Book Review: Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught

The book cover is white with green lettering in a crisp font. There is a small picture of a sensual female figure carved in stone with bare breasts, her arm reaching above her head. The book sits on a white surface next to a small dark brown box with gold knobs and a small, green prosperity Buddha statue.

I’m really interested in the entwining of sexuality and spirituality, though I admit to being a bit behind on reading books on the topic. My muse recently urged me to remedy this situation and I decided to begin with this title: Open to Desire, the Truth about What the Buddha Taught by Mark Epstein.

This book totally vibed with me. And not just in that perfect, heartstring-plucking way, but also in the way that challenged me in the right direction.

I’m not new to Buddhist concepts. I started reading about Buddhism in high school and have since studied Western teachers and writers of Buddhism off and on. Buddhist concepts have helped my life tremendously and I consider myself to be a lay practitioner of Western-influenced Buddhism.

This book is very evenly paced and explains ideas in a conversational and down-to-earth tone. But I would still encourage you to have read a little bit about Buddhist thought to get the most out of reading this book. Specifically, look into the Left-Hand Path in Buddhism and how it differs from some other tributaries of Buddhist thought.

The author definitely takes a deeper dive into some specific concepts, though narrowing the concepts as they apply to desire proves helpful. The author also offers many of his own interpretations to Buddhist thought, and other concepts presented by teachers or psychologists.

A strength of this book is that the author uses cases in his job as a therapist to illustrate various concepts. So when I was thinking I was getting the Buddhist/spiritual concept being discussed, the author would then illustrate using a scenario with a client. Then I could really see the concept, as it was being described in a “real world” situation. I think readers that aren’t used to reading books on Buddhism will really appreciate this aspect, and, like for me, it serves to solidify the understanding of concepts.

Be warned, things get a little intense and dense at the beginning of part 2. But if you get through, the tediousness does not last and the accessibility of the text returns. Some Buddhist books I’ve read begin conversational and accessible in the first two chapters then become so muddled and complex that the readability suffers. Fortunately, not so with this title.

I think the best thing about this book is that is sheds a sacred light on desire and sexuality. One of the stereotypes of Buddhism and meditation is that you are trying to extinguish desire in your life. Of course, when the Buddha was starving and denying his body of needs right before reaching enlightenment, he knew this denying was clinging just as much as indulgence. It is our clinging to desire that we must learn to grapple with.

Some have thus taken this to mean that if something stirs desire in us that is biology, but if we enjoy it, that is lust/clinging/sinful. The author explores why this idea is limited as well. (Of which, I am grateful. I’m tired of hearing this explanation, to put it very mildly.) I was also very appreciative of a discussion toward the end of the text about how our desires have often been labeled primitive or animalistic, less than human. He thus makes a case for seeing them as profound and divine, within the bigger discussion of emotions, relationships, and the philosophy of clinging.

What emerges and what we must explore is a wonderful falling into a gap, emptiness, and profound mystery. And it is delightful.

There is some psychoanalysis theory in the book and some grappling with the subjective vs. objective desire that a few readers might quibble with, but these elements didn’t deter me as a reader.

There really is much more in this book that I fear my review simply can’t delve into. You’ll have to believe me when I say the way this author articulately but personably explores these topics, while untangling shame, carving a lofty space for sexuality, and delving into the sacred is truly a gift.

I’ve taken many notes and will be turning to this text many times in the future I am certain. Anyone interested in spirituality and sexuality should give this book a read!

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