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Buddha’s Words (Talk 08 of 13) – 2005 Series

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/15/2005
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Pali Canon

Eighth of Series of talks on the Pali Canon based on the book “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bhikkhu Bodhi


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

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

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

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.


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