Dharma Topic: Urges, Impulse, Emotions and the Spiritual Life

Dharma Topic: Urges, Impulse, Emotions and the Spiritual Life

Discussion date: Thu, Jan 12, 2006 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

At the center of all truly spiritual traditions is thelearning of new ways to respond to our urges, impulses, and emotions.Rather than an unreflective "I want what I want when I want it" wecome to understand how urges, impulses, and emotions arise and how we canrespond to them in ways that bring joy and peace to ourselves and to others.

This Thursday, January 12, 2006, after our meditationperiod we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focusour attention on the third training concerning Mindful Sexual Behavior.(The text of the third training is provided below; the text of the fullrecitation is available on the StillWaterMPC.org website under Resources.)

I wish to begin the discussion by exploring an importantdistinction between enjoying a sense based experience and craving sensualpleasure.

The Simile of the Snake Sutra, one of the most famous of theBuddha’s discourses, concerns a monk named Arittha who, as the story is usuallytold, advocated the view that the Buddha taught that "sense pleasures"are not an obstacle to the practice. The other monks tried to say that was notwhat the Buddha taught, but Arittha continued to espouse his view. In time hewas called before the Buddha who sharply reprimanded Arittha and informed himthat he always taught that sense pleasures are a hindrance to the practice. TheBuddha then used Arittha’s false views to explain to the community how importantit was to fully understand the Buddha’s teachings. From ancient times on,commentators and practitioners have taken from this sutra the message thatpleasurable experiences are dangerous and to be avoided.

Thich Nhat Hanh and some other commentators, however, offera very different reading of this Sutra. The false view that Arittha espoused wasnot really about sense pleasure, rather it was about clinging to or cravingpositive sensual experiences. In Pali the word usually translated as "sensepleasure" is Kamupadana. Kam refers to the bodily sensation. Upadana refersto craving, clinging or attachment.

Kamupadana is one of the four types of grasping orattachment discussed in the Buddhist Sutras. The others are:

  • Clinging to Views (ditthupadana),

  • Clinging to mere rules and rituals (silabbatupadana), and,

  • Clinging to the personality belief (attavadupadana).

There is, of course, a certain affinity among all these waysof grasping. If we believe in the view that we are a self separate from the restof reality, if we construct for ourselves certain expectations of theexperiences we "should have," if we believe it is our"right" to have them, then our raw experience of the world is likelyto be of someone urgently "needing" to satisfy various urges,impulses, and emotions (regardless of the consequences for ourselves andothers).

In other words, what the Buddha was teaching (and whatArittha was denying) was that craving (Upadana) was a primary cause of sufferingin our lives. It was not the sensual experiences themselves that were the problem,but it is how we hold our experiences. In his book, Thundering Silence,Thich Nhat Hanh explains:

In my opinion, Arittha’s misunderstanding stems from his failure to see the difference between attachment to sense pleasures and the joy and happiness that arise from a peaceful mind. . . .

Many people think that to undergo spiritual discipline is to practice asceticism and austerities. But to others, the practice of the Dharma does not exclude the enjoyment of the fresh air, the setting sun, a glass of cool water, and so on. Enjoying things in moderation does not bring us suffering or tie us with the bonds of attachment. Once we recognize that all of these things are impermanent, we have no problem enjoying them. In fact, real peace and joy are only possible when we see clearly into the nature of impermanence. . . .

But the Buddha did speak of the five sense pleasures (money, sex, fame, overeating, and sleeping too much) as obstacles to the practice. If we get a reasonable amount of sleep every night, that cannot harm our practice. In fact, deep and refreshing sleep will help our practice. But if we spend a large part of each day sleeping, that is an obstacle. Joy and happiness, in this case, have become an indulgence in a sense pleasure. In the same way, a simple, well-prepared, nourishing meal, eaten slowly and mindfully so that we remain in deep contact with the food, is not an obstacle to the practice. But an obsession with food, spending much of our time seeking special foods, is an obstacle to the practice. Again, this is to turn the joy and happiness of a peaceful mind into an indulgence. The same is true of the remaining three sense pleasures — if we are caught or obsessed by them, they will present obstacles on our path of practice.

You are invited to join us this Thursday, January 12,2006, for our meditation, our recitation, and our discussion. As usual, thebest times to join us on Thursday evening are:

  • Just before the first sitting at 7 pm

  • At 7:25, at the beginning of walking meditation; or,

  • At 7:35, at the beginning of the second sitting.

Warm wishes for a peaceful and joyful week.

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


The Third Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful sexual behavior,I am committed to cultivating sexual responsibility and respect in myself and inothers. I will learn ways to protect the physical and emotional integrity ofindividuals, couples, families, and society. If I choose to engage in sexualrelations, I will do so only in a loving and committed relationship. To preservethe happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my emotional,physical, and legal commitments to my partner, as well as commitments amongother persons. I will do everything in my power to protect children, women, andmen from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken byunmindful sexual behavior. I will be mindful of loneliness and sexual sufferingin myself and others and I will be compassionate and nonjudgmental concerningthe sexual behavior of others.

Discussion Date: Thu, Jan 12, 2006


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