“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.
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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
• 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 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2203213006/)
**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)
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I’m just booked my flight to the UK. Ouch! So please feel free to help out a little by sending a donation! Thanks!