Contemplating Desire Among Exiles

In Buddhism, Opinion, Travel
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Where does desire come from? Is it a fire we’re born with? Who put it there? Why do our desires differ? Can we alter our innate desires, or do they define us and irreparably shape our lives?

Is desire a fire we find? Is it chance or fate? Do we know what we’re looking for on any conscious or subconscious level, or are desires unknown to us until the moment of resonance? What is in us that it touches? What part of us comes alive when a desire is found?

What comes first, a desire or an object of desire? Do we seek only when we find something to want, or do we seek—can we earnestly seek—not knowing what we’ll find, but in the expectation that we will find “it”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about desire since I arrived in McLeod Ganj. Buddhist monks spend their lives severing the strings of desire. Only by being free of want can one achieve enlightenment. It’s a beautiful, lofty goal—one I’ve never heard a monk say he will achieve in this lifetime. The idea is to do one’s best and keep up the effort in the next life.

For my part, I don’t have many desires. I never have. I think that’s what makes me so suited to the backpacker lifestyle: I have little difficulty letting it all go. The ties that bind are easily shrugged off. To be sure, I have my partialities—movies and Japanese food rank high. I’ll have to sever those strings in the next life. All things considered, though, the fire is lacking in me. It’s no more than a scattering of embers. If it’s something you’re born with, I’m missing it, and so, operating on the alternative theory of desire being external, I’m seeking it out. I haven’t found it at home, so I’m looking in India. Like a gravitational pull I find myself in a hub of Tibetan Buddhist monks—the very people who would tell me to stop looking in the first place. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: I think that’s what I want to hear. I don’t want to want, and to be around like-minded people is a comfort. But this place also provides a conflicting message: here atop the mountain of an exiled people longing for home, the desire is palpable.

If I’m wrong about the nature of desire, it’s a pointless search to begin with. I’m missing something I’ll never have. A good friend of mine told me I’m a drifter and to accept it before it destroys me. There’s something to that. The trouble is, this is a hard world to live in for someone lacking desire. How can I find a place of belonging without desire, or its derivative—ambition?

The sounds of singing schoolchildren drift through my blue-curtained window, overlooking a deep and distant valley below. There’s the sound of construction next door, too, which will be replaced at nightfall by the barking of stray dogs resuming their eternal turf war. McLeod Ganj is as beautiful and refreshing as it is noisy and polluted, yet as imperfect as it is, it manages to invoke deep reflection just the same. There is a sort of magic here I’m only beginning to recognize.

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