By Adam J. Pearson
Image: statues of the daughters of Kama / Mara dancing before the Buddha.
Myths, as Joseph Campbell often pointed out, are not simply primitive tales from ancient cultures. Rather, they are rich and powerful stories that offer universal insights into the human condition. Campbell called this universal quality of myths, which has the ability to both inform and transform our lives, the “power of myth.”
A wonderful example of the powerful truths that rest within the heart of myth derives from Buddhist mythology. According to the tradition as Campbell narrates it in Transformations of Myth Through Time (1990), Kama, the Lord of Pleasure, was said to have three daughters: Desire, Fulfillment, and Regret. These figures symbolize our tendencies to yearn for things or people, to chase after and fulfill that desire, and then to feel a sense of guilt or dissatisfaction after we have done so. Anyone who has felt guilty after they got what they thought they wanted understands the three daughters of Kama.
Image: a traditional depiction of the Buddha and the daughters of Kama.
The dance of desire leads from one daughter to the next in an endless cycle. A desire arises, is fulfilled, is followed by regret, guilt, boredom, or dissatisfaction and a new desire is ignited in its place. This desire burns on until it is fulfilled, subsides, and gives way to another desire, and so on. It is a crucial point that the satisfaction of Fulfillment is not permanent; it is temporary. For this reason, there is a sense in which the ‘Fulfillment’ of desire it is not fulfillment at all, for as soon as the feeling arises, it again falls into dissatisfaction and unfulfillment.
In this sense, therefore, the fulfillment of desire is itself, not an evident truth, but an illusion. It is a case of something appearing to be what it is truly is not. Within the heart of the fulfillment, the seed of a new desire lies waiting to germinate. The fleeting satisfaction of a desire gives rise to the dissatisfaction from which new wants are born. The point of the myth, and a central tenet of Buddhism, then, is that there is no real or lasting fulfillment in the cycle of desire.
Image: Joseph Campbell.
Beneath the movement from one daughter of Kama to the next, there is a nagging sense of unease, suffering, or dissatisfaction (dukkha) that drives the cycle relentlessly on. Only addressing this fundamental malaise or uneasiness can lead to lasting peace and happiness. The true fulfillment of desire, according to this myth, lies outside the cycle altogether, in its cessation. In other words, it is not getting what we want that makes us lastingly happy, but moving beyond the need to get what we want altogether.
This is no easy task. It requires equanimity, acceptance, patience, and deep insight. This process of bringing the suffering and the dissatisfaction that drives the wheel of desire to an end is the central task of the Buddhist path. Its fruit, say the Buddhists, is not simply another illusory ‘fulfillment,’ not another night in the arms of Kama’s daughter, Fulfillment. Instead, it is a true full-fill-ment, a completion, a feeling of being full and whole. Once it is achieved, our lives are seen from a new perspective from which life, as previously lived, appears a dark and barren wasteland.
This new perspective, which is informed by the light of new insight, can properly be called ‘enlightenment.’ The new viewpoint cuts through illusion with illuminating insight. From this point of view, the daughers of Kama lose their appeal; we see into their illusory, temporary, and absurdly repetitive nature and they cease to appear enticing. How appropriate it is, then, that just as the three beautiful daughters appeared to the Buddha as he sat under the bodhi tree, they lost all power over him. Enlightenment had taken him outside their cycle, outside their dance of suffering and fleeting satisfaction. And as it did, something new replaced the transient relief of desire that he had felt in the past. This new element was revolutionary; for the first time, the newly-awakened Buddha found himself abiding in a deep and immovable peace.
Image: the Buddha resists the allure of the daughters of Kama.
This peace is a peace that cannot be fully understood by those who are still chained to the cycle of desire, for the only peace they have ever known is the momentary relief, the temporary ‘ahh’ of getting what they want. This relief is the temporary letting up of suffering that arises from freeing oneself from a single desire by fulfilling it. This freedom is not true freedom, however, because it moves us out of one trap (one desire) and into another (a new desire). This momentary ‘peace’ soon plunges once more into conflict,disturbance, and yearning.
Enlightened peace, in contrast, does not quickly dissipate; it does not depend on temporary conditions for its existence. For this reason, it is unconditioned and because it is unconditioned, it cannot be disturbed. This is why the Buddha could not be disturbed beneath the bodhi tree, not even by the most powerful forces of desire or the most powerful threats of fear, destruction, and death that are symbolized by the demon Mara and his minions in the myth. The myth reveals to us that the peace within the cycle of desire is not peace at all; the peace beyond it cannot be disturbed, not even by the appeal of being within the cycle once again.
Image: The Buddha’s serene smile is a symbol of the undisturbable peace that lies outside the cycle of desire.
For this reason, the myth tells us, the peace of moving beyond the cycle of desire is a ‘transcendental‘ peace; it transcends, goes beyond, or lies outside of, the cycle of pain, yearning, and temporary relief. And, says the myth, it is this unshakeable peace that we truly, truly seek; this is the happiness that we erroneously pursue by trying to fulfill our endless wants. This is a profound and striking idea; it says that everything we want is ultimately driven by an ever deeper yearning… This deep, unconditioned, and unshakeable satisfaction, happiness, or peace is what we really aim for through all of the things we want.
When this light dawns, the myth tells us, we will never again yearn for the darkness in which we once lived. Light will chase away the shadows and a glorious star will shine where there once was nothing but a world of shades and an endlessly hungry void.