(Jason Pier May 27, 2010)

Our culture presents us with two conflicting visions of lust. The first is a rough facsimile of the old view associated with our Western religious heritage: lust as one of the seven deadly sins, the epitome of transgressive desires, and the bane of moralists and staid moralisers. The second is the view of lust “liberated” from repressive religious conditioning: lust as passion and indulgence, lust as very strong sexual desire, and lust as a colourful and tantalising realm of experience.

What we don’t tend to find in our culture is the actual substance of the religious view of lust and desire generally, where such desires are seen not as arbitrary infringements of divine commands or dangerous departures from ossified traditions, but as obstacles to the enjoyment of a far greater and ultimate good.

This interpretation of morality is readily apparent across religious traditions because it is a fundamental feature of human nature. As the Chinese Daoist text, the Zhuangzi, states:

“Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.”

Morality is not essentially a matter of stopping human beings from doing the very worst to one another; rather, it is the most obvious and external guide and marker of spiritual discipline and cultivation. Notwithstanding the intense and irreconcilable theological and philosophical differences between religious sects, they exhibit a remarkable convergence in their depiction of the relationship between desire and spiritual discipline.

This convergence ought to be as unremarkable as the observation that elite athletes in every sport eschew laziness, indulgent eating, and complacence. But our ignorance of other religions prohibits us from recognising these commonalities, while our ignorance of our own religious heritage leaves us with only the most rudimentary understanding of religious morality.

Consider, for example, the 13th Century Sufi poet Jalal-ad-Din Rumi. Rumi is amazingly popular in the West at a time when Islam has been a source of some anxiety, to say the least. Rumi’s ecstatic depictions of divine love made him the most popular poet in the US in recent years, but his portrayal of desire as an obstacle to the divine is exemplary of the type:

People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterward repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.
Your desire for the illusory could be a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged in lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame, abandoned by a fantasy.
Preserve the wing and don’t indulge in such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.
People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings
for the sake of an illusion.

St John of the Cross, the 16th Century Spanish Carmelite reformer, likewise observed in lust an inverse relationship with the divine. He advised beginners on how to determine whether affection for another person is spiritual or lustful in origin:

“The affection is purely spiritual if the love of God grows when it grows, or if the love of God is remembered as often as the affection is remembered, or if the affection gives the soul a desire for God – if by growing in one the soul grows also in the other….
But when the love is born of this sensual vice it has the contrary effects. As the one love grows greater, the other lessens, and the remembrance of it lessens too. If the inordinate love increases, then, as will be seen, the soul grows cold in the love of God and, because of the recollection of that other love, forgets him – not without feeling some remorse of conscience.”

He concludes with an anthropological observation rooted in Christian scripture:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit [Jn. 3:6], that is: Love derived from sensuality terminates in sensuality, and the love that is of the spirit terminates in the spirit of God, and brings it increase. And this, then, is the difference between these two loves, which enables us to discern one from the other.”

The operative principle is that “impure” desires are different in origin and end from our desire for the divine. While we can examine lust in a legalistic context by looking at the negative consequences of lustful behaviours, it is undoubtedly more edifying to look at it from the perspective of those who are intent on a higher aim, for whom lust is primarily an error, a misdirection, and an obstacle on the path to something greater.

The Abrahamic religions are not alone in this depreciatory view of lust and desire. The Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs composed from the 15th to the 18th Centuries, affirms a similar perspective, reiterating the vanity and emptiness of a life driven by insubordinate desires:

People eat what they believe to be sweet, but it turns out to be bitter in taste.
They attach their affections to brothers and friends, uselessly engrossed in corruption.
They vanish without a moment’s delay; without God’s Name, they are stunned and amazed.
O my mind, attach yourself to the service of the True Guru.
Whatever is seen, shall pass away. Abandon the intellectualizations of your mind.
Like the mad dog running around in all directions,
the greedy person, unaware, consumes everything, edible and non-edible alike.
Engrossed in the intoxication of sexual desire and anger, people wander through reincarnation over and over again.
Maya has spread out her net, and in it, she has placed the bait.
The bird of desire is caught, and cannot find any escape, O my mother.
One who does not know the Lord who created him, comes and goes in reincarnation over and over again.
By various devices, and in so many ways, this world is enticed.
They alone are saved, whom the All-powerful, Infinite Lord protects.
The servants of the Lord are saved by the Love of the Lord. O Nanak, I am forever a sacrifice to them.

The diversity of religious and philosophical expression in India can be overwhelming, but the continuing theme of morality as fundamental to spiritual development remains strong. The Samkhya philosophy, for example, proved especially influential in the theoretical underpinnings of Yoga. It is also represented in the Bhagavad Gita, the 5th Century BC Hindu scripture famed, more recently, as Mohandas Ghandi’s “spiritual dictionary”.

Samkhya presents us with a metaphysical basis to the moral paradigm, analogous to the “flesh and spirit” dichotomy described by St John.  In Samkhya, the three gunas (“threads”, “strings”, or “attributes”) give moral content to the basic makeup of all reality. Everything in the universe can be divided into some mixture of sattva (goodness, purity), rajas (excitement, energy) and tamas (darkness, inertia). This division and gradation of reality allows Samkhya to hierarchically categorise actions, attitudes and desires, even foods and people, according to whether they exhibit or promote sattva, rajas, or tamas, with a preference for the more rarefied sattva. One can therefore say that a lustful person is ruled by rajas, or, as Krishna advises the hero Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, that lust itself is an unwanted rajas influence on those who seek the truth:

“The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion [rajas guna] and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.
As fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, or as the embryo is covered by the womb, similarly, the living entity is covered by different degrees of this lust.
Thus, a man’s pure consciousness is covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust, which is never satisfied and which burns like fire.
The senses, the mind and the intelligence are the sitting places of this lust, which veils the real knowledge of the living entity and bewilders him.
Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bhāratas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin [lust] by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization.”

The Samkhya philosophy attempts to explain the link between moral behaviour and spiritual discipline through metaphysics, as part of a broader fixation with the problem of dualism in Indian religion and philosophy: that is, how to bridge the gap between imperfect humanity and the holy, pure, and perfect divinity.

The same dualistic challenge becomes a point of even sharper focus in the “cousin” of Samkhya, Advaita Vedanta, and likewise in that other more famous off-shoot of Hindu thought: Buddhism.

Both Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism bring the problem of dualism into the foreground, emphasising the non-dual nature of reality and pinning the blame for our imperfections and failings squarely on our own persistent ignorance and delusion. The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths state that life is unsatisfactory because of ignorant desire; our theme of morality as a foundation of spiritual development is thus subsumed in the broader Buddhist program of relinquishing our ignorant desires in toto.  With stoic gravity the Buddha states:

“Beset with lust, men run about like a snared hare; held in fetters and bonds, they undergo pain for a long time, again and again…let therefore the mendicant drive out thirst, by striving after passionlessness for himself.”

Buddhism in general regards desire or attachment as one of the “three poisons” along with ignorance and aversion, the root mental states that keep us trapped in delusion.  In the West, interest in Buddhism has typically developed along the most theoretical and esoteric lines, rather than via the lived experience and daily practice of ordinary lay Buddhists. As such, the emphasis in much Western material gravitates toward ignorance as the true obstacle to enlightenment, while criticism of desire and sensual enjoyment fall to the background.  For example, much of the material pertaining to the 7th Century Patriarch of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism, Hui Neng, focuses on correcting fallacious views and misunderstandings of Buddhist metaphysics:

 “It is exactly these fallacious views that makes people crave for sentiate existence and worldly pleasure. These people are the victims of ignorance; they identify the union of the five aggregates as the ‘self’ and regard all other things as ‘not-self’; they crave for individual existence and have an aversion to death; they are drifting about from one momentary sensation to another in the whirlpool of life and death without realising the emptiness of mundane existence which is only a dream and an illusion; they commit themselves to unnecessary suffering by binding themselves to rebirth; they mistake the state of everlasting joy of Nirvana to be a mode of suffering; they are always seeking after sensual pleasures. It was for these people, victims of ignorance, that the compassionate Buddha preached the real bliss of Nirvana.”

Remaining in China, the native religious philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism adhere to different extents to the form we have observed thus far. Though Confucianism is often depicted as legalistic, the Confucian ideal of virtue is a positive force and the linchpin of familial, social, and political order.  The rules of propriety are both the measure and the expression of the higher Confucian virtues such as “human-heartedness” and sincerity.  As the book of rites states in its opening passages:

“Always and in everything let there be reverence; with the deportment grave as when one is thinking (deeply), and with speech composed and definite. This will make the people tranquil. Pride should not be allowed to grow; the desires should not be indulged; the will should not be gratified to the full; pleasure should not be carried to excess.”

Chinese philosophy has, in general, been deeply preoccupied with the social and political order, often taking for granted a basic moral anthropology.  In the book of rites, amidst numerous injunctions on how a filial son should speak, stand, walk, and dress, we find the following observation:            

“The parrot can speak, and yet is nothing more than a bird; the ape can speak, and yet is nothing more than a beast. Here now is a man who observes no rules of propriety; is not his heart that of a beast? But if (men were as) beasts, and without (the principle of) propriety, father and son might have the same mate. Therefore, when the sages arose, they framed the rules of propriety in order to teach men, and cause them, by their possession of them, to make a distinction between themselves and brutes.”

In Daoism – the mystical, apophatic (regarding the transcendent as beyond words and concepts) counterpart to Confucianism – we find the Confucian ideal of virtue superseded by the more profound goal of emulating the Dao or “way”: an impersonal, ontologically unique category, comparable to the Greek idea of logos. As expected, we find in Daoism once again that the supremacy of human desire is an obstacle to our rightful relationship with the Dao, with occasional exhortations to limit our desires:

“Therefore the sage desires not to desire.”

“Be little self-regarding and make your desires few.”

But it is as a fundamentally quietist philosophy that the diminution of desire finds its place in Daoism:

“The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.”

What this brief world-tour of religious philosophies demonstrates is the ubiquity of the view of lust or desire as a basic obstacle to the higher and more meaningful pursuit of spiritual discipline. In practice, the familiar patterns of a more legalistic moral attitude still exist in all these cultures as much as they do in the Christian and “post-Christian” West. The social, legal, and political imposition of moral standards has its place, but to forget the higher calling of which moral teaching is properly a part is to welcome the eventual decay of the moral order itself. As the oldest text of the Daoist tradition warns:

“When the way was lost there arose virtue; when virtue was lost there arose benevolence; when benevolence was lost there arose righteousness; when righteousness was lost there arose the rites. The rites are the wearing thin of dutifulness and trustworthiness and the beginning of disorder.”

We find ourselves in a morally confused era where a popular website openly promoting and facilitating infidelity can fall victim to moralising vigilantes, and the voices of self-righteous indignation and smug Schadenfreude echo on for months.  We have a growing number of “hook up” apps allowing users to browse through potential one-night-stands by location from the convenience of their smartphones, and those who criticise the superficiality and emptiness of such inventions are derided as instigators of moral panic.

Finally, we have a culture where large swathes of the population view pornography, defend the right to do so, but feel bad about it all the same.  Perhaps what we need most is a reminder of this perennial religious principle: that the dictates and nuances of morality make the most sense when viewed from the summit of human experience, when we understand our moral limits as more than just arbitrary rules imposed on an empty existence.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...