Earthly Desires: The Root of Unhappiness
Lectures on Basic Study Materials
from Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 366
I. What is the Cause of Suffering?
In Buddhism, while it is taught that there are Four Sufferings from
which no one can escape – birth, old age, sickness, and death – there
are many other hardships and worries, in addition to the above
mentioned four, with which we are constantly beset in our daily
lives. The question is: “How do these endless troubles come about,
and where do they come from?” If we can penetrate the origin of
suffering, and transform its root function, then we should be able to
eliminate unhappiness and suffering from our lives.
In accordance with the Gosho’s statement about the “Three Paths of
Earthly Desire, Karma (Action) and Suffering,” Buddhism explains
that suffering arises from negative (evil) action, which is in turn born
from earthly desires.
II. What are Earthly Desires?
“Klesa”, the Sanskrit word for “earthly desires”, is translated as
meaning: “that which possesses a polluted heart”, or, “that which
causes distress”. The classical Chinese characters for “earthly desires”
translate as some of the following: “temptation/losing oneself”;
“driven by evil paths” and; “unclean, polluted”. Hinayana Buddhism
uses another word for earthly desires – zuimin, (literally, to
accompany, sleeping). This word is used because earthly desires do
not appear on the surface, but lay dormant deep within the recesses
of the heart. Quite disconnected from an individual’s conscious, these
desires will come into function in accordance with the outside stimuli
As can be understood from these interpretations, earthly desires
function both to cause anguish in the human mind and body, and to
obstruct the correct path to the attainment of Buddhahood.
III. Kinds of Earthly Desire
It is taught in the “Theory on the Attainment of the One
Consciousness” (“Joyui Yuishiki ron”), that earthly desires are divided
between the basic “Fundamental Earthly Desires”, and their
derivatives, the “Accompanying Earthly Desires”. The “Fundamental
Earthly Desires” are:
1) Ton: Attachment
2) Jin: Anger
3) Chi: Stupidity (blind to reason)
4) Man: Arrogance
5) Gi: Doubt (with disbelief in the Law, hesitation)
6) Ken: Views (clinging to heretical views)
The first five desires are known as the Five Delusive Passions, and 3),
stupidity, is sometimes also called “ignorance” or “spiritual darkness”.
We next present the twenty kinds of “Accompanying Earthly
Desires”: (1) anger, (2) bearing of grudges, (3) deceit, (4) worry, (5)
jealousy, (6) stinginess, (7) lying, (8) flattery, (9) pride, (10) to cause
injury, (11) cruelty, (12) shamelessness, (13) brooding, (14)
ostentation, (15) disbelief, (16) sloth, neglect, laziness, (17) self-
indulgence, (18) mindlessness, (19) creation of disturbance and, (20)
adherence to incorrect information.
IV. What are the Three Illusions?
In his Maka Shikan, the great Buddhist master T’ien-t’ai explained
that all earthly desires (illusions) are divided into three kinds. They
are called the Three Illusions and consist of: (a) illusions of thought
and desires; (b) illusions innumerable as particles of dust and sand,
and; (c) illusions about the true nature of life.
(1) illusions of thought and desire (Japan: kenji-waku)
The Japanese word “kenji-waku” refers to illusions of thought
(kenwaku) and illusions of desire (shiwaku), and because they are
the cause of suffering in the threefold world and the six paths, they
are known as “Worldly Illusions” (within the threefold world and the
six paths). Further, because they are illusions which people of the
three vehicles of Learning, Realization and Bodhisattva share in
common, and should suppress, another term for these illusions is
Illusions of thought are learned illusions, referring to confusion about
the reason of worldly matters, and are called mistaken ideas.
Kenwaku are further divided into two groups of five, respectively
called the “Five Rishi [Reasoning Devices]” and the “Five Donshi
[Subtle Devices]”1 The Five Rishi are:
(a) Shinken: the self-centered view that we exist as independent
Another aspect is Gashoken, or the view that we own or possess
(b) Henken: Within Henken, there are two one-sided views, Danken
being the view that our being ceases at death, while
Joken is the view that after death we exist as eternal, individual
(c) Jaken: denies the law of cause and effect.
(d) Kenjuken: attachment to the above three distorted views, as
well as belief in the superiority of things which are actually inferior.
(e) Kaigonshuken: includes a distorted view of cause and effect and
belief in heretical religious’ assertions that theirs are correct paths to
enlightenment. Kaishuken is adherence to the prohibitive
Hinayana/heretical precepts against evil conduct. Gonshuken is
attachment to the austerities of these heretical religions.
Because the above are based on ideology and are incisive earthly
desires that can immediately be eliminated through understanding of
correct reasoning, these illusions are called “Reasoning Devices”.
Contrary to these, the Five Donshi refer to the first five of the above
mentioned fundamental earthly desires – attachment, anger,
stupidity, arrogance, and doubt. Even when we are careful to avoid
these errors, because these illusions possess characteristics that we
cannot instantly eradicate, they are referred to as “Subtle Devices”..
Subsequently, illusions of desire (shiwaku), also known as “Illusions
Pervading All Life”, are emotional illusions which arise instinctively,
and include four of the Five Subtle Devices – attachment, anger,
stupidity and arrogance.
According to Hinayana training, the level of one who has severed
himself from kenwaku (illusions of thought) is called kendo (to see
the path), while the level of one who has severed himself from
shiwaku (illusions of desire) is called shudo (to master the path).
Further, the level of one who has severed himself from both
kenwaku and shiwaku can either be called mugakudo (not study the
path) or arakan (arhat).
However, in terms of the numbers of illusions, there are eighty-eight
illusions of thought and eighty-one illusions of desire. In Japanese
society, earthly desires are numbered according to the one hundred
and eight times temple bells are struck to ring out the old year and
bring in the new. But the number (108) actually comes from an
assortment of illusions of thought and desire.
(2) Illusions Innumerable as Particles of Dust and Sand (Japan: Jinja-
These illusions, together with the third group – illusions about the
true nature of life (Japan: Mumyo-waku), can only be eradicated by
bodhisattvas, and are therefore Betsu-waku (distinct illusions).
Because these illusions do not belong to the sphere of the six paths,
they are also referred to as “Outer-world Illusions”.
The Japanese word Jinja means “dust” and “sand”. Just as these words
imply minuteness, so the word Jinja indicates the infinite and the
countless. When a Mahayana bodhisattva tries to lead mankind
toward emancipation, all kinds of obstacles arise. In order to cope
with these obstacles, such a bodhisattva needs to communicate
countless teachings. The countless illusions which arise from the
study of such teachings are called Jinja-waku, or illusions
innumerable as particles of dust and sand.
(3) Illusions about the True Nature of Life (Japan: Mumyo-waku)
These illusions are the foundation of all earthly desires which
obstruct one from attaining enlightenment to the truth of the middle
path (Buddhahood). Until Shakyamuni’s Perfect Teaching – the
combined Lotus and Nirvana Sutras, it was stipulated that there were
forty-two stages one must pass before achieving the highest stage of
Buddhahood. Each stage along the way has its own illusions about the
true nature of life, from which a bodhisattva must extricate him or
herself. The final illusion to be overcome before attaining the forty-
second stage is known as “fundamental darkness” or “primal
ignorance”. The Daishonin states in The Treatment of Illness:
The fundamental nature of enlightenment manifests itself as Bonten
and Taishaku, whereas the fundamental darkness manifests itself as
the Devil of the Sixth Heaven. (M.W., Vol. 3, p. 279)
This passage explains that just before a person reaches
enlightenment, the fundamental darkness changes into the form of
the Devil of the Sixth Heaven, who tries in every way possible to
prevent that person from attaining Buddhahood.
V. What are the Causes of Earthly Desires?
Because our suffering arises from earthly desire, what then is the
origin of earthly desire? A passage from the Yugashiji Ron (Treatise
on the Stages of Yoga Practice) states:
It is said that there are six kinds of causes for earthly desire. The
first kind is due to outer appearance, the second is due to religion,
the third is due to close intimacy, the fourth is due to heretical
teachings, the fifth is due to instruction and the sixth is due to the
intention to act.
The reason that we refute heretical teachings and warn against close
intimacy with slander is that heretical teachings and slander are
causes for earthly desire and become causes for unhappiness.
VI. Earthly Desires Contradict But Are Endowed With Enlightenment
Hinayana Buddhism explains that a person cannot attain
enlightenment unless he extinguishes earthly desire. In the extreme,
Hinayana teachings use a term which means to burn the physical
body to ashes and extinguish wisdom of the heart to say that
reaching the highest life condition of enlightenment is impossible
unless a person goes as far as to destroy the body. But the Lotus
Without eradicating earthly desire or ridding oneself from desires
arising from the five senses, one will purify the various senses and
eradicate various offenses. (Kanfugen Sutra)
This passage teaches that without eradicating earthly desire, we can
convert them into enlightenment just as we are. In the Teaching of
the True Body, the Daishonin states:
A person who honestly discards the provisional teachings and
wholeheartedly believing in the Lotus Sutra chants only Nam-
Myoho-Renge-Kyo will transform the three paths of worldly desire,
evil karma and suffering into the three virtuous fortunes of
enlightened life, Buddha wisdom and illusion-free mind.
The Daishonin teaches us that when we chant to the Dai-Gohonzon of
the Three Great Secret Laws with pure faith, our earthly desires
become the cause for enlightenment and our mortal bodies, just as
we are, can attain the life condition of the Buddha.
1 Five Rishi and Five Donshi: “reasoning” refers to ideological
matters, while “subtle” refers to emotional matters. We use both
ideological and emotional devices to accomplish desired ends. When
these devices are employed without practice to the Gohonzon, we
tend to be overtaken or enslaved by those very devices. Therefore,
in a negative context, the word “device” could be replaced by the
word “slavery”, (e.g., “slavery to alcohol/drugs” or “slavery to love”.)
©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly