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Buddha’s Words: Pleasure, Views, and Truth

January 8, 2013
'Pleasure' by velo_city via Flickr.com

‘Pleasure’ by velo_city via Flickr.com

Have you every felt that frisson of unease that tells you there’s something wrong about what you’re perceiving?  That you’re missing something?  Things are not what they seem?  You’re not the only one.  The interesting this is that the source of this unease isn’t the world out there, but rather the world in here – in the way our minds have been habituated to work.

In Chapter VI Deepening One’s Perspective on the World of his book, In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi lays out the Second Noble Truth succinctly and then expands on it.

…the highest happiness cannot be won by yielding to the longings of the heart but only by subduing them.

To follow the Buddha in the direction he wants to lead us, we have to learn to see beneath the surface glitter of pleasure, position, and power that usually enthralls us, and at the same time, to learn to see through the deceptive distortions of perception, thought, and views that habitually cloak our vision.  Ordinarily, we represent things to ourselves through the refractory prism of subjective biases.  These biases are shaped by our craving and attachments, which they in turn reinforce.  We see things that we want to see; we blot out things that threaten or disturb us, that shake our complacency, that throw into question our comforting assumptions about ourselves and our lives.  To undo this process involves a commitment to truth that is often unsettling, but in the long run proves exhilarating and liberating. (p. 185-6)

We may begin to suspect this through our daily perceptions and interactions or as a result of our meditation.  I began to feel this unease as a teenager, perhaps even as a child, long before I understood its source.  But I did know that far beyond the plentiful problems of the world out there, something about myself was if not exactly ‘wrong’ then at least ‘missing.’  There was and is something I just don’t get on a deep, fundamental level.  And I suspected that others around me didn’t quite get it either, although there were certainly those who seemed closer.

It wasn’t until I was twenty-two and began to read the Dharma that I found someone who did get it, or had, at any rate – the Buddha.  And the teachers who preserved the Dharma through the centuries seemed to understand more about the nature of our minds than anyone I had found.  Although I am still a skeptic, I found more faith in my Buddhist teachers (even though I’d never met them) than any others.  They offered many answers, but all of which needed to be investigated and internalized before they can become truly effective.  The first of these is an answer to the question “Why do we suffer?”

Bhikkhu Bodhi outlines one model of how we react to the world we perceive in three steps:

  1. Gratification (assada) – We realize we obtain pleasure or joy, however momentary, from fulfilling our desires.
  2. Danger (adinava) – That these pleasures are impermanent (anicca) and subject to decay results in suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha).
  3. Escape (nissarana) – We decide to search for an exit from this cycle, not by ignoring it (escapism), but by acknowledging it and seeking detachment.

Not only do sensual pleasures lead to suffering when they depart, even the pursuit and enjoyment of them is bound up with suffering.   We work double shifts in order to get that new car, which inevitably breaks down.  Whatever pleasure we take in our achievements soon moderates as our happiness returns to its baseline.  Then we must seek new sources of pleasure.  This cycle is caused by our misunderstanding that getting absolutely everything we want will lead to a permanent increased level of happiness.  This maladaptive view leads to suffering.

Craving for sensual pleasures is one trap that keeps beings bound to the round of rebirths.  Another major trap is attachment to views.  Thus, to clear the path to Nibbana, the Buddha not only had to dispel infatuation with sensual pleasures but also to expose the danger in views.

The most dangerous of wrong views are those that deny or undermine the foundations of ethics. …Views also lead to one-sided, biased interpretations of reality that we cling to as accurate and complete.  People who cling tenaciously to their own views of a particular situation often come into conflict with those who view the same situation in a different light.  Views thus give rise to conflicts and disputes. (p. 189)

The trouble is caused by our attachment to our views, our inability to let go of our habitual patterns of our behavior, and our conviction that they are not merely correct, but “natural” and “inevitable.”  Therefore, the Buddha uses many dramatic visualizations, analogies, and metaphors to describe the unsatisfactory nature of existence.  He tries to forcefully knock us out of our complacency.   This is a dramatic change to how we have for years, even lifetimes, viewed our world, our mind, and the nature of our existence.

We don’t reject it because it confirms the deep unease we’ve felt.  The unease that tells us something is “wrong” or simply not as “right” as it could be.  That unease lets us know that something else is possible – the end of our suffering – enlightenment and nibbana. We should embrace it, cultivate it, and use it to see deeply into the sources of our suffering.

[The Buddha said to his monks] “And what is the drawback of sensuality? There is the case where, on account of the occupation by which a clansman makes a living — whether checking or accounting or calculating or plowing or trading or cattle-tending or archery or as a king’s man, or whatever the occupation may be — he faces cold, he faces heat, being harassed by mosquitoes & flies, wind & sun & creeping things, dying from hunger & thirst.

“Now this drawback in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.

“If the clansman gains no wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘My work is in vain, my efforts are fruitless!’ …

“If the clansman gains wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he experiences pain & distress in protecting it: ‘How will neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ And as he thus guards and watches over his property, kings or thieves make off with it, or fire burns it, or water sweeps it away, or hateful heirs make off with it. And he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘What was mine is no more!’ …

“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source, sensuality for the cause, the reason being simply sensuality, that kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmans with brahmans, householders with householders, mother with child, child with mother, father with child, child with father, brother with brother, sister with sister, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend. And then in their quarrels, brawls, & disputes, they attack one another with fists or with clods or with sticks or with knives, so that they incur death or deadly pain. …

“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (men), taking swords & shields and buckling on bows & quivers, charge into battle massed in double array while arrows & spears are flying and swords are flashing; and there they are wounded by arrows & spears, and their heads are cut off by swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain. …

“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (men) break into windows, seize plunder, commit burglary, ambush highways, commit adultery, and when they are captured, kings have them tortured in many ways. They flog them with whips, beat them with canes, beat them with clubs. They cut off their hands, cut off their feet, cut off their hands & feet. They cut off their ears, cut off their noses, cut off their ears & noses. They subject them to the ‘porridge pot,’ the ‘polished-shell shave,’ the ‘Rahu’s mouth,’ the ‘flaming garland,’ the ‘blazing hand,’ the ‘grass-duty (ascetic),’ the ‘bark-dress (ascetic),’ the ‘burning antelope,’ the ‘meat hooks,’ the ‘coin-gouging,’ the ‘lye pickling,’ the ‘pivot on a stake,’ the ‘rolled-up bed.’ They have them splashed with boiling oil, devoured by dogs, impaled alive on stakes. They have their heads cut off with swords, so that they incur death or deadly pain. …

“Again, it is with sensuality for the reason, sensuality for the source… that (people) engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, mental misconduct. Having engaged in bodily, verbal, and mental misconduct, they — on the break-up of the body, after death — re-appear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. …

“And what, monks, is the escape from sensuality? The subduing of desire-passion for sensuality, the abandoning of desire-passion for sensuality: That is the escape from sensuality.

– MN 13:7-16, Mahadukkhakkhandha Sutta,
translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and available on Access to Insight

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan permalink
    January 9, 2013 8:15 am

    Samvega is perhaps a description of what you felt: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/affirming.html

  2. January 9, 2013 10:38 am

    Oh, that’s a good reference. I’ve heard of samvega, but only just vaguely. It sounds somewhat like what the existentialists called “angst.” (Used slightly different from its modern pop culture meaning.) I’ll have to research that more. Thanks, Alan!

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