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Greed, Desire, and the Lotus Sutra

by Miriam Levering


The English word greed is usually defined as the passionate desire to possess more than a person or family needs or deserves, especially at the expense of others. We are taught from childhood that we should not take two cupcakes when the hostess has prepared only one per child. Yet we are not taught not to desire.


Greed. We all know greed is a problem. US citizen Bernie Madoff's successful investment fund attracted wealthy investors. Every year his returns on investment were much larger than those of other funds. In the end it turned out that he was not investing his customers' money at all. Instead, he was running a Ponzi, or pyramid, scheme, paying off investors with money from new investors. While the Ponzi scheme was going strong, he was the toast of New York City and highly admired by others in the finance world. When thousands of his customers lost large sums of money, he became the poster boy of greed.

The temptation to justify our greed is strong: after all, we are only doing what we have to. Modern market-based societies tend to be winner-take-all societies. The most successful athletes, movie and other entertainment stars, musicians, business owners, and CEOs of large corporations all become exceedingly rich. Less successful athletes, entertainers, musicians, and corporate workers often earn very little. Exorbitant salaries, bonuses, and retirement plans provide an almost irresistible incentive to do what is necessary to be among the most successful, the winners. A large percentage of the top graduates of the best colleges and universities in the United States enter the financial services industry on graduation, an industry in which one produces and sells financial products that offer no value to society. In the financial services industry in the United States, one can be a "winner" almost from the start: earning millions of dollars per year is what new employees feel they have a right to expect. In most industries apart from financial services, hard work is not enough to make one a winner. What else does it take? When what it takes is dishonesty, fraud, slandering others, exploiting others, hiding mistakes, and other dishonorable actions, we call the motive greed.

But perhaps, like me, you do not readily think that greed is your problem. You and I are not among the big winners, the wealthy elite. Our lifestyles are not those of the rich and famous. We pursue our pleasures, but they do not harm others in any obvious way, not in any way we need to notice. We constantly add to our possessions, but we would not call ourselves acquisitive.

Yet greed can infect even those of us who are not trying to be among the biggest winners. Money is certainly one thing we care about, and for good reason. Money brings with it all the other good things that we want for ourselves and our families: a good education, a good reputation, generosity, access to the arts, good housing, good transportation, good health care, abundant travel, wide knowledge of the world, a good start in life for our children, financial security, and leisure time. We want enough money to make all of those things possible. Wanting those things does not necessarily make one greedy, but all too often our desires come to dominate our decision making, and our lives become unbalanced, distorted, and unhappy.

In US society, and most likely in European societies and Canadian society as well, we are brought up to avoid outright greed. The English word greed is usually defined as the passionate desire to possess more than a person or family needs or deserves, especially at the expense of others. We are taught from childhood that we should not take two cupcakes when the hostess has prepared only one per child. Yet we are not taught not to desire. In English, to desire is simply to want something very much. Our Western culture does not attach a moral judgment to desire. On the contrary, desire in the romantic sense is celebrated in music, art, and literature.

A desire for material possessions and pleasant experiences is encouraged in US culture, and not just through advertising and marketing. Desiring an expensive car or a second home on a lake is a good thing, as it leads to effort to acquire it. That effort, ideally, produces goods that the whole society needs - except increasingly money is "earned" in ways that do not produce goods that the society needs, while "consumers" are encouraged to buy hundreds of useless items. People who have earned wealth and the possessions that go with it are held up as role models. The idea that wealth comes to people who are worthy of it is still strong in America. Desiring money or things is not "greedy" if we, and others, feel we deserve those things.

From a Buddhist perspective, however, the distinction in English between greed and desire is only one of degree. To want passionately is a hindrance to the religious life and a poison to the mind, whether one acquires the object of desire honestly or dishonestly, or whether one "deserves" the thing wanted or not. Bernie Madoff's actions are not the only ones that cause suffering. At the end of chapter 3, "A Parable," of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha says, in Bunno Kato's translation:

If there are any living beings
Who do not know the source of suffering,
Deeply attached to the cause of suffering,
And unable to forsake it even for a moment,
[The Buddha] for the sake of them
Preaches the Way [that is, the Eightfold Path] by tactful meth-
ods, [saying]:
"The cause of all suffering
Is rooted in desire."
If desire be extinguished,
[Suffering] has no foothold.
(The Threefold Lotus Sutra, 101)

The most scholarly English translation of the Chinese, from this same chapter, is by Leon Hurvitz. He also uses the word desire in this passage:

If there are persons of slight understanding (balabuddhayah),
Profoundly addicted to lust and desire,
For their sakes
I preach the Truth of Suffering [the first of the Four Noble Truths],
And the beings rejoice at heart
That they have gained something they never had before.
The Buddha's preaching of the Truth of Suffering
Is reality without falsehood.
If there are beings
Who, not knowing the origin of woe,
Are profoundly addicted to the causes of woe,
Unable to cast them off even for a moment,
For their sakes,
By resort to an expedient device, I preach the Path:
That the origin of all woes
Is desire; which is their basis.
If one extinguishes desire,
They have nothing on which to rest.
(Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, 74-75)

Gene Reeves, in The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic, translates the last four lines of the same passage as follows:

The cause of all suffering
Is rooted in greed.
If greed is extinguished
There will be no place for suffering. (130)

Are any of these three translators wrong in choosing the word desire or the word greed? Both the (in English narrower) word greed and the (in English broader) word desire convey the Buddha's point: Wanting, particularly but not only wanting passionately, is the primary cause of suffering. Sufferings depend on greed or desire; without greed or desire they have no basis on which to exist. Most important, they have no basis on which to continue to exist. (In my view, Hurvitz is correct to choose basis as a translation of the Chinese term and the Sanskrit term behind it.)

Even desires in which the feeling tone is neutral, desires so subtle that we can hardly detect them, lead to suffering in the same way that greedy desires do. In the Theravada Buddhist commentarial (abhidhamma) tradition, when we desire to take the property of another, as Bernie Madoff did, that is clearly called desire and is a breach of the precept against stealing. But every time we delight in something that pleases one of our senses and feel a loss of delight when that stimulus is removed (when we finish our helping of cake, for example) and then replace that stimulus with a new source of delight from perhaps another sense medium (for example, taking a walk in the sunlight on a cool day), we are setting up another cycle of desire, pleasure, suffering, new desire, new pleasure, and new suffering.

Hardly noticing the cycle of pleasure and suffering, we work consciously and unconsciously to keep the cycle going. We crave more pleasant experiences and seek to distance ourselves rapidly from unpleasant ones. That is the definition of conditioning: pleasant experiences condition us to seek them again. We are constantly attracted to things or persons that we think will gratify us. We see such things or persons as better than they are: more completely beautiful, certain to give more pleasure than is realistic to expect.

When our movements toward satisfaction of desires are so rapid and direct that they happen without conscious awareness, as a truly hungry person stuffs food in his or her mouth, we can speak of sticky desire, or "greed" - of being under the control of desires. When we are fixated on a thing or a person we think we need to make us happy, when we believe or hope that that thing is attainable in the future, when we drive forward eagerly to attain it or hate the fact that we cannot attain it, our desires are worthy of the name greed.

The desire worthy of the name greed has been described as like "monkey lime." Hunters used a sticky substance called monkey lime to trap monkeys. On that lime the monkey in the wild would put one of its paws, which would stick fast. To get that paw unstuck, the monkey would push at the lime with a second paw, which would also stick fast. First one foot and then the other would be followed by the monkey's muzzle. When all five were caught, the hunter would claim the monkey and roast it over a fire.

In the Lotus Sutra and other Buddhist writings, the word we usually translate as "greed" - ton or tonyoku in Japanese, raga in Sanskrit, lobha or raga in Pali texts - is one of a group of words referring to desires. In addition to ton we find yoku, lust, or sensual desire. This kind of desire is a hindrance to the mental concentration one needs to realize enlightenment.

Further, we have upadana, or attachments. Attachments cause suffering and cause us to remain wandering in samsara, bound to birth and rebirth. There are four main types of attachments:

attachment to senses and sense objects
attachment to views
attachment to rites and rituals
attachment to a belief in a permanent self

Likewise, we have "thirst," or craving. Craving's three fundamental objects are sense objects, existence, and nonexistence. We want very strongly to continue to exist. But when the pains of existence become intolerable, we want to die.

Next we have stinginess, miserliness (ken in Japanese): this is the deep attachment to one's own possessions that stands in the way of generosity or liberality. Attached in this way, one can never be free of clinging to one's wealth.

Whenever desires arise and we encourage them in our minds, or we fail to notice them and yet still act on them, the result is suffering. Happiness is the freedom from these desires.

The parable or story of the children playing in a burning house that is the thrust of chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra is centrally about the Buddha's use of skillful means to liberate beings from suffering. But it also contains a powerful description of the dangerous realm in which we pursue pleasures without noticing that we are in danger. The house is old, derelict, about to fall in. Like our bodies and minds, it is impermanent. It is filled with dangerous animals, snakes, and insects, "red in tooth and claw." Even more terrifying, demons infest it. When part of it catches fire, the whole house is soon engulfed in flames in all four directions. And yet the children have no interest in leaving the house.

The dangers of our state are invisible to us because, like the children in the story, we are totally absorbed in seeking pleasure. We ignore urgent warnings. Finally, we are lured out only by the promise of playthings we want even more. As we emerge from the house and ask for the promised playthings, we are still seeking to gratify our desires.

At the end of the story, still in chapter 3, the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni explains why he has taught the Four Noble Truths (Kato's translation):

If there are any of little wit
Who are deeply attached to desires and passions,
[The Buddha] for their sake
Preaches the truth of suffering.
All the living with joyful hearts
Attain the unprecedented.
The truth of suffering preached by the Buddha
Is real without differentiation.
If there are any living beings
Who do not know the source of suffering,
Deeply attached to the cause of suffering,
And unable to forsake it even for a moment,
[The Buddha] for the sake of them
Preaches the Way by tactful methods, [saying]:
"The cause of all suffering
Is rooted in desire."
If desire be extinguished,
[Suffering] has no foothold.
To annihilate all suffering
Is called the third truth.
For the sake of the truth of extinction
To observe and walk in the Way,
Forsaking all bonds of suffering,
This is called the attaining of emancipation. (101)

What are the signs that one is becoming more nearly free of the sticky and blinding power of desire? A major sign is contentment. American Zen teacher Pat Phelan suggests that one way to diagnose the hold that desires have over us is to look at our state of mind: do we find an underlying quality of dissatisfaction and wanting, or is it characterized by contentment? In either case, she suggests, we should look at the source of it. The underlying state of dissatisfaction is the basis of all suffering.

Dissatisfaction and desires that arise from sense contact and mental fantasy and imagination are such deeply rooted things, rooted in us from past as well as present lives, that extinguishing the hold of desire, the goal of the Buddhist path, is extremely rare. A leap from a life driven by desires to one of liberation is not impossible, but only a few can manage it on their own power. Self-mastery is difficult.

Buddhist sutras and commentaries teach that the best way to begin the path to freedom from desire and suffering is generosity, also called giving or donation. In addition to generosity, the bodhisattva path includes impartiality, seeing beauty and value in everything and everyone, acceptance of whatever happens, and actively working to benefit others. We also have the power to plant other good roots: reciting sutras, seeing and paying homage to buddhas, living in accord with the precepts, shaping our minds to be like the Buddha's mind, and doing good deeds of all kinds. Like other sutras, the Lotus Sutra itself has inconceivable merit powers that enable one to advance on the path: as the Buddha says in chapter 3 of the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings in Yoshiro Tamura's translation:

"Good sons! Do you want to hear how this sutra [of Innumerable Meanings, but also, by tradition, the Threefold Lotus Sutra itself] has ten inconceivable merit-powers?" The Bodhisattva Great Adornment said: "We heartily want to hear." The Buddha said: "Good sons! First, this sutra makes the unawakened bodhisattva aspire to buddhahood, makes a merciless one raise the mind of mercy, makes a homicidal one raise the mind of great compassion, makes a jealous one raise the mind of joy, makes an attached one raise the mind of detachment, makes a miserly one raise the mind of donation, makes an arrogant one raise the mind of keeping the commandments, makes an irascible one raise the mind of perseverance, makes an indolent one raise the mind of assiduity, makes a distracted one raise the mind of meditation, makes an ignorant one raise the mind of wisdom, makes one who lacks concern for saving others raise the mind of saving others, makes one who commits the ten evils raise the mind of the ten virtues, makes one who wishes for existence aspire to the mind of nonexistence, makes one who has an inclination toward apostasy build the mind of nonretrogression, makes one who commits defiled acts raise the mind of undefilement, and makes one who suffers delusions raise the mind of detachment. Good sons! This is called the first inconceivable merit-power of this sutra." (The Threefold Lotus Sutra, 19-20)

As Founder Nikkyo Niwano points out most clearly and strongly in his commentary on chapter 21 of the Lotus Sutra in his book Buddhism for Today, it is seeing the world and others as not separate from ourselves and not separate from the Buddha that will liberate us from greed. We share the one life of the Buddha; others are one with us. Nothing is really yours or mine. We use what we need as we need it, but it really belongs to all of us. We should treat our possessions and even our body as something we have been given temporarily to take care of and use. We can do this only if we deeply understand that all of us are united in the one life that is given to us from the Buddha. Therein lies liberation from greed.

The Lotus Sutra is written in an imaginative language that invites you to look at your life in a different way. The point is to look at your life. Keep looking at your life, particularly your life in the present moment, as steadily and honestly as you can. What thoughts of desire do you notice? Observe whether you can remain unattached to them, letting them go rather than acting upon them. Do it often. Practice with people and notice and act on the needs of others; we will all be liberated together. To plant good roots you need faith. Practice faith and devotion in the presence of buddhas, through their images when you do not happen to be in the presence of a flesh-and-blood buddha. Arrange your life so that you can help people. Practice contentment and generosity, give often, and fight stinginess by giving away things of which you are unwilling to let go. Act on generous promptings from your buddha-nature. Allow your heart and mind to be affected by the Lotus Sutra by reciting it sincerely: when we read the Lotus Sutra we find ourselves in the presence of the Eternal Buddha. These efforts give us a purpose and a deep joy that lessen the hold of greed.

Miriam Levering, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Tennessee, is an international advisor to Rissho Kosei-kai. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 1978. She has edited a book called Rethinking Scripture, a study of the concepts and uses of sacred texts in the major religious traditions, and has written many articles on women and gender in Chan and Zen Buddhism.

This article was originally published in the January-March 2013 issue of Dharma World.

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