Extinguishing Passion - Is that really what the Buddha suggests?

At times I receive e-mail asking me to explain some point of the Buddha's teachings. One of the questions that comes up has to do with words in Pali that get translated as Passion and Extinguishing. It seems Westerners are not keen to give up their passions.

It is said that the Buddha said that our mission, namely meditation with the goal of enlightenment, leads to our energy being extinguished. The metaphor used is that our energy/passion is like a fire, and that upon enlightenment there would no more sticks to stoke the fire and so it goes out, thus we too would go out upon enlightenment. That without enlightenment there is rebirth of the energy/passion. Is this your understanding? If so, why meditate? To extinguish oneself from experiencing the love and joy that is available? I don't understand. I'd rather have suffering and pleasure than nothing at all.

This is a common misunderstanding - it does seem to very often cause confusion. Basically the energy that is extinguished is the energy spent "seeking" our passions, or more clearly - the energy spent seeking the fulfillment of our passions is extinguished. We operate under the mistaken notion that it is the fulfillment of our desires that leads to that great feeling afterwards. In truth it is the lack of desire, the sense of satisfaction, contentment, wishlessness that produces that great feeling. It's not the fulfilling itself that brings happiness, it's the lack of desire itself that brings the deepest happiness.

So it's this seeking energy that goes out upon enlightenment. We don't go out - the Buddha was accused of teaching this (anilihationism) and flatly denied it. Without enlightenment, once a desire is fulfilled, we very quickly generate another desire and start seeking the fulfillment of that one - this is the rebirth of the passion energy.

But an enlightened being is no longer caught in this ultimately unfulfilling cycle. S/he doesn't have those cravings and uses her/his life more efficiently. S/he can be much more fully present with all that is happening - including all the love, joy, happiness and pleasure that is available in life- especially in a life where energy is not being spent foolishly seeking fulfillment that cannot ever be lasting.

I too would "rather have suffering and pleasure than nothing at all." But that's not what is being suggested. What the Buddha is pointing to is a life without suffering and with all the pleasure that can be experience when a life is led without energy being wasted on fruitless (and selfish) tasks.

This is an important question - and one I didn't feel comfortable with for a long time. But please remember that I'm not enlightened so this is not entirely from my experience - some of it comes from a closer reading of what the Buddha was actually teaching (and based on what learning I have experienced).

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Leigh Brasington / / Revised 16 July 12