Is It Necessary for a Buddhist to Eliminate Sensual Desires?

September 28, 2018

1. I saw the above question raised in a discussion forum recently (with a different title). The questioner stated: “Eliminating sensual desire as a lay follower doesn’t seem possible, or reasonable, especially if one plans on being in a relationship, or having motivation at work. .”.

  • I think this is a very important question. Most people have not understood the fact that the Noble Path of the Buddha MUST BE followed sequentially.
  • Getting rid of sense desires (including sex, craving for food, etc) is not necessary in the beginning and even up to the Sōtapanna stage.
  • Getting to the final stage of Nibbāna (Arahanthood) is a step-by-step process.

2. The necessary INITIAL steps involved are:

  1. Be a moral person and avoid the mundane five precepts (abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, outright lying, and getting intoxicated) and also gossiping, slandering, and harsh speech; see, “2. The Basics in Meditation“.
  2. Understand the correct “wider world view” of the Buddha, and get rid of the ten types of miccā ditthi; see, “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty)“.
  3. Learn about the “deeper world view of the Buddha” stated by Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta nature); see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.

3. When one starts to understand the “anicca nature” (anicca means much more than just impermanence) of this world, one becomes a Sōtapanna Anugāmi. When that “correct vision” about “this wider world of 31 realms” sinks into the mind permanently, one becomes a Sōtapanna.

  • One does not need to even think about removing desire for sex or any other sense pleasure until one gets to the Sōtapanna stage. This is a key point that most people do not understand.

4. Therefore, many people waste precious time by either first trying to suppress sense desires, and even in some cases try to eliminate the innate sense of “me” or “a self”.

  • But just like one cannot learn algebra or advanced calculus without learning how to do addition, those people will not make any significant progress. It is impossible to do so.
  • Furthermore, while one may get a temporary relief from “stresses of day-to-day activities” by doing things like breath meditation, that will not provide the long-term release from suffering that the Buddha explained.
  • Until one begins to understand Tilakkhana, one will never get to the Sōtapanna stage.

5. Even during the time of the Buddha, there were many lay followers who attained the Sōtapanna stage, and continued to engage in sense pleasures too. They were married and had regular jobs.  There was no need to avoid sense pleasures, including sex, at all.

  • For example, Vishākā (or Visākā), who was the leading female lay disciple at the time, attained the Sōtapanna stage at age seven, and went on to get married and have twenty plus children.
  • There were many others, who were regular lay people with families who attained the Sōtapanna stage and continued to live that way.
  • Of course, those who desired to attain higher stages of Nibbāna, made an effort to get rid of the craving for sense pleasures. Most of them became bhikkhus, since bhikkhus are REQUIRED abstain from sex and other sense pleasures.

6. One needs to completely abstain from sense pleasures completely only to become a Anāgāmi. Even a Sakadāgāmi still enjoys sense pleasures, even though he/she would not have the desire to “own” things that provide sense pleasures.

  • For example, a Sakadāgāmi would still enjoy some sense pleasures, but there would be no desire to own “things that provide sense pleasure” (houses, cars, etc).

7. Furthermore, one CANNOT just give up sense pleasures by sheer will power and become an Anāgāmi. One has to comprehend the “anicca nature” at a higher level than a Sōtapanna and then those desires will NATURALLY go away.

  • This may hard for most people to understand: how the desire for sense pleasures will naturally go away. This is exactly why one should follow the Path SEQUENTIALLY, one step at a time.
  • By the way, the sense of “me” or ” a self” will go away only at the Arahant stage!

8. However, it is important also to realize that one cannot become a Sōtapanna by enjoying sense pleasures to the full, i.e., by maintaining a “playboy type” lifestyle.

  • When one starts comprehending the anicca nature, one’s life WILL become simple.
  • Even before one gets to the Sōtapanna stage, one will start feeling nirāmisa sukha, which is due to lessened stress on the mind due to this simple life style.

9. Of course, one can speed up the process to the Sōtapanna stage by giving up sense pleasures. Those who take this path become bhikkhus. They voluntarily give up most sense pleasures including sex.

  • In fact, if one is to attain jhāna, one must at least SUPPRESS all sense desires. For example, in “Tapussa Sutta (AN 9.41)“: “..So kho ahaṃ, ānanda, vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharāmi.”
  • That means one needs to have all thoughts of sense pleasures and akusala kamma removed from one’s mind at the time of getting to the jhāna.
  • That statement appears in each and every sutta describing jhāna.

10. According to the “wider world view” of the Buddha, there are 31 realms in this world. Suffering in those realms decreases as one goes from the lowest 4 realms (apāyās) where the suffering is intense, to the human realm (where there is both suffering and happiness), to 6 deva realms and 20 brahma realms (where there is increasingly more happiness).

  • The peaceful feeling one experiences in a jhāna is the same sense experience of brahmas in the corresponding realms. But getting to jhāna has nothing to do with getting to magga phala, even though jhāna can provide a better mindset to do insight mediation.
  • None of those realms can provide a permanent happiness, because lifetime in any realm is finite. Even though the brahma realms have very long lifetimes, one would eventually die and can be subsequently born in any of the 31 realms.
  • If one’s goal is permanent happiness, one must eventually get to the Arahant stage of Nibbāna. However, if one can get to the Sōtapanna stage, one is guaranteed to get to the Arahant stage within a relatively few subsequent births.

11. This is the main difference between Buddha Dhamma and other religions. Christianity and Islām promise permanent happiness in deva realms and Hinduism promises permanent happiness in a brahma realm.

  • But the Buddha taught that nothing in this world is permanent: That holds for living beings and inert things in the whole universe.
  • Even though scientists (including Einstein) believed as recently as 100 years ago that the universe is in a “steady state”, that has been shown to incorrect in recent years.
  • Therefore, one born in any realm will die from there and be reborn in another realm.

12. This is why the foremost goal of a Buddhist is to get to the Sōtapanna stage. When one first realizes the anicca nature of this world, one can immediately see the dangers in doing the strongest of dasa akusala that makes one eligible to be born in the 4 lowest realms (apāyās).

  • That understanding registers permanently in the mind of a Sōtapanna and is unbreakable. That is why he/she will never be tempted to do any such immoral deed, no matter how tempting.
  • At that time, one will have unbreakable faith in Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. One can see at that time how valuable Dhamma is. Of course, that that Dhamma was discovered by the Buddha, and was conveyed to one by a Noble Person who belong to Sangha.
  • That is the reason for “unbreakable faith”, or “aveccappasāda” (avecca pasāda) in Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha; see #4 of “Sotapatti Anga – The Four Qualities of a Sotapanna“.
  • One is also said to have “Ariyakānta sila” or “unbreakable moral conduct” as a Sōtapanna. That does not mean one will not do any of the dasa akusala, but one will never again do a dasa akusala that would have strong kamma vipaka bringing rebirth in the apāyās. Such a mindset has been permanently removed.

13. A Sōtapanna would then get to the Sakadāgāmi and Anāgāmi stages by getting rid of the desire for sense pleasures in two stages.

  • Avijjā, or the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, is totally removed only at the Arahant stage. That is the time when one removes the “sense of me” or the “sense of a self”.
  • It is a long process and must be followed in a systematic way.
  • As I said at the beginning, one cannot expect to do advanced mathematics unless one first knows how to add/subtract, then how to do algebra, etc.
  • Thus, moral conduct and getting rid of the 10 types of miccā ditthi are REQUIREMENTS for any stage of magga phala. Getting rid of the cravings for sense pleasures comes after that.

14. Finally, one may think that all one needs to do is to get to the Sōtapanna stage, because then one would be free from the apāyās. That is true. However, when one gets to the Sōtapanna stage, one will start seeing the sufferings in the kāma lōka, including the deva realms.

As stated in the Dhammika sutta (Snp 2.14):

  • Abrahmacariyaṃ parivajjayeyya,
    Aṅgārakāsuṃ jalitaṃva viññū;
    Asambhuṇanto pana brahmacariyaṃ,
    Parassa dāraṃ na atikkameyya.

Translated:

  • A wise person would live a celibate life (avoiding sex), as one would avoid falling to a pit of fire. But if one cannot live such a life, one should not have affairs with others’ spouses.

  • However, that need not be contemplated until one gets to the Sōtapanna stage.
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