Buddha on Desire: Accept It but Don’t Be Ruled By It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does Buddhism say about desire? Is Buddhism an anti-pleasure and anti-desire religion?

Buddha never said that desire is wrong or that it makes us bad people. Buddha merely urges us not to be ruled by our desires. We should meet desire with Radical Acceptance so we can live freely in spite of it.

Keep reading for more information about Buddhism and desire.

Radical Acceptance of Desire

What’s Buddha’s take on desire? The key lesson is that desire is not inherently wrong or sinful, and experiencing desire doesn’t mean that we’re bad people. 

There’s a common misconception that Buddhism is anti-pleasure and anti-desire. People can come away with the impression that they’re not supposed to want things, or to pursue those wants. In fact, Buddha’s teachings were never about eliminating or ignoring desire. As with all of our experiences, Buddha merely urges us not to be ruled by it. 

When we encounter desire in any form—whether it’s desire for food, companionship, a new gadget, or anything else—we should meet it without resistance and without letting it possess us. We should meet desire with mindfulness; in other words, with Radical Acceptance. In doing so, we’ll find that we can experience desire but live freely in spite of it.

The writer D.H. Lawrence once said that people who just do whatever they want at the moment aren’t free. On a superficial level it might feel like freedom, but their every action is being commanded by their desires. The Buddha’s teachings about desire are really about avoiding that false freedom. 

What Desire Really Is

Desire is natural and important. We want things because we have needs, ranging from basic survival to emotional and spiritual fulfillment. We naturally seek out things that fulfill those needs. Therefore, in its most fundamental form, “desire” is the desire to be alive.

The problem is that no matter how fulfilling an experience may be, it’s temporary. Everything from a good meal to a sexual encounter will fade away sooner or later, and take the feeling of satisfaction with it. When that happens, we once again find ourselves craving something. 

This cycle of desire is closely related to feelings of unworthiness, and the trance those feelings put us into. We constantly tell ourselves that if we could just get that one new gadget, get into a relationship with a particular person, or accomplish some life goal, it’ll finally be enough. 

We imagine that getting or accomplishing something will give us a lasting feeling of satisfaction, an escape from desire. However, because we focus on temporary experiences instead of the love and awareness at the core of our being—our “Buddha nature,” as the Dalai Lama would say—the gratification is equally temporary. 

Buddha on Desire: Accept It but Don’t Be Ruled By It

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Here's what you'll find in our full Radical Acceptance summary:

  • How to live your life fully experiencing everything
  • Why you need to let go of judging yourself or your experiences
  • How you can acknowledge and welcome any experience

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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