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Sorry, I've just read Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) and feel a bit overwhelmed.

As far as I understand, this is some sort of instruction on how to attain enlightenment. It teaches, that one has to develop the perfect mindfulness of the body, feelings and mind; to observe all the hindrances and be sure that they won't arise anymore; to develop the ending of the aggregates; to abandon the fetter of the senses; to develop all the awakening factors; to contemplate all the arising dharmas considering their relationships with the Four Noble Truths.

Beats me, even if one devotes all their life to the perfection of all of these things, can they really perfect these? Attaining Nirvana seems to be really complicated, and there are many conflicting points (both within and between major schools) on what are more important objects of meditation & techniques out there.

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  • Interestingly, the central theme of Christianity has to do with the direct equivalent to your question, with regard to gaining entry into heaven. If you're interested in researching how Christianity approaches its own equivalent to your question, New Testament books like Hebrews and Galatians can be good places to start. May 19, 2020 at 16:56

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Beats me, even if one devotes all their life to the perfection of all of these things, can they really perfect these? Attaining Nirvana seems to be really complicated, and there are many conflicting points (both within and between major schools) on what are more important objects of meditation & techniques out there.

There sure are many conflicting points within and between schools, but more important meditation objects isn't one of them, for there's no such thing as the best meditation object. The best meditation object is one that is the most suitable to solve a problem due to the personality, shortcomings, and orientation of the practitioner. Full of lust? then meditate on the foulness of the body thru its 32 body parts; full of hatred or anger? meditate on loving kindness and joy; full of drowsiness or torpor? meditate on light or various kasinas, etc.

Regarding the possibility of Nibbana, there's no doubt it's no trivial pursuit. But one can see it in a more positive light, if the road to Nibbana is like a marathon which would take millions of steps forward, as long as one puts in the time and effort slowly and consistently, any step s/he puts forward would mean it's one step closer toward the finish line. But if s/he doesn't put their foot forward, s/he won't go anywhere.

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  • "There sure are many conflicting points within and between schools, but more important meditation objects isn't one of them" - well, for example, Bhikkhu Bodhi argued, that kasina meditation was not taught by the Buddha, as kasinas do not appear in the most ancient scriptures, therefore should not be practised, according to Bhikkhu Bodhi May 20, 2020 at 11:56
  • I think this answer is quite good because it captures the essentials of developing sati and removal of obsessive thoughts & hindrances by any means. Btw in regards to schools op might not know that Theravada has like factions, they don't split even tho conflicting views, if u made a q about this id tell what i know but school delineation is a ballpark reference to what texts people consider to be true rather than their interpretations.
    – user8527
    May 21, 2020 at 23:05
  • B.Bodhi, Analayo, Brahm and Sujato are the monks who have an angle on parts of canon being inauthentic but they have no proof afaik. I suspect this has to do with the female ordination drama, feminism, disagreeing with some partriarchal sutta and perhaps seeing legitimate flaws (i don't fwiw). These are most "reformist" monks there are and most visibly politically engaged.
    – user8527
    May 21, 2020 at 23:17
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Indeed, attaining Nirvana is the Ultimate Challenge. There is nothing higher, so I'm surprised you are surprised that it's difficult. Did you expect it to be easier than e.g. becoming an Olympic Champion or becoming a billionaire businessman? If it were easier it would not be The Most Valuable Attainment in the Universe.

As any serious pursuit this must be your topmost priority for you to even have a chance to succeed. You can't achieve it "by the way" among other things. If you speak with any serious Buddhist teacher, they will tell you that they put their entire life, every second of every minute of every hour, to the service of enlightenment. Only this level of commitment makes the goal of Nirvana achievable.

Of course, if you want to move in the right direction, you need to know clearly where you are going and what you have to do to get there. Are you clear now? Do you know many people who are clear? If not, there's zero chance, ZERO, that you will be able to do the right thing at the tremendously high level of effort, consistently for a long time. You can't become an Olympic champion by trying random exercises from different sport books, can you?

So you need a system, one with clear goal, clear principles, and clear practices that use the principles to move towards the goal. You need to have a clear understanding of the goal, the principles, the negative actions that move you away, the positive actions that move you closer, and irrelevant actions that you can ignore. It must be very clear, so you can implement it very precisely, with no gaps, every second of every minute of every hour, improving your practice, until it becomes perfect. I'm telling you how it is. If it's sounds hard, that's because it is. These are mandatory requirements.

Once you are clear about the what and the how, you must keep yourself motivated and focused, to stay on the practice without distraction, without losing hope, for years and years, maybe even decades. Perhaps only a few years, if you are extremely talented and strong, but most likely decades if you are an average person. Unfortunately there's no shortcut.

So if you are scared of all this, then this Challenge is not for you. But if you want to be on par with Spider Man and Bill Gates - and are willing to sacrifice your life for it, then your foremost concern must be understanding of the principles. The more you understand the principles, the better you can apply them in practice -- the better you practice, the clearer things get -- the clearer things get, the better you understand the principles. It starts and ends with the principles, the principles are the key.

And what are the principles?

  1. It's all in your head. Our mind creates the virtual reality we know as "our world". Our problems, successes, sufferings, joys, meanings, pursuits - are mind constructs. Therefore the solution lies in understanding how mind works and not falling victim to its mechanisms.

  2. Karma is the fabric our lives made of. Every choice we make shapes our life. Our future is literally made of our past. Therefore, every little step we make builds the house of our future, rock by rock. Therefore, we must get very clear what we should and should not do.

  3. There are two basic states: harmony and conflict. They apply to all situations in life, large and small. Harmony feels good, conflict feels bad. The goal of Buddhism is perfect Harmony. (You can call it nirvana or whatever you want.)

  4. Now, the master key. What you sow is what you reap. If you sow conflict, you reap conflict. If you sow harmony you reap harmony. On micro and macro levels. In your person life and in social life, it works the same way. Conflict between two thoughts is still a conflict.

  5. If you want to achieve nirvana, you must practice creating nothing but harmony, and your practice must get perfectly watertight. Which means you will start coarse and keep improving. At some point you will start questioning what's what and splitting hair. This is expected as you get to the microscopic level. To achieve nirvana you need to get clear about harmony on all levels - from cosmic to nanoscopic level of your subtlests thoughts. Conflict between two thoughts is still a conflict.

  6. All practices - ethics, mindfulness, meditation - serve this single purpose: don't create conflict and create harmony, outer and inner. Now you know what to do.

  7. At some point your pursuit of inner harmony should get soooooo refined that you will come back to principle #1 above and make a breakthrough. At which point your beliefs will fall, your head will explode, and all those other cool things described in texts will happen. But anyhow, the way to get there is to avoid creating conflict and only create harmony, which gets harder and harder as you begin scrutinizing these two notions as they apply to your immediate first-hand experience.

Even when you're clear about all of the above, (and I suspect that most people are not) - it's still a very tough game to master. Like I said, you must be crazy to think you can win. But if you have spirit of Spider Man and patience of Bill Gates, then maybe you have one chance in a million. Worth giving a shot?

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  • Sounds more like motivational speech than an answer to my question. My question is, what one must stick to in this mountain of scriptures to fulfil their goal? Since, indeed, "you can't become an Olympic champion by trying random exercises from different sports books". And this sutra really seems like "random exercises from different sports books", and I just see no way how one can master all these. I stuck to Anapanasati sutta before, but this one really complicates the Path. May 19, 2020 at 10:47
  • Principles, principles, principles. See above for principles. Principles above.
    – Andriy Volkov
    May 19, 2020 at 11:00
  • The key principle is to create inner and outer harmony, I get it. But Buddha would never call the goal of Nirvana as a Challenge and compare it to the training for the Olympics or becoming a billionaire. Such comparisons feed the ego and are counterproductive. May 19, 2020 at 11:33
  • Not at all. Didn't you read the sutta where he says that wanting to be better than other monks and jealousy of their attainments leads to Nirvana? Go ahead and ask a new question about that.
    – Andriy Volkov
    May 19, 2020 at 12:43
  • @AndriyVolkov Which sutta is that, are you referring to what the Bhikkhuni Sutta says about conceit?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 18, 2023 at 7:53
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Well the Satipatthana sutta answers it doesn't it?

"O bhikkhus, should any person maintain the Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for seven years, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge (arahantship) here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning (the Third Stage of Supramundane Fulfillment).

"O bhikkhus, let alone seven years. Should a person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness, in this manner, for six years... for five years... four years... three years... two years... one year, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

"O bhikkhus, let alone a year. Should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness, in the manner, for seven months, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

"O bhikkhus, let alone seven months. Should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for six months... five months... four months... three months... two months... one month... half-a-month, then, by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

"O bhikkhus, let alone half-a-month. Should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for a week, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning.

"Because of this was it said: 'This is the only way, O bhikkhus, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely, the Four Arousings of Mindfulness."

Thus spoke the Blessed One.

There are ways given by the Buddha for finding correct people to whom one lends ear, that by observing them as in canki sutta, there are also ways of examining texts given in the four great references.

Learning of texts & doctines one is overwhelmed with the amount schools and volume.

If one starts with the oldest texts of Pitaka one will have a good reference to texts known to be true so one can then move on to examining the later up to contemporary texts.

To me this seems to be the meta because starting from the late texts doesn't make any sense. I assume we want to know what Buddha said more so than what other people say about it not the other way.

Having learnef the basic pali texts one will keep track the development of interpretations as time went on.

It does take a long time to learn the thousands of discourses but this kind of study of schools isn't necessary for the attainments as in beginning there were much fewer discourses and more attainments. One does need to learn but that just enough not to hold pernicious wrong views and to rouse effort for the development.

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If you are serious about reaching enlightenment, you will reach it. What I have to say goes against some Buddhist teachings and will most likely be frowned upon by most who read this, but my hope is that something I say resonates with you and sparks the drive to continue on the path and not get discouraged. Reaching enlightenment is no small task, but it is certainly not as difficult as the Sutta you read makes it out to be.

Before I start with opinions, I need to share the hardest pill to swallow. I consider myself an Arahant, and have been living without suffering for the past two years. I also know many people personally who have also reached enlightenment, it is not as uncommon as you may first suspect it to be. Once you have awakened, it becomes fairly easy to identify who has also completed the path. There are specific ways that people speak about the unspeakable that are easy tells.

Now when I tell someone this though, their automatic response tends to be disbelief. I personally think this is because of exactly the situation you find yourself in now. You read a Sutta and you are so overwhelmed with rules and guidelines you think it must be impossible. I personally believe many Suttas, through translations and permutations over thousands of years, have accumulated unnecessary fluff. I think many of those who have translated the texts have not been enlightened themselves, and therefore have added verbiage that no longer retains the accuracy it once had. I also believe permutations have occurred that tended to add extravagance to the idea of enlightenment, setting unrealistic expectations that further alienates the reader from believing they have a chance at true freedom.

Everything I am going to say after this depends on you believing that my attainment is true. It will carry no weight otherwise. Just know that I write this post, exposing my experience and potentially bringing the wrath of others upon myself, for the tiny sliver of a chance that you may one day experience the same peace that is granted to those who's lives are truly blessed. I pray for nothing more than your liberation, for it is without a doubt the most beautiful and amazing thing that has ever happened to me.

First I plan to answer your question. Then, I will talk about my experience with enlightenment to see if my experience is something you desire. Finally, I will give my recommendations of how to proceed, so you can hopefully avoid many of the pitfalls I found myself in.

Now to finally answer your question, no, you do not need to "perfect" anything in order to reach enlightenment. Every moment you are aware is a moment that enlightenment is possible. Nirvana has no requirements to be seen. The main impediment we face that stops us from instantly becoming enlightened is the insane number of beliefs we hold without question. The linchpin belief being our belief in a separate self, the human being you presently believe yourself to be. Once it is seen in your own experience that the self does not exist, a domino effect occurs and enlightenment becomes inevitable.

Now here is the part where I try to set realistic expectations about enlightenment, but I expect those who have never experienced enlightenment to lash out at my crushing their dreams of what they hope and pray it to be. I only include this so that you can make an informed decision. It's easy to desire to walk the path if you are told you will be in a constant state of bliss and all your problems will go away. Unfortunately, that is not what enlightenment is.

Enlightenment is experienced from the human perspective as an end to all beliefs, a perceived balance in effort, and an unending peace. Enlightenment is experienced from the non-human perspective as complete unity and emptiness.

Our entire lives we exert so much unconscious effort propping up our belief systems. Samsara, or, the world we believe ourselves to live in, only exists because of these beliefs. Creating the universe takes a lot of effort, and its an effort we are so used to constantly exerting, we don't even notice its presence until its gone. Once all beliefs end for the first time, Nirvana is seen, and from there on out, there is an unending tranquility that you now will have access to, in all experience. This peace underlying all things will allow you to endure anything.

When all your beliefs end, so does the belief that you are a human being. Your experience becomes one of complete unity, seeing the universe as yourself. You will experience what you truly are, the totality of reality uninterpreted by beliefs. It is the holiest of experiences, and one I am eternally grateful to have been able to experience.

Just because the belief that you are a human being has ended does not mean your human experience stops. Your experience continues as it once did, but now with an added non-human component. Both logically at odds with one another, but coexisting perfectly. You will still experience things like sadness, frustration, and anger, but in a completely new light. Suffering is not a feeling or experience. Suffering is nothing more than energy exerted to satisfy aversion. When you are an Arahant, you will become sad and cry, but you will not be uncomfortable. You will get angry and yell, but be at peace. True freedom comes from the acceptance of all experience. As long as you want these experiences and not those, you will never be free. Any enlightenment description that highlights you being able to control anything is misguided. True freedom is in the complete relinquishing of control of everything. True freedom is in the full acceptance of anything that occurs. You do not need to change who you are to be free. You simply need to observe, without exerting the effort of interpretation.

Without getting into my life story, I can tell you it took me 6 years of searching to become an Arahant. I personally believe most of that time was wasted, wandering from teaching to teaching, trying to piece together what would help me, and what was just dogmatic beliefs. I think, if I had the correct resources from the beginning, I could have done it a lot faster. Enlightenment is possible for all who seek it. The hardest part of the path is discarding all the beliefs that hold us from seeing the Truth.

Now for my advice to you for how to move forward on the path. It's so easy to get stagnant. I have seen many spin their wheels for years making no progress, and I pray all who have read this far do not make the same mistakes that I did.

If you desire to be free, my highest recommendation is to find a teacher who has already walked the entire path. I have seen many waste so much time, learning from teachers who also believe the end goal to be an impossible task. An Arahant hillbilly would be more useful to you than a monk who has spent the last 60 years memorizing the Suttras.

If you can't find a teacher, I highly suggest you read this book:

https://www.amazon.com/Mastering-Core-Teachings-Buddha-Unusually/dp/1904658407

It was written by an Arahant, for people confused or lost in the Suttas. It boils down what you need to most basic component. I fully attribute the final stages of my progress to reading this book. I couldn't recommend it more.

I hope this book of a post I have written you finds you well. To all who have made it this far, I have no doubt that you have the open-mindedness and ability to set aside your own beliefs that are infinitely helpful in reaching true freedom. I pray for nothing more than your liberation this lifetime.

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    Thank you, I appreciate your answer and agree with many of your points (Oh, beliefs and opinions again!). I certainly feel like the original teaching of Siddharta Gautama has been altered and overcomplicated since many years of oral transition. It can be even seen with how many "formulas" are there in the suttas. I highly doubt that the original teaching was so formalistic. Probably it's like that because it's easier to remember. "Abhidhamma Pitaka" was probably written by non-arahants. And, yes, probably "a monk who has spent the last 60 years memorizing the Suttras" isn't a great teacher. May 19, 2020 at 16:14
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    Also, unrealistic expectations could be set because over time the figure of Buddha has started to resemble god, omnipotent and omniscient. In reality, Buddha was a liberated being, but still a normal human being. It's even written in the suttas that in the old age Buddha has led less ascetic lifestyle and started to practise the naps. May 19, 2020 at 16:22
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    As for your claim for being an arahant, it probably can't be proven nor disproven, like all the other such claims. I can only say that in the 20th and 21st centuries there's been a lot of such claims, but people who claimed this often have held false opinions and were teaching harmful stuff, so obviously they weren't really enlightened. May 19, 2020 at 16:33
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    Finally, I can say that your answer certainly resonated with me and helped me to calm down. May 19, 2020 at 16:36
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    You are most welcome. Believing I am an Arahant would just be another belief acting as a barrier to your awakening, so hopefully you don’t believe a word. =] Im just happy you read my words to the end. You don’t need anyone to get where you are headed, but sometimes guides and friends can be good company along the way.
    – w33t
    May 19, 2020 at 16:39
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I am just a learner, not a knowledgeable monk or scholar but I will venture an answer as I have had the same questions and thoughts as you. These are the answers that have worked for me:

  1. Can this be done? Yes. Example: the Buddha and some others who followed.
  2. Can this be done in the current lifetime? Yes. Example: the Buddha.
  3. Should one expect to attain this in one or the current lifetime? No. Example: the many who try but failed; even the Buddha spoke of his past lifetimes. As others here have pointed out; it is incredibly difficult to attain.
  4. Should this put you off trying? No. As others have said, even if it is not been achieved, the trying will bring you that much closer so you can start ahead in your next existence.
  5. Which is the right path/teaching to follow to achieve it? Trick question. IMHO, the Buddha taught us the understandings & goals we need to achieve. He also gave us some helpful ideas on some practices which could be used to achieve those.

However, most important, he also taught us that we needed to look within ourselves to find our way to enlightenment. Buddhism does not have priests or rabbis or imams for a reason. Monks are teachers and advisors, not infallibles.

We are each different individuals, with different backgrounds, ways and capabilities. I believe that there is no one way or one set of practices that is the right one for all to follow to enlightenment. Each of these have been developed by individuals who looked within and found a certain set which helped them achieve. The mistake even great teachers make is to believe that the method that worked for them will work for all (one of the toughest lessons I had to learn as a teacher).

Each of us needs to survey these, look within ourselves and choose the best methods FOR US to attain the understandings and goals set out for us. Again, the answer is within each of us not down one defined "yellow brick road".

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A simplistic view and indeed a commonsense view of the Noble Eightfold Path for achieving Nibbana (through Samadhi-Vipassana) begins by understanding and seeing what 'Right View' is and then coupling it with 'Right Effort' and 'Right Mindfulness'. It is this framework that needs to be applied to the the remaining path factors as well.

The above view is well articulated in the Maha Chaththarika Sutta and it is a very useful framework that I had already synthesised for my practice by then (arising from a commonsense perspective). Nevertheless, going through the Sutta made it even more useful and reinforced my understanding further and also clarified what these meant (to some extent) and the importance of thinking so which is logically articulated by the Buddha in this Sutta.

What is important to note is that there are specific meanings attached to what 'Right and Wrong View' etc are (not limited to commonsense meanings), and it is only by latching on to these specific meanings that one would be able to develop insight and trek the Path towards Nibbana.

So, in order to respond to the question connected with the Satipattana Sutta, I for one feel that (with my little understanding) what it attempts to explain is what 'Right Mindfulness' is about but 'Right Mindfulness' alone would not be sufficient without first understanding what 'Right View' is and why it is indeed fundamental and foremost as explained in the Sutta (although Maha Chaththarika Sutta translations into English aren't great and have therefore listened to sermons and read various other suttas from other languages with stutta titles misleading at times too).

The said three-pronged framework makes sense to me even from a commonsense perspective. I feel, it is part of the big picture which needs to be linked with the Four Noble Truths to complete it (simplistically). So, to achieve Nibbana, it cannot be achieved by simply following what is said in the Satipattana Sutta but needs to be combined with what the Buddha had said in totality while understanding the big picture as I see. A good question that got me thinking.

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Nibbana is an experience (or a mental state), not something to be understood intellectually. The answers cannot be found by comparing techniques or schools. One has to apply the dharma pertaining to the body to the body, the dharma applying to sila (virtue) to one's life. It is a process of slowly changing the composition of one's mind and life over time. Please find a local monastery or meditation retreat that speaks to you. May you find peace! With metta

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OP: Is it even possible to attain Nirvana?

If you have to ask this question, then the answer is NO.


P.S. This is a zen-style answer.

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Nibbana is easy. All you need is get rid of cravings , slowly but surely. Once you get rid of the cravings , clinging will not arise. If clinging won’t arise , attachments won’t arise. If attachments won’t arise , becoming won’t arise. If becoming won’t arise , birth , ageing and death and whole mass of related suffering won’t arise. This is Nibbana.

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Buddhism takes a familiar American principle—the pursuit of happiness—and inserts two important qualifiers. The happiness it aims at is true: ultimate, unchanging, and undeceitful. Its pursuit of that happiness is serious, not in a grim sense, but dedicated, disciplined, and willing to make intelligent sacrifices.

What sorts of sacrifices are intelligent? The Buddhist answer to this question resonates with another American principle: an intelligent sacrifice is any in which you gain a greater happiness by letting go of a lesser one, in the same way you’d give up a bag of candy if offered a pound of gold in exchange. In other words, an intelligent sacrifice is like a profitable trade. This analogy is an ancient one in the Buddhist tradition. “I’ll make a trade,” one of the Buddha’s disciples once said, “aging for the ageless, burning for the unbound: the highest peace, the unexcelled safety from bondage. (Thag 1:32)”

There’s something in all of us that would rather not give things up. We’d prefer to keep the candy and get the gold. But maturity teaches us that we can’t have everything, that to indulge in one pleasure often involves denying ourselves another, perhaps better, one. So we need to establish clear priorities for investing our limited time and energies where they’ll give the most lasting returns.

That means giving top priority to the mind. Material things and social relationships are unstable and easily affected by forces beyond our control, so the happiness they offer is fleeting and undependable. But the well-being of a well-trained mind can survive even aging, illness, and death. To train the mind, though, requires time and energy. This is one reason why the pursuit of true happiness demands that we sacrifice some of our external pleasures.

Sacrificing external pleasures also frees us of the mental burdens that holding onto them often entails. A famous story in the Canon (Ud 2:10) tells of a former king who, after becoming a monk, sat down at the foot of a tree and exclaimed, “What bliss! What bliss!” His fellow monks thought he was pining for the pleasures he had enjoyed as king, but he later explained to the Buddha exactly what bliss he had in mind:

“Before … I had guards posted within and without the royal apartments, within and without the city, within and without the countryside. But even though I was thus guarded, thus protected, I dwelled in fear—agitated, distrustful, and afraid. But now, on going alone to a forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, I dwell without fear, unagitated, confident, and unafraid—unconcerned, unruffled, living on the gifts of others, with my mind like a wild deer.”

A third reason for sacrificing external pleasures is that in pursuing some pleasures—such as our addictions to eye-candy, ear-candy, nose-, tongue-, and body-candy—we foster qualities of greed, anger, and delusion that actively block the qualities needed for inner peace. Even if we had all the time and energy in the world, the pursuit of these pleasures would lead us further and further away from the goal. Pleasures of this sort are spelled out in the path factor called right resolve: the resolve to forego any pleasures involving sensual passion, ill will, and harmfulness. “Sensual passion” covers not only sexual desire, but also any hankering for the pleasures of the senses that disrupts the peace of the mind. “Ill will” covers any wish for suffering, either for yourself or for others. And “harmfulness” is any activity that would bring that suffering about.

Of these three categories, the last two are the easiest to see as worth abandoning. They’re not always easy to abandon, perhaps, but the resolve to abandon them is obviously a good thing. The first resolve, though—to renounce sensual passion—is difficult even to make, to say nothing of following it through.

Part of our resistance to this resolve is universally human. People everywhere relish their passions. Even the Buddha admitted to his disciples that, when he set out on the path of practice, his heart didn’t leap at the idea of renouncing sensual passion, didn’t see it as offering peace. But an added part of our resistance to renunciation is peculiar to Western culture. Modern pop psychology teaches that the only alternative to a healthy indulgence of our sensual passions is an unhealthy, fearful repression. Yet both of these alternatives are based on fear: repression, on a fear of what the passion might do when expressed or even allowed into consciousness; indulgence, on a fear of deprivation and of the under-the-bed monster the passion might become if resisted and driven underground. Both alternatives place serious limitations on the mind.

The Buddha, aware of the drawbacks of both, had the imagination to find a third alternative: a fearless, skillful approach that avoids the dangers of either side.

To understand his approach, though, we have to see how right resolve relates to other parts of the Buddhist path, in particular right view and right concentration. In the formal analysis of the path, right resolve builds on right view. In its most skillful manifestation, it functions as the directed thought and evaluation that bring the mind to right concentration. Right view provides a skillful understanding of sensual pleasures and passions, so that our approach to the problem doesn’t go off-target. Right concentration provides an inner stability and bliss so that we can clearly see the roots of passion and, at the same time, not fear deprivation at the prospect of pulling them out.

There are two levels to right view, focusing (1) on the results of our actions in the narrative of our lives and (2) on the issues of stress and its cessation within the mind. The first level points out the drawbacks of sensual passion: sensual pleasures are fleeting, unstable, and stressful; passion for them lies at the root of many of the ills of life, ranging from the hardships of gaining and maintaining wealth, to quarrels within families and wars between nations. This level of right view prepares us to see the indulgence of sensual passion as a problem. The second level—viewing things in terms of the four noble truths—shows us how to solve this problem in our approach to the present moment. It points out that the root of the problem lies not in the pleasures but in the passion, because passion involves attachment, and any attachment for pleasures based on conditions leads inevitably to stress and suffering, in that all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. In fact, our attachment to sensual passion tends to be stronger and more constant than our attachments to particular pleasures. This attachment is what has to be renounced.

How is this done? By bringing it out into the open. Both sides of sensual attachment—as habitual patterns from the past and our willingness to give into them again in the present—are based on misunderstanding and fear. As the Buddha pointed out, sensual passion depends on aberrant perceptions: We project notions of constancy, ease, beauty, and self onto things that are actually inconstant, stressful, unattractive, and not-self. These misperceptions apply both to our passions and to their objects. We perceive the expression of our sensuality as something appealing, a deep expression of our self-identity offering lasting pleasure. We see the objects of our passion as enduring and alluring enough, as lying enough under our control, to provide us with a satisfaction that won’t turn into its opposite.

Actually, none of this is the case, and yet we blindly believe our projections because the power of our passionate attachments has us too intimidated to look them straight in the eye. Their special effects, as a result, keep us dazzled and deceived. As long as we deal only in indulgence and repression, attachment can continue operating freely in the dark of the sub-conscious. But when we consciously resist it, it has to come to the surface, articulating its threats, demands, and rationalizations. So even though sensual pleasures aren’t evil, we have to systematically forego them as a way of drawing the agendas of attachment out into the open. This is how skillful renunciation serves as a learning tool, unearthing latent agendas that both indulgence and repression tend to keep underground.

At the same time, we need to provide the mind with strategies to withstand those agendas and to cut through them once they appear. This is where right concentration comes in. As a skillful form of indulgence, right concentration suffuses the body with a non-sensual rapture and pleasure that can help counteract any sense of deprivation in resisting sensual passions. In other words, it provides higher pleasures—more lasting and refined—as a reward for abandoning attachment to lower ones. At the same time, it gives us the stable basis we need so as not to be blown away by the assaults of our thwarted attachments. This stability also steadies the mindfulness and alertness we need to see through the misperceptions and delusions that underlie sensual passion. And once the mind can see through the processes of projection, perception, and misperception to the greater sense of freedom that comes when they’re transcended, the basis for sensual passion is gone.

At this stage, we can then turn to analyze our attachment to the pleasures of right concentration. When our understanding is complete, we abandon all need for attachment of any sort, and so meet with the pure gold of a freedom so total that it can’t be described.

The question remains: How does this strategy of skillful renunciation and skillful indulgence translate into everyday practice? People who ordain as monastics take vows of celibacy and are expected to work constantly at renouncing sensual passion, but for many people, this is not a viable option. So the Buddha recommended that his lay followers observe day-long periods of temporary renunciation. Four days out of each month—traditionally on the new-, full-, and half-moon days—they can take the eight precepts, which add the following observances to the standard five: celibacy, no food after noon, no watching of shows, no listening to music, no use of perfumes and cosmetics, and no use of luxurious seats and beds. The purpose of these added precepts is to place reasonable restraints on all five of the senses. The day is then devoted to listening to the Dhamma, to clarify right view; and to practicing meditation, to strengthen right concentration. Although the modern workweek can make the lunar scheduling of these day-long retreats impractical, there are ways they can be integrated into weekends or other days off from work. In this way, anyone interested can, at regular intervals, trade the cares and complexities of everyday life for the chance to master renunciation as a skill integral to the serious pursuit of happiness in the truest sense of the word.

And isn’t that an intelligent trade?

Trading Candy for Gold Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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To attain enlightenment, all one simply needs to learn is how to continuously observe the breathing, i.e., practice anapanasati.

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