We often link happiness to the attainment of sensory pleasure; or we expect sensory pleasures to bring happiness. The emphasis on the unsatisfactoriness of conditioned experiences, as taught in the Buddhist tradition can, at first, seem disheartening. Why equate innocuous and natural pleasures with suffering? Is the Buddhist path life-denying? We had a rousing dialog in a recent sutta study discussion in which we were studying a Buddhist text that emphasized the dangers inherent in the pursuit of sensory pleasures.
Questions were posed: Would the Buddha encourage relaxed nature walks in the forest, stopping to smell the roses, and savoring a good meal with family? Does lingering over the acceptable and natural pleasures of ordinary life only perpetuate attachment and suffering? Is it possible to have “enlightened sex”, or engage in sexuality without perpetuating the attachments that cause repeated suffering? Does savoring sensory experiences and pleasurable moments make people happier? What is the happiness that we seek?
When we look around, we might perceive the unsatisfactory characteristic of things all around us. Even after we have a nice breakfast, unsatisfactoriness is apparent—soon we feel hungry for lunch. We live with the continuous pressure to satisfy needs that are only temporarily quenched, so the struggle continues.
Seeing the impermanence of every sensory encounter turns attention away from sensory pleasures—we recognize that it is not an adequate route to happiness simply because every sensory experience changes.
In our discussion some students wondered if this basic insight approach leads to sublime peace and happiness, or to disinterest in life. Does it dovetail well with modern psychology that encourages people to live fully, joyfully, and enhance the quality of life? Does the ending of suffering necessarily entail the ending of the craving that leads toward more sensory experiences and continues the cycle of rebirth? What is the happiness that the Buddha taught and what do we really want?
I certainly have my experiences and views, but you will too. I would prefer to leave this blog post with the questions and let you mull over your own relationship to sensory pleasures and happiness today. Notice your relationship to sensory pleasures today. Are you ever happy when you feel neutral or painful feelings as well? Do you link sensory pleasures with happiness in your day to day life? What is a reliable source for happiness?