Notes on Sense Pleasures…

So What is Wrong with Sense Desire ?

Planet Yoga talk Aug 27 2009

Phra Cittasamvaro

Religion takes a dim view of sense desire, and sense pleasure. Think of Christian monastics living in rough conditions, or Indian ascetics torturing themselves… Even in Buddhism, eating once a day, enduring the tough conditions of the jungle etc. Sense pleasure is frowned upon.

This makes it a hard sell. People are interested in peace, happiness, calm, insight, and less stress. But when you mention giving up sense pleasures, suddenly the deal is far less attractive. In short – everyone wants their cake without the calories.

Many people in the modern world take up meditation with this idea. That it can be something extra to add on to all the other activities in life. Another passtime to fit in between the job, family, sports, socialising and passtimes. They want to make Samsara (the world) a little better, rather than finding something that is truly deeper.

And that is ok – not everyone can be a hard core ardent meditator.


In the Pali canon there are numerous words for ‘desire’, each with a different nuance. A few things to bear in mind:

Not all desire is bad – just because the Second Noble Truth is often translated as Desire causes suffering does not mean that you have to try and blot out all your desire. You couldn’t do that if you tried for 100 years.

Yet clearly, desire that is unrestrained is not a good thing. Think about your diet – if you just eat what you like, you won’t live too long. You practise restraint. You change your desire according to what is good and right rather than what is pleasurable. Same for exercise. Humans like sofas. We like to be comfortable, but if you don’t exercise your body it will deteriorate. You practise restraint in the tendency to taking it easy because it is sensible to do so.

Same for regular desires, in the mind. If you let them get hold of you, then they will cause trouble. On the other hand if you exercise restraint, you can use your mind for what is beneficial rather than what is stimulating or exciting. This should be common sense – a person who only wants to play, and not to dedicate themselves to learning some new things, or delayed gratification as psychology calls it, is immature.

There are also refined sense pleasures. Mozart, Picasso, Shakespeare – all are refined forms of sense pleasure. Even Gods enjoy refined sense pleasures, as the cosmology goes. But from the point of view of practise, while refined pleasures are often blameless, they are no different from coarse pleasures in their ability to distract.

There are also aspirations. These are desires to develop qualities such as compassion, patience, wisdom and all the rest. The good aspirations should be cultivated. Like a man with a thorn in his foot uses another thorn to pick out the first thorn, and then throws both away, so wholesome desires are used to aid in gaining insight into the state of mind where all desire has ceased.

To sum up, here is a soundbyte:

Getting what you want is not good

Getting what is good, is what you should want

In general life you can see that most people realise intellectually that having many possessions, and chasing sense pleasures is not healthy. Most believe that if they had just a little more than they have already they would be happy. This is irrespective of how much you actually have. If you know how to restrain your desires, then you will always have the feeling that you have more than you need. Then you always have something you can give to others. It is like the saying that work expands to fill the time available to do it. But with a new twist. Another Littlebang original:

Desires expand to slightly exceed your abilitiy to fulfil them

 Sense Desire

Trying to get away from the senses through renunciation and ascetic practises is as old as mankind. Not just in India but all over the world there have been ascetics seeking something superior, something ultimate through battling with the bodily and mental senses.

According to the history, the Buddha, while still a seeker, tried these practises. He starved himself, wore rag robes, lived at the foot of a tree ‘enduring wind, rain, winged insects, biting and burning things’. It did not work for him, and he said, would not work for anyone else. This is when he hit upon the Middle Way. Rather than trying to tough out your senses, or batter them into submission, the right way is to navigate between the extremes. The extremes being sensory indulgence, and sensory torment. Essentially, this was the first reaching he ever gave.

The trouble is most people take this to mean they can do what they like. If you insist on chasing money, women/men, prestige, property – all under the guise of ‘not tormenting yourself’ then you are engaging not the Middle Way, but the ‘Middle Excuse’. The Buddha remained an ascetic, and always recommended renunciation without debilitating physical torment.


For those who are keen Theravadan Buddhists, there is a nice sutta that deals with the argument about sense pleasures called the Magandiya Sutta [a somewhat odd translation in parts] Here there is a philosopher who accuses the Buddha of being a ‘Destroyer of Humanity’, because he teaches the restraint of the senses. Magandiya is representing the modern idea that the goal of our life is to squeeze in as many sense pleasures as we can, without inhibition.

The senses delight in the world of sense desire, take delight in and rejoice in pleasures. But they have been tamed by the Buddha – guarded, protected and restrained he teaches the Dhamma for their restraint.

He then goes on to say he had previously enjoyed the luxuries of the palace. But he saw the origin, the grief, the danger and escape from the senses. He removed the fever for sense pleasures and so abides without thirst, with the mind inwardly at peace.

I see other beings who are not free from lust for sense pleasures and I do not envy them, nor do I delight therein. Why? Because there is a delight apart from the sense pleasures, apart from unwholesome states which suprasses even divine bliss. Since I take delight in that I do not envy what is inferior.

He goes on to draw the analogy with a Leper who burns the sores on his body. Such would gain some relief from the discomfort. But if he were healed of the sores, then even two strong men could not drag him to a fire to burn his flesh. In both cases the fire was burning and painful, but in the former case, the man’s faculties were impaired.

though the fire was painful to touch, he mistakenly perceived it as pleasant

admitted Magandiya.

This sutta should make it clear what the view of sense pleasures is in Buddhism. Remember; we are unenlightened because we cannot see clearly. If we can see ‘things as they really are’ then we will be enlightened. The senses are burning, and the path of dhamma lies in a different direction.

Those of you who were at the video day on the Nirvana Neuron will remember Jill Bolte Taylor saying how her senses ‘burned’ when she was coming back to awareness of her body. Similarly for those who related stories of their ‘death experiences’ in the Raymond Moody video. The theme crops up continually throughout the suttas – the sense are burning compared to nibbana.


In terms of practise, you generate the sense of mindfulness, of mindful awareness. You should be self-aware. If you need to, you can hold on to the breathing to keep you anchored in the present moment. Every so often a distraction will arise. Some sense impression will impinge on your senses and try to steal away your attention. A sound, a pain, a thought from the past or future. You note that distraction and come back to the sense of presence. It takes a lot of practise but you can eventually maintain the sense of self awareness, despite anything going on around or within you.

As the mind gathers inwardly in recollection, it gets brighter and sharper. Every so often it will suddenly settle into a smooth or balanced state, from where you can see clearly any distractions as they arise. You are touching on a very happy part of your being, that will make you joyful after the meditation, seemingly without reason. You can compare and contrast – does this happiness come from the senses, or is it part of your being? Now when you see the lines in the suttas where one ‘overcomes doubt, and knows what is the path and what is not the path’ becomes clear. That is because you can see clearly the nature of the senses in stealing away your attention and scattering the faculties.

Inlook, not Outlook

Here you are not trying to live your whole life without any sense pleasures. It is ok to enjoy nice food, good company or stroking your pet cat. These teachings never make sense when applied to the whole of life. But they make very clear sense when you apply them inwardly and see it in action in meditation. After practise, the distinction between regular life and meditation starts to blur naturally.

You gain some insights into the nature of sense desire, which is the ‘bhavanamaya Panya’ that we mentioned a few weeks ago – the wisdom that arises from practise.

If you can’t give a particular thing up (in meditation remember, not your whole life) then you will never understand it. Like a smoker who smokes because they enjoy it, but find out the hard way how addicted they are only when they try and stop.

You can also see sense pleasures are really a temporary cover for a deeper discomfort in the heart. When you get what you want, it gives you a kind of ‘equanimity’ or ease. But against the ease of ‘equanimity that is based on recollection’ there is no comparison [see Potalia Sutta ] As a comparison consider the body – you have to move it around every few minutes. If you can’t, it will become painful, as Parkinson’s sufferers will tell you. Is the moving pleasant? It feels as if it is. But in fact is is just a cover for the general discomfort of the human body. In the same way, the happiness that comes from sense pleasure is only a cover for a deeper discomfort.

This these crops up continually in the suttas in various forms. In one analogy [ Vatthupama sutta ]  the Buddha raises the image of a blind man who had been looking for a clean white cloth, but having been sold an oily rag. If his vision were restored he could see that which he had thought clean and pure was actually inferior. In other places he talks more in terms of meditation, such as the following final quote from the Cula hatthipadopama sutta:

On seeing a form with the eye, he does not grasp at any theme or details by which — if he were to dwell without restraint over the faculty of the eye — evil, unskillful qualities such as greed or distress might assail him. On hearing a sound with the ear… On smelling an odor with the nose… On tasting a flavor with the tongue… On touching a tactile sensation with the body… On cognizing an idea with the intellect, he does not grasp at any theme or details by which — if he were to dwell without restraint over the faculty of the intellect — evil, unskillful qualities such as greed or distress might assail him. Endowed with this noble restraint over the sense faculties, he is inwardly sensitive to the pleasure of being blameless.

One reply on “Notes on Sense Pleasures…”

  1. Sirs:

    I tried to print out your notes, but I only got
    the Littlebang page. What am I doing wrong?

    By the way, it is very nicely written!!!

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