Being and Having

Once upon a time there was a man who desired enlightenment, and he sought the opinions of some known Zen masters in order to become illuminated about enlightenment. The first Zen master he talked to told him that the essence of the way of Zen was “to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired.” This puzzled him. He decided to get a second opinion. So, he consulted another noted Zen master, and this Zen master told him that the way of the master was “he eats, though he is not hungry; he drinks, though he is not thirsty; he sleeps, though he is not tired.” After this, he became even more conflicted and confused.

He need not be. Both Zen masters were correct, paradoxical as it may seem. This is a story about being and having and of the very roots of man’s existence in desire and desiring. For man is born of desire and as himself desire, the desirable, and the desiring. Desire is the very engine of life, of evolution (and of revolution, too), although it is quite impermissible to say so in our present subjectless, unconscious, and dissociated scientistic culture.

Dissociation (dis-integration or dis-memberment) and its rectification (re-integration or re-membrance) will be the explicit theme of the next few posts.

The roots of man’s being and existence lie in desire. Desire is energy. Energy is action. Action is life. The Greek name for desire is “Eros” (Latin “Cupid”).  Eros encompasses more than sexual desire alone. It is the desiring itself. “Cupidity”, for example, refers to excess of acquisitiveness more generally — “lust”, “avarice”, “greed”  and so on are aspects of desiring — of possession, acquisition or “having” more generally. Virtually all myth is the story of Eros and its workings.  It was said that even the gods were all subordinate to the powers of Eros, who is desire.

“Desire” itself means “from the stars” or planets or the sidereal — de – sidere. This etymology attests to a time when early man’s ego consciousness was not experienced as the centre of the cosmos. The “vital centre” was not the ego structure.  This is reflected in the meaning of the word “enthusiasm”. En-theos means “filled with a god” or “a god within”.  The desires and passions were not felt as originating with the ego or the human personality, but from the gods. The human ego or person was but like a dry leaf blown about by the strong winds of desire descending into the body from the influence of the stars (the gods in their sidereal or celestial form).  “Person” (persona or “mask”) was itself only a role or office one performed in society. “God is no respecter of persons” has this meaning. Your office, role, or social status — your “mask” — was only an image and self-image, therefore something empty and insubstantial in itself.

The word “consider” — con + sidere — is the counterpart to desire. Like “person” it doesn’t have the same meaning today as earlier. Although it still means “to observe”, it then had astrological significance. To “consider” was an attempt to read the will of the gods from the observations of the stars, planets, constellations as they might affect the course of human conduct and affairs. “Man” — the human part — was still too feeble a creature, still too much a plaything of the passions, desires, the “gods” to think of himself as the innovator, instigator, or originator of desire. The human (the ego nature) was the moved, not the mover. The human experienced himself or herself as a being “fated”.

Energy, desire, action, life are various phases of a single process, and not separate issues. These are, in some respects, reflected in Blake’s image of the Four Zoas of fallen Albion. They are the dissociated or segregated energetic aspects of the human totality — the human whole.  This is the significance of Blake’s manifesto “There is No Natural Religion“, particularly the lines,

  • V.                  … More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.
  • VI. If any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.
  • VII. The desire of Man being infinite, the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite.

We’ll return to the significance of this later. The handling of desire — of energy, as the root of the human form — is the very issue of the differences between East and West, (as Rudyard Kipling put it “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”).  This dualism is, however, quite in error.  Being and Having (or East and West) pertain to the different approaches to the handling of energy and power as desire.

But at extremes, opposites meet and become indistinguishable — and perhaps even trade places.

A human being’s first experience of the world is the shock of learning that desire arises, but comes up against resistance to the satisfaction of the desire. Such is the first experience of distance and delay, or space and time. Therewith begins the first inklings of a separation between “inner” and “outer”, between “subject” and “object”. The world is simply objectionable. The distance and delay between desire’s arising and its satisfaction becomes a struggle with anxiety, fear, and frustration.  Thus, the child has stumbled upon the first of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha: “the truth of dukkha” (suffering, malaise, anxiety, pain, fear, unsatisfactoriness).

From this realisation comes the second of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the origin of dukkha” as arising in and through desiring and the resistance of the world of distance and duration to the satiation of this desire. The desire and the desired arise together in their mutual contrariness, and this realm is called “samsara” — the realm of pain. Here, Heraclitus’s agonistics — ie “strife is the father of all things” — is at its most pertinent, which is reflected in William Blake’s remark that “without contraries there is no progression”. For the infant must begin to learn to strategise how to resolve the contradiction of this strange alien feeling of desire coming up against resistance to the satisfaction of the desire.

This brings us to the third of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the cessation of dukkha” is the realisation that desire is the root of dukkha and the cause of samsara. They mutually arise, and mutually condition one another. Desire and pain are entwined.

Which brings us to the last of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha“, which is the extinguishment of desire. The Buddha compares desire to fire, which must be put out. The ideal condition is non-desiring, or not-wanting. This “non-desiring” is the condition of the entity before birth, when “the struggle for survival” becomes a matter of desire now meeting resistance to its satiation in the matrix of space and time or, distance and delay.  Heraclitus, too, makes “fire” the archon or first element. This is not just the physical element of fire, but mythically also energy as desire.

This non-desiring factor is the meaning of the Zen koan “Show me your face before you were born”.

(And a side note: those familiar with the writings of Carlos Castaneda might recognise in these “Four Noble Truths” also an echo of the “four enemies of the man of knowledge” — fear, clarity, power, and old age).

This brings us back, now, to the story of the two Zen masters and how it bears on desire. The first master experienced the extinguishment of desire by immediate satiation. His might be called “the Western” approach. There is no distance or delay between the rise of the desire (for food, drink, sleep) and its satiation. Thus dukkha is extinguished. This approach is “having”. The second approach is the one more typically associated with Buddhism and the East — the extinguishment of desire by not-desiring. This is the approach of just “Being”.  In both cases, what is extinguished, actually, is distance and delay as they effect the workings of desire or eros  —  samsara.

The Western approach to overcoming what is called “samsara” and the extinguishment of desire has been the approach of “instant gratification”. Desire does not have time to arise before it is satiated. The entire thrust of Western “progressive” history has been to abolish distance and delay, or space and time, completely. This belongs to the utilitarian and behaviourist doctrine that it is “natural” and instinctual even for man to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The ideal is to satisfy all desire even before it arises to cause pain or dissatisfaction, and it places a heavy emphasis on “having” or possession or “stuff” as satiating, and so also on medical technology in distinction to Buddhism which taught, rather, cultivating non-attachment or non-identification with pain.

The problem for man of the Western type — which the Western type is now facing — is that desires are infinite, as Blake states, and in consequence, some degree of despair will be his “eternal lot”.

… More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.

What Blake means by that, of course, is that the total fulfillment of man’s being cannot be bought or achieved by accumulation or acquisition, nor by extinguishing desire either. “More! More!” means, “never enough” along with an endless sense of lack.  “More! More!” is the fragmentation and atomisation of desire. Being driven by desires — and lots and lots of them — is actually considered a good thing in economic society as long as one has the resources to satisfy them.

Until one doesn’t, that is. Then one is left with only desires without the means to satisfy them, leading back once again to the old childhood states of resentment, anxiety, frustration, and more dukkha.

As mentioned, even the gods feared Eros — desire — with good reason. Probably all of human history — all evolutionary history even — can be interpreted as the working out of eros, for good and ill both. So, we’ll see how following that thesis and its implications plays out over the next few posts.


10 responses to “Being and Having”

  1. Bryony Smith says :

    “Which brings us to the last of the Four Noble Truths: “the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha“, which is the extinguishment of desire.'”

    I tend to do with the Pali translations that specify that desire, in and of itself is not a problem, it is clinging.

    Otherwise, it all feels pointless and out of reach. As long as we’re human, we will have desire but the path to freedom is to relinquish our clinging (to desire or anything else), as I understand it for myself.

    • Scott Preston says :

      “To be in a passion you good may do,
      But no good if a passion is in you.” — Blake, Auguries of Innocence

      Blake’s lines appear to highlight that “clinging to desire” as a matter of identification with desire, desire being the power or energy of generation (and of what Blake would call “Generation”). “Clinging to desire” would be what we would call “addiction” or addictive behaviours, equivalent (one might say) to Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results each time.

      “Man” has not yet mastered fire, and is always being burned by it (and burned out by it). The Bodhisattva Vow seems full of desire, and so it is. But the difference between a Bodhisattva’s desire and others is the essence of Blake’s remark on passion. A Bodhisattva has learned how to handle fire.

      Heraclitus — Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called him “the Greek Buddha” — and his principle of Panta Rhei or impermanence (the flux) applies most especially to non-identification with or non-attachment to desire, and was probably specifically aimed at his arch-foe, Parmenides. “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”

      For Heraclitus, all beings are born of fire. This image of “fire” and furnaces takes on special significance in Blake (although I’m not sure if Blake knew anything about Heraclitus or Buddha. He did know the “Geeta” — the Baghavad-gita — which had been just translated in his time).

      Parmenides was the first to say (before Descartes) “thinking and being are the same”. But then, he reified thought, and so “impermanence” or Becoming seemed to him the unreal, and Being the reality.

      The roots of all philosophical-intellectual controversy for 2500 years arises from the controversy between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Heraclitus, however, was eclipsed by Parmenides for he was called “the Dark” or “the Obscure” Heraclitus.

      Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy insisted, contrariwise, that any child could understand Heraclitus. A significant remark, in the context of what we call “intellectual history” or “history of ideas”. It explains his antipathy to Cartesianism and “the modern mind”.

      Inasmuch as the future belongs to the Rosenstock-Huessys, rather than the Cartesians, so does Heraclitus belong to the future and Parmenides to the past, and as much as Heraclitus was “the Greek Buddha”, so too does the dharma — the “Logos” of Heraclitus, the “Word” of the Christians — become more lucid, transparent, intelligible to the extent that we, too, become more “child-like”.

      It was, after all, a child who observed and spoke truth, that “the emperor has no clothes!”

      The post-modern “loss of self” is, therefore, highly ambiguous — it could mean either total ego dissolution in madness and delirium (the Dionysian) or it could mean also recovery of original innocence (or what Zen calls “natural mind”) — of that child-like awareness that sees the emperor has no clothes. It could go either way.

      This is the relevance of Seth’s remarks on the ego-consciousness and its dissociation and estrangement from its roots in “the ancient force”, which one takes to mean the power called “Eros” (and much feared by the gods themselves) of which I wrote earlier

      And which brings us back, full circle, to Blake again

      “To be in a passion you good may do,
      But no good if a passion is in you.”

      • Scott Preston says :

        By the by, the “dissolution of the ego consciousness” is the underlying theme of this article that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian by Josh Cohen, which I found quite fascinating, and about which I hope to add some comments in the form of a blog later.

        Our current situation, collectively speaking, is highly precarious, highly ambiguous, balanced on a knife edge corresponding to Seth’s warnings about the possibility that “the race… may not endure”.

        So, if there was ever a proper time for “mindfulness” or “vigil” or “living deliberately” (Castaneda’s don Juan), or “heedfulness” (Islamic taqwa, as opposed to ghaflah), this is the time.

  2. Abdul Monem Othman says :

    It is high time for human heedfulness, to acknowledge the Root as a two poles phenomena, before the severe side of the root manifest itself. At the outset of chapter 67 of the Koran we read that, he who created death and life to inflict you with all types of suffering to find out who is a better performer. A performance which is under continuous evaluation with all its required extensions, now and afterwards. It is unfortunate however that when we quote other than god it is acceptable, but when we quote the divine source, scorn and disgust rise accompanied by denial and refusal, an event which is rampant in our so-called modern world. as if we are dealing with a blind, deaf and ignorant god and the human is the only knowledgeable creature in this lively universe. How deep is the ingratitude in our present world. Love is the desire that need to be pursued and effected. The shock of learning is the first experience of the world as reflected in the first call to Mohammad to read, to read the book of the universe and avoid being merged in the books written by the humans. The world is not objectionable, but some of the interpretations of the world that are objectionable. jihad is the negation of the undesirable, it is the strife that point to the straight path. The path in not non-desiring, for non-desiring is not possible, but the proper placement of desire, nothing is extinguished but replaced. This is the story of the first and the last and the visible and the hidden. Is it possible to satisfy desire before its appearance? Fragmentation is a dangerous road , the oneness is the outlet when all manifestations are seen as an extension of the One.

    • Scott Preston says :

      How deep is the ingratitude in our present world

      That pretty much says it all. Nietzsche identified “ingratitude” with resentment, and resentment as an expression of nihilism. The cure for resentment (and thus nihilism) was gratitude, even for one’s trials and tribulations for, as he put it, “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. That is the attitude of gratitude that must be cultivated even towards the things that seem injurious and harmful. Job was made stronger by his sufferings, for example. This attitude of gratitude, even towards the challenges of life, is what Nietzsche called “amor fati” or love of fate.

      As you know, this also is the meaning of “muslim”.

      In Castaneda’s writings, this is expressed by don Juan in his description of the “warrior’s spirit”. The “ordinary man”, he says, “takes everything as being either a blessing or a curse. But the warrior takes everything as a challenge” — that is, both the apparent “good” and “evil” of experience he takes as a challenge.

      • Abdul Monem Othman says :

        I was reading Ibn Arabi- the quintessence of the wisdom of inspiration and expiration in the logos of Seth-which I found relevant to our post. The story goes, after Adam loss of Abel asked the god through his name the giver to give him a gift to alleviate his grief. God bestowed upon him Seth, purely as a gift and bestowal, it follows that everything which Seth attained come purely as a gift and a reminder that any gift god gives is to manifest his bounty without expecting anything in exchange from those who benefit from his gift. It is important to remember that the diversity of the effects should not be construed as diversity in the divine theophanies. The divine command has no multiplicity except in relation to the preparedness and receptivity of the recipients who is after being and not having

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    A richly compact essay – as usual.

    Back in the days of The Dark Age Blog, in one of your CIF posts you had mentioned both Iliad and Bhagavad Gita as must read books. Bhagavad Gita was not so voluminous and I had the chance to read it some years back. But Iliad is going to have to wait for a while, since Homer must’ve been in a pretty good longswordian mood when he wrote that 🙂

    Here are some excerpts from Bhagavad Gita in relation to “desire” among mankind:

    “The wise call that man a sage all of whose undertakings are devoid of the intention to achieve an object of desire, for his karman has been burned off by the fire of insight.” (p. 164)

    ““Arjuna said : You praise the relinquishment of acts and at the same time the practice of them, Krishna. Now tell me decidedly which is the better of the two.

    The Lord said: Both the renunciation and the practice of acts lead to the supreme good; but of these two the practice of acts is higher than the renunciation of acts. He is to be counted a perpetual renouncer who neither hates nor desires, for, strong-armed prince, if one transcends the pairs of opposites, one is easily freed from bondage.” (p. 168)

    “The man of yoga, renouncing the fruits of his acts, reaches the peace of the ultimate foundation, while the undisciplined man, who acts on his desires because he is interested in fruits, is fettered by karman.” (p. 168)

    “The beatitude that is brahman lies before the ascetics who are rid of craving and anger, who have tamed their thinking and know themselves. Keeping outside the impressions from the outside world, centering the gaze between the eyebrows, evening out inhalation and exhalation within the nostrils, controlling senses, mind, and spirit, totally devoted to release, with no trace left of desire, fear, or anger, the seer is released forever. Knowing that I am the recipient of sacrifices and austerities, the great lord of all the world, the friend of all creatures, he attains serenity.” (p. 169)

    “Know, Partha, that I am the eternal seed of all beings, I am the thought of the thinkers, the splendor of the splendid. I am the strength of the strong, but strength without ambition and passion. In the beings I am that desire that does not run counter to the Law, bull of the Bharatas. Know that all conditions of being, whether influenced by sattva, rajas, and tamas, come from me; but I am not in them: they are in me.” (p. 177).

    ““Four kinds of good men seek my love, Arjuna: the suffering, the seekers for knowledge, the seekers for wealth, and the adepts, bull of the Bharatas. Among them stands out the adept, who is loyal to me exclusively and is always yoked, for I am unutterably dear to him, and he is dear to me. All four are people of stature, but the adept I count as myself, for through his discipline he comes to me as his incomparable destination. Only after many a birth does the adept attain to me, knowing ‘Vasudeva is everything’, and a man of such great spirit is rare to find. Robbed of all true knowledge by this desire or that, the others resort to other deities, while observing this or that restraint but themselves remaining constrained only by their own natures. Yet, whatever may be the divine body that any loyal person seeks to worship with faith, it is I who make his faith in that body unshakeable. Armed with that faith he spires to propitiate that deity and obtains from it his desires – desires for which I in fact provide. However, the rewards of those of little wit are ephemeral: God-worshippers go to the Gods, but my loyal followers go to me.” (p. 179).

    “Arjuna, I know the creatures of past, present, and future, but no one knows me. Confused by the conflicts that spring from desire and hatred, all creatures in creation are duped into total delusion, Bharata, enemy-burner. But when finally the evil karman of righteous men has faded away, and they are freed from the confusions of conflict, they devote themselves to me, firm in their vows. They who strive toward freedom from old age and death by resorting to me, know that Brahman which is universal as well as specific to every person: they know the act entire. They who know me as ‘elemental’, as ‘divine’, and as ‘sacrificial’, until their final hour, know me truly, with their spirits yoked.” (p. 179)

    “The Lord said: Partha, behold my hundreds and thousands of shapes, of many kinds, divine, in manifold colours and figures. Behold the Adityas, Vasus, Rudras, Asvins, Maruts; behold, Bharata, many marvels that have never been witnessed before. Behold the entire universe with standing and moving creatures centered here in this body of mine – and whatever else you desire to see. But you shall not be able to look upon me with just your ordinary eyes: I shall give you divine sight: behold my sovereign Yoga!”” (p. 205)

    “Fix your mind on me alone, let your spirit enter into me, and ever after you shall dwell within myself, no doubt of that. Or if at first you cannot hold your spirit firmly fixed on me, still cherish the desire to reach me by repeated yoga, Dhanamjaya. Even if you are incapable of this repeated application, be intent on acting for me, for by doing acts for my sake you will also attain success. Or even if you are incapable of acting this, though you are inclined to me, at least restrain yourself and renounce the fruit of all your actions. Knowledge is higher than study, contemplation transcends knowledge, the relinquishment of the fruits of acts surpasses contemplation, and upon resignation follows serenity.” (p. 228)

    “O Arjuna, most noble of the Bharata dynasty, know that
    greed, overexertion, ambitious attempts, incessant sensual
    pleasure, and desire are born when the mode of passion develops
    in a person.” (p. 243)

    “Demonic people do not know when to initiate action and when to desist from it; theirs is neither purity, nor deportment, nor truthfulness. They maintain that this world has no true reality, or foundation, or God, and is not produced by the interdependence of causes. By what then? By mere desire. Embracing this view, these lost souls of small enlightenment are with their dreadful actions capable of destroying this world they seek to hurt. Embracing this ‘desire’, which is insatiable, they go about, filled with the intoxication of vanity and self-pride, accepting false doctrines in their folly and following polluting life rules. Subject to worries without measure that end only with their death, they are totally immersed in the indulgence of desires, convinced that that is all there is. Strangled with hundred nooses of expectation, giving in to desire and anger, they seek to accumulate wealth by wrongful means in order to indulge their desire.

    “‘This I got today, that craving I still have to satisfy. This much I have as of now, but I’ll get more riches. I have already killed that enemy, others still I have to kill. I am a master, I enjoy, I am successful, strong and happy. I am a rich man of high family; who can equal me? I shall sacrifice, I shall make donations, I shall enjoy myself’, so they think in the folly of their ignorance. Confused by too many concerns, covered by a net of delusions, addicted to the pleasures of desire, they fall into foul hell. Puffed up by their egos, arrogant, drunk with wealth and pride, they offer up sacrifices in name only, without proper injunction, out of sheer vanity.

    “Embracing egotism, overbearing strength, pride, desire, and anger, they hate and berate me in their own bodies and in those of others. Those hateful, cruel, vile, and polluted men I hurl ceaselessly into demonic wombs. Reduced to demonic wombs birth after birth, and deluded, they fail to reach me, Kaunteya, and go the lowest road. The gateway to hell that dooms the soul is threefold: desire, anger, greed – so rid yourself of these three. The man who is freed from these three gates to darkness, Kaunteya, and practices what is best for himself, goes the highest road. He who throws away the precepts of teachings and lives to indulge his desires does not attain to success, nor to happiness or the ultimate goal. Let therefore the teaching be your yardstick in establishing what is your task and what is not, and with the knowledge of what the dictates of the teaching prescribe, pray do your acts in this world.” (p. 262)

    “The Lord said:
    In embodied souls Faith is of three kinds: according to a person’s nature it is typed as sattva, rajas, or tamas. Listen. Everyone’s faith conforms to this nature, Bharata: a person is as good as his faith. He is what his faith makes him. Creatures of sattva sacrifice to Gods; creatures of rajas to Yakshas and Rashasas; creatures of tamas to ghosts and ghouls. Men who practice awful austerities not provided for by the texts, and practice them out of exhibitionism and egotism, as they are filled with desires and passions, mindlessly wracking the composite of elements in their bodies, and me to boot within their bodies, know that their own persuasion is demonic.” (p. 263)

    Thank you for this divinely meaningful quote from Nietzsche:

    “This attitude of gratitude, even towards the challenges of life, is what Nietzsche called “amor fati” or love of fate.”

    Yes, this “amor fati” is the savior crux of the matter which I also took away from Seth.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    Good heavens, you went to a lot of trouble to reproduce all that from the Gita. But, yes, quite a few relevant passages to the theme of this post.

    When the Gita was first translated into European languages, a couple of centuries ago, a lot of people found it quite astonishing. Wm Blake held it in high regard. It’s still considered to be amongst the greatest treasures of the Wisdom Tradition. It’s been years since I read it. I should take a dive into it again.

    I’m surprised that I mentioned the Gita and Homer in the same post at CiF. I don’t recall that particular thread or why I might have done that.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      No trouble, at all. I take regular notes of the books I read when I find excerpts that are meaningful. All the quotes I mentioned above come from when I read Gita back in 2009 or 2010, and they were already stored in an electronic file and ready to be copied and pasted from it 🙂

      I don’t remember the context in which you had made the comment on CiF, but I do remember that you had said (and I paraphrase): “Everyone must read Bhagavad Gita and Iliad.” I have not yet read Iliad, but I believe it has something to do with “desire” wreaking havoc among people – having something to do with the desires of two powerful men who were after Helen of Troy and the trickery of Agamemnon and the Trojan Horse and all that. I’m looking forward to reading it. Gita was a very meaningful book and I enjoyed reading it very much.

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