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I recently listened to a talk by Ajahn Chah, in which he mentions (@ ~14:20-14:53) that wisdom is found when one clings to neither pleasure nor displeasure. This really created a dilemma in my head about why to practice. Clearly, it makes sense that one would not want to cling to displeasure. Indeed, it seems a Buddhist practitioner can get quite far one this idea alone.

It seems natural that the whole reason one begins the path is to learn to not cling to displeasure. Learning to let go of what is bothersome to you is easier, as Ajahn Chah says. I don't believe many people start on the path to also not cling to happiness. Even Ajahn Chah states that those who truly practice also learn to not cling to happiness. How this can be done in the layman's world?

I cannot quite understand why one would want to reject clinging to pleasurable feelings. It seems our very survival as humans is based around our brain giving us pleasurable feelings to reinforce behaviors that keep us surviving. I.e. eating sweet food gives dopamine because it correlates (not necessarily entails) with us sustaining our survival. If I decide to do something purely for pleasure, does that mean that I have clung to that pleasure? I.e. I took a bath tonight for the reason of enjoying it and I did enjoy it. Does that entail that I've clung to the pleasure since my purpose for taking the bath was for pleasure? How would I know if I've clung to it?

At least in my life, my whole idea of having my career is based on the fact that it makes me happy and it's what I want to do (I do it for the purpose of pleasure). Why would I reject this? And if so, how could I even do so without becoming a monk and dedicating my life only to the goal of rejection of both pleasure and displeasure while only caring for my basic needs of survival (food, clothing, shelter, sleep). In a paradoxical sense, it even seems plausible that one's reasoning for becoming a monk would be for the pleasure one derives in the idea of working toward enlightenment. If not for the pleasure resulting from a task (or subsequent result), why would one do it?

Tangentially, it seems the quickest way to end both pleasure and displeasure would be suicide. I'm not suicidal myself, but I just ask in a theoretical sense. Why would one not just do this? I presume the answer is related in some way to rebirth, but I am not sure.

  • There are several questions tagged suicide already, which may already have answers just to that part of the question. – ChrisW Feb 19 at 7:05
  • It misses that one also needs to let go of indifferent feelings. Many disciples of Venerable Chah get stuck right there. – Samana Johann Feb 21 at 23:42

11 Answers 11

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Not clinging to pleasure does not mean there is no pleasure. It is the opposite. The more there is non-clinging, there more there is pleasure. For example, the suttas say the pleasure of 'jhana' ('meditative absorption') is reached by making 'non-clinging' the meditation object (SN 48.10). Or the suttas say Nibbana is the supreme pleasure (Dhammapada 204).

When Ajahn Chah refers to the word 'like', this is not synonymous with the words 'pleasure' & 'happiness'. 'Pleasure' is a 'feeling'. Where as 'like' is a 'view' or 'opinion'.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ChrisW Feb 22 at 11:44
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Dhammadatu gave an excellent answer that I wholeheartedly suggest you reflect on, but here is something a bit more personal that may also be helpful.

For a long time, I had much the same question about Buddhadharma that you have. There was something compelling and wise that struck me about it, but there were also aspects I found puzzling and concerning. It seemed to me, for quite a long time, that the Buddha’s answer to Tennyson’s claim, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost then to never have loved at all!” was in fact, “No! It isn’t.” This disturbed me as I’ve always thought Tennyson was correct.

When I told this to my teacher he laughed gregariously and told me that I misunderstood the Buddha’s teaching and to reflect some more. He said it was quite the opposite in fact. That the Buddha instructed us to practice love to an extent that we make it immeasurable. The problem was that we stupid beings don’t know what “love” actually is :)

It took me a long time to understand this in a non-intellectual way. To get a brief glimpse of what the Buddha might be intending. Suffice to say, I think my teacher was correct. The Buddha Dharma is all about increasing happiness and love and beneficial qualities. Here is what gave me a brief glimpse...

I’ve always been particularly attracted to dogs. From a very early age I seemed unusually drawn to them to an uncommon extent. It would not be off the mark to say that I am attached to dogs and the notion of them and to individual dogs as well. Anyway, I’ve owned many dogs over the course of my life and befriended nearly all that I have come across. It is extremely common that when I am walking down the street and encounter a dog - on leash or free - that I won’t stop to greet the animal and share a brief moment of joy connecting with it. In those moments, there is great pleasure and joy I feel.

What I came to realize is that I have befriended thousands and thousands of dogs this way. For the vast majority, I have one interaction and then never see them again. I do not purposefully go out to meet dogs or seek them out by walking in dog friendly neighborhoods or anything. I don’t have any expectation that when I meet a dog like this that I will ever see them again. It does not bother me in the slightest that I most likely will not. I don’t walk away from these encounters with a tinge of sadness reflecting that I won’t meet them again. The moments are full of joy with little overt clinging or attachment to the individual dogs at least. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that I love these dogs.

Now, my own dog is another matter. And all that I have owned in the past as well. There is great attachment to them and when I inevitably lose them due to age or sickness or karma there is unimaginable grief and suffering. I am attached to them in every sense. When I leave them for a trip or vacation there is longing for them. I miss them terribly. Our reunions are exaggerated and I project onto them all kinds of mental fabrications.

The difference between the two experiences has led to a good amount of reflection. It is not a perfect example or analogy, but put simply I think the former exhibit lots of joy and pleasure without clinging while the latter is chock full of clinging and attachment and the overall imprimatur of it is one of suffering.

Maybe reflect and see if there isn’t something analogous in your life. Moments of spontaneous pleasure that you’re not consciously seeking out and that doesn’t result in gross clinging or attachment. Reflect and see if there are other moments of a similar kind that are subject to gross clinging. What is the character of each? How does the mind work in each? What emotions result? Are they comfortable or strained and disturbing?

Anyway, I now have some faith that what my teacher said was correct. It is my own misunderstanding to think that Buddha Dharma does not result in happiness and joy or that the Buddha was somehow counseling that we give up all love and pleasure and renounce happiness. What the Buddha wants us to do is realize that our stupid notions of love and happiness and pleasure are full of misunderstandings that lead to nothing but suffering for ourselves and others. It’s our job to investigate according to the Buddha’s instruction to find the truth about these things.

Hope this is helpful!

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    I met a literal "stream-entrant" yesterday on my bike ride: I saw a little kid was crying alone off the path by the river, and when I slowed to see what was the matter I saw a head in the river holding its nose above water -- which, that was the mum, she had jumped in to rescue their puppy, and said to me she couldn't climb out again because the bank was so steep (and muddy; and she was holding a puppy) so I lent a hand which was easily done. – ChrisW Feb 19 at 15:10
  • This is interesting and helpful. Do you think there is any way you could own a dog without becoming attached to the pleasure of owning it? That is, do something because it is pleasurable to you without becoming attached to said pleasure? – dj1121 Feb 20 at 5:55
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    I do. The Buddha Dharma is replete with myriad technics and tactics focused on doing just that: diminishing and reducing clinging and attachment and ultimately extinguishing it. Looked at another way it is full of practices to increase happiness and joy and ultimately to perfect it. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 20 at 15:48
  • "... I lent a hand which was easily done..." Sadhu – Samana Johann Feb 21 at 23:47
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Have you heard of the old South Indian Monkey Trap (from this article)?

In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s bonkers-but-brilliant philosophical novel that turns 40 this year, he describes “the old South Indian Monkey Trap”. ... The trap “consists of a hollowed-out coconut, chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole”. The monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his clenched fist can’t fit back out. “The monkey is suddenly trapped.” But not by anything physical. He’s trapped by an idea, unable to see that a principle that served him well – “when you see rice, hold on tight!” – has become lethal.

The monkey must let go of the rice in order to free himself from his suffering. The way to end his suffering, is to end his craving for rice. He got stuck in the trap in the first place due to his craving for rice.

But in order to end his craving for rice, he must first understand how his hand is stuck inside the coconut. When the monkey overcomes his ignorance of how the trap works, he would let go of his craving for rice, and release his clenched fist. With this, he would become free from his suffering.

Similarly, you don't let go of clinging to both pleasure and pain by forcing yourself e.g. by avoiding taking a hot bath or eating good food or pursuing a career. Instead, you have to cultivate wisdom to overcome ignorance. When ignorance is uprooted, craving would be overcome, and suffering would be ended.

The Buddha discovered that both over-indulgence in pleasures and extreme asceticism do not lead to freedom from suffering. Rather, one must seek the Middle Way through the Noble Eightfold Path (see SN 56.11). The Noble Eightfold Path leads to cultivation of wisdom that would result in the uprooting of ignorance, and with that, craving.

The old South Indian Monkey Trap (Illustration above: Paul Thurlby for the Guardian)

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Rejecting clinging to both pleasure and displeasure

Herein lies your main misunderstanding of Buddhist (and Taoist) thought, namely in thinking that the expression pain-and-pleasure is referring to two separate concepts (as is evident from the placing of the word both before the aforementioned phrase), instead of one indivisible unit (as is actually the case).

wisdom is found when one clings to neither pleasure nor displeasure.

That's because pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin, inasmuch as the same underlying infrastructure (or mental faculty) is ultimately responsible for enabling us to perceive either aspect of this intrinsically dual or twofold reality. To do away with one is to do away with the other, and to embrace one is to embrace the other, the two facets being thus inexorably linked to each other. Picture, if you will, two convicts, with a rope tied around their neck, standing on a single scaffold. By removing the common foundation from underneath their feet, both simultaneously fall to their death.

I cannot quite understand why one would want to reject clinging to pleasurable feelings.

Because (obsessive) clinging, in time, engenders addiction (bhava), whose inevitable end is depression (dukkha), as can be glanced from the chain of causality illustrated by the Twelve Nidanas.

the quickest way to end both pleasure and displeasure would be suicide.

Highly doubtful, since the inability to fulfill one's carnal cravings constitutes nothing less than sheer and utter torment for the disembodied (but not dispassionate) mind.

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There is a distinction between feeling and clinging to that we should appreciate here. If I stub a toe, I feel displeasure; if I eat a good meal I feel pleasure. These are simple arisings from the biology of form, which are more or less unavoidable so long as we have form. But if ten minutes after I stub my toe I'm still angry about it, and berating that stupid chair for getting in my way... If the next time I want to eat my brain is buzzing around planning out how to acquire something 'delicious' instead of that regular old boring food... This is clinging to pain and pleasure.

People talk about avoiding suffering because it's a simple, direct, and easy concept. It's like that old joke where a patient says to a doctor "My arm hurts when I do this" and the doctor responds "Well, don't do that!" What most people don't realize is that clinging to pleasure is the source of a tremendous amount of suffering. I mean, think what happens if you get the idea of a perfect meal stuck in your head, such that ever meal you eat fails by comparison? Perfectly good meals that would otherwise fill you with pleasure now suddenly seem drab, boring, and displeasurable. You grind your way through meal after meal, barely tasting them, because your mind's eye is focused on that grand prize of succulent succotash.

If you simply allow yourself to feel pleasure and pain as it arises without being attached, most of what you experience will be pleasurable; life is (on the whole) good. If you are attached to seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain, you will inflict a lot of misery on yourself and others. It sounds paradoxical, almost self-contradictory, but reflect on it and you'll see the sense in it.

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OP: Rejecting clinging to both pleasure and displeasure

(1) the latent tendency to lust reinforced by being attached to pleasant feelings;

(2) the latent tendency to aversion reinforced by rejecting painful feelings;

(3) the latent tendency to ignorance reinforced by ignoring neutral feelings.

Pahāna Sutta

Similarly,

The latent tendency of lust rāgânusaya lies in a pleasant feeling.

The latent tendency of aversion paṭighânusaya lies in a painful feeling.

The latent tendency of ignorance avijjā’nusaya lies in a neutral feeling.

Cūla Vedalla Sutta

OP: How this can be done in the layman's world?

Whatever feeling on feels one should:

If he feels a pleasant feeling,

  • he understands that it is impermanent;
  • he understands that it is not to be clung to;
  • he understands that there is no delight in it.

If he feels a painful feeling,

  • he understands that it is impermanent;
  • he understands that it is not to be clung to;
  • he understands that there is no delight in it.

If he feels a neutral feeling,

  • he understands that it is impermanent;
  • he understands that it is not to be clung to;
  • he understands that there is no delight in it.

If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it in a detached manner.

If he feels a painful feeling, he feels it in a detached manner.

If he feels a neutral feeling, he feels it in a detached manner.

Dhātu Vibhaṅga Sutta

For a more detailed explanation see this answer.

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  • It can not be done in housholders world, one needs to leave home first. Otherwise one would just try to dwell in householderequanimity. Else: Sadhu – Samana Johann Feb 21 at 23:50
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The first time I read Buddhist doctrine it said something like, "Suffering is wanting to have what you can't have, wanting to keep what you can't keep, the craving to live, even the craving to die." Perhaps that isn't the most accurate translation, but it's not a bad paraphrase, so perhaps you can see from that why "clinging" is unfortunate.

Perhaps it's clinging which provides an object for craving ("I enjoyed my previous bath so now I want another").

It can be problematic too if pleasure conflicts with duty or virtue -- maybe addiction is when you cling to doing something because it was pleasurable, but to the detriment of what it's better to do.

How would I know if I've clung to it?

One might more-or-less assume that's so, as a lay-person -- in an absolute sense -- and perhaps by definition even in the early stages of enlightenment.

You might be more-or-less content with behaviour which is (relatively) harmless and not immoral, even if it is clingy (in my opinion).

Why would I reject this?

I think laypeople maybe don't, by definition (with a few exceptions).

In a paradoxical sense, it even etc

Yes that paradox is the subject of the Brahmana Sutta (SN 51.15).

And this may be a related topic, or at least an interesting read: Why do the Noble Truths talk about 'craving', instead of about 'attachment'?

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If I decide to do something purely for pleasure, does that mean that I have clung to that pleasure?

You got it. Doing anything merely for pleasure is a trap, because like you yourself said, pleasure is the superficial appearance that quite often is a false indicator of the long-term benefits of the underlying activity.

Buddhism teaches us to not be fooled by the superficial appearances ("illusions") because they are misleading and thus conducive to suffering. To not be fooled means, to not take them at their face value. Pleasure is one such instance out of the broad class of superficial appearances that we should learn to not reify. To not reify means to not assume that the appearance is reality. (In Buddhist context when we say "to cling" it means "to reify", "to confuse appearance for reality", and therefore "to build a system of expectations on the illusory foundation".)

one's reasoning for becoming a monk would be for the pleasure one derives in the idea of working toward enlightenment

Yes, of course. This is an established fact in Buddhism, that the very confusion of reification is exactly what motivates us to seek Enlightenment in the first place. Reifying the imaginary Enlightenment as something awesome and cool is the useful mistake that makes the path to Enlightenment possible.

the quickest way to end both pleasure and displeasure...

...would be to stop overgeneralizing phenomena based on their identifying characteristics, to stop reifying those generalizations as something real, and to stop allowing those reifications to motivate one's daily activity.

How this can be done in the layman's world?

Getting back to the topic of not clinging to pleasure and displeasure, this means to stop confusing pleasure/displeasure on one hand with benefit or harm on the other. When you act with the long term benefit as the goal, pleasure or displeasure are not your primary concerns.

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You have to first read and understand the three universal characteristics of all phenomenal existence - Anicca, Dukka and Anatta (Buddha's complete teaching is based on this discovery). Only then you will realize the reason why clinging creates re-birth. Since 'Anatta' means not-self ( there is no 'I' or 'me' in ultimate reality/ truth - the so called ‘I’ or ‘ you’ are a nothing more than a combination of five skandhas - or five aggregates), and it is because of clinging which created 'I' (me and my or mine) the ‘ego’, and the moment you let go of 'ego' you will realize that it is just an illusory world (called conventional world) created due to ignorance, this clinging- wanting pleasure and rejecting displeasure (duality) originate due to craving. 'Dukka' (un-satisfactory condition and suffering) arises because of 'Anicca' ( impermanence - ever-changing) and 'Anatta' not-self('ego', conditioning of craving ). It is the Mental formation with clinging (Sanskara - Upadana) that creates re-birth/Cause which acts as the force that pushes to the next existence. Therefore the mental formation without clinging to pleasure or displeasure which is called equanimity will not create re-birth, and this can be achieved only by observation and not getting involved to create cause (karma), the art of cultivating equanimity is to observe the five precepts and to practise Dana ( donate – giving without expecting anything in return, - let go process) , Seela - physical and mental discipline cultivating loving kindness ( Ethical and high moral values –have consideration for all living beings including environment ) and Bhavana – meditative practises to develop wholesome mental qualities. All these will finally lead to eightfold path.

In order to fully understand Dharma and to have faith in Dharma, you need to completely understand about the re-birth process as well as ‘Samsara’ or never ending process’/ cycle of existence. Since all existences are un-satisfactory, and bring suffering the only way to liberate from that is attaining Nibbhana. (energy cannot be destroyed however can stop generating energy)

Once you understand this, then you will need the effort and nothing but the effort to live according to Dharma. Knowing Dharma has no purpose if you cannot live according to Dharma. It’s like having a prescription for your illness with you but not taking the medicine that was prescribed due to many reasons.

Asking all these questions has no purpose without knowing the basics. It is like wanting to know the route to the moon without even having a rocket or become an astronaut.

The major part of Buddha Dharma is the path to purify your mind, since it is the mind that is the forerunner of all evil. Only in Buddha’s Teaching it says that the life existence is a combination of Mind and matter phenomena, where matter/ the Body consist of the five sense sphere. It is through these five sense sphere that everybody is trying to find pleasure and the sixth sense 'mind' that end up suffering more times than the matter. This happens because of ignorance and not understanding ‘Anicca’ and ‘Anatta’.

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Because clinging to positive things leads to more greed, more mental instability and discomfort as whatever your cling to will one day disapear or change, making you uneasy. Enjoying your bath isn't the issue as it is obviously trivial, the issue is believing in chasing the pleasures/satisfaction of life which are all impermanent.

This is one of the 3 marks of existence : anicca, which means inability to maintain things to your satisfaction.

This will ultimately lead to constant rebirth, immoral acts, and rebirth in the lower realms, as you might be tempted to do immoral things to satisfy your cravings (if not in this life then in the next).

So basically, you don't want to cling to positive things too much because it will ultimately lead you to hell. The opposite is also true, it will make you closer to nibanna.

Your question is funny as it represents the typical samsara mindset, where one wants less of what one dislikes and more of what one likes.

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By clinging to pleasure, inevitably you will cling into an unpleasant state.

The moment you cling to pleasure, it's gone.

Happiness can only be realized in retrospect.

When you cling to pleasure, you cling to displeasure.

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