For many, enjoyment is the primary objective in life. Modern advances in science, technology, and medicine mean that the fortunate among us no longer need to focus on brute survival, leaving us with more time and energy to enjoy such things as art, music, travel, food, the company of friends, and the pursuit of fun. The humanist refrain has long been to deny no one their pleasures as long as those pleasures do nothing to harm others.
Buddhism is seen in popular culture (and even by other religions) to be ambivalent on the experience of enjoyment. Our masters rightly teach that we should be moderate and mindful in our consumption of the things we like. However, somewhere down the line, enjoyment began to be confused with a never-ending attachment to sensual pleasures, one of the four forms of upadana (along with attachment to wrong views, rites and rituals, and self-doctrine). It is unclear when this conflation took place, or how Buddhism might have been misunderstood to teach that the two go hand in hand.
What we do know is that the idea of enjoyment and attachment as inseparable is widely touted in today’s pop culture. “I can’t get enough,” brays the rapper, “I can’t live without you,” croons the boy band to an imaginary lover. In popular culture, if you aren’t burning with desire for something, you’re not really enjoying it. Unfortunately, the inevitable result of all this attachment is dissatisfaction, or suffering—in Sanskrit, duhkha—according to the Buddha, one of the three characteristics of existence.
So is enjoyment without attachment even possible? There is no question that attachment should be skillfully avoided. Yet if we accept the premise that pleasure can’t be had without feeling attachment, we have no choice but to accept that we should deny ourselves enjoyment as well. This paints a rather bleak and impoverished picture of life that condemns everyone to an ascetic existence—which, by the Buddha’s own definition, is one of the lifestyle extremes, the other being the indulgences of hedonism.
But it is not enjoyment that leads to suffering; the attachment to a pleasant phenomenon or sensation stems from ignorance. We suffer because attachment seeks to freeze an ever-changing reality and our expectations are simply dissonant projections of how we want things to be onto how things really are. Cultivating non-attachment, by contrast, helps us to be more open and accepting, whether an experience is pleasurable, or even if it is painful. Given the right spiritual practice and contemplations, enjoying things without becoming attached to them can bring forth greater inner strength than obdurate self-denial.
Contemplation of emptiness, or the selflessness of phenomena (Skt. anatman—another of the characteristics of existence in Buddhism), is one of the best tools to help us practice enjoyment without attachment. According to Buddhism, whatever we enjoy is empty of inherent characteristics. As real as it feels and as much as we like it, we can fully appreciate it even without actually believing in it. It is akin to appreciating a well-crafted film while knowing the protagonists and worlds to be fictional. Someone who takes fiction too seriously and really believes in Luke Skywalker or Bilbo Baggins—and this can end in tragedy—we would consider “deluded.” In Buddhism, to attach reality to the things we find pleasurable is to buy into similar delusion.
Meditating on impermanence—in Sanskrit, anitya, the third characteristic—has long been a cornerstone of Buddhist contemplation. In the scheme of things a human life is all too brief, and a happy event like a dinner with friends or a beautiful day, even shorter. As tiresome as the cliché might be, things are precious precisely because they do not last. Without breaks and a final note, a piece of music would soon be annoying; without a resolution, a novel would be meaningless. Enjoyment should therefore be about treasuring a moment or another person’s life because those, too, by their very nature are finite.
Impermanence also lends attachment a temporal dimension. We have all felt nostalgic for a past event, a lifestyle, or a place we have enjoyed, but we recognize this as sentimentality that is best not indulged. How often have we tried to revisit something that holds fond memories—an old flame or a place we went as a child—only to be disappointed to find that things have changed, or were never quite the way we remembered?
The very process of longing exacerbates the pain. Hankering for something past can turn the real enjoyment of the experience into a painful nuisance for weeks, months, or years, perhaps even more so when we can never go back. Buddhist teachers often talk about accepting unhappy moments and learning to let them go, but we should also do the same for pleasurable occasions. Enjoyment need not be tied to attachment if it is experienced with awareness—a lucid understanding of the illusory and impermanent nature of all things.
The monastic poets of Japan, such as Ikkyu (1394–1481) and Ryokan (1758–1831), are celebrated for their ruminations on the nature of impermanence. Their writing combines tenderness regarding the enjoyment of nature and human emotion with a deeply Buddhist acceptance of its inherent transience. In one poem, Ikkyu writes of the common motif of the cherry blossom, juxtaposing the renewal of its color and fragrance each spring with the loss of the individual blossoms. After a smallpox epidemic, Ryokan likens the permanent departure of the children who have died to the previous autumn’s leaves, which he contrasts with the cyclically blooming flowers of spring. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from these poets is that, as well as meditating on emptiness and impermanence, we have to learn to appreciate life for ourselves, and sometimes in raw and reflective ways. Far from being a trivial pursuit, the attempt to understand how to better enjoy one’s life is a measure of spiritual maturity.