Forum: Working with Sense Pleasures

A panel discussion on sense-pleasures with Mel Weitsman, Miranda Shaw, Bhante Walpola Piyananda and Reginald Ray.

When we asked our panelists, “What is the essence of the Buddhist approach to renunciation and sensuality?” their answers began with a position that all Buddhist sects hold in common: that the dharma is the “middle way” between extremes of harsh asceticism and headlong indulgence in sensuality. This is the expression the Buddha originally used to distinguish his path from that of his Hindu teachers. When Gautama Shakyamuni first decided to try to free himself from a world that had sickness, old age and death as its inevitable result, he followed the advice of his teachers and tried to separate himself in meditation practice from his senses—to still his thoughts, kill his emotions, and destroy his body’s desire for material things. At a certain point he abandoned this approach as ineffective and invented a new style of moral restraint that charted a middle way between the extremes of harsh rejection of the phenomenal world and sensory indulgence in it.

Buddhadharma: Bhante Piyananda, in your book Saffron Days In L.A., you quote several verses from the Dhammapada:

From lust arises grief,
From lust arises fear.
For him who is free from lust
There is no grief, much less fear.
Like a monkey in the forest
You jump from tree to tree,
Never finding the fruit—
From life to life, never finding peace.

This describes lust, the desire for sense pleasures, as a central cause of our suffering, and of samsara itself. How central is the problem of lust to Buddhist philosophy?

Bhante Piyananda: In the Buddha’s first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he explained the middle path. He had experienced both self-mortification and the luxurious life, meaning the life devoted to sense pleasure. He said the search for happiness through sense pleasure is low, common, unprofitable, the way of ordinary people. He said we cannot understand things as they are through indulging in sense pleasure. On the other hand, Buddha said, the search for happiness through self-mortification is not good either. Buddha avoided these two extremes and followed the middle path.

Mel Weitsman: I appreciate what Bhante said. The ideal is to find the middle way, and then there’s the actual playing out of dharma in our life. We are all, every one of us, sensual beings. We have five senses, and we have the mind sense and the ego sense and various levels of consciousness that look for satisfaction. We need to take into consideration the world in which we find ourselves and look at how we deal with this problem of attachment within our own world. That’s especially true nowadays, when sensuality is being sold to us without limit.

Buddhadharma: Where does attachment to the sense pleasures come in the process of the twelve nidanas, the chain of dependent origination?

Bhante Piyananda: In dependent origination, we start with avidya, ignorance, as a cause. Then we have three roads, in Pali terms lobha (greed), dosa (hatred), and moha (ignorance). It is due to these three that all of our suffering started. In other words, if we can begin to remove our greed, hatred and ignorance, we can begin to end our suffering. In particular, the attachment to sense pleasures is a problem of our greed, or passion.

It all begins with avidya, though. We have traveled continually in samsara due to this basic ignorance.

Reginald Ray: Sometimes in the West attachment is confused with experience. In terms of the nidana framework, it’s interesting that attachment really only arises at the eighth nidana. In other words it comes along very late in the evolution of our experience. This helps us to see that sense experience itself is not considered a problem in Buddhism. The problem is the kind of attitude we have toward it. Attachment—embodied in passion, aggression and ignorance—represents attitude and that evolves pretty late in the chain.

The whole problem of ego is that we attempt to maintain a continuous monologue that confirms our identity and security. The attitude I’m talking about occurs when we try to use sense experience to reinforce our sense of ourselves. Rather than taking sense experience in and of itself and appreciating its possibilities, we try to co-opt it. Of course, that is a big problem because pleasurable experience has a potentially positive use and negative and painful experience has a negative impact. So we have to go through all kinds of conceptual conniptions in order to domesticate our sense experience.

Miranda Shaw: From the beginning, Buddhism has balanced two seemingly opposing tendencies. First, we have the need to renounce the world, the need for detachment, the need to renounce our greed and dependence on sense experience as a source of happiness. At the same time, though, there’s always been a profound impulse to affirmation the world and a sense that the goal of the practice is not to escape the world or leave it to go to a better place. We see this in the representation of Shakyamuni Buddha. The most popular way of representing him is in the earth-touching gesture, in which his hand is held to the ground. For me this portrays the sense that enlightenment is not something that is going to remove you from the world of sense experience, is not going to take you to another sphere, but is going to involve a profound groundedness in reality and on earth—an enlightened participation in life.

In early Buddhism, we also have the iconography of the stupa. The stupa mound itself is relatively plain, and it rises above the horizon, showing a sense of peace and stillness. But the railing surrounding the stupa is carved with a profusion of blossoming lotuses, plants, wildlife, birds and people in a harmonious interplay. This signals that the fruit of Buddhist practice is a harmonious vision of life, an ecstatic fullness of nature and human beings, in which human life will attain a fullness of perfection and celebration. So those two impulses have been present from the beginning.

Buddhadharma: Yet they are both paths to the same goal, liberation.

Miranda Shaw: The paradox is that we detach from our attachments but not from the world itself.

Bhante Piyananda: Yes, we must not escape from society. However, we have to understand reality. If we do understand reality, things as they are, we do not get into trouble. When we surrender to our senses, as we do most of the time, we do not look at things as they are.

Buddhadharma: Is the challenge just our attachment to the sense pleasures, or do we simultaneously have to work with our aversion to pain?

Mel Weitsman: Pleasure and pain are pretty subjective. Within pain there’s pleasure, and within pleasure there’s pain. Pain is a natural element of living in this world. We can’t avoid pain, but pain is not necessarily suffering. Pain can either liberate us or bite us, depending on how we approach it.

Pleasure may be the same. It is not necessarily something bad or good. Pleasure is simply pleasure. But if we’re attached to pleasure or are caught by pleasure, then we have a problem. The problem is not really with pleasure or pain, the problem is with our attitude and how we become caught by something. It is about liking and disliking. We habituate ourselves to something we like and avert something we dislike. As we begin to investigate, we come to the question, What is really the source of the problem? That’s what we need to keep looking at. The source of the problem is maybe not with objects of pleasure or objects of pain but with our attitudes and our approach to attachment.

Bhante Piyananda: Yes, and at the same time we have to ask, How does it come to be? How does it die away? Just as we can see that the leaves fall from the trees in autumn, wise ones must understand that everything is subject to change. If we understand impermanence, then we will be able to handle pain as well as pleasures. That is how to develop the habit of renunciation.

Buddhadharma: So when you understand impermanence, you see that it makes no sense to become attached?

Bhante Piyananda: If we look at things as impermanent, we can release our grasping. We have two kinds of meditation techniques to support that: shamatha, the method of achieving tranquility of mind, and vipassana, the technique for understanding the realities of life. Shamatha meditation includes forty-two techniques we can apply depending on our temperament. For instance, if I have a lustful character that I cannot control, I must practice meditation on death or impurity. When I do that meditation on death and understand its nature, then gradually I’ll be able to remove my desire. It is a tool to get rid of our attachment.

Reginald Ray: If we have an intellectual understanding of impermanence, it does undermine our tendency to grasp after sense experience. But one thing I’ve learned from Goenka’s teaching on vipassana is that if you have an immediate awareness of impermanence, if you actually see the sense experience arise and disappear within your body, there’s nothing there to hang on to. Attachment doesn’t really come up as an issue, because there’s such a sense of movement and groundlessness that the mind simply doesn’t go there.

Buddhadharma: Having talked about shamatha and vipassana, perhaps we could talk about purely Vajrayana methods, which actually heighten passion as a way of working with attachment.

Miranda Shaw: One of the key differences I think between the Theravada and tantric approaches came up in Bhante’s comment that when one understands the impermanent nature of things one will automatically detach. In tantra I think a different conclusion is derived. When one understands the essential nature of phenomena as empty of intrinsic reality, the appropriate response is to go to the heart of experience—to immerse oneself in experience and find there the treasury of wisdom and bliss that each experience holds.

The tantrikas called themselves heroes and heroines because they saw themselves as fearlessly diving into the ocean of the passions in order to gain the pearls of enlightenment. For them, turning away from sense experience contained a lot of hidden dangers that one may be inadvertently repressing or avoiding experiences. Therefore, one should place oneself in situations that will be most likely to arouse all kinds of attachments. Instead of withdrawing, for example, perhaps one would immerse oneself in relationships—which can arouse our most profound attachments and fears and passions—and use them as a stepping stone.

Buddhadharma: What are they a stepping stone toward?

Miranda Shaw: To discovering that sense experiences are intrinsically pure and blissful. The description of reality-as-it-is shifts somewhat. On the one hand, it is empty of intrinsic reality, but it is also inherently blissful. The way to realize the intrinsic pleasure of being that is our birthright is to immerse ourselves in experiences and not get caught up in our ego-oriented interpretations. Instead, the sense experiences themselves become the objects of our most focused and fearless attention. Musicians, for example, could focus on their music—not turn away from it as a source of attachment but immerse themselves in it to get to the heart of the experience. Attention to dance, to yoga, to bodily disciplines generally, could all be ways to gain access to the inherent blissfulness of embodiment. Tantrikas are careful to distinguish between ordinary pleasure and this kind of transcendent pleasure.

Buddhadharma: Is there a specific way of working with sense pleasures in Zen?

Mel Weitsman: Desire is the key word in this regard. Desire is not necessarily good or bad. Desire is a life force working in the world. We have our necessary desires—getting enough sleep, getting enough food, maintaining ourselves. But that’s not what we mean by desire here. Desire in this case is something extra, something more than what’s needed.

Instead of using desire for self-gratification, we could turn desire in another direction. When desire is turned toward practice it’s called “way thinking mind.” It loses its designation as desire, but desire is still there, because it’s the desire to seek the way. When the desire to seek the way becomes pleasurable, the desire for self-gratification through other pleasures can diminish. One can work with the balance or tension between self-gratification and desire for the dharma, desire for freedom within the dharma. The dharma is pleasurable for us.

We have a saying, a ghata, that we sometimes use when we have an informal meal: “We venerate the three treasures and are thankful. Now as I take food and drink, I vow with all beings to partake in the pleasure of Zen and fully enjoy the dharma.” This means we have pleasure and enjoyment in the dharma. This is where enjoyment comes from. The more we seek pleasure and enjoyment from practicing the dharma and immersing ourselves in the practice, the less interesting sensual pleasures from various outside sources become.

Reginald Ray: I’d like to go back to what Miranda was saying about ordinary pleasure and transcendent pleasure. We think there’s only one kind of pleasure and pain: pain that doesn’t feel good and pleasure that feels good. But there’s a kind of pain and pleasure beyond ego that operates outside of the five skandhas and outside of the nidanas. That kind of pain and pleasure is what the Vajrayana is dealing with, and nobody likes that kind of pain and pleasure because it’s undomesticated and it destabilizes the ego.

The Vajrayana picked up on the fact that in rejecting pleasure many of the more conventional Buddhist schools were throwing out the transcendent pleasure of great bliss along with the pain. They realized that there is an implicit fear involved in an approach that throws out both ego pleasure and transcendent pleasure. They felt that somehow the people who were taking that more conventional view had not really achieved liberation, because there was still this underlying antipathy to pleasure in all forms, including those that operate beyond ego. The Vajrayana took the notion of transcendent pleasure as a final stepping stone toward complete liberation.

Buddhadharma: Bhante, do you recognize any distinction between conventional pleasure and transcendent pleasure?

Bhante Piyananda: Pleasure, conventionally or in any form, is pleasure. However, we do have a desire to practice meditation and a desire to attain nibbana. In the Ratavinita Sutta, Shariputra asks, “Is it for the sake of purification of virtue that the holy life is lived under the blessed one?” The answer is no. Virtue is only the means to a higher end. If we’re clinging to any desires, we may not be able to attain enlightenment. We could even cling to something good, such as one of the five faculties [faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom]. If I have too much faith, I may not be able to meditate well unless I balance it with wisdom. If I have a lot of energy without concentration, I might not achieve a good result. We have to balance, rather than cling; that’s the most important thing.

Reginald Ray: This might be an interesting difference in the way the traditions speak. In the Vajrayana it would not be said that we need to deny clinging or cut clinging but rather that we need to take it as an object of meditation. Certainly in Mahamudra practice, the more disgusting and dirty the klesha is, the more appropriate it is for meditation. For example, if we feel a tremendous amount of clinging towards a certain person or a certain experience, rather than reject the clinging we make it the object of meditation. Through penetrating it and understanding it, not only does its emptiness become a matter of experience but the energy of the clinging is transformed into great bliss. It’s also transformed into compassion. It becomes fuel for the journey and for relating to other people. For the Vajrayana, even clinging itself, which in some traditions is regarded as a dangerous and problematic thing, is taken and transformed through Mahamudra or Dzogchen practice.

Miranda Shaw: This phenomenon points to a genuine shift in the terminology of the tradition. Whereas in the earlier Theravada tradition attachment and desire are genuinely regarded as a danger, in tantra the emphasis shifts and that desire or passion is seen as a great treasure. Passion becomes our guide to wisdom, because each of us has our deep sensitivities and places where we’re very open, where we’re vulnerable to the depth of experience and reality. Instead of turning away from those places, they become the focus of our meditation and the fuel for our practice.

Bhante Piyananda: I think all Buddhist traditions accept what the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutta: When you know for yourself that certain things are unwholesome—immoral, unwise and not conducive to the happiness of oneself and others—give them up. When you know for yourself that certain things are wholesome, accept them and follow them. Some desires are wholesome, and those we can accept for the progress of meditation and enlightenment. But whatever is unwholesome, whatever is harmful for us, whatever is harmful for society, we must give up. I think all of Buddhism agrees about that basic doctrine.

Mel Weitsman: All of our passions, all of our drives, are meaningful. It’s not a matter of getting rid of this or getting rid of that. It’s a matter of balancing, so that everything works together harmoniously. Harmony is the key, in the mind, in the heart—and in the ego. We think we can get rid of ego, so we won’t have any more problems, but ego is not something that we can get rid of, really. In the hierarchy of consciousness, manas, ego, has a function. Ego is the sense of self, and the sense of self seems to be the problem. When the self arises, there’s clinging and attachment. When there’s no clinging and no attachment, we can say there’s no real self there. Nevertheless, ego has a function, and when the ego is functioning in a harmonious way with the head and the heart and the emotions and the senses, it’s much easier to sort out what is attachment, what is worth taking up and what is worth letting go.

Buddhadharma: Theravada and Vajrayana offer very different, even opposed, methods of working with attachment. Does Zen offer some middle ground on this?

Mel Weitsman: I could approach that with an example from the life of my teacher, Suzuki Roshi. In general, he didn’t smoke and didn’t drink; he took care of himself. When he went to a party, however, he allowed himself to have one drink. He would take one drink of champagne or whatever was offered, but he would say no thank you for the rest of the night. He would participate and be with people, but he would participate only to the point where he was not given over to attachment, clinging or indulgence.

Learning how to participate, how to flow with things, how to move with society, how to move with the people around you, without being attached to it, is the method. But I would rather talk about it as attitude rather than method, because method, although it’s helpful—and I have no criticism of other people’s methods—it’s the attitude that makes the difference. We have ten major precepts and many more minor ones. We keep those precepts through our attitude, not simply by following them by rote.

Reginald Ray: This might be another interesting difference. In the Vajrayana, there are many stages the practitioner goes through in relating to the world. One of the stages is that your meditation is stable, your virtue is impeccable, and you basically can handle whatever comes up in your practice. When things are stable like that, your teacher is very likely to ask you to go to a foreign city or to a place you’re very afraid of, or to go to your own village and act as if you’ve become insane. You need to leave behind your conventional and well-ordered Buddhist self and be in situations where emotions that you can’t handle and situations that make you feel insecure provoke in you a new level of clinging and expose the nakedness of your ego-clinging.

This offers rich opportunities to meditate on whatever comes up, whether it’s anger or fear or paranoia or jealousy or humiliation. The Vajrayana is not interested in your attaining an even and relatively confident presence within the Buddhist world but in going into the very depths of samsara and seeing what your level of understanding and realization is. It’s heroic and outrageous. Many of the stories you hear about the great tantric practitioners are ones that from a conventional Buddhist point of view would be outlandish and very disturbing.

Bhante Piyananda: But who is going to be the judge of your meditation technique or your stability? Buddha addressed this point very well, when he said that even two monks living together for a hundred years in the same room could not judge whether their fellow monk is enlightened or not, could not judge whether the other one knew everything or nothing at all. How can we say that a Vajrayana person, or a Zen person or a Theravada person who gets enlightened can avoid this basic fact.

That’s why we have to have the strict discipline of the vinaya. As a monk, I must follow certain rules, no matter what. I cannot break these rules even to please the society or work with people. I must not even touch a drop of alcohol. In our tradition, and I think in other traditions also, the important thing is sila, virtue. Virtue plays a very important role. When we practice virtue, we will be able to get into the samadhi states. Without samadhi, we will not have good meditation. Without good meditation, we will not be able to attain nibbana or get the highest knowledge.

Buddhadharma: Therefore, if you cannot be certain about your realization or others’ realization, you can’t take the risk of violating the norms of disciplined behavior.

Reginald Ray: Nobody should take that risk unless they begin to find that their Buddhist practice has become a source of security and self-congratulation. At a certain point in your practice, you may realize that you’ve accomplished all you can with the conventional vehicles and that unless you’re willing to take the ultimate risk of exploring territory you feel unfamiliar with, realization is not going to be possible. So you only do it as a last resort.

Buddhadharma: We have looked at the sense pleasures from the point of view of the path. How would someone who is enlightened handle sense pleasures?

Miranda Shaw: I’d like to echo Sahajayoginichinta, an important Indian female Vajrayana teacher, who said that for one who has attained buddhahood, all the sense pleasures and all activities become like jewels in the palm of their hand.

An enlightened being can use all situations for one purpose, to liberate sentient beings, and that is done artfully and mindfully but with tremendous flexibility. In tantra, there’s no one type of display, or no one way of working with the sensory world, that will be liberating for all sentient beings. Some people may be inspired by the example of someone who is very restrained and modest and detached. Others may be inspired by the example of someone who commands vast resources and uses them in ways that nourish, nurture, heal and inspire others. For example, by using wealth to create educational and religious institutions or to engage in charitable work.

Some people need to be liberated by the example of someone who is in no way intimidated by the whole of the senses, someone who can freely enjoy and engage all sense pleasures and yet retain a mind that is untrammeled and free. Such a person could be very outrageous or appear to be a self-indulgent sybarite.

There is no limit to the possibilities. There is no one way. Enlightenment involves the artistry of devising means that will liberate all sentient beings.

Bhante Piyananda: I do not know whether all Theravadins agree about the tantric tradition; however, I believe all human beings need right understanding to appreciate the nature of life. Through right understanding, we can develop a proper attitude towards life and we can understand reality. I want to mention again that purification of mind and the practice of a wholesome life is what is emphasized. Depending on culture, custom and traditions, the rituals of practice may be different. However, as the Buddha said in the Majjhima Nikaya, Ambalattik Rahulovada Sutta, we have to avoid any behavior that is harmful to society and harmful to ourselves. Whatever is good for us and good for society is what should be practiced. That is how we can truly practice religion.

Reginald Ray: I liked what Mel said about all our experiences being meaningful. In Vajrayana terms, we would call this seeing the sacredness of experience. We could talk about each experience—whatever it may be and however it may be judged by conventional standards—as empty of inherent essence, and luminous, splendid, striking in its appearance. But experience also has a movement to it, and there’s a kind of unfolding quality to experience, which is something the Vajrayana also attends to. It sees that our experience, as it unfolds in our lives in accordance with the laws of karma, is actually the unfolding of wisdom and compassion.

An enlightened person has a tremendous amount of trust in what happens in his or her life and in the world. Such a person sees that each occurrence is an opportunity to connect with other people and help them. At the same time, each thing that happens is a moment of awakening to ourselves as practitioners. The enlightened person exhibits an ultimate trust in life and in what occurs. But it’s not a blind trust—it’s a trust that emerges out of direct insight into how things really are at the deepest level.

Mel Weitsman: I definitely agree with the importance of trust—to have intrinsic trust in our practice and in the fact that the practice supports us when we support the practice. I’ve seen that trust work over and over again. There are two tracks. One is how we deal with ourselves, how we take care of ourselves and practice for our own enlightenment. The other is how we take care of others.

These two go hand in hand. To try to understand people is the best way we can let go of our clinging and our attachments to desires and to anger and ill will. We see what is behind it all. When we do that, it gives us space and nonattachment to whatever comes up. This is basic Buddhist meditation: simply to notice how things arise and how they cease to arise, and to be with them when they’re there. When we allow this process, we gain some freedom.

Sometimes we also have to step into a situation where there’s some attachment and we have to be able to accept that as well. Sometimes that’s the skillful means for helping people. There are many ways in the dharma and I can’t criticize any way of the dharma. I think each school and each discipline has its own approach and each approach is wonderful and interesting and works.