For the next five weeks we will look at the basic structure of the principle of pleasure. This week will consider its general meaning, and broad implications. We’ll also consider some observations about, and illustrations of, the principle of acceptance in general. At our next meeting we will discuss our observations, thoughts and questions about it.
General Considerations and Personal Reflections:
Here are some personal reflections. I offer them in the spirit of dialogue and exchange, and look forward to hearing your thoughts about, and experiences with, this principle.
Some people are shocked when they first come across this principle. They understand it as saying something like; as long as you do not harm your personal physical well being enjoy yourself, even at the expense of others. But it seems to me that this is not what the principle says. Rather it is has two aspects. The first is focused on the absurdity of harming yourself through excessive indulgence in something no matter how pleasurable.
The second reminds us that, on one hand it is harmful to participate in pleasurable activities when I have qualms, “moral” or otherwise, about what I’m doing. Importantly however, at the same time it also asks us to remember that I can also cause myself unnecessary suffering (unhappiness, feeling conflicted, etc) when I reject or deny pleasure because of an ill-founded belief or prejudice.
The central idea seems simple – don’t run after pleasures but don’t deny them either; enjoy them when they present themselves. To search for a pleasure when it is a absent, or reject it when it is present, are two seemingly very different things, but both can be ways you harm yourself, both carry suffering with them.
Another very important thing to notice is that, like all the others, this principle should not be taken in isolation. None of the principles should be applied by itself, and none of them should be interpreted in ways that oppose any of the others. For example, in this case there is another principle that says, “When you harm others you remain enchained. When you treat others as you would have them treat you, you liberate yourself”.
The principles should be understood in relation to each other. The meaning of each one changes in light of the others. Applying them well requires applying them as a whole.
Here is an unusual tale that may help to illustrate this Principle:
The master of a monastery was forced to suddenly leave on an arduous but important journey. Before her departure she presented her assembled disciples with a magic cake. Among its virtues was the power to provide all the nutrition one required. The master told them that it had even more amazing abilities since each disciple could eat as much of this extraordinary pastry as they wanted and yet the cake would in no way be diminished The only condition was that they had to promise to eat some cake only once a day.
One disciple cut off some and put it on a plate. Taking a bite he was astonished by its delicious flavour and gobbled up the entire piece. He was barely finished when he began imagining tomorrow’s portion. Each day he finished his share even more obsessed with the cake than the day before. Finally he decided to put an end to the problem by eating enough that he would be satisfied until his next turn. So he ate an enormous piece – so much so that he fell ill with such terrible indigestion that it brought him to the brink of death.
In remembrance of this a plaque was affixed to the monastery gate. It read: “They suffer who seek and desire to conserve.”
Another disciple seeing what had happened did not even want to try the cake, even though he desired almost nothing as much as he desired to taste it. But he thought to himself: “as we have seen, pleasure brings pain. Therefore better not to enjoy so as not to suffer later. As we have seen, one thing leads to another.”
So it happened that this ascetic monk thought all day long of cake, he dreamt of mountains of cake but could not take a bite. One day, unable to bear it any longer he tasted the marvelous cake. In this way he betrayed his convictions and did not decrease his obsession in the least.
In front of the monastery they placed another plaque. This one said: “The sin is not in the cake nor in the belly. It is in what is dreamt and imagined by the mind.”
Finally a third disciple asked about the tasks that the master had entrusted them with before she left. she saw that the monastery, and its farm with its fields and animals had been left untended. Making things even more complicated the diversity of opinions regarding the cake had divided the community. There was much to do so she made herself responsible to get things in order before the master’s return. One day while cleaning she came to one of the rooms where she stumbled across the source of so much argument, the magic cake. Being hungry she cut himself a fair sized piece and slowly savoured its wonderful taste. But there was so much to do she soon forgot all about it as she went about his tasks.
When the master returned she saw the two plaques at the monastery gate and asked what they meant. Hearing about the chaos and problems her cake had instigated she had it removed. Later however she said, “a great injustice has been done” and she had a third plaque erected. It read: “The excess of a strong fool and the asceticism of a weak scholar lead to the same end. But what creates so many problems for the greedy and fearful is just a morsel for a saint.
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