Not long ago my parents decided to sell their country place. It was a house I spent part of my childhood in, and one we used on weekends. When I was younger and less firmly urbanized I even thought I wanted to live there. Its loss means the loss of part of my past, as well as the loss of a place at which we enjoyed spending time.
At some point several weeks ago, in the midst of sad thoughts it occurred to me that we could afford a more modest place of our own. It could be a substitute and balm for the loss. But to do so would involve a large amount of work, a temporary refocusing of our lives.
The initial and strongest change in my meditation was a sort of elated, restless relief: look at all the places we could live! The online photos look so nice! Unfortunately, I can’t say it’s all for the best. So much of the psychological impetus behind making such a purchase involves greed and clinging. In our case, it’s also intermixed with the aversion to loss.
I’ve kept in mind a few pieces of advice from the Pali Canon. Sometimes it seems as though the entirety of the Buddha dhamma is directed towards eradicating just this sort of greed for ownership. And with good reason! Clinging leads to pain and suffering, as we find in the Second Noble Truth. We cling to small things and large things, one of the largest and most important in our lives being our dwellings. I cling to my parents’ house, and the thought of it being sold leads to new craving, much as a minor upset at work can lead to an extra helping of ice cream after dinner.
One of the Buddha’s great discourses on this topic was in Majjhima Nikaya 13: the Greater Discourse on the Mass of Suffering. There he discusses “the gratification,” “the danger,” and “the escape” of sensual pleasures.
Of course, the gratification of sense pleasures is something we understand well: they make us happy! What better way to escape sadness, pain, dukkha, than to do something that makes us smile? We divert ourselves with sense pleasures. A good show, music, TV, food, or we buy things like clothing, a new car, even a new house.
Now the pleasure and joy that arise dependent on these five cords of sensual pleasure [forms, sounds, odors, flavors, tangibles] are the gratification in the case of sensual pleasures. (7)
These pleasures gratify us: this is what keeps us attached to them. They can even obsess.
But to consider them only in that light, as marketers and advertisers would have us do, is to miss half of the picture. For these sense pleasures are as dangerous as they are gratifying. The Buddha gives an extended account of how this can be the case when it comes to real estate in particular.
If property comes to the clansman while he works and strives and makes an effort thus, he experiences pain and grief in protecting it: ‘How shall neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ As he guards and protects his property, kings or thieves make off with it, or fire burns it, or water sweeps it away, or hateful heirs make off with it. And he sorrows, grieves, and laments, he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught, crying: ‘What I had I have no longer!’ (11)
Nowadays we mitigate such concerns by buying home insurance and making out wills, but this can’t completely eliminate the danger. Houses are impermanent. So too are insurance companies, and they and lawyers are fallible.
More’s the point, our possessions need tending. This includes protection from loss, of course, but is much more than just that. Roofs need repairing. Refrigerators fail. Toilets overflow. Basements leak. And it seems everything, everywhere could always stand another coat of paint. It takes time, energy, and always more money.
What am I getting myself into?
Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasures, a mass of suffering visible here and now, having sensual pleasures as its cause, sensual pleasures as its source, sensual pleasures as its basis, the cause being simply sensual pleasures.
Fortunately there is an escape from all this mass of suffering, but it requires deep wisdom.
And what, bhikkhus, is the escape in the case of sensual pleasures? It is the removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for sensual pleasures. (16)
By meditating on the dangers inherent in such pleasures we can begin to minimize desire for them: we see that they are not in fact inherently desirable. They may have desirable aspects, but those are bound up in suffering.
Does this mean that to escape suffering we must go so far as to renounce such pleasures completely? This is, as I understand it, a complex and subtle question. At the very least we must get ourselves to a place where we no longer want or need such things: to where, if they were to disappear tomorrow, we would remain equanimous.
Needless to say, I’m very far from such a place. As things stand, I struggle with both the restlessness of sense desire and, following the Buddha’s advice to focus on the danger, the restlessness of worry and aversion. I cannot say they are neatly balanced, since I still find myself wanting to continue the house hunt. But at the same time I’m aware of the increased concerns and responsibilities that such a decision entails.
While I can’t say right now that meditating on these concerns has helped mitigate dukkha, nevertheless it has broadened and deepened my perspective, opening my eyes a little towards dangers as well as gratifications.