Many people today do not see anything wrong about the strong winning over the weak. This is the Law of the Jungle, but I think such an attitude is foolish because it is mindless. It involves no wisdom, no reasoning, no will. Those who can do no more than follow their instincts have no control over their fate. Along with instinctive desire, we have intelligence, conscience, the ability to love, and a sense of compassion. It is the ability to use these powers to satisfy our instinctive desires, while yet keeping them under control, that distinguishes us as human beings.
People’s desires are limitless. There is the basic desire to live. There is also the instinctual desire for food, the materialistic desire for possessions, and the psychological desire to be noticed. We could not live without desires. Often, desires generate the energy that enables us to move forward and improve ourselves. The key question, therefore, is how we direct our desires.
The Buddha’s enlightenment does not lie in “eradicating” earthly desires, but in infusing them with compassion and wisdom. It is a matter of transforming the turbid river of earthly desires, karma, suffering and negativity into a pure stream of compassion and wisdom. Those who achieve this possess a perfectly tranquil and serene state of life in that they are not troubled by earthly desires; at the same time, their lives have a vigorous dynamism. Such a state of life is like the ocean. No matter what turmoil there may be on the surface, in its depths there is absolute calm and tranquility.
The fundamental cause of people’s unhappiness lies in their tendency to develop attachments of various kinds. Attachments are fetters on one’s heart—earthly desires, cravings and so on. In the pre-Lotus Sutra teachings, Shakyamuni taught people the path for freeing themselves from such attachments. The spirit of the Lotus Sutra, however, is not to eradicate earthly desires. When we base ourselves on the Buddhist Law, we can transform earthly desires—just as they are—into enlightenment. This is the principle of “earthly desires are enlightenment.” It’s not a matter of eradicating attachments but of seeing them clearly. Rather than causing us to abandon our earthly desires and attachments, our Buddhist practice enables us to discern their true nature and utilize them as the driving force to become happy. The truth is that we could not in fact eradicate our attachments even if we so wished.
We are born with many instinctive desires, including the most vital one, which is the basic desire to live. Since desires are necessary to the maintenance of human life, they are in that sense beneficial. But simply to pursue desires with no higher aim is to become a slave to desire, and this can lead only to misfortune for oneself and others.