There are many statements in Buddhist literature that make pleasure sound like something we should totally avoid. It might take some careful reading to recognize that the threat isn’t pleasure itself, but an unmindful response to it. Pleasure in its various forms is not inherently bad. A couple of forms of pleasure are actually instrumental in achieving higher states of concentration, and even enlightenment.
The danger in pleasure is the way we deal with it. There’s a widespread belief in most societies that enough pleasures will add up to happiness. Getting what we want can definitely put us in a good mood, but moods pass, often quickly. I’ve never known anyone for whom pleasures have added up to lasting happiness. In fact, the stress of getting and accumulating pleasures can have quite the opposite effect.
In a Pali sutta called The Great Mass of Suffering, MN 13, the Buddha explained the allure of the five cords of sensual pleasure. These include things seen by the eye that are “wished for, desired . . . and provocative of lust” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 180). Similar cords exist for the ear, nose, tongue, and the body’s tactile receptors. Each of the five senses gives rise to a bodily experience of pleasure and to desire, in various degrees of intensity. Thus, pleasure tied to the senses—in other words, to the world around us—always carries the danger of suffering, or dukkha, both in the way it ultimately makes us feel and in the unwise actions it often incites together with their consequences. “And what, bhikkhus,” the Buddha asks, “is the escape in the case of sensual pleasures? It is . . . the abandonment of desire and lust for sensual pleasures” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 182).
This might seem like an endorsement of asceticism. But the Buddha tried that, very devotedly, and he ultimately rejected it because it didn’t lead to enlightenment. What needs to be rooted out is not pleasure as it naturally occurs in our lives but our response to it, especially the desire for more pleasure which almost always accompanies it.
The Greater Discourse to Saccaka, MN 36, gives a concise and clear explanation of how this works. It says when a pleasant feeling arises in “an untaught ordinary person . . . he lusts after pleasure, and continues to lust after pleasure” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 334). From the first pleasant feeling, desire begins to grow and continues to grow into longing, craving, and lust. This happens because he is untrained in mind and body.
The other problem pleasure presents to an untrained person is that when a pleasant feeling ceases, it causes a painful feeling and that person “sorrows, grieves and laments . . .” Both the pleasant and the painful feelings “invade his mind and remain” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 334).
In contrast, when pleasant feelings arise in a “well taught noble disciple . . . he does not lust after pleasure . . .” When those pleasant feelings cease, it does give even the noble disciple painful feelings but “he does not sorrow, grieve and lament . . .” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 334).
So, we can avoid sustained suffering by avoiding the tendency to want more whenever pleasure arises. Even when we don’t get caught up in wanting more, though, pleasure does still cause some suffering because it leaves a sense of loss when it ends. But with training we can let that sense of loss pass through us naturally so it won’t cause lingering torment.
This training is accomplished through meditation practice and learning to notice our feelings (in the physical sense) and discern what has caused them. The untrained mind is so busy reacting to feelings that it usually has little understanding of why those feelings exist. Sitting daily trains us to be aware of what is happening within our minds and bodies. When we are aware of this, we can discern what causes our reactions. We can observe directly the suffering that comes with worldly pleasures, and we gradually learn to hold things lightly, like a lovely butterfly that has landed on the hand.
Practice with dana (“generosity”) and the brahmaviharas (loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) helps open our hearts so that we’re better able to let things pass without grasping. Whenever we’re dealing with pleasure and loss, we can remember the three characteristics of all experience: anicca (“impermanence”), dukkha (“suffering”), and anatta (“non-self”). Everything changes, it all has the potential for suffering, and none of it should be taken personally as “mine” or “me.” Over time, we come to know on a deep level that pleasant sensual feelings are temporary, and we simply accept when pleasures come our way while knowing they will pass. This approach of holding everything lightly is a very open-hearted way to live, letting both pleasure and pain come and go as they will.
The Greater Discourse to Saccaka says that prior to his Enlightenment, the Buddha was unable to give up the desire for sensual pleasure completely. It was the memory of a particular, different kind of pleasure that convinced him to give up asceticism and find the Middle Path. This was when he was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree as a child, while his father was attending to his royal duties elsewhere. Secluded from unwholesome states, he “entered upon and abided in the first Jhana,” experiencing the bliss that results from deep concentration. Looking back on this memory, he realized here was a “pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states” and there was no reason not to cultivate it (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 340) This freed him from the desire for sense-based pleasure, so that he could become a Buddha.
A similar kind of pleasure is available whenever we are mindful. I recently experienced it as I went about my day. It was a Saturday just before a major holiday, and I discovered I had to go to the store. Knowing the store would be crowded, I reminded myself to stay mindful, patient, and calm with all those stressed-out, hurried people. I went out of my way to be courteous while I was in the store, and I exchanged several friendly comments with strangers. As I returned home, I was surprised to find that I was feeling a distinct pleasure, and realized it came from the mindfulness and loving kindness I had practiced while shopping.
Mindfulness can protect us from the dangers of worldly pleasures while providing us with a kind of pleasure that has no downside. The pleasure of a calm and alert mind further promotes concentration, supports our general well-being, and helps motivate us to practice and continue along the Eightfold Path. By doing that, it multiplies our opportunities to enjoy this pleasure.
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Rebecca Dixon has had a daily meditation practice since 1992 and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area since early in this century. In addition to five years of hospice work, she has spent several years teaching meditation to incarcerated women and to the chemically dependent. A graduate of Spirit Rock’s CDL teachers training program, Rebecca is now a guiding teacher at two weekly sanghas in the Bay Area and frequently teaches at other meditation centers. For more information visit her website, RebeccaDixon.org.
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