What’s interesting is that the Buddha says all this inconstancy, stress and not-self is rooted in desire. And yet because of the desire, we’re never satisfied. It’s through our lack of satisfaction that we want this and want that, and yet the things that we create in order to fill up that lack never really give satisfaction. So we desire more. We create more. The process keeps feeding on itself, but it can never make itself full. All that work, and yet it can’t bring us to a point of completion. That’s the ordinary way of the world.
No matter how good change gets, no matter how skilled you are at riding the waves of change, it’s never enough. That’s why the Buddha advises us to look elsewhere for true happiness. And what he does is to tell us to take that craving and try to manage it wisely. In other words, that thirst of craving basically wants as much happiness as possible, as quickly as possible, and with as little effort as possible. But to develop discernment, he says, you take that desire for happiness and adjust it a bit: “What could we do to give rise to true happiness, long-lasting happiness, a happiness that wouldn’t change?” In this way you take your desire, you take the possibility of change, and you turn it into a path that leads beyond, that finally does lead to a point of completion, a point of total satisfaction, what many of the Thai Ajaans call, “The Land of Enough.”
That’s what we’re doing as we’re practicing here. We’re trying to take that craving and turn it into something wise, use it wisely—this desire that the Buddha said lies at the root of all things, the root of all dhammas. “Dhammas” here means any phenomena of any kind, but it can also mean what we think of Dhamma with a capital “D”—the Dhamma that leads us out, the Dhamma of practice. There has to be a desire underlying the practice.
If you’re going to walk across the room, you’ve got to have the desire to get to the other side. The question is how to use that desire in a skillful way. Walking across the room is not a big issue, but the issue of desire in the practice is a lot more subtle, a lot more intricate. We want the desire that impels us along the path, but we don’t want it to be so overwhelming that it gets in the way. We need desire to be focused on this one issue: What can we do that gives rise to long-lasting happiness, and ultimately, a happiness that doesn’t give rise to change at all? That’s what we’re working on here. Wherever we may be in the practice right now, that’s the general direction we’re heading. That’s the question that underlies everything we do. But to make sure that the desire doesn’t overwhelm us, we have to refocus it on the practice, on the individual steps that will take us where we want to go.
Look at the particulars of what you’re doing, in terms of your thoughts, words, and deeds, not only while you’re sitting here meditating, but also in the whole course of the day. What habits do you have that get in the way of long-lasting happiness—your habits in terms of dealing with yourself, dealing with other people, how you manage the day, where you devote your time, the intensity in which you focus on what you’re doing. All of this is part of the practice. These are things you can look at. And this is important. All the things the Buddha teaches are things we can actually look at. He wasn’t a mystifier. He didn’t make anything into a big mystery. He said that everything you need to know is right in front of your eyes. The problem is that you’re looking past it. So look very carefully at your intentions, right here.
Do your best to clear away the mystery by looking right at what you’re doing. If you look very carefully at your intentions, you can see whether they’re skillful by the mental qualities that underlie them. Then you stay right there and act on that insight. Is there anger motivating your thoughts, words, and deeds? Is there greed? Delusion? If there are these things, don’t act on them. Keep your focus right here. This way the process of change in your life becomes something you can manage more and more skillfully. Don’t lose sight of what’s right here, because everything you need to know to attain true Awakening, to discover that happiness beyond change, is right here in your body and mind. The process of sitting right here with the mind on the breath, thinking about and evaluating the breath, perceiving and feeling the results: All the factors you’re going to need to know are right here, and yet you tend to look past them.
Try to keep your focus right here. The irony of it all is that the more “right here” you are in your focus, the longer-term the happiness that comes from your actions. As you get more and more skillful at this one point, it has ramifications that go out in all directions. The process of change is something that’s happening right here. Learn to master it right here. Instead of becoming the change that leads to more and more stress and suffering, to more separations, to a greater sense of dissatisfaction, you turn it around. You take that craving and you tame it by focusing it right here. The more “right here” you are, the longer the good results will last. You give up the guesswork and speculation, you focus on things you can really know right here, right now. That’s why the Buddha’s teachings are for everybody.
Given the way the whole process of change and causality operates in this world, the more careful you are about what you do and say and think in the immediate present, the better the long-term results are going to be. Instead of trying to satisfy your desires for happiness within the world of change, you take that world of change and use it to attain the changeless. Look directly right here, right now, at every movement of craving so that you can take it apart: “Why is there craving for this thing that changes? What can be done to channel it properly? What can be done to put it to an end?” That’s what the teaching on the three characteristics is about. That’s why the Buddha keeps reminding us about aging, illness, and death— because otherwise we tend to get contented with this, that, and the other thing: “This seems to be okay, that seems to be okay, this is good enough in the practice.” But that fourth summary reminds you that it’s never enough until you get to the Deathless. Only then will there be a true sense of enough. That’s where the craving finally disbands.
To read the entire transcript of this talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu see The World Is Swept Away, September 24, 2003.