These meditations will be on Discourses from the Atthakavagga.
Discourse I - On Sense Desires
1. If a person attains the sense pleasures they desire they will be happy, having attained what they desire.
2. If those sense pleasures slip away, however; they will feel pain as if pierced by an arrow.
3. The person who avoids seeking after sense pleasures as they would avoid treading on a snake; that person, being mindful, transcends worldly attachments.
4. Whatever person greedily pursues possessions and sense pleasures, people and things;
5. That person will be burdened with troubles and unease will overwhelm them like water entering a broken boat.
6. That person, always mindful, avoiding greed in sense pleasures; having avoided it will cross over the flood like one who has bailed out their boat and reaches the further shore.
Some translations use ‘sensuality’ or even ‘sexuality’ here but I chose to use sense pleasures because I believe it’s important to remember that we can get just as caught up in the pleasures of beautiful art or music or companionship - or solitude - as we can in sexual pleasure. It’s also important to note that this discourse calls out people who ‘greedily pursue’ pleasures and things. We’ll see in later discourses that the greedy pursuit is what causes problems, not the having. To me possessions, or even sense pleasures, are not being condemned here but the greedy pursuit of and clinging to them. This is a fitting beginning to this collection of discourses as it sets the tone right away of a middle way between hedonism and asceticism.
Why shouldn’t we be happy? Of course there’s no reason we shouldn’t be happy; the Buddha here is trying to redirect the source of our happiness from the things we have - even if only as “sense pleasures” - to the happiness that comes from inside and is not dependent on any external factor. We are admonished not to seek after or cling to sense pleasures. The simple fact is that it’s easier not to cling to pleasurable moments if you don’t have them. That’s why denying the world and becoming a mendicant monk or nun has been the way of the Buddhist for so long.
In the West we’re making the radical statement that this is not the only way. We’re making the choice to take the more difficult path - engaging in the world and experiencing all the pleasures and dissatisfactions that it has to offer while still maintaining detachment from them. This path is not unique to the West, it was started in Japan when monks began to marry and raise families even as they continued to seek release from dissatisfaction.
There are many who criticize Western Buddhism for taking the “easy way” by not requiring celibacy, renunciation, etc. but this is just not true. You see, the goal of liberation of the senses from clinging to pleasures hasn’t changed in the West - only the method has changed. With the masters of Ch’an and Zen we in the West say, “Celebrate the world, glory in the sunset, bask in the love of a family, wonder at the natural - and manmade - beauty around you; but even as you do, understand that all these things are impermanent - as you are as well.” Don’t ‘feel pain as if pierced by an arrow’ but let them go when they go as you let them come when they come.” This is the Way of Western Buddhism: taking up the burden of living within the world without clinging to it. This is the Way we will bail out our boat and reach the further shore.