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Pleasure

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Pleasure (kāma or sāmisa sukha) is a positive feeling caused by having the senses or the mind stimulated. Pleasure is a life-enhancing experience but when it becomes a preoccupation, is thought of as the most important thing in life or even the goal of life, it can be very destructive. There are at least three ways this can happen:

(1) The nature of the sense organs is such that prolonged stimulation makes them dull, and then to get the same level of pleasure, the stimulation has to be intensified. Thus one can become involved in a continual round of pleasure-seeking leading to dissatisfaction, and requiring more intense stimulation. The Buddha put it like this: ‘Even if a whole mountain were made of gold, not double that would be enough to satisfy one person. Know this and live accordingly.’ (S.I,117).

(2) The strong desire for pleasure can make one see persons and objects, not as things in themselves, but only as means for one’s own gratification. This can make one extremely selfish and manipulative. The Buddha said: ‘With sense pleasures as the cause, source and basis, people fight with each other, go to war, break into houses, plunder, burgle, commit highway robbery, seduce women and are punished for it.’ (condensed, M.I,86-7).

(3) Sensual pleasures have a powerful impact on the mind, reverberating in consciousness as sensual images, fantasies and thoughts, and causing longing, agitation and dissatisfaction. This can be very unhelpful if one is trying to calm and clarify the mind. For these reasons, the Buddha advocated a careful but realistic attitude towards pleasure. He advised us to ‘see the satisfaction in sense pleasures, the danger of them and the escape from them’ (M.I,85), and to develop a healthy mean between sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism (S.V,42). The Buddha also encouraged us to see that there is a higher and more refined pleasure than that produced by the stimulation of the senses. He said: ‘If a person were to say, “This is the highest pleasure and happiness beings can experience,” I would disagree with them.’ (M.I,398). He then proceeded to describe the joy and happiness one can experience through the peace and stillness of meditation.

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