What is “Kāma”? It is not Just Sex

Revised October 31, 2017; revised December 18, 2018; February 28, 2021 (major revision); March 5, 2021

Kāma means “saṅkappa rāga” or “thinking about and planning to enjoy more sensual pleasures.” Another related meaning is “giving priority to mind-made pleasures.”

Kāma Is Assigning High Value for Sensory Pleasures in Kāma Loka

1. “Kāma” comes from “” meaning “eat or destroy” and “ama” means Nibbāna. In our human world, which is a part of “kāma loka“, temptations for staying away from Nibbāna come from five physical senses.

  • Some people believe “kāma” is just about engaging in sex. Some others believe attractive sense objects are  “kāma” objects, and those lead to defilements. Both are not correct.
  • While “attractive sense objects” can lead to “kāma assāda” or “mind-made pleasures”, the objects themselves don’t have kāma. An Arahant is not tempted by any such object. But an Arahant would eat a delicious meal offered, but would not crave such meals.
  • Furthermore, an Arahant gets to that stage by learning and contemplating Dhamma (cultivating wisdom) and NOT by living a harsh life.
  • The lowest 11 realms are collectively called “kāma lōka” because all such made-up pleasures are available through all five physical senses in those realms.
Sensory Experiences are Not Kāma

2. This is a critical point to understand. There are sensory contacts that naturally bring pleasurable FEELINGS. For example, eating a cake or smelling a rose gives a pleasurable feeling. That experience itself is not kāma or kāma rāga.

  • Rather, it is the DESIRE to enjoy more of those sensory experiences is kāma. That is why the word “icchā” and “taṇhā‘ are closely associated with kāma/kāma rāga.
  • In the “Na Santi Sutta (SN 1.34)“, the Buddha defined “kāma” as that second kind mentioned above: “Na te kāmā yāni citrāni loke, Saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo..”.

Translated: “World’s pretty things are not kāma, a person creates his/her own kāma by generating mind-made pleasures (rāga saṅkappa)..”.

  • Buddha said that this world has many attractive pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches. But those are not “kāma”. The initial sense experience could be pleasant, but it is a kamma vipāka (no saṅkhāra generated in the initial sense input).
  • When one attaches to such a sensory experience and keep thinking about them, one makes “saṅkappa rāga” (සංකල්පිත රාග in Sinhala) about it (by generating vaci and kāya saṅkhāra), that is “kāma”. Each person generates his/her own kāma based on his/her gati or samsāric habits/cravings.
Saṅkappa Rāga Is Kāma

3. We experience those external sensory inputs in two ways:

  • We experience them directly: For example, we see a person; hear a song; taste a piece of cake; smell a fragrance; someone we love gives a kiss. Those are actual sense contacts and are due to kamma vipāka.
  • But then we tend to re-live that experience over and over in our MINDS. You may be surprised, but most of our “sense pleasures” or “kāma assāda” are created by our minds. A sensory contact comes and goes away relatively quickly; but we keep thinking about it, sometimes for hours. This “kāma assāda” is the one that we CREATE IN OUR MINDS, via vaci saṅkhāra.
  • For example, we may just see an attractive item in a store display that provides sensory pleasure while we are looking at it for a few seconds.
  • But then we start thinking about how nice it would be to be able to buy it, enjoy it, and analyze how to go about paying for it, etc. We may be thinking about it for several days. Please take the time and contemplate this point.
  • The initial sense contact of several seconds led to hours of thinking about it and making up “additional pleasure”. That is kāma assāda.
What Are Saṅkappa?

4. Let us discuss what is meant by “saṅkappa rāga“: Saṅkappa means thoughts. Rāga means giving a high-priority (craving) for pleasures in samsāra; see, “Lobha, Raga and Kamachanda, Kamarāga“.

  • Thus “saṅkappa rāga” means thinking about such sense pleasures and giving priority to them. We tend to think for hours about an actual sensory experience that we enjoyed in the past or one that we are about to experience in the future.
  • Sometimes we also think for hours about how to enjoy a certain sense experience that seems out of reach for various reasons. In all these cases, we can spend hours and hours thinking about them and getting kāma assāda (or”āsvāda” in Sinhala) from it.
  • In fact, most times sexual enjoyment comes from just thinking about a past experience or an anticipated one. The actual contact pleasure is relatively short-lived.
Pleasurable Sensory Experiences Due to Good Kamma Vipāka

5. As we pointed out in #3 above, some actual sense contacts arise due to kamma vipāka (good kamma vipāka lead to good sense experiences and bad lead to bad). Those are not kāma or kāma assāda.

  • Even an Arahant experiences such sense experiences due to kamma vipāka, both good and bad. He/she may eat tasty food when offered, ride in a luxurious car, or see eye-catching pictures while on the road.
  • But he/she will not keep thinking about how to enjoy such sense experiences, i.e., there is no “saṅkappa rāga“.

6. It is relatively easy to distinguish between sense pleasures due to kamma vipāka and those due to kāma assāda.

  • When one is offered a tasty meal, for example, that is due to a previous good kamma, i.e., it is a kamma vipāka. But when one starts thinking how good that meal was and starts thinking about how to enjoy another such meal, that is kāma assāda.
  • In the same way, one may be born to a wealthy family and get all types of luxurious sense contacts, those are kamma vipāka.
  • Whether rich or poor, when one is thinking about acquiring and enjoying new sense pleasures or reminiscing on past sense pleasures, that is kāma assāda.
What Is Wrong With Kāma Assāda or Saṅkappa Rāga?

7. Now we have two questions.

A. Why is it OK to experience direct sense pleasures that naturally comes one’s way, but not good to enjoy “made-up mental pleasures” by thinking about them? (It is important to realize that even those direct sense pleasures INITIATED by oneself do not count as harmless; when we think about it a bit, we realize that such instances have their beginnings at “saṅkappa rāga“, i.e., one must have thought about to initiate it).

B. How can one experience an enjoyable sensory pleasure and not be “tempted by it”, i.e., not make “saṅkappa rāga“?

8. The answers to those two questions can be found in one explanation. But that requires analyzing the situation from a different vantage point than we are used to. This is the “Dhamma that has never been known to the world..” or “pubbē ananussutēsu Dhammēsu..”.

  • The akusala-mula Paṭicca samuppāda cycle starts with, “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“. Those “made-up mental pleasures” or “kāma assāda” are precisely what saṅkhāra are.  These have bad consequences, or ādīnava, through the rest of the Paṭicca samuppāda (PS) cycle: “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna“, “viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa,…..up to “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, sōka, paridēva,…”. Thus the endpoint is suffering.
  • When we experience a “direct sense contact” that naturally comes our way, that is not saṅkhāra or kāma assāda. That is a kamma vipāka. They do not lead to future suffering.
  • In other words, saṅkhāra in “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” is saṅkappa rāga. They eventually lead to suffering. That is the hard point to understand.
Early Comprehension – Agitation of the Mind Due to Excess “Sensory Pleasures”

9. Now, one could say, “well, the more such saṅkappa rāga that I make, it is better. I don’t mind if the mind gets many such assāda in a given time”.

  • In order to analyze that, we need to look at the ādīnava (bad consequences) of such assāda, other than the mind being pushed and pulled in many directions as we discussed in the previous bullet.
  • If you watch too many movies/ TV shows or play video games all day, your mind will be agitated. You may not get a good sleep. This is the key reason for the scattered-ness of our minds. This is called tāpa or “heat in the mind”; see, “Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“.
  • The problem is that each time we enjoy kāma assāda, we do (abhi)saṅkhāra, as we saw above. They lead to future suffering via the akusala-mula Paṭicca samuppāda cycle. This is what we have been doing in countless births up to now.

10. That future suffering can arise both in this life as well as in future lives. It can materialize at different levels depending on the “strength of the kāma assāda“. 

  • Let us start at the most extreme level. One decides that “I have to have this. I am going to do whatever it takes to get it”. With such a mindset one can kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, or make any number of other immoral acts with a “drunken mind” or a “covered mind.”
  • Of course, the bad consequences are many, even during this life. One could get caught and go to jail. Even otherwise, one will be under the constant stress of worrying about being caught.
  • But stronger consequences will follow in future lives as well, with interest. Thus a normal moral person can see the “ādīnava” in such strong kāma assāda.
  • By contemplating on such “ādīnava“, it becomes easier for one’s mind to automatically reject doing such acts. That is “nissarana“. Through an understanding of the consequences, one avoids such acts.
Long-Term Consequences of Craving “Sensory Pleasures”

11. At the next level, we may not do any of the immoral acts by body or speech, but may still accumulate vaci saṅkhāra via constantly thinking about them. It is important to realize that such conscious thoughts (vitakka/vicāra) are included in vaci saṅkhāra; see, “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra“.

  • The problem with vaci saṅkhāra or kāma assāda is that they are addictive. One can spend hours and hours enjoying past sense events of perceived future events (especially involving sex, food, and also about one’s enemies).
  • And vaci saṅkhāra or kāma assāda appear to be harmless. No one else can know about them. One could spend hours on end generating kāma assāda about an object of interest and derive enjoyment. But they have consequences.
  • It must also be remembered that all those kāya saṅkhāra and vaci saṅkhāra that one suppressed by one’s will power started off as manō saṅkhāra (thoughts that just come to one’s mind) and then one normally “keeps going” by generating CONSCIOUS deliberate thoughts or vaci saṅkhāra, which can lead to actual speech and even bodily actions.
  • Thus even though dasa akusala corresponding to speech and bodily actions were avoided, those due to vaci saṅkhāra (kāma assādawould still count as bad kamma.
  • This is why keeping the conventional five precepts is not sufficient; the hard part is to purify one’s thoughts or the mind; see, “The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them“.
Connection to Āsava and Anusaya

12. A key problem with vaci saṅkhāra or the kāma assāda is that they lead to the formation of bad habits (gati), which in turn lead to the formation of new āsava/anusaya or in strengthening old āsava/anusaya; see, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi)“, and other related posts.

  • It can become a vicious circle. In a way, this is the “wheeling process” of “riya” that sustains the cycle of rebirths; see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“.
  • Even though vaci saṅkhāra (abhijjā, vyāpāda, micchā diṭṭhi) seem to be harmless, those can lead to birth in the apāyā.
  • When one starts controlling such conscious thoughts (vaci saṅkhāra), one gati will gradually change, and then those “automatic bad thoughts” or manō saṅkhāra will become less and less frequent because one’s āsava/anusaya will gradually reduce.
  • The best and permanent way to change āsava/anusaya is to comprehend anicca, dukkha, anatta. When one realizes that “nothing in this world can be maintained to one’s satisfaction in the long run” (anicca), one’s mind automatically stops thinking about such “made up pleasures”.

13. Connection to pañca nīvaraṇa discussed at, “Pañca Nīvaraṇa and Sensual Pleasures (Kāma).”

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