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In SN 56.11 we find a famous passage:

“Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.

Laity frequently interprets the above as moderation of sensual pleasures, even though the above passage seems to refer to monks (those "gone forth into homelessness").

Are there suttas where the Buddha or his disciples teach specifically laity on the subject of sensual pleasures (e.g. to be in anyway cautious about them)?

Also, a minor curiosity: how the above passage is interpreted by the Theravada tradition, since the suttas clearly teach the abandonment of sensual pleasures for those who become monks/nuns.

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    Thanks for this neat question. It highlights the fact that "lay person" is a very broad term in the context of steps on the spiritual path. Think of someone who is frequently in bars and nightclubs and another person who is in mediation centers at every chance. Passages like the first one that @ChrisW quotes are addressed to people closer to the former. And then there are statements addressed to monks. But what about lay people who are keen on leading a Dhamma life, right? – Gotamist Nov 22 '17 at 6:14
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If there were such a sutta then maybe AN 8.54 would have been a good place to put it. It begins,

As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One,

"We are lay people enjoying sensuality; living crowded with spouses & children; using Kasi fabrics & sandalwood; wearing garlands, scents, & creams; handling gold & silver. May the Blessed One teach the Dhamma for those like us, for our happiness & well-being in this life, for our happiness & well-being in lives to come."

But that sutta only warns against debauchery in sex, drink, gambling, and evil companionship; and against improper or immoderate use of wealth; and not against sensual pleasures per se. Also the warning is that these are "drains on one's store of wealth".

Conversely it also doesn't recommend sensual pursuits as being "qualities that lead to a lay person's happiness and well-being in this life" (instead it recommends good work, good friendship, etc.).


The more famous DN 31 is a little more wide-ranging -- it warns against frequenting "theatrical shows":

"There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in frequenting theatrical shows. He is ever thinking:

(i) where is there dancing?
(ii) where is there singing?
(iii) where is there music?
(iv) where is there recitation?
(v) where is there playing with cymbals?
(vi) where is there pot-blowing?

  • Playing with cymbals is a major drain on our intellectual capital these days. Oops, I meant symbols. Darn spellchecker.... – user2341 May 12 '17 at 12:31
  • This is great! Thank you @ChrisW. I also found AN 4.62 which speaks of "four kinds of happiness that may be achieved by a layperson who enjoys sensual pleasures". – Thiago Jun 1 '17 at 3:32
  • I feel so free after giving up the incessant search for pot-blowing venues. – Gotamist Nov 22 '17 at 6:04
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Above does not say moderation of sensual pleasures though it is implied since you should not see it. What it explicitly says is The pursuit of ... which is you should not seek either extremes. The Middle Way, in this case, is to accept both, whatever that comes, without seeking.

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A Deva – Laity of another kind – once asked a Bhikku, “O Monk, why don’t you enjoy sensual pleasures?”, and the Monk replied:

”I don't know my time. My time is hidden. It can't be seen. That's why, not having enjoyed, I go for alms: Don't let my time pass me by. Samiddhi Sutta: About Samiddhi - SN 1.20

This Sutta is a good example of pointing out the difficulties of teaching more advanced Dhamma to a normal being who is obsessed with sensual pleasures. The noble ones have eradicated sensual desires, and are entirely free of sensual desires. That is why a disciple would recollect the qualities of the Noble Ones from time to time. Then the mind would not get afflicted with sensual desire, with hatred or with delusion. In recollecting such, the mind becomes unshaken towards the Triple Gem. With perfect confidence in the Blessed One, inspiration is gained from the truth of the Dhamma. Gladness arises in the noble disciple. With gladness towards the Dhamma, rapture and joy are born. With joy, the body becomes tranquil. With a tranquil body, the noble disciple feels pleasure. With pleasure, the mind becomes concentrated.

Once there was a dissatisfied young Bhikkhu. He was not yet part of the Sangha, as he has not yet attained Sotapatti Fruition. The Buddha uttered the following Dhammapada (186-187) to this young bhikkhu who was unhappy with his life:

Not by a shower of coins can sensual desires be satiated; sensual desires give little pleasure and are fraught with evil consequences (dukkha). Knowing this, the wise man, who is the disciple of the Buddha, does not find delight even in the pleasures of the devas, but rejoices in the cessation of craving (i.e., Nibbana).

When the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta was explained for the first time there were no Bhikkus, but Devas – Laity of another kind – who were present. In that Buddha explained to those present of the two extremes thus:

The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldliness, ignoble, unbeneficial, and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial.

Then in the Mahadukkhakkhanda Sutta, Buddha explain about our distorted perception of the world. Is it possible for a wise person to turn away from the lures of sensuality, once we are shown the flows of the worldly life?

In the Dānupatti Sutta – AN.6, Buddha shows how helpful it is to have deeds full of merits when one goes to a birth as a result of one’s own Kamma.

“Dear Monks, let’s say someone donates things like foods, drinks, cloths, seats, flowers, scents, and houses to monks (ones who attempt to free from defilements). He likes to get things that he donates as a result of that good deed. He heard something like this: ‘Deities who live in the divine world called Chāthummahārājika have long lifespans. They have great pleasures.’ Then he feels this way: ‘I would also like to get a birth in Chāthummahārājika divine world after my death here.’ He then focuses his mind on to that expectation. He develops that mind. Because he focused his mind to this this crude sensual world again, his mind will take him to a birth in the Chāthummahārājika divine world after his death. Even this kind of birth is only for a virtuous person and not for an impure person. Dear Monks, the virtuous person’s hope will be fulfilled because of his pureness.”

In Theragatha - Verses of the Elder Monks 16.4, Ven. Ratthapala explains why he's not in the least bit tempted to return to the lay life. The verses here fall into three sections, with the first two relating to Raṭṭhapāla’s story as told in MN 82. In the first, Raṭṭhapāla is addressing his father after the latter had tried to use wealth and Raṭṭhapāla’s former wives to lure Ratthapala into disrobing. In the second section, Raṭṭhapāla is talking to King Koravya, who had asked him why he had ordained when he was still young and healthy, and had suffered no loss of relatives or wealth.

The Way to end all suffering is called the Majjima Patipada – Way to Relinquish Attachments to this World - because it avoids the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Then only the mind has the clarity and strength to meditate deeply and discover the Truth. This Majjima Patipada consists of the diligent cultivation of Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, which is explained in more detail as the Noble Eightfold Path.

In the Maha Chattarisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty) discusses two eightfold paths: A mundane path that leads to rebirth in the “good realms” (at or above the human realm) and the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to Nibbana. Thus majjima patipada is “middle path” in the conventional sense; and it is a good first step. But the lokottara meaning is much different, and this sutta lays out the basic structure of how to explain the deeper meanings. Throughout his 45 years of his ministry, Buddha explained the details in various ways.

One lokottara meaning of majjima patipada is to “avoid being intoxicated by sense pleasures”. It is a gradual process: High levels of intoxication is removed via removing micca ditthi when attaining the Sotapanna stage. After that, lower and lower intoxication levels removed as one gains more wisdom in steps. It means “voluntarily giving up” and not to give up attachments to this world by sheer will or force. The mind will not give up things that it considers pleasurable, unless there is a good reason. Those reasons are what Buddha Dhamma is all about. One becomes a Sotapanna by truly comprehending why it is not only unfruitful, but also dangerous to attach to things that one perceives to be pleasurable. But even a Sotapanna only has “seen” the truth of the “anicca nature” of this world.

The actual “giving up” comes next, when one slowly start “giving up” voluntarily and progress through the next two stages of Sakadagami and Anagami, and eventually gives up all attachments at the Arahant stage. Thus one does not need to worry about giving up anything until reaching the Sotapanna stage. Giving up happens automatically when one realizes the true nature of this world.

  • I'm not sure what you're saying in this answer nor how this answers the question. I think you're saying that the Uttara Sutta is addressed to lay people. But does the Uttara Sutta mention "pursuit of sensuality"? And why is it relevant to mention that you don't think translations from the Pali are accurate (how is the non-translated version "very different")? And how does the paticca samuppada differ, for the sotapannas (ariya upasaka/ika) than for "anariyas"? – ChrisW May 10 '17 at 9:59
  • This is only half of the answer. I will complete the first draft/initial thoughts when time permits. What I meant to say was by Bhikkus, what the scriptures mean is the FOURFOLD SANGHA. Then the laity would include all those who have not attained even the Sothapanna stage. The majority of the present day Bhikkus would fall onto this normal humans (Anariyas) category. The paticca samuppada as interpreted in almost all books are meant for this group. This is another discussion for another day. This is a busy week for me. When time permits I will complete my answer. With metta... – Saptha Visuddhi May 10 '17 at 11:21
  • I will take what you said in good faith @ Dhammadhatu, and I will do my very best to try to not create such friction. But to tell you, I am the very opposite of what you think of me. This Dhamma path is such a simple, beautiful straightforward way that we have unnecessarily complicated. It is all because of Buddhaghosa and Visuddhimagga. Sadly you and I are still stuck in the way that he has interpreted things, and continue to see things the way he got us to see. That's why the path is closed for a great many of us. In future whatever that I write I will refer to the original suttas. w/ metta! – Saptha Visuddhi May 11 '17 at 0:59
  • Thank you @SapthaVisuddhi for your answer and the sutta references. I'm indeed not confused about the mundane or noble paths, but am looking for explicit passages where sensual pleasures are a topic where the listeners are beings that are not inclined to be renunciants. I fear, though, there are no passage where the Buddha instructs someone to be moderate in sensual delight -- instead of instructing to abandon it. – Thiago May 11 '17 at 4:48
  • @Thiago Silva... [Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: Conditions of Welfare]() comes to mind if friendship, companionship and intimacy with the good can be taken as moderate in sensual delight. There are SUKHA vipaka vedana. They include sukha vedana such as bodily comforts one feels sleeping in a luxurious bed, eating tasty food, smelling nice odors, seeing something attractive, etc. They arise via the five physical senses. If someone can be without generating somanassa vedana, it is OK. An Arahant will not generate such because there is no attachment to anything or anyone for an Arahant. – Saptha Visuddhi May 11 '17 at 11:12
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In AN 8.21, the householder Ugga says the Buddha gave him "a talk on giving, virtuous behavior, and heaven; he revealed the danger, degradation, and defilement of sensual pleasures and the benefit of renunciation."

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