggests that "Give up desires" is infelicitous because one who tries to obey it thereby disobeys it. He says:

I cannot begin or even try to give up all desires unless I first have the desire to do so, and if I take the statement seriously I should give up that desire as well. So even if it was clear what was meant by giving up desires, I must begin by adding to them.(7)

It must be admitted that to obey the instruction "Give up desires" I must begin by adding to my desires. But even if I add to my desires the desire to give them up, I do not thereby disobey the instruction to give them up. Insofar as such a desire is counted as just one more desire in an already overflowing inventory, there does seem to be a sense in which it is a step backward and away from the Buddhist goal of eliminating desire. Even so, such a step is not tantamount to disobeying the instruction. Suppose, for example, that you tell me to jump up into the air. To carry out your instruction I must begin by bending my knees. But even though I must begin by moving downward, a direction opposite to the one in which you want me to move, I have not thereby disobeyed your instruction. Rather, I have simply taken the first necessary step in carrying it out. By the same token, if you instruct me to give up desires, I must begin by moving in a direction that is opposite to the one in which you want me to move.

But I do not thereby disobey your instruction; rather, I simply take the first step necessary in carrying it out, and there is nothing paradoxical about that.

Visvader claims that the desire to give up desires is made paradoxical by considering it in relation to the suffering it causes:

It is this desire to escape suffering that fills out the paradoxical quality of the desire to give up desires, for if I give up the desire to give up desires, I will still be locked in suffering, while if I try to give up desires, I will only add to the cause of it.(8)

It must be admitted that if one does not desire to give up desires, one will continue to have them, and so, continue to suffer. But it is roundly mistaken to think that if one does desire to give up desires, one will only add to the cause of suffering. Only someone who realizes the extent and cause of his suffering will generate enough concern to try to get rid of his desires. Visvader recognizes this, but seems to think that this concern must dangle forever in midair, as though it could never be anything more than a kind of ineffectual fretting that merely adds to one's stock of desires, thereby issuing in a kind of "double suffering." What he fails to consider is that this initial anxious concern to be rid of one's desires may mature and transform itself into methods of action that decrease, not add to, the causes of suffering. For example, by forming the resolve to conform to the moral precepts enumerated by the Buddha in the eightfold path, one might initially experience self-doubt and anxiety about one's ability to purify oneself in such ways. In fact, such doubts just might be additional causes of suffering, especially if, as seems inevitable at first, one deviates widely from the path. But by holding a firm resolve, one's practice improves, and as it improves, self-doubts, as well as those desires that were initially the cause of one's suffering, begin to melt away. In other words, by desiring to be rid of desires, one does not only add to the cause of suffering. This might be the case at first. But as this desire finds expression in suitable forms of practice, one begins to suffer less, certainly less than before forming the desire.

Because Visvader fails to show that there is a paradox in Buddhism, he is left without any foundation for his claim that Buddhism has developed ways "to help students overcome this practical paradox."(9) One way he calls "easing over," a method in which "the paradox is ignored" and emphasis is placed on practice. Another way he calls the "uroboric leap." Here the student is made to realize not only the emptiness of the self and the objects of desire, but eventually the emptiness of Buddhism, and finally the emptiness of the very concept of emptiness. Whether "easing over" and the "uroboric leap" are typical of Buddhism is, I think, an open question. What is clear is that where there is no problem there is no need for a solution. As we have seen in this section however, and as we shall see in the next, it is sometimes necessary to set straight those who mistakenly think that there is a problem and who feel compelled to "solve" it.


A. L. Herman claims that there is a paradox of desire in Buddhism:

If I desire to cease desiring then I have not ceased all desire after all; I have merely replaced one species of desire by another. The paradox of desire points to the practical contradiction or frustration involved in the desire to stop all desiring and states simply that those who desire to stop all desiring will never be successful. (10)

Surely, so long as I desire to cease desiring I have at least one desire, and hence I have not ceased all desire. But this fact is not troublesome unless it is assumed that the Buddhist goal of extinguishing desire can be achieved only by continuing to desire it. It may be admitted that one must begin by desiring the goal, and hence that the goal cannot be achieved at the beginning. Rather, to achieve the goal other steps must be taken, and progress toward the goal can be made by leaving behind the steps that have been taken in its direction. One who desires to have no desires can take steps toward this goal by leaving behind some desires. But by continuing to take steps in the direction of the goal, can one eventually leave behind all the steps? Why would it be para-doxical to suppose that by desiring to do so one eventually leaves behind all desires, even the desire to leave them behind?

Herman's attempt to answer this question begins by distinguishing three types of desire:

First, there is the most important desire, namely, the desire for desirelessness, ("desire 1'"). Second, there is the desire in desirelessness, namely, the desire we are trying to eliminate ("desire 2") . Finally, there is the desire that is the result of desiring desirelessness, that is, the type of desire that the desire, for desire 2-lessness produces ("desire 3").(11)

He then presents the following argument:

1. Desire 1 for desire 2-lessness leads to desire 3.

2. Desire 1 is a species of desire 2.

3. Desire 3 is a species of desire 2.

4. But if desire 1 and desire 3 are merely species of desire 2, then desire 2-lessness is impossible.

Premises 2 through 4 entail the unstated conclusion:

C. Desire 2-lessness is impossible.

Herman rounds off this bit of reasoning with the following assertion:

5. Realizing the truth of 4 is tantamount to achieving nirvaa.na.(12)

Let us examine Herman's argument. Desire 1, says Herman, is the desire for desire 2-lessness. The desires which Herman calls "desire 2" are:

The lusts, cravings, and needs of ordinary existence that lead to the suffering and misery that the Buddha spoke to so eloquently.(13)

This passage appears to conflict with premise 2. For the desire for desire 2-lessness hardly seems to be a lust or a craving, and it is equally questionable that it is a need. There is a sense in which the desire to have no desires might lead to suffering and misery. In this sense it may be admitted that desire 1 and the lusts, cravings, and needs of ordinary existence share a common characteristic. If this characteristic is treated as a defining characteristic of "desire 2", then premise 2 may be granted. But such a treatment not only seems arbitrary, it renders the definition of "desire 2" too broad. Premise 1 is clearly not essential to the formal validity of Herman's argument. It appears to function as a kind of background proposition which states the interrelationship between the three kinds of desire that he enumerates. The trouble is that the proposition is impossibly vague. Herman nowhere says what desire 3 is a desire for, and he fails to mention how desire 3 results from desire 1. The unclarity of "desire 3" infects both premises 3 and 4, and hence raises a question about 5, which refers to 4.

Perhaps Herman imagines that as a result of wanting to get rid of those desires that cause suffering one comes to want things that will help get rid of them, such as a teacher, for example. This seems to be a natural sense in which desire, might result in other desires. And insofar as these resultant desires are capable of causing suffering, there is some ground for granting premise 3.

If premises 2 and 3 are granted, the antecedent of 4 must also be granted; but 4 itself is doubtful. For consider that even though whales and elephants are species of mammal this by no means implies that mammals cannot be eliminated. Why then should it be thought that desire 2 cannot be eliminated because desire 1 and desire 3 are species of desire 2? This would follow if it were supposed that desire 1 and desire 3 are themselves species which cannot be eliminated. In fact, just after asserting premise 4, Herman says: Thus the paradox of desire which [sic] says that it is impossible to eliminate desire 2 since it would continue to exist as either desire 1 or desire 3.(14)

Surely, if desire 1 or desire 3 continue to exist, then desire 2 would continue to exist. Yet is there any reason to think that either desire 1 or desire 3 must continue to exist, and that they cannot be eliminated just like any other desire? Herman does not answer this question, though in one place he says: desirelessness can never be attained, because desiring desirelessness produces desire....(15)

This passage suggests that it is ultimately desire 3 which blocks the road to desirelessness. No doubt the desire to have no desires can produce resultant desires, such as a desire for a teacher.

Moreover, insofar as resultant desires remain unsatisfied, the desire to have no desires will continue to be frustrated. But again, why should it be thought that resultant desires cannot be eliminated? Might not one eventually find a teacher, for example, or discover that he does not need a teacher, and so stop desiring to have one? Resultant desires, in other words, need not always block the road to desirelessness, and if satisfied might even help one attain it. So we must turn to the only other alternative Herman provides, namely, desire 1. Is there any reason to think, as Herman suggests, that desire 1, cannot be eliminated? Suppose I desire 1 to eliminate desire 2. If I satisfy desire 1, that is, if I actually manage to eliminate desire 2, then desire 1 will thereby be eliminated. For the satisfaction of any desire is tantamount to its elimination. So it appears that desire 1, like any other desire, can be eliminated after all. Someone might reply that desire 2 cannot be eliminated, and hence desire 1 can never be satisfied. But it could not be argued, as Herman suggests, that desire 2 cannot be eliminated because desire 1 cannot be eliminated. That would simply beg the question.

Hence, we are led back to the central question of this article: Why would it be paradoxical or otherwise logically absurd to suppose that human desire can be completely eliminated? I have argued that neither Visvader nor Herman offer any good reasons for thinking that desiring to get rid of desire is paradoxical. I have also shown that they fail to provide grounds for the claim that it would be impossible for someone to eliminate all of his desires. Whether it would be possible for someone to accomplish such a feat depends, I think, on what is meant by "desire." Herman, for example, says that needs are desires. If this is so, it is certain that human desire could never be eliminated; but if one thinks of desires only as lusts or cravings, then perhaps it would be possible to get rid of them all.

In this connection other writers have spoken of attachment, thirst, selfish desire, and so on. These are all interesting concepts and deserve consideration.

Perhaps in the future someone will attempt to clarify the concept of "desire." This would be an interesting philosophical project and an obvious contribution to Buddhist studies.


1. John Visvader, "The Use of Paradox in Uroboric Philosophies, " Philosophy East and West 28 (October, 1978): 455-467, and A. L. Herman, "A Solution to the Paradox of Desire in Buddhism," philosophy East and West 29 (January, 1979): 91-94.

2. Visvader, op. cit., p. 455.

3. Ibid., p. 460.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 461.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 462.

10. Herman, op. cit., p. 91.

11. Ibid., p. 92.

12. Ibid., Premises 1 through 5 are found on pages 92 and 93.

13. Ibid., p. 92.

14. Ibid., p. 93.

15. Ibid.



Updated: 1-5-2001

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