The Pleasures of Zen

zen_pleasure_by_mbeki-d4uegqg“Sense pleasure is the First Army of Mara. Due to previous good actions in the sensual or material realms, we find ourselves reborn in this world. Here, as in other sensual spheres, beings are faced with a wide assortment of appealing sense objects. Sweet sounds, rich smells, beautiful ideas, and other delightful objects touch all our six sense doors. As a natural result of encountering these objects desire arises. Pleasant objects and desires are the two bases of sense pleasure.”

from In This Very Life: The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha by Sayadaw U Pandita p. 64

I found this passage while randomly leafing through a book at the apartment of Fritz, the guy who put me up in Berlin. It’s frustrating because after that paragraph the author wanders on to another topic. I assume that he figured he’d said enough about that and it was time to move on. Or it could be that it’s covered elsewhere in the book. I didn’t have time to get through the whole thing.

I tend to doubt he covers the subject in more detail elsewhere in the book because I’ve read a lot of books in which this same sort of thing is said and the author simply moves on to other topics. It is understood among the sorts of people who read these kinds of books (of which I used to be and often still am one) that to be reborn into this sensual material world is a bad thing in spite of the pleasures to be found here. The authors take for granted that their readers believe this and don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on the topic. They’d rather get to the meat of the matter, which is how to not be reborn in the material world.

But I don’t assume any of this. To me, it is not a given that I have been reborn into this world at all. For all I know, maybe this is the only life I’ve ever had and that I’m ever going to get. Maybe there is no other realm that’s any better (or any worse) than this one. Maybe there is no bliss that’s any better than the bliss to be found from sense pleasures. Maybe this whole business about finding a way to avoid sense pleasures and get out of the material/sensual sphere might just be a big con job, a trick by guys who want me to pay them to tell me how to do this crazy meditation thing while they themselves get loads of cash with which to better enjoy the pleasures of the material world. I sit there oooooommmmm-ing away on my cushion while they buy themselves another Mercedes and build another swimming pool.

Understand here that I am saying this as a person who has dedicated himself to meditation practice for thirty years, who has been ordained as a Buddhist monk, who writes books about meditation and teaches others to meditate. So I am playing a little bit of the devil’s advocate here. But not entirely. I am also completely serious. My first Zen teacher used to say it takes an equal degree of doubt and faith to do Zen practice. As I continue my life as a monk and teacher, my doubt increases even as my faith becomes stronger. I find myself asking these questions again and again.

I think they’re important questions and I think too many people in the profession I find myself a reluctant member of — that of so-called “spiritual teacher” — simply ignore them as if they they’re irrelevant. But they are very relevant. They are literally matters of life and death. I don’t want to throw away this life I know for certain I am living and I know for certain is real on a gamble that there is something better, some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of arduous and difficult practice that’s probably as real as the ones leprechauns leave.

I mean I might be able to get that beautiful 12-string guitar I’ve been craving on eBay the last few months. Or bag that awesome girl from Peoria. Where I live I can get a prescription for “medical” marijuana by simply walking into a pop-up clinic on Venice Beach and telling them I have a headache. Why not just forget the meditation, get the medication, play some guitar and lick that pretty girl’s pale upturned nipples until she giggles uncontrollably? It sure sounds like a good time to me! I’m gonna die someday anyway. Why not enjoy life while I can? This is a perfectly reasonable question, I think.

Is desire really a bad thing? Is pleasure really a bad thing? Most of the world doesn’t seem to think so. They seem to spend all of their time and effort chasing desires and looking for pleasure. Maybe they’re right. Maybe that’s the best thing a person can hope to do. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.

So why do I keep on meditating?

To me meditation practice is not about denying pleasure in this life in order to experience more pleasure in another life. It’s not even about denying yourself pleasure in this moment in order to experience it in the future. It’s not a pathway toward extinguishing desire or eradicating pleasure.

Desire is necessary. We need to desire food and air and water. It’s useful to desire to be a decent person and to do good work. Nobody gets into meditation practice unless they desire to change themselves somehow. But desire is also problematic because it can never really be completely satisfied. Desire doesn’t stop when you get the thing you want. It might cool down for a little while. But it comes right back again soon enough.

And even getting what you want is problematic. Maybe that 12-string guitar has an issue with the truss rod and the neck will never be completely straight. Maybe that pretty girl needs a lot of shoes to keep her happy and expects you to buy them for her before she’ll let you lick those nice pointy nipples. Maybe you’ll get so stoned you can’t work enough to get her those shoes or play that guitar. Getting what you want is never really getting what you want.

Meditation helps you to see what desire really is. It’s just something the brain does. Just because your brain says you need to do something or get something doesn’t really mean you need to do or get those things. Sitting still for long periods looking at walls is a great way to come to understand this not just as a theory but as a concrete fact validated by genuine experience.

Every time I do a long sit or a retreat, I experience at least one sitting period in which I feel like I just have to get up and go do something else – anything else – right this very second. I can recall retreats where it got so bad it was all I could do just to stay in the temple. I’d spend my entire time on the cushion trying to work out clever ways to escape.

But eventually I started to see that there’s no real need to escape. Because you never can escape yourself. And that’s what you’re really always trying to run away from.

Learning this again and again and again showed me what desire really is. And, ironically enough, it showed me how to get more pleasure out of life. Sure getting that guitar or that girl is great. But so is sitting and waiting at the airport. So is being stuck in the house because the weather is bad and you can’t go where you planned to go. So is doing the dishes and taking out the trash. It’s great because it’s real.

Desire creates a gap between what is real and what you want. But stick with what’s real and magic happens.

*   *   *

I’m still on tour in Europe. Here are the events still coming up:

– On October 11th, I’ll be speaking in Amsterdam.

– On October 12th, I’ll be speaking at Groningen University in the Netherlands. Here is the link to the Facebook Event.

– On Oct. 13 and 14th I’ll be in Bonn, Germany. The details about that are on this page. The 13th will be an all-day sitting and on the 14th I’ll do a talk in the evening.

– Thursday 17th October
In Conversation with Brad Warner and Jon Robb — The Punk meets the Monk
Manchester, UK

– 18-19 October Zen Retreat    /    20th October  Public Talk in Hebden Bridge, England

–  23 October 7pm, I’ll be speaking in London.
Caledonian Road Centre
486 Caledonian Road
London N7 9RP

– 24 October, 8pm, I’ll be speaking in Oxford

Merton College, Oxford
Hosted the Neave Society (

**Oxford University students only**

– 25 Oct In Conversation 7pm-9pm  / 26 October Zazen Day

Merchant City Yoga Centre Glasgow, Scotland

– November 8-10 Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California (1 & 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles)

*   *   *

I’m just booked my flight to the UK. Ouch! So please feel free to help out a little by sending a donation! Thanks!

Sharing is caring! Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponDigg this

49 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 10, 2013 at 4:02 am |

    Wow, Brad, thank you, this is an excellent rumination. Brilliant.

    I am contemplating possibly making a move to a different town; starting a new, more challenging job; uprooting my family, selling the house, -essentially turning our lives upside down- because I feel this might be a better situation for all of us.

    I desire this.

    However, I love my present job, we love our house, all the circumstances surrounding the city we live in, schools for my kids, etc. What the hell?

    Here is a link to the U Pandita book mentioned above:

  2. Steve
    Steve October 10, 2013 at 5:33 am |

    Thanks for this Brad. My experience with meditation is that if you stare at the wall long enough without manipulating anything, you realize you just have to be honest. You can’t live like you’ve been living anymore. I signed up for meditation to feel better. And I’m finding that the only way to do that is to feel really fucking bad when you feel bad. And feel really good when you feel good. And if 9 times out of 10, you’re a selfish greedy asshole, then somehow you have to get ok with that because that’s what it is and that’s all there is. I don’t really enjoy the fact that it’s the only way to enjoy things.

  3. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra October 10, 2013 at 7:40 am |

    It’s an insecurity issue. People involved in Buddhist “lifestyles” (for lack of a better word) have a tendency to not want to ask themselves those kinds of questions because they’re afraid they might end up deciding that they’d rather play guitar, smoke weed and lick nipples. And that’s not being “enlightened” my friend. Their ego would rather be “enlightened” than have a good time.

    On a personal note, I spent a number of years partying, drinking too much, trying–and mostly failing–to have sex with a litany of beautiful women. In many ways it was “pleasurable” but it wasn’t “fulfilling.” Now I live a very “vanilla” life. I have a wife, two kids, a full-time job and a mortgage. I don’t get paid very well. But all in all, it’s a much more fulfilling, and therefore more pleasurable, life. At least for me. I think there’s a difference between something that is pleasurable on a general, superficial, fleeting level. And then there are things that are pleasurable to the–again, for lack of a better term– “soul.” We’re all chasing pleasure, but I think the confusion is in chasing what is a fleeting pleasure and chasing what is a more long-lasting pleasure.

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 10, 2013 at 9:03 am |

    “Sure getting that guitar or that girl is great. But so is sitting and waiting at the airport. So is being stuck in the house because the weather is bad and you can’t go where you planned to go. So is doing the dishes and taking out the trash. It’s great because it’s real.”

    Right on, Brad.

    In Ken Burns’ civil war series, maybe in the last episode, he mentions that 50 years after the civil war some of the vets considered it a high point of their lives; something like that. To my mind, that’s an indication how the moment of total engagement where all the senses are sharp as can be imparts a feeling of being alive like no other, and draws us because of the reflection of well-being it represents.

    How do we discover that moment where the weight of a feather moves 1000 pounds with all the wits sharpened to brilliance? We relax the activity out of stretch as it takes place, and calm down to recognize the experience of sense as it is. We will find activity that stretches us beyond the comfort zone, and experience discrete sense impact and feeling beyond what we are happy with.

    What is it about this place that breathes, I ask myself. And I’m comfortable with the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about, again.

  5. Andy
    Andy October 10, 2013 at 9:58 am |

    so much depends

    a pale upturned

    glazed with man

    beside the bass

  6. Fred
    Fred October 10, 2013 at 11:25 am |

    “Or bag that awesome girl from Philadelphia. Where I live I can get a prescription for “medical” marijuana by simply walking into a pop-up clinic on Venice Beach and telling them I have a headache. Why not just forget the meditation, get the medication, play some guitar and lick that pretty girl’s pale upturned nipples until she giggles uncontrollably?”


  7. blake
    blake October 10, 2013 at 12:03 pm |

    Man I’m glad I desired to read this post.

  8. Steve
    Steve October 10, 2013 at 2:17 pm |

    I was thinking about this a little more. If I desire the new 12 string guitar but don’t give in to that desire, it’s not because I’ve acted against my desire. It’s that I’ve not-bought-12-string-guitar based on my stronger desire to not-buy-12-string-guitar. So in that sense, desire is what causes every single one of my actions. And as my actions make up my life, my desire and my life are not different. So maybe the issue is not whether or not I desire something, but whether or not my desire is natural or whether it is based on a misunderstanding or an emotional reaction.

    I wonder if in typing this I desired to feel very clever and special. Pretty sure I did.

  9. zucchinipants
    zucchinipants October 10, 2013 at 2:35 pm |

    D.T. Suzuki wrote a lovely essay about desire here:
    (stick through to the end for the real meat of the matter)

    It turns the doctrine of “cutting off desires” on its head, and a wonderful freedom shakes out.

  10. Fred
    Fred October 10, 2013 at 5:12 pm |

    Say someone was transmigrating into a rock. Since there is no I that can be
    pinpointed, and the deluded/enlightened ” being ” is playing along as an
    actor on the stage, what exactly transmigrates?

    And if Brad is sucking on some girl’s nipples shouldn’t there be a little groaning
    rather than giggling?

    If they are giggling, is it because they get the cosmic joke about transmigrating
    into a rock. Or is it some other joke, like if you sit facing a wall for 30 years,
    you will eventually become enlightened but you won’t know it?

  11. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer October 10, 2013 at 5:34 pm |


    “It’s that I’ve not-bought-12-string-guitar based on my stronger desire to not-buy-12-string-guitar.”

    Based on my own limited experience, it’s possible to avoid a contest between conflicting desires by just noticing the original desire.

    And maybe even noticing the second desire, to eliminate the first desire.

    And rather than picking between the two, you can let the whole mess just die all on it’s own…

    Action by inaction?


  12. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 10, 2013 at 8:16 pm |

    Fred, stop licking the wall.

  13. Daniel_D
    Daniel_D October 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm |

    mmm. nipples.

  14. Harlan
    Harlan October 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm |

    Nipples are nice but vaginer is finer. Hail Buddha!

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles October 11, 2013 at 4:51 am |

      I was listening to In Utero again last week, it still holds up. Then I needed some lighter fare and found Dylan’s Planet Waves, done with The Band as backing, uh, …band. It has this track on it that I remembered from way back when covered by…

  15. Dan
    Dan October 11, 2013 at 3:16 am |

    Thanks to Mumbles, I see that dude does go into this in more detail: What is Wrong With a Continuous Party?

    I liked this passage:

    In search of this happiness beyond the senses, he renounced worldly enjoyments and devoted himself to the life of a bhikkhu. He strove ardently to become an arahant. In fact, he strove too ardently and brought on his own premature death. Suddenly, he found himself back at square one – surrounded by the sensual pleasures he had tried to leave behind.

  16. sri_barence
    sri_barence October 11, 2013 at 6:30 am |

    Here’s a nice speech by Ken Kessel JDPSN, on the subject of wanting.

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence October 11, 2013 at 6:30 am |
  17. Steve
    Steve October 11, 2013 at 6:56 am |

    I forgot I’m supposed to post a youtube music video along with my thoughts about desire and meditation.

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 11, 2013 at 9:51 am |

    Thanks Harlan and Mumbles for the tunes; love that particular Dylan song, I do. Statler Bros., my theme lately.

  19. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 11, 2013 at 10:07 am |

    “I once asked Wu Kwang Zen Master, “Our precept says not to take things not given. What does that mean?” He said, “What do you want?”

    On another occasion, I had an interview with Su Bong Zen Master. After I bowed to him, I asked, “What is your job?” He too said, “What do you want?”

    So, if this “What do you want?” becomes clear, then everything becomes clear. But if this “What do you want?” is not clear, then what?

    (raises stick and hits table)
    “What do you want?”
    (raises stick and hits table)
    “What do you want?”
    (raises stick and hits table.)”

    Well, “what do you want?” appears to have frustrated Ken Kessel a bit, but he’ll have it all worked out for you in our next episode of “Keep the Antiques Away from the Zen Master”, or What I Wonder’s Will a Matchbox Hold My Clothes ( I Ain’t Got Any Matches but I Sure Got a Long Way to Go)

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence October 11, 2013 at 10:36 am |

      HA!! That was funny! I may pass that one on to Ken next time I see him. I think he’d appreciate it.

  20. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 11, 2013 at 10:45 am |

    Statlers? Yeah now you’re talkin’! Thanks Steve!! You gotta always remember to add that essential youtube music vid.

    Reminds me somehow of Dang Me, King of the Road, Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd, etc., and this one, my favorite by this long gone genius songwriter/singer-feller:

  21. Fred
    Fred October 11, 2013 at 11:05 am |

    If you were Living from Zen rather than living from this being’s desires,
    what would you want.

  22. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 11, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
  23. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 11, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  24. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 12, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  25. sudhana
    sudhana October 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm |

    Brad, what do you think about rebirth as simply the conceptualization of our fragmentary experience of the self? Sometimes we get the nipples and are in heaven, sometimes we have demanding jobs and barely any time to sleep, so we live like animals and so on.

    It seems so straightforward to me, and I’ve seen references to this position elsewhere. Shohaku Okamura, for example, in his Living by Vow, makes the same point with the same animal-realm example I just gave.

    Bodhidharma, in his Wake-up Sermon, says things like “when a thought begins, you enter the three realms; when a thought ends, you leave them”.

  26. Fred
    Fred October 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm |

    Bodhidharma also says in the same sermon,
    ” When we’re deluded, there’s a world to escape. When we’re aware, there’s nothing to escape.”

    There is no one to escape and be reborn, and no place to escape from or to.

  27. Fred
    Fred October 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  28. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 13, 2013 at 9:39 pm |

    “How beautiful, the snow falling,”
    Layman Pang says.
    The young monk looks up.
    “Oh, yeah, it’s snowing.”
    “It only falls on one spot,” Pang adds.
    But it’s falling everywhere!” the monk protests.

    (from SMZC Mountain Wind October-December 2013

  29. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm |


  30. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 13, 2013 at 10:04 pm |

    Now some people don’t know their left hand from their right. I mean, Layman Pang- he’s up, down, all over the place, and he has the gall, he has the nerve, to be a floating flake flim flam artist who pretends there’s none but the one that breathes free, even when they’re two of them. What a wise guy, who was that other dufus!

    More Duff, I can still see the spacesuit!

  31. Fred
    Fred October 14, 2013 at 7:04 am |

    Yes, there are 2 twos, but only 1 one.

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 14, 2013 at 8:38 am |

    Yeah, running around in the snow like a chicken who no longer has a sense of “here” in its head, but in its body it does.

    So what is samadhi, a new perfume? A taste-treat in a box? If it’s better never to get on the ox, where did all that chicken blood come from, and why is the soup in my lap?

    Coincidentally, I read where, unlike Antaiji, Sonoma Mountain Zen Center has been certified as a sodo and will hold their first officially-santioned practice period this coming winter, after which Bill Kwong will be daisho Jakusho Kwong. Pretty amazing for the local guys, my hat is off somewhere in the snow chasing chickens.

  33. zucchinipants
    zucchinipants October 14, 2013 at 10:42 am |

    craving for the day when most of the commenters here suddenly transmigrate into rocks.

    1. Fred
      Fred October 14, 2013 at 11:00 am |

      that is funny

  34. simeonjin
    simeonjin October 14, 2013 at 4:50 pm |

    One of my deepest desires is for this experience–thisness, suchness, life, or however you want call it– to just…

    MAKE SENSE!!!!

    Sex tends to do a damn fine job of fulfilling this desire.

    If this desire of mine is as Brad says “creates a gap” with what is real, then–
    reality just doesn’t make sense(the way I want it to) and I really need to just get over my disappointment and disillusionment by the practice of sitting.

    Sound about right?

  35. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 14, 2013 at 5:42 pm |

    Fred, that is funny, but what do you expect from someone who calls themselves “zucchinipants”? &Speaking of rocks…

  36. Fred
    Fred October 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm |

    what I wants
    makes no sense,
    transmigrating from the monkey brain,
    towering up into a mile high rock

  37. Andy
    Andy October 15, 2013 at 4:06 am |

    The Idea Of Zucchinipants At Keyboard West

    He sings about the genius of himself.
    The ego never forms to mind or voice,
    Like a body wholly body, fluttering
    Its empty sleeves; and yet his mimic motion
    Makes constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
    That was not his although we understood,
    A hipster, of his veritable manhood.

    The self was not a mask, not a book-shelf.
    His song and ego were not medleyed sound
    Even if what he sang was what he’d read,
    Since what he sang was uttered guess by guess.
    It may be that in all his bluster rests
    Recycled courage and the need to pose
    But it is he and he alone he tests.

    For he was the hero of the song he sang.
    The ever-hooded, daddy-gestured self
    Was merely a state by which he sought to sing.
    Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
    It was the spirit that we sought and knew
    That we should ask this often as he sang.

    If it was only the gruff voice of the self
    That rose, or keen study of make-shift Dads;
    If it was only the outer voice of The Man
    Diverted, of the suchness-seeker played tall,
    However tough, it would have been more air,
    The heaving spores of air, a hipster sound
    Repeated in a hipster without end
    And sound alone. But it was more than that,
    More even than his voice, and ours, among
    The insidious fictions of ego and pose,
    Theatrical posturings, snarled shadows heaped
    On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
    Of boy and self.
    It was his voice that made
    The Man acutest at its vanishing.
    He measured to the hour his rectitude.
    He was the single artificer of the world
    In which he sang. And when he sang, the self,
    Whatever self it had, became the self
    That was his song, for he was the faker. Then we,
    As we beheld him strutting there alone,
    Knew that there never was a world for him
    Except the one he sang and, singing, made.

    D. T, Suzuki tell him, if you know,
    Why, when the singing ended and he turned
    From the screen, why the glossy lights,
    The lights on the keyboard at anchor there,
    As the night descended, wilting in the air,
    Muddied the night and portioned out the self,
    Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
    Arranging, weakening, re-asserting night.

    Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Zuccinipants,
    The hipster’s rage to order words of the self,
    Words of the stinking portals, dimly-starred,
    And of ourselves and our talk of suchness,
    In ghostlier demarcations, needy sounds.

    1. Fred
      Fred October 15, 2013 at 5:44 am |

      Beyond excellent

  38. Fred
    Fred October 15, 2013 at 5:51 am |

    W -” It was her voice that made
    The sky acutest at its vanishing.
    She measured to the hour its solitude.
    She was the single artificer of the world
    In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
    Whatever self it had, became the self
    That was her song, for she was the maker”

    A -“It was his voice that made
    The Man acutest at its vanishing.
    He measured to the hour his rectitude.
    He was the single artificer of the world
    In which he sang. And when he sang, the self,
    Whatever self it had, became the self
    That was his song, for he was the faker”

  39. zucchinipants
    zucchinipants October 15, 2013 at 6:35 am |

    Andy, the poet doesn’t deserve to be butchered like that. The fact that you expended such effort speaks to your “dedication”. To what?

    It’s ironic that you turn a poem lamenting the universal human impulse to order nature, into an attack on your projection of me, in defense of the disorder of the comment section here, I suppose! (perhaps, with your fluency in irony, it’s you who should hold high the hipster mantle)

    But the stream of comments here cannot be equated with the sea —— they are the ordered creations of delusional humans, delighted by their never-ending emanations…

  40. Andy
    Andy October 15, 2013 at 9:57 am |

    Dedication to what? To playfulness. It’s fun playing with my projections, especially when they’re coloured by evidence.

    Gut luck with all those buzz words and that pedestal,

    & btw anything can be equated with the sea (not that I did, having replaced the word with ‘ego’/’self’) – it’s called using metaphor.

  41. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 15, 2013 at 3:58 pm |

    Here! Here!! to more playfulness, Andy. If the logo of this blog -a punked out Hotei riding Godzilla- doesn’t bespeak of playfulness, I’m reading it all wrong.

    One would think, “zucchinipants” -a fine funny name indeed- that someone with such a moniker might come “in defense of the disorder of the comment section here” rather than point it out in such a way that makes one think you must suck on lemons…rather than merrily stuff your trousers with phallic veggies.

Comments are closed.