223 – Integrating Insights
226 – How to Relate to Worldly Pleasure as a Buddhist – Part 2

Traditionally, the ideal of Buddhism is the renunciate monastic who forgoes worldly pleasure because it is fleeting and distracts us from practice. How should a serious practitioner relate to worldly pleasures if they’re not living a renunciate lifestyle? Is it possible to fully enjoy the pleasures in our lives while maintaining a strong Buddhist practice, or are we fooling ourselves when we try to do so?

In this episode I define what I mean by “worldly pleasure,” and then discuss five drawbacks of such pleasure as described in Buddhist teachings, and in our own experience. In the next episode I talk about how we can engage in pleasures with the mind of practice and thereby avoid many of these drawbacks. Not only that, when we bring the mind of practice to our experience of worldly pleasure, we actually end up being more appreciative, aware, open-handed, and generous.

Read/listen to Part 2



Quicklinks to Article Content:
First, What Is “Worldly Pleasure?”
The Five Drawbacks of Worldly Pleasure


First, What Is “Worldly Pleasure?”

As I begin to talk about the drawbacks of worldly pleasures, I’m aware that – in most cultures – I’m going to meet resistance. This has probably been the story since human beings developed religion; religions have almost always counseled people toward moderation, if not abstention, from many pleasures. Subsequently, people have generally had a love-hate relationship with the restraint of appetites encouraged by religion. We’re aware that unbridled greed and lust for luxury, food, drink, sex, and all manner of sensual pleasures tends to lead to misery of one kind or another, but we resent the moralizing that seems to suggest we should live an emotionally constipated, joyless life.

It may help to keep in mind, for the purposes of our discussion, that Buddhist moralizing is profoundly pragmatic. Basically, the Buddhist teachings highlight certain behaviors and ask us to pay close attention to their consequences. They may state something like, “I think you’ll find, if you look carefully, that relentless pursuit of more possessions doesn’t actually make you happy.” But you’re invited to see for yourself. No one is saying, “Yes, relentless pursuit of more possessions does make you happy, but you should forgo happiness in order to live in accordance with an externally defined set of ideals.” All Buddhist teachings about pleasure are invitations for us to investigate our own lives.

What do I mean by “worldly pleasure?” In general, early Buddhist texts use the term “sensual pleasure” and refer to pleasures of the five senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. I’m using the term “worldly pleasure” throughout this discussion to include the pleasures of the five senses as well as the pleasures of the mind and heart. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon the mind is considered one of the senses (it “senses” thoughts), so I’m not sure why it’s excluded in discussions of pleasure. Maybe mind pleasures are too subtle or complicated? In any case, as I’ll discuss in little bit, the drawbacks of sensual pleasures also apply to emotional and psychological ones – like the satisfaction of achievement, the company of loved ones, the calm induced by curling up with a good book, or the dopamine hit from a video game.

What distinguishes what I’m calling “worldly” from pleasures that are somehow not worldly? Basically, worldly pleasures are conditional pleasures – they depend on the presence (or absence) of certain people, objects, conditions, or circumstances. Worldly pleasures arise when we encounter pleasurable situations or experiences. Inevitably, sooner or later, these pleasurable situations or experiences change significantly or come to an end. (Unconditional pleasures are moral or spiritual in nature and therefore always available to us, regardless of conditions, such as cultivating a mind of goodwill, choosing to respond with generosity, or devoting oneself to practice).


The Five Drawbacks of Worldly Pleasure

Worldly pleasures are not bad things. It is not negative or judgmental to label them “worldly,” at least not in my view of Buddhist practice. Worldly pleasures include health, love, security, having food to eat, and securing a good education for our children. What Buddhism challenges us to do is not to righteously reject worldly pleasures out of hand, but to honestly face and accept the fact that they are conditional and impermanent.

The drawbacks of worldly pleasures manifest precisely because of their impermanent nature. If they were permanent, and permanently satisfying, I suppose there wouldn’t be a problem, and no need for spiritual practice. We’d be permanently satisfied, stuck at one of those peak moments where everything feels wonderful. But that’s not the way the world works.

The impermanence of worldly pleasures manifests not just in the fact that we eventually lose sources of pleasure like health, status, or loved ones. It’s also that everything is constantly changing and needs to keep changing, so nothing is permanently pleasurable! One of my teachers, Kyogen Carlson, conveyed this truth with a story about a man who finally found and acquired the ultimate chair. The man had never before experienced such comfort (I’m picturing a big, padded recliner with a cup holder and built-in heater and massager). If the man stayed in this perfect chair for a day, it might not be so comfortable anymore. If he stayed in it for a week, he’d be in pain. If he stayed in it for a month or two, he’d probably end up physically damaging himself. Worldly pleasure is by its very nature impermanent. A delicious meal is only delicious because it appeases our hunger; if we kept eating and eating, it would stop being delicious and eventually become painful.

As long as our happiness is largely dependent on conditional things, we’re subject to the many drawbacks of worldly pleasures. These are neurotic reactions we have as we encounter worldly pleasures but also – at least at some level – realize they are impermanent. Note: These “five drawbacks” I describe are my own formulation of the teachings, not an existing Buddhist list:

The first drawback of worldly pleasures is that we naturally want them to last even though they don’t. We try to hold on to them – to prolong, own, acquire, control, amass, or hoard them. We may accumulate wealth, belongings, friends, or pastimes so we can be assured of having and endless supply of comfort and pleasure. We may try to control people so they will stay with us, or to ensure the pleasurable aspects of our relationship with them will not change. We may be stingy because we can’t conceive of letting go of something that brings us any amount of pleasure. We may compromise our experience of something pleasurable because we begin dwelling on how to make the pleasure last – such as going on a beautiful hike in the woods, but instead of simply enjoying it, thinking about how we can rearrange our life in order to be able to go on more hikes.

The second drawback of worldly pleasures is that the ephemeral nature of the satisfaction they provide means we’re constantly seeking more pleasure. The pleasure of first acquiring or experiencing something can never be repeated – unless, of course, we go out and acquire or experience something new. We may imagine the pleasure involved in earning the next million dollars, being intimate with that new person, traveling to the next country, buying a new house, or indulging in the next sumptuous meal will bring the satisfaction we’ve been looking for. Of course, our experience of pleasure of any particular person, object, or situation is inevitably going to change. Even if we don’t feel the need to chase after new things, we rely on a steady supply of pleasure from the people and things we enjoy and may live in anticipation of our next opportunity to engage with them. At one level such anticipation is good and natural, but it can get the point that it feels like much of our life is simply endured in order to get to the “good” times.

The third drawback of worldly pleasures is that, because they are conditional, we may become obsessed with preserving or enhancing our conditions. A Pali Canon Sutta called the Maha-dukkhakkhandha Sutta: The Great Mass of Stress talks about this. (“Dukkha” is “stress” in this translation, so another name for this sutta could be “The Big Ball of Dukkhasutta!) The sutta describes various drawbacks of passion for sensuality, form (the physical body), and feelings. This translation is by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and it is the Buddha who is speaking:

“If the clansman gains wealth while thus working & striving & making effort, he experiences pain & distress in protecting it: ‘How will neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ And as he thus guards and watches over his property, kings or thieves make off with it, or fire burns it, or water sweeps it away, or hateful heirs make off with it. And he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught: ‘What was mine is no more!’ Now this drawback too in the case of sensuality, this mass of stress visible here & now, has sensuality for its reason, sensuality for its source, sensuality for its cause, the reason being simply sensuality.”[i]

The sutta goes on to list other drawbacks of indulging in passion for sensual pleasure: People quarrel with each other – kings quarrel with kings, mother with child, sister with brother, friend with friend; people attack one another; men go to battle and kill each other in all kinds of horrible and painful ways; people steal, commit adultery, and engage in all kinds of other bodily, verbal, or mental misconduct.

For most of us, of course, our concern with protecting our sources of worldly pleasure manifests in more subtle ways than theft or violence, but we can probably all relate to the sutta’s description of the pain and distress of worrying about what bad things might happen to what we have. We may suffer from anxiety or paranoia. We may end up suspicious and defensive and spend lots of time and energy fortifying our property against attack, trespass, or accident. We may experience intense jealousy about our intimate relationships, fearful that someone is going to come along and destroy them. We may try to acquire wealth, power, and status in part as a way to intimidate anyone who might dare to take something from us. We may obsess over our health in a vain attempt to avoid ever having to experience old age, illness, or death.

The fourth drawback of worldly pleasures is the misery we experience when we’re separated from them. This may involve painful longing for pleasures we’ve never had, pleasures we think we’re entitled to, or pleasures we have lost. It may also involve the pain and stress of anticipating loss! Such loss may be something we consciously dwell on, or it may be a pervasive sense of stress we usually try to ignore. We may overindulge in intoxicants or distractions to dull the pain and worry if we’re not able to stay in denial – and eventually that denial will become extremely difficult when we inevitably come face to face with loss.

Beings enjoying pleasures in the heaven realm (one of the six realms in Buddhist cosmology)

The fifth drawback of worldly pleasures is that as long as we’re dependent on worldly pleasures for our happiness, we’re unlikely to devote much time, relatively speaking, to spiritual practice. Our lives are likely to be filled to the brim with worldly pleasure, or with the pursuit, maintenance, and protection of sources of such pleasure. According to traditional Buddhist cosmology, one of the least fruitful realms to live in with respect to spiritual practice is the heaven realm, where beings enjoy an endless supply of both material and spiritual pleasures. They lack motivation to practice.

Why should we care about practice if we’re living in a heaven realm, more or less? Again, it’s totally a matter of choice. But the promise of Buddhism is that there is something better than relying on conditional pleasures for our true happiness. In describing his awakening, the Buddha said:

“…when I saw as it actually was with right discernment that sensuality is of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks, and I had attained a rapture & pleasure apart from sensuality, apart from unskillful mental qualities, or something more peaceful than that, that was when I claimed that I could not be tempted by sensuality.”[ii]

When I read this passage, it helps me if I translate “sensuality” into “dependence on conditional pleasures.” In other words, then, after his awakening the Buddha was no longer tempted to be dependent on conditional pleasures, because he had experienced a peaceful rapture and pleasure that was not dependent on conditions. It wasn’t that he attained a powerful self-discipline that allowed him to deny himself what brought pleasure (although, according to the suttas, he did), he no longer even desired worldly pleasures, because he had experienced something much more satisfying. Therefore, Buddhism challenges us to look deeper into our experience and see if there is a better way to attain true happiness than trying to obtain or hold on to pleasures that – as lovely as they can be – are inherently conditional and impermanent.

In the rest of my treatment of this subject, I’m going to set aside the larger question of how to experience for ourselves the deeper, unconditional satisfaction the Buddha experienced in his awakening – a satisfaction that caused him to set aside any pursuit of worldly pleasures. According to one way of looking at it, that’s what the rest of Buddhism is about! Instead, I want to focus on our relationship to worldly pleasures, assuming we’re not going to run off and live a life of complete renunciation (which, frankly, would still include plenty of simple worldly pleasures like food, shelter, and basic physical comfort). Is there a way to relate to worldly pleasures that doesn’t lead to the five drawbacks I just described?

The short answer is, “Yes!”

Read/listen to Part 2.



[i] “Maha-dukkhakkhandha Sutta: The Great Mass of Stress” (MN 13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.013.than.html .

[ii] “Cula-dukkhakkhandha Sutta: The Lesser Mass of Stress” (MN 14), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.014.than.html .


Photo Credit

Prof Ranga Sai, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wheel_of_Life.jpg. CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


223 – Integrating Insights
226 – How to Relate to Worldly Pleasure as a Buddhist – Part 2