Today's selection comes from the Mahādukkhakkhandha Sutta or The Greater Discourse on the Mass of Suffering. Here the Buddha explains the full understanding of sensual pleasures, material form, and feelings. The major portion of the sutta is devoted to an examination of the dangers in sensual pleasures. It begins with a close-up view of the tribulations that a “clansman”—a young householder pursuing the ancient Indian counterpart of a professional career—might undergo in his quest for sensual gratification. As the discourse unfolds, the scope of the examination widens from the personal to the collective, encompassing the broader social and political consequences of this quest. It reaches its climax in striking images of the warfare and human devastation that follow from the frenzied mass drive for sensual gratification. “Form” is the physical body. The Buddha begins his treatment of form by asking the monks to consider a beautiful young girl. He then traces the progressive stages of her physical decay, through old age, sickness, death, and the eventual disintegration of the corpse until it is reduced to powdered bone. To show the danger in “feeling,” the Buddha selects the feelings of a meditating monk in the jhanas, the meditative absorptions, the most refined mundane experiences of pleasure and peace. He points out that even these lofty feelings are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and subject to change.
1. Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park.
2. Then, when it was morning, a number of bhikkhus dressed, and taking their bowls and outer robes, went into Sāvatthī for alms. Then they thought: “It is still too early to wander for alms in Sāvatthī. Suppose we went to the park of the wanderers of other sects.” So they went to the park of the wanderers of other sects and exchanged greetings with the wanderers. When this courteous and amiable talk was finished, they sat down at one side. The wanderers said to them:
3. “Friends, the recluse Gotama describes the full understanding of sensual pleasures, and we do so too; the recluse Gotama describes the full understanding of material form, and we do so too; the recluse Gotama describes the full understanding of feelings, and we do so too. What then is the distinction here, friends, what is the variance, what is the difference between the recluse Gotama’s teaching of the Dhamma and ours, between his instructions and ours?”
4. Then those bhikkhus neither approved nor disapproved of the wanderers’ words. Without doing either they rose from their seats and went away, thinking: “We shall come to understand the meaning of these words in the Blessed One’s presence.”
5. When they had wandered for alms in Sāvatthī and had returned from their almsround, after the meal they went to the Blessed One, and after paying homage to him, they sat down at one side and told him what had taken place. [The Blessed One said:]
6. “Bhikkhus, wanderers of other sects who speak thus should be questioned thus: ‘But, friends, what is the gratification, what is the danger, and what is the escape in the case of sensual pleasures? What is the gratification, what is the danger, and what is the escape in the case of material form? What is the gratification, what is the danger, and what is the escape in the case of feelings?’ Being questioned thus, wanderers of other sects will fail to account for the matter, and what is more, they will get into difficulties. Why is that? Because it is not their province. Bhikkhus, I see no one in the world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmās, in this generation with its recluses and brahmins, with its princes and its people, who could satisfy the mind with a reply to these questions, except for the Tathāgata or his disciple or one who has learned it from them.
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