NO PARADOX OF DESIRE IN BUDDHISM
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
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.
I. UROBORIC INFELICITIES
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
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
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
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.
II. "GIVE UP DESIRES"
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,"
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
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.
III. DESIRING DESIRELESSNESS
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
He then presents the following argument:
1. Desire 1 for desire 2-lessness leads to
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
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
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
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
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.
5. Ibid., p. 461.
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.