What do you want? Right now? There’s a chance, if you’re in a comfortable, quiet spot, maybe holding a cup of coffee in your hand as you read this, that for a brief moment you might think, “Nothing. I’m fine.” But if you breathe the question in, if you step back from this moment, you’ll find there’s a lot. There always is.
In a sense, Buddhism starts here. The first of the Buddha’s four noble truths is the universal, chronic nature of dukkha—dissatisfaction, the sense or knowledge or hope that things could be other than how they are. The second truth is just a clarification of what we can figure out on our own: the reason we’re dissatisfied is that we’re attached, somehow, to that other reality. It’s because we have a thirst for something else.
Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote about eight awarenesses (or awakenings) of “great beings.” And the first of the eight is “few desires.” He wrote, “Those who have few desires do not seek fame and gain and are free from them, so they are without great suffering.” In some ways, this is just a reiteration of those first couple of truths; “fame and gain,” in Zen texts, are a kind of shorthand for all the things we might want, or at least the things that come from outside.
Dogen continued, “Those who have few desires need not flatter to gain others’ favor.” Here, for the second time, the framing is freedom—freedom from suffering, but more specifically, freedom from the power dynamics that come from wanting something from someone else. So this teaching, which sounds on the surface like a simple reminder not to want too much stuff, is suddenly also about the mechanics of power. Or, from another angle, it’s about spiritual confidence—the confidence one experiences not because they’ve earned it but because they know they are enough.
We started with “What do you want?” but what if we go a little deeper: “What do you imagine someone else has the power to give you—or to withhold?” This isn’t about food and shelter; the basic desire to stay alive and healthy is not what the Buddha was talking about. It’s about a deeper sense of lack, of something being out of your control.
In a marriage, maybe we want to be seen by our partner, or to be given more of the benefit of the doubt. As long as that isn’t happening, it can feel as if we’re locked out of that other reality, the place where things finally feel just right. At work, we can desperately—even angrily—want our boss’s respect, some acknowledgment of what we contribute. I suspect many of us, when we’re at work, have some feeling of not being free, but Dogen is saying that when you carry that craving into work, you’re really not free. And in spiritual communities, we can feel starved for attention, for some encouraging word or nod from the teacher or other sangha members. Others in the room can appear to have so much spiritual authority, which can leave the rest of us feeling like we have none. In that atmosphere, we can lose ourselves in trying to do or say or think just the right thing.
All of that is natural. It’s what it is to be human—it’s why it’s the first noble truth, and it’s why we still talk about it after millennia. And it’s important to note, Dogen isn’t saying to have “no desire.” He’s not even really saying that a great being, by definition, has few desires (though that’s certainly implied). This is an awakening. It’s a starting point, waking up to how desire works—not just in theory but in our own lives, in our own relationships, in our own understanding of who we are and how we fit in and what we deserve. The first step isn’t letting go; it’s just seeing, with open eyes, how much we’re really holding on to.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.