The Buddha’s hard-to-disagree-with central insight—that desire is at the source of human suffering, and human action in general—has ready examples in our loves, lusts, and ambitions; it seems to have become only more true as some societies, like ours, have become intensely consumerist. You want a certain car, a certain kind of house, and you work to make those desires a reality. There are less obvious examples—say, altruism; applying the insight in that context may seem cynical. By this reasoning, people engage in altruistic behavior either because they think it is “virtuous” or “pleasing to God,” and will lead to a reward in the afterlife (a fortunate rebirth, or an eternity in heaven). The other potential explanation for altruism, to place it in a secular context, is that alleviating another’s suffering makes the altruist feel better about himself or herself, and assuages the guilt of having so much while others have less than enough. In other words, you wouldn’t do nice things if you didn’t want to do nice things. As with self-centered or conventionally evil actions, desire precedes fulfillment. Desire of some kind motivates all you do. Was the Buddha was right about this? “Desire” strikes me as just open-ended enough a term to make it widely applicable and—simple as a needle—deeply penetrating into human nature.
The farthest-reaching application of Buddha’s idea, in my opinion, is to metaphysical ideas themselves. Isn’t believing something, thinking something, convincing yourself of something an action like any other, and hence rooted in desire? Freud, in The Future of an Illusion, written a few thousand years after the Buddha, would characterize the “illusion” under discussion (religious belief) as distinct from an “error” because the illusion is based in wish-fulfillment. The Buddha’s insight was applied by the master psychologist to the belief-act itself. You believe in many Gods, one God, or no God, not because this or that metaphysical fancy is “correct,” but because you want to believe that particular thing.
This makes sense not least because every metaphysical structuring of the universe can be “spun” to seem a consolation or a threat. Materialists frequently accuse believers in heaven of consoling themselves with a wonderland afterlife; but they forget that the belief in heaven was twinned at its inception with a belief in hell, and that hell and Satan, as living threats, were emphasized in Christian preaching (and art) for hundreds of years. Similarly, the afterlife-devoid, scientific materialist outlook is often chided for being “empty” and devoid of consolation. False: It can be a rich source of consolation for murderers, hundred-year-old Nazis sunning in South America, rapists, human traffickers, and sundry scoundrels. Such “evildoers” (such a quaint term!) can relax: they will die old and get off scot-free, no cosmic consequences. Not that all materialists have some dark motive for wanting to shirk eternal punishment. They may privilege reason and the five human senses out of pride; an unwillingness to face the unreliability and limitations of these tools; the secularist groupthink prevalent in universities and urban centers, no different, to my mind, than the groupthink you find in religious congregations; or, what seems to be quite common, a petulant hatred of those who don’t privilege these tools above all others; or some combination of the above.
The all-undermining Buddhist insight—that we look where we need to look in order to see what we want to see; that there is no metaphysical “certainty” untainted by wish-fulfillment—explains much in the structure of Buddhism, as originally formulated by the Buddha. Set aside Mahayana Buddhism, which populated the Buddhist universe with boddhisattvas and spirits galore; look back to the Buddha of the earliest teachings. There we find an anomalous refusal to establish eternal verities or sketch out much in the way of grand metaphysical architecture, other than a belief in reincarnation (of the soul, not the personality or mind) inherited from Vedantic Hinduism. Instead of a system of threats and consolations, instead of imagining populous (and hence popular) other worlds in the manner of Hinduism (from the substrate of which Buddhism arose), the Buddha sets out a path, that is, a method to escape desire and hence the futile cycle of seeking and rejection, wishing and discontentment. This mirrors the larger-scale intention to escape the futile cycle of birth-death-rebirth, which is the focus of Hinduism.
The Buddha seems to me, of all the great teachers save Confucius, a skeptic at heart. But unlike Freud, who posited (circa 1920) a sort of science-oriented, religion-devoid universal civilization as the ideal endpoint, the Buddha never went cross-eyed with utopian daydreams. Like his Hindu precursors, he reconciled himself to the fact that It Takes All Kinds: different people will be at different levels of enlightenment or ignorance; implicitly, opinions will vary, disagreements and debates proliferate. The daydream of early Islam—that of the universal conversion of all peoples—seems absurd from this clear-eyed perspective.
The final phase of our argument, I suppose, would be to turn the Buddha’s insight on itself. Our big idea that desire underlies all belief, that belief is wish-fulfilment: What wish does it fulfil?
It would seem that it fulfills the wish that there might be no single, absolute truth to which all people must be held accountable; no one fixed perspective, that they must choose for or choose against; no one non-negotiable System and Credo that is True, all others false, with consequences for entertaining that falsehood. To reduce human life to suffering, capital-T Truth to human desire, human conduct to a Fourfold Path: It may well be the tolerant mind’s wish to table tiresome discussion, to preempt doubt by ignoring what is supernatural (and hence difficult to believe), to avoid the embarrassment of anyone’s being wrong, that motivates the Buddha’s insight. It makes it easier on me, doesn’t it, if I can convince myself that the fanatic with froth at his mouth and a Book in his hand is motivated, in his belief and action, by his own desires? That God is not really on his side? That I am not in fact—for all my secular-polytheistic open-mindedness—damned?