The human desire mechanism appears to function as a means to perpetuate the species. This means that physical life is created through sexual union. However, if this was all there was to sexual interaction there would probably be far less people alive today. The addictive aspect of the desire mechanism is its inherent link to psychological, emotional, and physical pleasure. The mind and body is so enraptured by sexual experience that pleasure becomes the primary focus of the activity. The fact that living off-spring might well be the result of this interaction becomes secondary to the experience of the pleasure associated with the act itself. It is as if nature has shielded the true biological purpose of sexual interaction by hiding it behind a barrier of pleasurable sensual gratification. In many ways, regardless of sexual orientation, much (if not all) of human culture has developed around the administration of this desire mechanism. It is very powerful in its structure and appears to be almost pre-cognitive in its programming. It is a very substantial human instinct, the presence of which ensures the creation of the next generation.
The desire mechanism is specifically the psychological and emotional over-lay that accompanies physical arousal. It is that in the mind which is aware of the need to procreate, and which actively seeks such procreation in the environment. For the purpose of analytical clarity it is separate and distinct from the physical act of sexual gratification, although of course, it is inherently linked to it, and appears to have many levels (or intensities) of manifestation. The purpose of the desire mechanism is to create in the mind the urgent need to procreate, mediated through the existential forms of social and cultural norms. In some cases the desirous urge is so strong that it manifests outside of the accepted cultural norms of the time. The desiring mechanism ensures a magnetic-type attraction to those deemed to be sexually appropriate to a particular individual. As humanity varies tremendously in its uniformity, so does the desire mechanism vary in its complexity. It is always operating just behind the scenes of everyday life, hidden in conventions and polite conversation.
The Buddha taught that desire is the root of all human suffering because it guarantees the inevitable cycle of rebirth. As it is a deep wanting, desire is inherently linked with greed, and as human beings are unable to see beyond the desire mechanism, it is also linked with delusion. If the object of desire is taken away (or is unavailable), or if an object is presented that is not desirous, then hatred can be the result. For those who dedicated themselves to abandoning the world here and now, the Buddha advocated the complete giving-up of sexual gratification in deed, word, and thought. In other words, the desire mechanism is by-passed, ignored, and eventually extinguished by creating an asexual environment on the outside of the body, and a pure interior of the mind on the inside of the body. The desire mechanism is deprived of the greed, hatred, and delusion that usually sustain its operating function, and like a fire deprived of oxygen, the flame of desire eventually dies out. As the desire mechanism is so powerful, its transcending is not an easy matter and can take many years to achieve. The taking of vows to control the body, and the application of a meditation technique to control the mind are the tools used to accompany this task which is a practice held together with an iron will power.
For those living in ordinary society but wishing to practice the Dharma, the Buddha advocated that the desire mechanism be controlled rather than transcended. This ‘control’ centres around applying an appropriate sexual manifestation in society that is not excessive or that violates the social codes of the time. This is the practice of appropriate sexual discipline that allows the desiring mechanism to function through strictly defined parameters. Sexual norms and standards within the Brahmanic society of the Buddha’s time were complex and based upon scriptures such as the Laws of Manu. Although the Buddha advocated the state of non-desirous living for those committed to the path in a monastic sense, he also allowed for lay-people to control their desire mechanism in a manner that was socially applicable to the time. For the Buddha it was important that once the desire mechanism had stopped functioning in the mind, it remained dormant and did not re-emerge. However, for those whose desire system had not yet been reduced to nothing, the Buddha advocated ‘control’ rather than transcendence, and although the Buddha states often that monastics are on the quick path to enlightenment, and that lay-people are many lives away from achieving freedom from suffering, nevertheless, it is true that in the Pali Suttas there are examples of lay men and women achieving enlightenment (Arahantship). The implications that lay people could realise enlightenment whilst engaged in the world is very Mahayanic in flavour, and is probably the origination of certain Tantric practices that allow for a type of sexual union yoga as a form of meditation, and whose deities are often depicted in amorous embrace.
The Ch’an doctrine involves the direct realisation of the mind ground here and now. This is what master Jing Hui terms entry through principle. Its characteristics are all embracing and all inclusive and are further described by the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (in the Altar Sutra) as Unified Practice Samadhi and Unified Form Samadhi. Everything – whether good or bad should be treated as being empty of any inherent, or permanent reality. Sila, or moral discipline takes on a new multidimensional existence that is not just limited to disciplining the physical body and the thought processes. If the Mind Ground is directly perceived then all of life is automatically in accordance with its pristine nature. In this regard the definition of purity is lifted out of its dualistic interpretation and becomes indicative of a permanent state that remains undefined and unhindered by physical actions. Within dualistic thinking, the trap of delusion consists of the dichotomy of physical discipline being either required or not required. The idea of the need to discipline the mind and body becomes either attached to, or firmly rejected. When Upali (in the Vimalakirti Sutra) was disciplining two monks for breaking the rules of purity, Vimalakirti said:
‘Hey, Upali, do not aggravate their sins which you should wipe out at once without further disturbing their minds. Why? Because the nature of sin is neither within nor without, nor in-between.’
This suggests that perhaps the transcendence of the desire mechanism might be viewed as transforming an opaque psycho-physical attribute into one that is fully transparent and imbued with the light of purity, rather than merely being its negation through non-use. Whatever the case, the inherent power of the mind must be gathered together if a breakthrough is to occur. This breakthrough can not happen if the mind is separated into competing areas. Desire must be harnessed away from the disparate physical objects of desire and marshalled for the use of the hua tou or gongan so that the obscuring layer of delusion in the mind can be pierced and thoroughly transcended.