Sensual Pleasure

It is not easy for most people in the world to see the danger in sensual pleasures. Even fewer would believe that there could possibly be pleasures that are non-sensual. So much is the notion of pleasure tied with sensuality in our daily lives. Lord Buddha taught followers that the sensual pleasures are gross compared with non-sensual pleasures. Absorption-jhaana meditation is a practice that leads to non-sensual pleasures. According to Buddhist discourses and commentaries the pleasures of jhaana meditation are far beyond anything available to the five senses.

Even though I haven’t practised jhaana meditation, I notice the disadvantages of sensual desire and the unsatisfactory nature of sensual pleasure. If there is mindfulness enough to note desire to indulge in sensual pleasure there usually soon follows a sense of embarrassment.

In order to indulge in sensual pleasure, such as eating a delicious cake, the mind becomes flooded with craving. For the untrained mind, this flood of craving smothers the existing weak mindfulness. The weak mind overcome by craving is then easily persuaded to look at the cake, smell the cake, taste the cake, feel the texture inside the mouth and so on. The intention to indulge is justified, ratified and allowed. Having been overcome once, this tendency is reinforced each time we indulge our craving in this way. Restraint has been overcome this way countless times. The tendency to indulge craving as sensual desire is extremely strong in the untrained mind. Without some degree of restraint, a mind overcome by craving to gratify sensual pleasure can act in many harmful ways. These harmful actions have unpleasant results and create suffering. The ignorance and craving continues and the cycle of becoming does not end. So sensual pleasures are not rewarding. They are a lot like a con-job or false advertising.

For someone in training, someone who with craving (to eat the cake), they have confidence in the way taught by Lord Buddha that restraint will lead to either more profound happiness or, even better, the cessation of craving. What gives them this confidence? I can speak from my own experience, and say that as a meditator, I’ve seen part of this process of craving and indulging in craving taking place in the mind. I’ve seen the way that indulging in craving floods mindfulness and creates a course, clumsy, crude mind. I’ve seen that restraint keeps the mind relatively clear, relatively refined and relatively sharp. This proves the principle. For someone in training, who (sometimes) practices restraint, craving is not eradicated but it is not allowed to run rampant. Lord Buddha taught that this practice creates a tendency that strengthens mindfulness and the other factors that will eventually eliminate craving once and for all.

Lord Buddha encouraged jhaana practice because it suppresses craving and develops a powerful mind that is more wieldly and empowered for the work of destroying craving. Jhaana practice is a delightful abiding for the mind. There is profound non-sensual pleasure for a yogi abiding in jhaana. Lord Buddha taught the jhaanas as a stepping stone between sensual pleasures and Nibbaana. Though abiding in the pleasures of jhaana may be pleasant, they are not the goal of Buddhism.

The following extracts of discourses show some of the similes Lord Buddha used to explain the unsatisfactoriness of sensual pleasure.

Majjhima Nikaaya MN.54. Potaliya Sutta: To Potaliya (โปตลิยสูตร)

[simile of the skeleton]
15. “Householder, suppose a dog, overcome by hunger and weakness, was waiting by a butcher’s shop. Then a skilled butcher or his apprentice would toss the dog a well hacked clean hacked skeleton of meatless bones smeared with blood. What do you think, householder? Would that dog get rid of his hunger and weakness by gnawing such a well hacked, clean hacked skeleton of meatless bones smeared with blood?”

“No, venerable sir. Why is that? Because that was a skeleton of well hacked, clean hacked skeleton of meatless ones smeared with blood. Even that dog would reap weariness disappointment.”

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a skeleton by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

[simile of the piece of meat]
16. Householder, suppose a vulture, a heron, or a hawk seized a piece of meat and flew away, then vultures, herons, and hawks pursued it and pecked and clawed it. What do you think, householder? If that vulture, heron, or hawk does not quickly let go of that piece of meat, wouldn’t it incur death or deadly suffering because of that?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a piece of meat by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

[simile of grass torch]
17. “Householder, suppose a man took a blazing grass torch and went against the wind. What do you think, householder? If that man does not quickly let go of that blazing grass torch, wouldn’t that blazing grass torch burn his hand or his arm or some other part of his body, so that he might incur death or deadly suffering because of that?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a grass torch by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

[simile of a charcoal pit]
18. “Householder, suppose there were a charcoal pit deeper than a man’s height full of glowing coals without flame or smoke. Then a man came who wanted to live and not to die, who wanted pleasure and recoiled from pain, and two strong men seized him by both arms and dragged him towards the charcoal pit. What do you think, householder? Would that man twist his body this way and that?”

“Yes, venerable sir. Why is that? Because that man knows that if he falls into that charcoal pit, he will incur death or deadly suffering because of that.

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a charcoal pit by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

[simile of a dream]
19. Householder, suppose a man dreamt about lovely parks, lovely groves, lovely meadows, and lovely lakes, and on waking he saw nothing of it. So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a dream by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

[simile of borrowed goods]
20. Householder, suppose a man borrowed goods on loan–a fancy carriage and fine-jewelled earrings–and preceded and surrounded by those borrowed goods he went to the market place. Then people, seeing him, would say: ‘Sirs, that is a rich man! That is how the rich enjoy their wealth!’ Then the owners whenever they saw him, would take back their things. What do you think, householder? Would that be enough for that man to become dejected?

“Yes, venerable sir.” Why is that? Because the owners too back their things.”

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to a borrowed goods by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

[simile of fruits on a tree]
21. “Householder, suppose there were a dense grove not far from some village or town, within which there was a tree laden with fruit but none of its fruit had fallen to the ground. Then a man came needing fruit, seeking fruit, wandering in search of fruit, and he entered the grove and saw the tree laden with fruit. Thereupon he thought: ‘This tree is laden with fruit but none has fallen to the ground. I known how to climb a tree, so let me climb this tree, eat as much fruit as I want, and fill my bag.’ And he did so. Then a second man came needing fruit, seeking fruit, wandering in search of fruit, and taking a sharp axe, he too entered the grove and saw that tree laden with fruit. Thereupon he thought: ‘This tree is laden with fruit but none of this fruit has fallen to the ground. I do not know how to climb a tree, so let me cut this tree down at is root, eat as much fruit as I want, and fill my bag.’ And he did so. What do you think, householder? If that first man who had climbed the tree doesn’t come down quickly, when the tree falls, wouldn’t he break his hand or foot or some other part of his body, so that he might incur death or deadly suffering because of that?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“So too, householder, a noble disciple considers thus: ‘Sensual pleasures have been compared to fruits on a tree by the Blessed One; they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.’ Having seen this thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops the equanimity that is unified, based on unity, where clinging to the material things of the world utterly ceases without remainder.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.22. Alagadduupama Sutta: The Simile of the Snake (อลคัททูปมสูตร)

8 …”Good bhikkhus. It is good that you understand the Dhamma taught by me thus. For in many ways I have stated how obstructive things are obstructions, and how they are able to obstruct one who engages in them. I have stated that sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering and despair, and that the danger in them is still more. With the simile of the skeleton…with the simile of the snake’s head, I have stated … that the danger in them is still more. …
9. “Bhikkhus, that one can engage in sensual pleasures without sensual desires, without perceptions of sensual desire, without thought of sensual desire–that is impossible.

Majjhima Nikaya MN.66. La.tukikopama Sutta: The Simile of the Quail (ลฑุกิโกปมสูตร)

18. “There are, Udaayin, five cords of sensual pleasure. What are the five? Forms cognizable by the eye that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and likeable, connected with sensual desire and provocative of lust. Sounds cognizable by the ear…Odours cognizable by the nose…Flavours cognizable by the tongue…Tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and likeable, connected with sensual desire and provocative of lust. These are the five cords of sensual pleasure.

19. “Now, Udaayin, the pleasure and joy that arise dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure are called sensual pleasure–a filthy pleasure, a course pleasure, an ignoble pleasure. I should say of this kind of pleasure that it should not be pursued, that it should not be developed, that it should not be cultivated, that it should be feared.

20. “Here, Udaayin, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhaana…With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, he enters upon and abides in the second jhaana…With the fading away as well of rapture…he enters upon and abides in the third jhaana…With the abandoning of pleasure and pain…he enters upon and abides in the fourth jhaana…

21. “This is called the bliss of renunciation, the bliss of seclusion, the bliss of peace, the bliss of enlightenment. I say of this kind of pleasure that it should be pursued, that it should be developed, that it should be cultivated, that it should not be feared.

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