I have been away for a while. Away from civilisation (to an extent), technology, work, and news - all the stuff that tends to come with civilisation. Last year I ordained as a Buddhist monk for about six months and until the beginning of the year have been living in forests in small Kutis in Thailand. I think I learned a lot. Or maybe not. Rather, my experience only reinforced my previous prejudices towards Buddhism, which I would like to share with you.
Relinquishing all forms of desire: this is one of the most fundamental aspects of Theravada Buddhism. It stems from the first sutra supposedly preached by The Buddha immediately following his "enlightenment": The Four Noble Truths, the keystone of Buddhist thought and practice.
The first "truth" states that there is suffering in the world. The second that suffering is caused by desire. The third "truth" is understanding that desire needs to be relinquished in order to relinquish suffering. And the fourth "truth" is the ways, or practice, in relinquishing desire through The Eightfold Path.
In Buddhism, desire is delusional. According to Buddhist thought, it deludes us into thinking that something is wholesome when really it is quite ugly. For example, when one ordains as a monk, at one point during the ceremony he is invited by his upachaya to contemplate five aspects of the human body: Kesa, Loma, Nakha, Danta, and Taco. Take just 'Kesa', which means hair, for example. Specifically, a beautiful woman's hair, which a man - as all monks are men - might think is attractive, and concomitantly lead to sexual desire - unbecoming of a Buddhist monk. Said monk is invited to contemplate the "true nature" of hair. Left alone, without shampoo or water or any cosmetic products, it's just a clump of tangled, smelly roots attached with blood to a human scalp, destined to go thin and grey and then die. This is hair's true nature, left alone. Thought about in this way, it is not something to be desired at all because desire prevents one from seeing the true nature of it. But nor is it something to be repulsed by either. Rather, just something to be left alone and accepted the way it is.
An interesting thought. But Buddhism's big mistake is that it claims that desire and suffering is perpetual. Desire breeds not only suffering, it creates everything; it's why you're here - Buddhism acknowledges this, but why bother trying to be free from desire and suffering if one day you will die and be free from it anyway? Because Buddhism, like all religions, insists there is life after death - a constant cycle of rebirth, desire, and suffering until one is released from desire (Nibbana). There is no scientific proof for this of course. Any motivation to keep practicing Buddhism depends on belief in life after death - a religious belief, not a philosophic one. You need this belief devoid of scientific evidence, otherwise suffering is an inevitable part of life that ends with death.
That doesn't mean there is no point in contemplating Kesa or Loma or whatever in our earthly lives. It can't apply to every form of desire, as Buddhism claims, but it can apply to important parts of life that will help us in this life.
Take the desire for food, for example. I choose food because everybody loves and desires food. Whatever that food is, it doesn't matter. Imagine your most favourite food. See it. Smell it. Now imagine eating it. Keep chewing. Savour the taste.
Now spit it out! And there. That pulp splattered all over your lap and on the floor - that is the source of all your desire. It's ugly and not as wholesome as you thought.
Understanding this is useful when it can prevent greed; when desire is revealed for what it often really is. Desire is useful when we need something, such as food for sustenance. But why desire too much mountains of chocolate and clotted cheese?
You don't need Buddhism to tell you that desire can be delusional and harmful to ourselves and others when we fail to understand it. (Philosophy and science does this much better.) But we do need Buddhism to tell us that desire and suffering is perpetual based on the religious belief of life after death; and we do need Buddhism to tell us that desire is ugly and unworthy and that all desire should be released from within ourselves. And, I guess, with that our humanity too.