A Universal Truth: Desire in Buddhism, Taoism and Stoicism

Updated on February 20, 2019
Jared Barlament profile image

J. W. Barlament is an author, blogger, and researcher of political, philosophical, and religious issues.


Desire has long been the downfall of many a good man. As such, many a system of philosophy and religion has tried to curb its influence. And, of course, many a follower of such beliefs has tried to stomp it out entirely. These efforts have, for the most part, failed, and a prevailing reason for this is that consensus is not often found among strict systems. Their practitioners may realize the similarities between them, but they very rarely voice the conclusion that they all tap into a universal truth. Plenty of the systems of wisdom of old are simply different spices on the same basic food. But what is this universal truth, specifically in relation to desire, and how may it be applied to our daily lives?

Desire in Buddhism (I)

Desire is perhaps most famously tackled in the teachings of Buddhism. It is, in fact, paramount to the Four Noble Truths the Buddha himself laid down. In the First Noble Truth, life is equated with suffering. In the Second Noble Truth, attachment is identified as the root of suffering. In the Third Noble Truth, it is asserted that this suffering is, indeed, treatable. Finally, in the Fourth Noble Truth, the Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed as the treatment for suffering (and, by extension, attachment). It is in the Fourth Noble Truth that most people tend to disagree, for can the Noble Eightfold Path really be the only route to the vanquishing of attachment and cessation of suffering? This is a question that has turned many a speculative spiritual seeker away from Buddhism, and for good reason. Obviously, there is no one specific path that can work for everyone, especially in such an all-important area. However, this does not render the other three noble truths unusable. They retain their significance, and their wisdom is still vital to anyone attempting the long road of personal growth.

Desire in Buddhism (II)

One great takeaway from the teachings of the Buddha is something the Four Noble Truths don’t explicitly cover to the English reader. This is the difference between craving and aspiration, as desire is a word often used to describe both of these very different mindsets. Taṇhā is the Pāli word used in the sacred Buddhist texts, which is often but somewhat erroneously translated into English as desire. Its real meaning, however, lies much closer to craving or thirst than desire, which throws off many Westerners’ assumptions that Buddhism conflicts with the natural desire to achieve. Buddhism seeks not to snuff out aspiration, but instead to snuff out craving so aspiration can be pursued without interruption. Of course, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana, or the end of suffering (dukkha) and the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). This goal does seem to be at odds with the concept of aspiration, as many in the West like to think of aspiration as something that never ends. When we aspire to do something, we do it, and when we do it, we find something else to aspire to. Naturally, this traps us in an unending cycle of struggle and deferred fulfillment. And, while Buddhism offers its own answers to this, another philosophy of the East does so with far more clarity and awareness of its own paradoxes. This is Taoism, the second of our three featured philosophies and one that is often described as taking the same journey as Buddhism via a different road.

the Buddha in meditation, artist unknown
the Buddha in meditation, artist unknown

Desire in Taoism (I)

Taoism, unlike Buddhism, is rather straightforward in its source material; the Tao Te Ching is the only work one really needs to get a good grasp on the philosophy. This, in theory, makes it much easier to study, but the Tao Te Ching is notoriously contradictory and difficult to comprehend. It primarily promotes the unity of the individual with the Tao, or the way, which is described as the natural state and order of the universe. Naturally, when this unity is reached, desire will be obliterated, for if one is united with everything, how can one desire anything? The Tao Te Ching thus teaches a thread of thought quite similar to the Buddhist texts; that we must let go of ourselves and our egos in order to achieve ultimate unity. This seems paradoxical at first, for we cannot ever let go if we always cling to the desire to let go. And so, we run into the same conundrum as we did in our study of desire in Buddhism. How, then, can the concepts of desireless fulfillment and endless aspiration be reconciled?

Desire in Taoism (II)

Taoism, like Buddhism, distinguishes between desires, deciding to split the one force into two (outer, or material, desires and inner, or immaterial, desires). Outer desires are equivalent to craving in Buddhism; a force for evil to be vanquished through religious methods. Inner desires, however, are our desires to better ourselves and bring ourselves closer to Tao. These desires are necessary, as without them, we would either be craving-driven gluttons or inactive nobodies. With them, we refine ourselves to be better and closer to the state of total immersion and unity which can either be identified with nirvana or Tao. Thus, as we fulfill our inner desires, we get closer to that indescribable completion and farther from our animalistic impulses. As we get closer, our desires lessen, and the balance within us shifts toward fulfillment and away from longing. Only after some time of this shifting can we make a meaningful attempt to let go completely and unite ourselves with our own innermost natures. According to the Tao Te Ching, “he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.” In other words, we must work toward the acceptance of contentment, and once we reach it, we will henceforth always be content. This gives us an answer to our earlier paradox, but that does not mean the end of our discourse, for we have yet to discuss how these ideas may be implemented into everyday life. For that, we turn to Stoicism.

"Lao Tzu" by Kenson Seto
"Lao Tzu" by Kenson Seto

Desire in Stoicism (I)

Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium and popularized by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, has had unshakable staying power (as evidenced by the movements of Neostoicism and modern Stoicism), and for good reason. It teaches a philosophy similar to many of those of the East – that happiness stems from letting go of our emotions and accepting the moment – but intertwined with the logical and physical systems of the West. This happiness is, according to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, hindered by four primary passions; namely, desire, fear, pleasure, and distress. Desire is met with particular disdain in Epictetus’ Discourses. As is written in it, “freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desires but by removing your desire.” Thus, it is clear that the Stoics agreed with much of that which the Buddhists and Taoists laid out in their own works regarding desire’s negative effects. However, they had a much more personal and practical approach to handling aspiration and completion.

Desire in Stoicism (II)

The Stoics drew from the most universal of all sources of inspiration for their descriptions of ideality. Specifically, they said that we should achieve a state equivalent to that of the state of nature in order to be ideal. And, in that case, what is meant by the state of nature? Very simply put, the state of nature is acceptance. When a disruption or disaster strikes nature and hurls it into chaos, it does not lash out or fall apart. Instead, it nods its metaphorical head in acceptance and tranquilly rebuilds the order which it has lost. This is, perhaps, the greatest Stoic contribution to our analysis of desire; that we need only act in the footsteps of nature to be fulfilled. Nature does not cling. Nature does not wish. Nature does not hope. Nature only acts, for its only aspiration is to be balanced and its only way to be balanced is to balance itself. We should do the same, according to the Stoics, and aspire only to achieve the balance within our souls that shall bring about souls without aspirations.

"The Triumph of Marcus Aurelius" by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo
"The Triumph of Marcus Aurelius" by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo


Thus, it may be concluded that the issue of desire may, in fact, be an issue of linguistics. Desire is not, in actuality, one unified force, but rather the unnatural pairing of the totally different forces of aspiration and craving. One, craving, is universally agreed by the ancient systems of wisdom to be a force for evil. As such, it is to be rooted out by whatever means are most effective to the individual. The other, aspiration, is not at all a force for evil, but rather the force behind nearly all the innovations we enjoy today. However, the story does not end there, for aspiration alone can lead to just as much suffering as craving can. The key, then, is not to let aspiration take so much control of your life so that you find yourself chasing after ever-more improbable achievements. Instead, it is to simply aspire to the end of aspiration; in other words, to desire only that which will render you desireless. Aspiration without end is the enemy of fulfillment. Thus, we must aspire toward fulfillment; not the things we think will make us fulfilled, but the feeling of fulfillment itself. And, when we do finally feel fulfilled, we must learn to let go.

Sources & Further Reading

Abbott, Carl. “Desire and Contentment.” Center Tao, Center Tao, 26 June 2010, www.centertao.org/2010/06/26/desire-and-contentment/.

Fronsdal, Gil. “The Spectrum of Desire.” Insight Meditation Center, IMC, 25 Aug. 2006, www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/the-spectrum-of-desire/.

Lao-tzu. “The Tao-Te Ching.” Translated by James Legge, The Internet Classics Archive | On Airs, Waters, and Places by Hippocrates, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, classics.mit.edu/Lao/taote.html.

Robertson, Donald. “Introduction to Stoicism: The Three Disciplines.” How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, 11 Nov. 2017, donaldrobertson.name/2013/02/20/introduction-to-stoicism-the-three-disciplines/.

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