One of the characteristics of nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism, is its absence of desire and craving. It is a state of complete and permanent fulfillment. Hearing this, some people ask how it is possible to attain a desireless state by desiring to attain it. This apparent quandary was noticed even at the Buddha's time and was addressed from two slightly different perspectives.
The desire for something focuses attention on the desired object and directs energy towards attaining it. If the object is attained a period of satisfaction follows although this usually fades into disillusionment, boredom or loss of interest. Attention then gradually drifts to some new object and the process is repeated. The early stages of the Buddhist spiritual quest follow a similar pattern, although the later stages differ from it dramatically. In the process of practicing Dhamma, increasing clarity and understanding helps one see that nirvana is not a `thing' to be attained, but the state of abiding in which desire is absent, and desire begins to fade. Thus paradoxically, the closer one gets to nirvana, the less desire one has for it. `Having depended on craving one later lets go of craving.' (So aparena samayena taõhaü nissàya taõhaü pajahati, A.II,146). But as desire for nirvana fades the impetus created by the spiritual qualities one has been cultivating keeps one moving towards nirvana. The Buddha commented: `When one has knowledge and vision of things as they really are there is no need to think ßI am unconcerned and disinterested (in worldly things)û because it is natural that one who sees things as they really are will be unconcerned and disinterested. When one is unconcerned and disinterested there is no need to think ßI have attained freedom through knowledge and visionû because it is natural that one who is unconcerned and disinterested attains freedom through knowledge and vision. Thus one state activates another, one state brings to completion another'(A.V,3-4).
Venerable ânanda explained the apparent quandary between desire and nirvana in a slightly different way. Once a man came to the park where ânanda was staying and asked him about the goal of the Buddha's teachings. ânanda explained it to him and the man responded: `If that is true then the situation would be an interminable, a never-ending process. For it is impossible to abandon desire with desire.' ânanda asked the man: `Earlier did you not have the desire to come to this park? And after you got here did not that desire subside?' The man acknowledged that this was the case. Then ânanda said: `It is exactly the same with one who is enlightened. He earlier had the desire to attain enlightenment and when he had attained it, that desire subsided'(condensed, S.V,272-3).