Getting rid of sensual desires (including sex, craving for food, etc.) is not necessary for a Buddhist in the beginning and even up to the Sōtapanna stage. Sotapannas still have cravings for sensory pleasures.
September 28, 2018; revised June 1, 2021; December 13, 2021; February 19, 2023
1. I recently saw the above question raised in a discussion forum (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. .”.
- It is a critical question. Most people have not understood that one MUST follow the Noble Path of the Buddha sequentially.
- Getting rid of sense desires (including sex, craving for food, etc.) is unnecessary in the beginning and even up to the Sōtapanna stage.
- Getting to the final stage of Nibbāna (Arahanthood) is a step-by-step process.
- I recommend first reading the post through first. After that, explore the links provided to get more information.
Following the Path Is a Step-by-Step Process
2. The necessary INITIAL steps involved are:
- Be moral and hold the mundane five precepts (abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, outright lying, and getting intoxicated), gossiping, slandering, and harsh speech; see “2. The Basics in Meditation“.
- Understand the correct “wider worldview” of the Buddha, and get rid of the ten types of micchā diṭṭhi; see “Wrong Views (Micchā Diṭṭhi) – A Simpler Analysis.” Such wrong views include not believing in rebirth and rejecting the existence of a manomaya kāya (gandhabba).
- Learn about the “deeper world view of the Buddha.” Buddha Dhamma is Paṭicca Samuppāda. Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta nature) characterizes this world based on Buddha Dhamma; see “Buddha Dhamma – Noble Truths, Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana.” Those scientifically oriented may want to read the section “Origin of Life.”
- Those steps must be followed in that order.
3. When one starts to understand the “anicca nature” (anicca means much more than 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 think about removing the desire for sex or any other sensory pleasure until one reaches the Sōtapanna stage. But one must abstain from IMMORAL deeds like sexual MISCONDUCT. That is a critical point that most people do not understand.
The futility of Starting at the End
4. Therefore, many people waste precious time by either first trying to suppress sensory desires or, in some cases, trying to eliminate the innate sense of “me” or “a self.”
- But if 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 temporary relief from the “stresses of day-to-day activities” by doing breath meditation, that will not provide the long-term release from suffering that the Buddha explained.
- Until one begins understanding Tilakkhana, one will never get to the Sōtapanna stage.
Even a Sōtapanna Has Not Given Up Sensual Pleasures
5. Even during the time of the Buddha, many lay followers attained the Sōtapanna stage and continued to live “householder lives,” too. They were married and had regular jobs. There was no need to avoid sensory pleasures, including sex.
- 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.
- Many others were regular lay people with families who attained the Sōtapanna stage and continued to live that way.
- Of course, those who desired higher stages of Nibbāna tried to eliminate the craving for sensory pleasures. Most of them became bhikkhus who abstain from sex and other sense pleasures.
Only at Anāgāmi Stage One Will Lose Cravings for Sensory Pleasures
6. One will abstain from sensory pleasures only after becoming an Anāgāmi. Even a Sakadāgāmi still enjoys sensory pleasures, even though he/she would not have the desire to “own” things that provide sensory pleasures.
- For example, a Sakadāgāmi would still enjoy some sensory pleasures, but there would be no desire to own “things that provide sense pleasure” (houses, cars, etc.).
Losing Carving for Sensory Pleasures Comes After a Deeper Understanding of Tilakkhana
7. One CAN NOT just give up sensory pleasures by sheer willpower 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.
- That may be hard for most people to understand: how the desire for sense pleasures will naturally go away. That is 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! It is unnecessary to worry about that before the Sotapanna stage.
It is Necessary to See the Harmful Consequences of Sensory Indulgences (Kāmasukhallikānuyoga)
8. However, it is also important to realize that one must avoid excessive sensory pleasures (kāmasukhallikānuyoga) and extreme ascetic practices of completely staying away from normal comforts (Attakilamathānuyoga.) The Budha recommended the “middle path,” where one would live a simple, comfortable life without going to extremes.
- Therefore, one cannot become a Sōtapanna while enjoying sensory pleasures to the full, i.e., 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 due to lessened mental stress due to this simple lifestyle.
9. Of course, one can speed up the process of the Sōtapanna stage by giving up sensory pleasures. Those who take this path become bhikkhus. They voluntarily give up most sense pleasures, including sex.
- 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 sensory pleasures and akusala kamma removed from one’s mind when getting to the jhāna.
- That statement appears in every sutta describing jhāna.
The Wider Worldview
10. The teachings of the Buddha are more of a “previously unheard worldview” than a religion in the conventional sense; see “What is Unique in Buddha Dhamma?“
- According to the “wider worldview” of the Buddha, there are 31 realms in this world. Suffering in those realms decreases as one goes from the lowest four realms (apāyā), where the suffering is intense, to the human realm (where there is both suffering and happiness). There is increasingly more happiness (or less stress) in the 6 Deva and 20 Brahma realms. However, those existences have finite lifetimes.
- The peaceful feeling one experiences in a jhāna is the same sensory experience by Brahmās 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 for insight meditation.
- None of those realms can provide permanent happiness because a lifetime in any realm is finite. Even though the Brahma realms have very long lifetimes, one would eventually die and be reborn in any realm.
- If one’s goal is permanent happiness, one must eventually reach the Arahant stage of Nibbāna. However, if one can get to the Sōtapanna stage, one is guaranteed to reach the Arahant stage within a few subsequent births.
Difference With Other World Religions
11. That is the main difference between Buddha Dhamma and other religions. Christianity and Islām promise permanent happiness in Deva realms (meeting the Creator God), and Hinduism promises lasting 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.
- Scientists (including Einstein) believed as recently as 100 years ago that the universe is in a “steady state.” Now science has accepted that everything in our world is in constant flux.
- Therefore, one born in any realm will die from there and be reborn in another realm.
There Is Nowhere in This World Where Suffering Ends (Anicca Nature)
12. The above sub-title summarizes the anicca nature of this world. One gets to the Sōtapanna stage by “seeing that.” When one first realizes the anicca nature of this world, one can immediately see the dangers of doing the strong dasa akusala. That realization will make one’s mind resistant to doing “apāyagāmi actions,” i.e., those that make one eligible to be born in the four lowest realms (apāyās.)
- That understanding registers permanently in the mind of a Sōtapanna and is unbreakable. That is why he/she will never do such immoral deeds, no matter how tempting.
- At that time, one will have faith in Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. One can see at that time how valuable Dhamma is. Of course, the Buddha discovered that Dhamma. It can be conveyed accurately only by a Noble Person.
- That is the reason for “unbreakable faith,” or “aveccappasāda” (avecca pasāda) in Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha; see #4 of “Sotapatti Anga – The Four Qualities of a Sotāpanna.”
- 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 with strong kamma vipāka bringing rebirth in the apāyās. A Sōtapanna has permanently removed such a mindset.
Higher Stages of Nibbāna Come With Deeper Comprehension of Anicca Nature
13. A Sōtapanna would then get to the Sakadāgāmi and Anāgāmi stages by getting rid of the desire for sense pleasures in two stages. See “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.”
- Avijjā, the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, is removed only at the Arahant stage. That is when one removes the “sense of me” or the “sense of a self.”
- It is a systematic, long process.
- As I said, 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 ten types of micchā diṭṭhi are REQUIREMENTS for any stage of magga phala. Getting rid of the cravings for sense pleasures comes after that.
There Are Dangers in Craving for Sensory Pleasures
14. Finally, one may think that all one needs to do is 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 only SEE (with wisdom) the sufferings in the kāma lōka, including the Deva realms. That is Sammā Diṭṭhi, or “correct view.” It is good to focus on getting to the Sotapanna stage first (and not worry about the higher stages.)
Still, one must start at least seeing the dangers of excessive sensory pleasures, even before the Sotapanna stage. That is necessary to get to Sammā Diṭṭhi. One would then remove the wrong perceptions (saññā) about the value of sensual pleasures at the Anāgami stage. See, “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Saṅkhāra.”
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 into a pit of fire. But if one is not yet at the stage of abstaining from sensory pleasures, one should abstain from sexual misconduct.
- Furthermore, sensual pleasures are not restricted to sex. Excessive attachment to ALL sensory pleasures comes under kāmasukhallikānuyoga in #8 above. Also, see “What is “Kāma”? It is not Just Sex” and “Craving for Pornography – How to Reduce the Tendency.”
15. It is not necessary (or prudent) to try to abstain from sensual pleasures in the beginning. First, one must understand why and how such attachments lead to future suffering (in future rebirths).
- Of course, that is impossible if one does not believe in rebirth. That is why learning the worldview of the Buddha is necessary. It is a “previously unheard worldview” (“pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu“), as the Buddha repeatedly stated in his first sermon, “DhammacakkappavattanaSutta (SN 56.11).” In the translation there, it is stated as “teachings not learned before from another.” I have pointed to that marker in the above link, and that verse appears several times there.
- When one starts understanding this “new teaching/worldview” (especially by comprehending Paṭicca Samuppāda), one will have confidence in the rebirth process and other doctrinal foundations like the validity of the laws of kamma.