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Buddha's Words (Talk 08 of 13)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 15, 2005
In topic: Early Buddhism
Eighth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book "In the Buddha's Words" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
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Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

Tonight I’m going to speak a little bit about Chapter 6. The title of the chapter is “Deepening One’s Perspective on the World.” I’m going to emphasize the part about sensual pleasures, the sensual world.

First I would like to bring up the teaching in this section on what Bhikkhu Bodhi calls the “three moments of our understanding of experience.” He translates the three traditional words “gratification,” “danger,” and “escape.” So those are the three moments of our experiencing something: gratification, danger, and escape. Gratification is that moment of experience in which we are seeking, and maybe finding, satisfaction in things: in sensual pleasures, in accomplishment, in accumulation, in romance, in adventure, and so on.

The second moment is called danger. And that’s the moment when we come to understand the limitation and the unsatisfactoriness within the gratification that we have been seeking.

The third moment is called escape. It doesn’t mean, as Bhikkhu Bodhi points out, escapism, as in “Let’s think about something else!” The way I would interpret it is not from the Theravada standpoint, but from the standpoint of our practice. I would see escape as the full integration of the previous two, going beyond the seeming contradiction that it looks like in gratification and danger.

In the Theravada texts, these Pali canon texts, when the Buddha’s talking about ordinary life, “the dusty life of the world,” as he puts it so many times, what stands out is the Buddha’s depiction of this ordinary sensual world as being not only basically unsatisfactory, but also dangerous, disgusting, and horrible. For example, you read this chapter, and it sounds like the Buddha’s comparing the ordinary world to holding a sheaf of grasses in flames in the face of a wind. Reading these texts can be a little discouraging. “This is pretty negative! The Buddha really hated the world or something! Life-denying! Exaggerated!” So it’s important to note that the Buddha is not saying that the ordinary world is disgusting and dangerous. He’s saying that if we don’t appreciate the disgusting, dangerous, and horrible aspects of the world, which coexist along with other aspects of the world, our view is going to be very, very limited, and we are going to suffer.

The reason that he emphasizes the difficult and negative side is that that’s where we all are so deficient. We’re all deeply enamored of the world, of the body, of the things of the senses, of position, power, fame, etc. etc. We’re literally enchanted by the world. The ordinary material world has got us totally in its thrall, and so that’s why the Buddha is rubbing our nose in the other side. Now take, for example, some of the extensive discussions about the human body in the Canon. There’s a whole meditation on how disgusting the body is. It’s full of puss and phlegm and feces and urine and scum. It’s subject to constant decay, to mutilation, to aging. There are nine stages of corpse meditation, and so forth. And yet we worship the body. We are literally mesmerized by our own body; we lust after other bodies; and we’re constantly preening and looking in the mirror. And yet we’re constantly dissatisfied with the body. The most beautiful person is constantly dissatisfied.

So the Buddha’s not telling us that the body is not beautiful and is not a cause for celebration and joy, because the body is very beautiful and is a cause for celebration and joy. But when we’re focused on gratification only, we’re only thinking about the shapely limbs and beautiful hair and lips and the shiny white teeth, and we’re pining away for these things. Escape is to appreciate the whole body as it really is, in its true magnificence. Most of the time, when the Buddha gives, as he does in some of the texts here, his most drastic depictions of the danger in sensuality, it’s because he’s talking to somebody who he knows is so attached to the body or the sensual world that this person needs a kind of shock therapy to get them out of it. That’s why there are all these drastic depictions. Not because the Buddha’s saying “This is how it is,” it’s the Buddha saying, “For you, I’d better say this, because you need to hear this—maybe it will wake you up.” So to be caught in a bleak and negative underestimation of the world’s worth is just as bad as, or actually I think worse than, to be caught in an overestimation. In both cases, we’re suffering.

The third section is “Properly Appraising Objects of Attachment”—in other words, having a balanced and objective view of objects of attachment. This text begins with the monks encountering ascetics of other sects, and the ascetics from the other sects say to the disciples of the Buddha:

The Buddha describes the full understanding of sensual pleasures, and we do, too. And the Buddha describes the full understanding of form (meaning the body), and we do, too. And the Buddha describes the full understanding of feeling, and we do, too.

So, in other words, “Just like you, the disciples of Buddha, we also have been thinking about these things for a long time and doing our spiritual cultivation. We have a view of sensual pleasure and of the body and of the feelings—so what’s the difference? In other words, we’re in the same business, and you obviously do it differently than we do it. How do you do it? What’s your view?”

There’s a footnote here which explains that these other ascetics have developed very skillful meditation practice. They have entered the jhanic states, states of deep meditation, in which they purified the world, taking things that have two sides and purifying them from their more negative coarse sides. So the physical world in meditation states becomes wholly pleasurable and refined, and you eliminate the gross dimensions of it.

So these monastics, the non-followers of the Buddha, have purified and refined their world, eliminating the defilements, and they want to know, what’s the difference between that and what the Buddha is teaching. Now from the point of view of the Buddha, to purify the world and make it perfect and beautiful is not a true escape—in other words to create a meditation Shangri La of perfect peace and bliss is not really an escape, because you can’t really and truly eliminate the negative and coarse aspects of life. It’s only temporary. To eliminate them in meditation or create special circumstances of perfection is no real escape. There is no escape from seeing both the positive and negative sides of our life. So the true escape is to be able to take in the good and the bad, completely embracing both, and finding our comfort there, rather than depending on a refined condition or refined circumstances, which seems to eliminate the difficulties.

Then the Buddha teaches them what gratification, danger, and escape are in the three areas of sensual pleasure, the body, and feelings. In the case of sensual pleasure, he says the gratification of sensual pleasure is the gratification of the five “cords” of sensual pleasure, which are the five senses.

Now when pleasure and joy arise dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure, that’s the gratification in the case of sensual pleasure. What’s the danger, monks? Here, monks, on account of the craft by which a clansman makes a living, whether checking, accounting, calculating, farming, trading, husbandry, archery, the royal service or whatever craft it may be, he has to face cold and heat; he is injured by contact with gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, creeping things. He risks death by hunger and thirst.

This is the danger of sensual pleasures, the other side of pleasure, that we’re just as capable of feeling pain and discomfort. What else is the danger in sensual pleasures in the material world?

If no property comes to the clansman while he works and strives and makes an effort thus, he sorrows, grieves, and laments. He weeps, beating his breast and becoming distraught, crying, “My work is in vain! My effort is fruitless!” [I’m working hard but I didn’t get anything, I didn’t get enough money, so I’m miserable.]

So that’s also a problem with the material world. You can get something, you can make a lot of money, but you can also fail to make a lot of money, so then you’re really upset. And suppose you are successful in making a lot of money or gaining reputation or whatever it is you were after. Well, when you gain it, you could lose it, and you become anxious, and you become obsessed with protecting what you have.

If property does come, he experiences pain and grief in protecting it. “How shall neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor unloved heirs make off with it?”

“Unloved heirs” appears frequently in these texts, so that must have been a real problem in ancient India. I think it must have been commonplace in ancient India that unloved heirs come after you are dead and fight with their siblings to get something out of the estate. So in other words, if you are successful, think of all the potential misery and anxiety. And even if you’re not anxious, you could be creating enormous problems for your heirs, the loved ones and the unloved ones.

Then you have the potential for many problems: legal battles, suits and countersuits, fistfights, wars. Then there is much detail about all the different body parts that can be cut off with sharp swords over material desire and wealth and so on. And we see this in our world as well. People are killing one another, creating unbelievable carnage and mayhem that begins to have its own energy and perpetuates itself beyond the initial intention, due to people wanting to protect their property and their well-being. So this is all the danger in worldly or sensual pleasures.

Another thing in seeking these sensual pleasures or wealth is that you might become dishonest; you might break precepts; you might become a sneaky, lying person. Then you become dishonest to yourself, and you become divorced from your heart, all because of the danger inherent in sensual pleasure and success.

And what, monks, is the escape in the case of sensual pleasures? It is the removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for sensual pleasures. This is the escape in the case of sensual pleasures.

When you read that, you think it might be saying, “Oh no. So we’re supposed to completely give up everything and have soy sauce for dinner every night. Never go to the movies.” I don’t think it means that. The Buddha is not advocating that we hate and despise the sensual world, the ordinary world. He’s saying to give up the grasping, the lusting, the obsession, the madly reaching and thirsting and grabbing. That’s what we have to give up if we want to escape the dangers of the ordinary world. Why don’t we just learn how to be more richly present, so that we can receive what happens to come with some real enjoyment, seeing it as it actually is, not just seeing merely our own obsession, but seeing what’s actually there, thereby escaping from all the afflictive emotions that are going to be arising, like anxiety, guilt, violence, lust, greed, hatred. So it’s not running away from the world, or having aversion to the world. It’s simply stopping our obsession, stopping our greed and our grasping.

In the next section he talks about the body. Noticing that the body, on the one hand, is beautiful and gratifying, and on the other hand, has many difficult aspects to it, including aging and death . And what’s the escape?

It is the removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for form, for the body. This is the escape in the case of form.


Then he talks about feelings. And what is the gratification of feelings? When we purify the feelings through meditation practice, we can have the arising of beautiful feelings free from affliction.

And what’s the danger? Feelings are impermanent. Feelings carry with them suffering because they’re subject to change. So this is interesting. He doesn’t talk about afflictive feelings; he’s talking about just the simple fact that feelings change so easily. This is one of the great advantages to practice on the cushion, that you sit there and see just how constantly feelings are changing. So how do you remain, constant in living when it dawns on you how unbelievably unreliable and constantly shifting the feelings are? You know, we love in one minute; we hate in the next; the next minute we’re totally indifferent, even with people that we say we love. With regard to practice, one minute we think it’s the greatest thing in the world and we’re very enthusiastic, and the next minute we’re bored, and the next minute we’re wondering why in the world did we ever get mixed up with this!

How do you go forward? How do you get through the day when you notice that the feelings are constantly changing? The mood is like sunlight on the waters – the constant rippling effect, never anything the same for two minutes in a row. When you realize that you can’t base a life on your feelings because they’re very unreliable, you have to base your life on your intentions and your vows and your commitments. There is a certain quality and strength of mind that we do begin to cultivate in practice that gives us some inner strength. In other words, when we’re confident in our intentions and our vows, we have the freedom to pay attention to our feelings.

If we were staking our life on our feelings, what would that do to us? That would make us afraid to look at our feelings, because we might think, “Oh my god, what if I don’t really feel what I think I feel? What if I don’t really feel the way I’m depending on feeling? Better not go there. Better not look and see.” So I’m unwilling to see, for example that I really don’t like this career that I’m in. I don’t want to see that, because what are the implications of that if I feel that way? But if you actually look, you see that you do like it and you don’t like it; and you don’t like it and you do like it both. It changes every minute.

Since feelings are changing all the time, even if you have talked yourself into the fact that you’re miserable in a situation, the truth is sometimes you are, sometimes you’re not, sometimes you totally forget about it, and you look up and you see the sunset. We don’t need to be ruled by our feelings. We need to be aware of them and honest about them, but we don’t need to be afraid of them, because we know that we don’t have to be at the mercy of them. And our feelings are so various. It’s much worse not to face our feelings, not to know our feelings, than it is to face them. Because when we don’t know our feelings, they become more toxic and secret and unexamined. They become much more entrenched, and we actually become afraid of them. Whereas, if we allow ourselves the honesty and the mindfulness of looking, we see that our feelings really don’t hurt us. That’s a whole point of view that we develop over time with practice.