The Wisdom of Desire

Desire in the form of attachment is a cause of suffering, says Judy Lief. But if we can take the ego out of desire, we uncover its joyful, sacred wisdom.

Judy Lief
2 January 2024
Amitabha Buddha represents the transmutation of passion or grasping into discriminating-awareness wisdom. Painting by Unknown artist, courtesy of the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts

As human beings, we are preoccupied with passion, desire, clinging. In fact, the human realm is known in Buddhism as “the realm of passion.” 

Buddhist psychology includes extensive discussions of the emotions and their impact on our lives. We experience the world not just through our body and mind, but also through our emotions. Being a central emotion, passion colors all that we do and everything in our world. Since the experience of passion is so prominent in human life, we need to figure out how to work with it.

Passion ranges from simple attraction to obsessive desire. Underlying it is an ongoing feeling of lack or incompleteness that leads to a desperate need to fill an inner emptiness. We’re consumed by unfulfilled desire and live with a continual undertone of restlessness, loneliness, and longing. We never really feel complete, so we keep looking for something or someone to make us feel better. We look for entertainment, for new or exciting experiences to keep us occupied. We’re always looking for ways to make ourselves feel comfortable.  

Desire has a pathetic and needy undertone, a clingy quality. We perk up at heart emojis and monitor our social media “likes.” We so long to be recognized, to be popular, to be beautiful and desirable, and we’re so easily crushed when we’re ignored or rejected. No matter what, we never seem to be pretty enough, popular enough, or in any way truly secure.

Passion is overwhelming. You may try to cultivate a more peaceful mind, but passion gets in the way. It’s a thief, stealing your little moments of tranquility. Passion is an affront to your meditative aspirations. You may be able to hold it at bay for a while, but it keeps rushing back in.

Mural detail, Thikse monastery, Thikse, Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India. Photo by J Marshall – Tribaleye Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Passion stirs things up. It disrupts and unsettles the mind. Passion thrives on impulse. We’re so easily distracted by passion. Something captures our attention and away we go: “Oh look, isn’t this pretty. But wait, what about that?” We’re seduced by every bright shiny object or thought. These objects of our passion are entrancing.  

Passion has a scattered quality. There are so many possibilities, so many colors, shapes, and sounds, so many beautiful objects to lust after. There are so many dramas. We’re fascinated by the subtleties and nuances of the dance of seduction. We obsess about how others see us and how we can attract attention. We draw people in and build a circle of friends with ourselves at the center of that circle.  

Passion drives us to draw in people and exploit them for our personal gain, through manipulation, seduction, and deceit. Like a spider, we weave a beautiful web and lure in our prey. We can attract victims through our beauty and our skill at manipulation. We may use our neediness to manipulate those around us and as a way to control and entrap people we’ve seduced. But when people no longer serve our needs, no longer put us front and center, we have no problem dumping them. There’s always another attraction, another lure, another delight, another person to seduce. Over and over passion sucks us in, and it can take us to very dark places. But there’s another side to it.

In the Vajrayana or tantric school of Buddhism, we work with passion by recognizing its dual nature: Passion can be harmful or it can be liberating. It can be neurotic or sane. It can manifest as confusion, but it can also manifest as wisdom. Vajrayana points to the dual nature of passion and the other emotions and teaches us how the very emotional patterns that cause us so much harm can dawn as wisdom. However, if we’re ever going to glimpse the wisdom of emotions, we first need to be clear about their harm.  

In Buddhist psychology, passion is classified as a klesha, a Sanskrit word meaning conflicting or harmful emotion. Of course, there are many harmful emotional patterns, but they can all be traced back to five primary ones: passion (desire), aggression (hatred), ignorance, jealousy, and pride. These emotions seem to be hard-wired in humans, and possibly in all sentient beings, and they cause all sorts of trouble. 

You need to be honest about the power such emotions have over you. If you don’t bring your mind under control you’ll be stuck in the kleshas. The kleshas are intimately bound up with ego and the fixation on yourself. In the same way as mob bosses need “muscle,” ego needs kleshas. Kleshas are ego’s goons; they do the dirty work to keep ego in power. So if you want to deal with kleshas, you have to deal with the ego.

The goal of Buddhist practice and study is to free us from the hold of ego, from the deluded belief in a solid and separate self. The more we keep focusing on ourselves, the more rigid and uptight we become and the more power we give to the kleshas. So, we need to get out from under the hold of negative emotions and cultivate positive emotions like love or compassion instead. To do that, we need to loosen the hold of ego, for it alienates us from other beings and from the environment altogether.

The good news is that through practices, such as mindfulness, you can gradually shift the balance and take back your agency. The more control you gain over your own mind, the less susceptible you are to negative emotions. You’re less gullible and not so easily hooked and distracted by them, and as a result you can cultivate mental peace, dispassion, and stability.

But there’s a problem. That peaceful mind needs to be maintained. You need to keep at the project of letting go of negative emotions and cultivating positive alternatives. Because of that, it’s not entirely peaceful, you have to be ready to pounce on the kleshas as soon as they pop up. However, the kleshas aren’t something separate from you. They’re a part of you; you can’t totally get rid of them. It’s best to find ways to deal with them. In fact, dharma practice is all about working on our negative emotions.  

On the spiritual path, we generally work to free ourselves from negative emotions. We try to disempower them and weaken their hold on us. But the Vajrayana approach to the emotions is radically different. According to the Vajrayana, you may be able to hold the kleshas at bay and diminish their power over you, but something valuable is lost in the process. Although kleshas have the potential for all kinds of harm, it’s a mistake to throw them out. Why is that? Because you cannot throw out a klesha without at the same time throwing away an aspect of wisdom. The kleshas may be the last place you’d ever look for any glimpse of wisdom, but they’re exactly where to find it. Wisdom is right under your nose. 

Passion, like all kleshas, is linked with a corresponding wisdom. Our inherent wisdom is said to be like a crystal ball, luminous and clear. When light hits that ball, many colors appear. Likewise, the five wisdoms shine forth in the colors of the rainbow as a reflection of inherent clarity. 

In Vajrayana practice there’s a progression in how to approach emotions like passion. First, you begin by clarifying your understanding of them. You look at your own experience and see for yourself how powerful they are and the harm they can do. And as you look them straight in the eye, you no longer see only harm and chaos. You see wisdom too. The last two lines of a traditional four-line poem attributed to the Tibetan Buddhist figure Gampopa points to this progression: “Grant your blessing, so the confusion may be clarified. Grant your blessing, so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.”

Fundamentally, passion is just energy, flowing through the world as naturally as the elements or the change of seasons. If it’s not defined as your energy, if it’s not in the service of ego, it looks totally different. Then it’s not an enemy or a friend, and it has no agenda. It’s more like the weather, just part of the natural landscape of life. So passion can manifest as confusion or as wisdom, depending on whether or not it’s attached to ego and
its struggles.

Although we all experience the five kleshas, we each fall into a “family” based on our characteristic emotional style. So, one or more klesha may be dominant for you. If passion or desire is your dominant energy, that’s what you have to work with. It’s your obstacle and your potential. Wisdom comes about not by corralling or toning down your passion energy, but by embracing and celebrating it. When you’re not battling what you’re feeling or trying to get away from it, and if you’re not entranced or sucked in by it, it’s as if that energy has no place to land. You let it float free—and what’s left is wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhism, Mahakala is “Protector of the Dharma.” He’s frequently depicted with a crown of five skulls, which represent the transmutation of the five kleshas (negative afflictions) into the five wisdoms. “Mahakala, Protector of the Tent,” Central Tibet, AD 1500, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The particular wisdom associated with passion is called “discriminating awareness wisdom.” According to my teacher, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with this wisdom, “You are able to see pain as naked pain, and pleasure as naked pleasure. Therefore, you are no longer magnetized by the pleasure or repelled by the pain, but you see them as they are.” 

“Discriminating” refers to knowing things as they appear without bias or confusion. It’s our attachment that gets in the way of this. Discriminating awareness is free of attachment, and as such is peaceful and pure. Like a lotus, even in muddy water, it remains stainless.

The good news is that even in the midst of passion, when you’re caught up in all kinds of turmoil, wisdom is always present. You don’t have to try to remodel your experience to make it appear wise; it is wise just as it is. You could relate to kleshas as wisdom in disguise.

In dealing with the kleshas, Vajrayana teachings make a simple distinction between their neurotic and enlightened expressions. When you’re caught up in the usual ego games and struggles, when you’re absorbed in your own self-interest and agendas, passion energy is neurotic. It feeds and perpetuates ego-fixation to harmful effect. But when that same energy is less tethered to ego, it’s simply energy, without agenda, unbound by your schemes. It’s not perpetuating anything. It’s just wisdom.

In meditation practice, you have the opportunity to change your approach to desire. To do this, simply observe it. You can start to observe desire like a scientist, with less attachment and from a more impersonal or nonjudgmental stance, simply as phenomena you experience through your mind, body, and sense perceptions.

Stay with the desire. Don’t feed or suppress it. As your mind becomes less turbulent and speedy, it’s easier to see desire as it first arises and to see for yourself how quickly it can grow and overwhelm you. Mindfulness practice helps you establish a stable base, which allows you to experience the passionate klesha energy just as it is, without feeding it and without suppressing it. 

Keep the energy, drop the neurosis. As you practice, you learn to stay with the energy; in turn, you can also let it go. Mindfulness training is invaluable because you become more and more familiar with how passion operates, and therefore you’re less apt to be thrown off balance each time it rears up. The point isn’t to tone down your emotions or to make everything bland and reasonable. That same passion energy, untethered to the insatiable needy demands of ego, manifests in many delightful and compassionate ways. It shows up as a joyful and playful quality and an appreciation of the delights of the phenomenal world and the complexities of human friendship.

While working with desire on your meditation cushion is important, your main opportunity for working with passion is in the challenges and interactions of daily life. I’ve found the fifty-nine slogans or sayings of the tenth-century Buddhist master Atisha Dipankara very helpful in this regard. 

Many of these slogans touch directly on the challenge of kleshas, showing ways to transform kleshas and bring them onto the path of awakening. Practical and accessible, the slogans are great reminders not to drop your practice as soon as your formal meditation session is over.

To practice with a slogan, bring it to mind periodically throughout the day, perhaps while you’re waiting in line or going through your emails. You can silently repeat the slogan or contemplate what it means and how it applies to your own experience. Consider writing the slogan down and sticking it to your wall or computer—somewhere you’ll see it regularly.

Atisha’s forty-fourth slogan, “Train in the three difficulties,” is one slogan that is helpful when working with desire. With this slogan, you begin by respecting how difficult it is to get a handle on kleshas. The three difficulties are: (1) It’s difficult to recognize your kleshas, such as desire, so you need to pay attention; (2) Once desire or another klesha has appeared, it’s difficult to overcome, so you need to find a way to work with it; (3) To cut through kleshas, you have to address the underlying issue of ego fixation. 

Atisha’s twenty-fourth slogan, “Change your attitude, but remain natural,” is also helpful when working with passion. Its simple yet profound teaching is this: all you need to do is to make a tiny shift in your attitude from self-focus to other-focus. 

As a klesha like passion arises, we tend to get more and more uptight, and the more uptight we get, the greater hold that klesha has over us. Once we begin to battle with it, that battle can go on and on. But with a tiny shift of view and a moment of pause or relaxation, a powerful passion attack can dissolve on the spot.

When you don’t instantly evaluate your feelings in terms of whether they’re for or against you, things look very different. When passion arises, you don’t have to try to change it in any way. You don’t need to grab onto it or push it away. Instead, you can let passion speak for itself. Instead of fighting with passion, you welcome it. You relate to passion in a fresh way. 

Neurosis and sanity, confusion and enlightenment—they seem to be completely separate realities. But they’re really two sides of the same coin. Passion and the other kleshas can be doorways to wisdom. They can be glimpses into an entirely different way of being and operating. Wisdom, we discover to our amazement, dwells in the most unexpected places—the very ones we once wished to avoid or dismiss.

Judy Lief

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of many books of teachings by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death. Her teachings and new podcast, “Dharma Glimpses,” are available at