What is “Kāma”? It is not Just Sex

Revised October 31, 2017

1. “Kāma” comes from “” meaning “eat or destroy” and “ama” means Nibbāna. In our human world, which is a part of “kämalöka“, 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 quite 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.
  • Kāma assāda” or “sensual pleasures” are ASSOCIATED WITH our experiences through any of the five physical senses. But as we will see below, the Buddha specifically taught that “kāma” is a “made up pleasure”.
  • 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.

2. We experience those external sense 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.
  • You may be surprised, but most of our “sense pleasures” or “kāma assāda” are created by our minds. A sense 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 sankhāra.
  • For example, we may just see an attractive item in a store display which provides a sense 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 for several days. Please take time and contemplate on this. The initial sense contact of several seconds led to hours of thinking about it and making up “additional pleasure”. That is kāma assāda.

3. 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 sankalpanā)..”.

  • 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 sankhāra generated in the initial sense input).
  • When one attaches to such a sense experience and keep thinking about them, one makes “sankalpita rāga” about it (by generating vaci and kāya sankhāra), that is “kāma”. Each person generates his/her own kāma based on his/her gathi or samsāric habits/cravings.

4. Let us discuss what is meant by “sankalpita rāga“: Sankalpa or sankappa means thoughts. Rāga means the craving for pleasures in samsāra; see, “Lobha, Raga and Kamachanda, Kamaraga“.

  • Thus “sankalpita rāga” means thinking about such sense pleasures and giving priority to them. We tend to think for hours about an actual sense 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.

5. As we pointed out in #2 above, some actual sense contacts arise due to kamma vipāka (good kamma vipāka lead to good sense experiences, and bad lead to bad). Actual sense contacts are relatively short-lived. Even the tastiest food, we can eat so much. Even if it is the most luxurious chair, you cannot sit there for too long. You can think about all types of sense experiences and they are relatively short-lived.

  • 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 spend anytime afterwards thinking about such sense experiences, i.e., there is  no “sankalpita rāga“.
  1. 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 start 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.

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 “sankalpita rāga“, i.e., one must have thought about to initiate it).

B. How can one experience an enjoyable sense pleasure and not be “tempted by it”, i.e., not make “sankalpita 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 paticca samuppāda cycle starts with, “avijjā paccayā sankhāra“. Those “made-up mental pleasures” or “kāma assāda” are precisely what sankhāra are.  These have bad consequences, or ādīnava, through the rest of the paticca samuppāda (PS) cycle: “sankhāra paccayā viññāna“, “viññāna paccayā nāmarūpa,…..up to “jāti paccayā jarā, marana, sōka, paridēva,…”. Thus the end point is suffering.
  • When we experience a “direct sense contact” that naturally comes our way, that is not sankhāra or kāma assāda. That is a kamma vipāka. They do not lead to future suffering.
  • This is a critical point to understand and is explained in detail in “Avyākata Paticca Samuppāda for Vipāka Viññāna“. Please read those again and make sure you understand the difference. If it is not clear, please let me know.

9. Now let us consider some examples to understand how even a sense contact due to kamma vipāka  can lead to “kāma assāda“. In a given day, we are bombarded with millions of sense inputs. But not all of them “grab our attention”, and make us start thinking about them; more specifically, to start thinking about “getting more of it” of “how to acquire it so that it can be enjoyed at will”.

  • Why do certain sense inputs attract our attention more than others? A given sense input may tempt one person, but may not affect another at all. For example, one person may like heavy metal music, but another may be annoyed by it. We can think about many cases like that.
  • But each person can be tempted by a set of sense inputs that he/she has a liking for. For two people, these sets may overlap to some extent but there will be differences. That is because the āsavas/anusaya (or cravings) for each person is unique. They can change for a given person, but they define one’s character at any given time. One can change one’s āsava/anusaya by changing one’s habits or “gathi“. You can do a search on “āsava, anusaya, gathi, habits” and read the relevant posts.

10. The more āsava/anusaya one has, it is more likely that one’s mind will be pulled in many different ways. This is the key reason for the scatteredness of our minds. Such a mind can be burdensome. This is called tāpa or “heat in the mind”; see, “Satipattana Sutta – Relevance to Suffering in This Life“.

  • The āsava/anusaya can be compared to dirt at the bottom of a glass of water. If there is a lot of dirt, only a slight disturbance can make the dirt come up and make the water dirty. But if it is only a little bit, most minor disturbances may not make the water dirty.
  • Just like that, the more āsava/anusaya one has, it will be easier to make the mind restless.
  • On the other hand, if there is no dirt at the bottom of the glass, no matter what kind of disturbance it is, the water will remain pure. The mind of an Arahant is like that. He/she can live totally unaffected surrounded by the world’s most tempting sense objects. There will be no “sankalpita rāga” or kāma assāda. Of course he/she will experience the good/bad kamma vipāka same as others.

11.  Now, one could say, “well, the more such sankalpita rāga that I make, it is better. I don’t mind if 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 mind being pushed and pulled in many directions as we discussed in the previous bullet.
  • The problem is that each time we enjoy kāma assāda, we do (abhi)sankhāra, as we saw in #8 above. They lead to future suffering via the akusala-mula paticca samuppāda cycle. This is what we have been doing in countless number of births up to now.

12. 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”.
  • 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 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; this is “nissarana“. Through understanding of the consequences, one avoids such acts.

13. At the next level, we may not do any of the immoral acts by body or speech (kaya and vaci sankhāra), but may still accumulate manō sankhāra, which still are included in the dasa akusala: Abhijjā (covetousness; greed for other’s belongings), Vyāpada (ill-will, hatred), and Miccā Ditthi (wrong views); see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)“.

  • The problem with manō sankhāra or kāma assāda is that they are hard to control by willpower alone. They are thoughts and thoughts rise very fast; see, “What is a Thought?“. The kaya and vaci sankhāra take time to form. For example, one could be tempted to hit someone, but can think about the consequences and stop. One could start saying a bad thing, but may be able to stop oneself. The ability to control even speech and bodily acts depends on the level of āsava/anusaya one has, and also the “trigger”. One could, for example, lose all self-control and kill a person who one catches in a sexual act with one’s spouse.
  • And manō sankhāra 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 an enjoyment. But they have consequences.
  • It must also be remembered that all those kaya sankhāra and vaci sankhāra that one suppressed by one’s will power started off as manō sankhāra. Thus even though dasa akusala corresponding to speech and bodily actions were avoided, those due to manō sankhāra (kāma assādawould still remain.
  • 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“.

14. A key problem with manō sankhāra or the kāma assāda is that they lead to the formation of bad habits (gathi), which in turn lead to the formation of new āsava/anusaya or in strengthening old āsava/anusaya; see, “Gathi (Character), Anusaya (Temptations), and āsava (Cravings)“, 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 those manō sankhāra (abhijja, vyapada, micca ditthi) seem to be harmless, those can lead to birth in the apayas.
  • But now the question is, if kāma assāda or manō sankhāra arise with such rapidity and hence cannot be controlled like kaya sankhāra and vaci sankhāra, how can we stop them from arising? This was the second question asked in #7 above. It is done by getting rid of bad habits and cultivating good habits; this leads to changes in our āsava/anusaya.
  • 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”. We will discuss this more in upcoming posts.
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