Can or should a lay follower eliminate sensual desire?

Eliminating sensual desire as a lay follower doesn’t seem possible, or reasonable, especially if one plans on being in a relationship, or having motivation at work. Or maybe there is a way to satisfy one’s partner and care about salaries without desire?


When I do something that upsets my wife, it usually originated in some volitional doing on my part that started with some sensory or conceptual delight that dazzled and snared awareness. For example, if she’s trying to read something and I get distracted by looking at the shape of her hair and come over and bug her, she gets annoyed. Of course, right? She’s trying to read. I am that sucky mosquito pestering. :eyes::roll_eyes:

And if she, bugged, snaps back. Well, you can imagine all the suffering to come. :joy:


Possible, yes. Many lay followers in the suttas and after have done it.

Reasonable, only if you want to be free of suffering.


That’s deep.

Lol, I see your point. But what about when the distractions, so to speak, are mutual? Won’t desire come into play eventually?

With a family?

Honestly, I think I’d be happier if I was asexual and didn’t have to worry about money. A part of me would love to become a monk. Reading and sharing the dhamma gives me a lot of peace.


If it’s not too personal, can you share what is stopping you from becoming a monk? The more I learn about EBT, the more it seems to meancillary the role of the laity seems to me in these. The real teachings are generally lived by the monastics, who in addition don’t really have to work or do anything, get incredible veneration for just being there in robes, are extremely well fed (when I visited a monastery it was a banquet every day) and don’t have to worry about things like health insurance etc.
If I were as convinced about these teachings as you seem to be from a number of posts of yours that I have read, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t seek ordination.[quote=“tonysharp, post:7, topic:10731”]
they’re overlooked because of their emphasis on ethics and devotion, which is like kryptonite for the secular seekers that Western Buddhism tries to appeal to.

Well I wouldn’t say they are overlooked, but like I said I think these things are ancillary; as a lay person you are devoted and feed the monks, and it is them who really devote their lives to walking the real path till its end, which is nibbana. As for ethics, I have understood that their function is to purify the mind to prepare it for samadhi, but if you as a lay person do not have the time or the energy to develop deep meditation, their usefulness is limited.

1 Like

It depends on if you mean totally eliminate sensual desire (presumably arahantship), or lessen it (once/non-returner)? It also depends a whole lot on the nature of your relationship and relationship to sense desire-- e.g. sex, money, as you mentioned. The less involved in those things the more openness I could see to paring down on sense desire.


I still have some earthly goals that I’d like to fulfil.

Lol, Western Buddhism is likely to blame for this common perception. There’s a plethora of very real teachings for lay followers, but I suspect they’re overlooked because of their emphasis on ethics and devotion, which is like kryptonite for the secular seekers that Western Buddhism tries to appeal to.

I totally get it. When I began researching Buddhism as a seething atheist about 15 years ago, the mere mention of devas irritated me. Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor was helpful in overcoming this initial hurdle. The teachers I later followed taught from a syllabus based on satipatthana and breath meditation. Long story short, dissatisfied with breath meditation, and the tone and complexity of the teachings given to me, which usually opened with “Bhikkhus!”, I sought teachings given specifically to lay followers, and things started to click. With that said, this click likely wouldn’t have been possible if my mind wasn’t stilled to an extent by the previous practices.


What specifical teachings or Suttas have you found useful?

1 Like

Definitely the Metta Sutta (snp 1.8). The directness and sincerity really resonated with me, and I felt immediate results putting it into practice. Take the line, “[be] content and easy to support, with few duties, living lightly.” On the surface, this seems like a common sense thing to do, but when I actually did it—minimized my activities, discarded unneeded junk, and sought to be content with only what I needed—my life became lighter. Throwing stuff away is one of my favorite things to do now.


if i may ask an counter question.
Do you scratch because you want to scratch or do you scratch because you have an itch?

Now i have been scratching this itch of sensuality but it keeps coming back, must be great to not have that itch.


If it is possible why would have the Buddha framed the eightfold path eventually involving a right livelihood amidst of a bhikkhu / bhukkhuni community - as per DN2?

If you tackle the problem of suffering from the fetters model, indeed there are fetters which can be broken before a stronger renunciation takes place. But the fetter of sensual desire seems to be won outside the context of family life.

In the suttas like AN11.16 the breaking if this fetter is always framed in terms a bhikkhu not anymore finding pleasure in the almsfood. The grosser pleasures would have long been given up to.

In abstract, a description of the path to the ending of the first lower fetters which include sensual desire is found in MN64:

“And what, Ānanda, is the path and the practice for giving up the five lower fetters?
It’s when a mendicant—due to the seclusion from attachments, the giving up of unskillful qualities, and the complete settling of physical discomfort—quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
They contemplate the phenomena there—included in form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness—as impermanent, as suffering, as diseased, as an abscess, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as falling apart, as empty, as not-self.
They turn their mind away from those things, and apply it to the deathless element: ‘This is peaceful; this is sublime—that is, the stilling of all activities, the letting go of all attachments, the ending of craving, cessation, extinguishment.’ Abiding in that they attain the ending of defilements.
If they don’t attain the ending of defilements, with the ending of the five lower fetters they’re reborn spontaneously, because of their passion and love for that meditation. They are extinguished there, and are not liable to return from that world.
This is the path and the practice for giving up the five lower fetters.”

Note that in MN64 the Buddha is teaching bhikkhus so people may always try to use that as an excuse to support the wishful thinking that the stronger renunciation of giving up the household is not necessary… :sweat_smile:



I’m glad you said “seems”.
There are different kind of people so different sets of circumstances for them to become Awakened, including getting rid of sensual desires.
Some need to “protect” themselves from sensual desires. By becoming a monastic they will be under the protection of the vinaya rules. I hope for them it is not a way of doing “spiritual bypassing”!
Others, and I am one of them, need to be living a lay life so they can be dealing with their desires everytime they arise as result of being directly confronted by some sense objects. By being systematic and proactive in their transformative effort lay persons can definitely get rid of sensual desires as well as ill-wills and become a non-returner. The suttas list quite a few who achieved this.


Becoming a non-returner is the ideal for all lay followers:

A faithful layman would rightly aspire: ‘May I be like the householder Citta and Hatthaka of Aḷavī!’ These are a standard and a measure for my male lay disciples, that is, the householder Citta and Hatthaka of Aḷavī.

A faithful laywoman would rightly aspire: ‘May I be like the laywomen Khujjuttarā and Veḷukaṇṭakī, Nanda’s mother!’ These are a standard and a measure for my female lay disciples, that is, the laywomen Khujjuttarā and Veḷukaṇṭakī, Nanda’s mother.” - AN 4.176

Citta is a non-returner:

“But householder, how long have you been a lay follower?” “It’s been thirty years, sir.” “But householder, in these thirty years have you achieved any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a meditation at ease?” “How, sir, could I not? For whenever I want, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, I enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. And whenever I want, as the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled … I enter and remain in the second absorption. And whenever I want, with the fading away of rapture … I enter and remain in the third absorption. And whenever I want, giving up pleasure and pain … I enter and remain in the fourth absorption. If I pass away before the Buddha, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Buddha declares of me: ‘The householder Citta is bound by no fetter that might return him to this world.’” - SN 41.9

Hatthaka died a non-returner:

Hatthaka has gone to the Aviha realm - AN 3.127

The Aviha Realm is one of the Pure Abodes where only non-returners can be reborn into:

See The 31 Planes of Existence

Khujjuttara it appears was not a non-returner but Nanda’s mother was.

“Sir, this is not my only incredible and amazing quality; there is another. Of the five lower fetters taught by the Buddha, I don’t see any that I haven’t given up.” “It’s incredible, Nanda’s Mother, it’s amazing!”

Then Venerable Sāriputta educated, encouraged, fired up, and inspired Nanda’s Mother with a Dhamma talk, after which he got up from his seat and left. - AN 7.53

“Let be the good Gotama, let be the monks, let be the nuns. But has the good Gotama even one layfollower who is a disciple, a householder clothed in white, a Brahma-farer who, by the utter destruction of the five fetters binding to this lower (shore) is of spontaneous uprising, one who has attained nibbāna there and is not liable to return from that world?” “Not merely a hundred, Vaccha, nor two, three, four or five hundred, but far more are those layfollowers, disciples of mine, householders clothed in white, Brahma-farers, who by the utter destruction of the five fetters binding to this lower (shore), are of spontaneous uprising, those who have attained nibbāna there and are not liable to return from that world.” - MN 73

As for the householder protocol,
I will tell you how-acting
one becomes a good disciple,
since the entire monk-practice
can’t be managed by those wealthy in property.

Laying aside violence toward all living creatures,
both the firm & unfirm in the world,
one should not kill a living being, nor have it killed,
nor condone killing by others.

Then the disciple should avoid
consciously (taking) what’s not given,
—anything, anywhere—
should not have it taken
nor condone its taking.
He should avoid all (taking of) what’s not given.

The observant person should avoid uncelibate behavior
like a pit of glowing embers.
But if he’s incapable of celibate behavior,
he should not transgress with the wife of another. - Snp 2.14

So it seems the Buddha encouraged lay-people to eliminate sensual desire but understood that not all lay-people would.


I try not to get too caught up in the orthodox Theravada Buddhist institutional distinction between monks and laity. I have enough peace and quiet in my life that I am able to devote a good deal of time to meditation practice, and living by the precepts and with restraint. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s easy to overestimate the number of monks who are really dedicated to practice and reaching the goal.


I’d like to bring back to mind one of the most basic insights of psychotherapy, namely that the suppression of sexuality and desires leads to neuroticism (i.e. anxiety and depression).

It’s easy to say in the context of Buddhist practice ‘I should have no desire’ where in practice I feel this is the wrong approach. Basically I think this is one of the inevitable obstacles of monastic life - they have to deal with it, whether in a healthy or unhealthy way. Laypeople can work on a good relationship, use sexuality for trust and tenderness and develop compassion and understanding of the mind.

Lay people have the possibility to let a desire drop when it’s to be dropped, which is in general much more healthy. Desires are best transcended and understood, not suppressed. Naturally, some understanding will come with some suppression - but that can be done in a trustful relationship as well. To suppress sexual and sensual desire might work for a few people, but in many cases I’m afraid it backfires into the mind.


This is a very good point. Sensual desire, which I take to mean sexual desire, is much like the desire to eat. In fact, being hungry and desiring sex are both sensual experiences. Maybe that is why people use the metaphor of being “hungry” for sex. Or why some foods are sometimes described metaphorically as “sexy.” Desiring sex and desiring food are primal human impulses. As @Gabriel points out, suppressing desire typically is not very healthy. What is the active ingredient in many appetite suppressants? Amphetamines. Relying on artificial stimulants to achieve weight loss is probably not the best way to deal with human desires.

Rather, isn’t what is involved here sensual craving, which is different from sensual desire? To desire food or sex is to experience a biological impulse. To crave food or sex to the point that even eating or having sex is unsatisfactory is to experience suffering. The point, it seems to me, is to eliminate suffering through letting go of cravings. Once that occurs, desires can be, as @Gabriel wisely puts it, transcended and understood.


The situation to me seems to be like that of relying on buying lottery and betting on horses as a long term investment strategy.

While in EBTs we have a handful of lay disciples who got there it is not comparison to get dozens of named bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, not to say the thousands of anonymous individuals who reached the other shore by giving up the householder life.

Think of this like you would think of a strategy to invest one’s savings. While there is always a chance of winning a lottery or betting on the right horse the most successful use of one’s spare money would be in safe and long term investments.

In a similar way, insisting on the lay life at the same time aiming at fulfilling the third noble truth’s ennobling task sounds like making one’s lifetime investment strategy to simply buy lottery tickets and bet on horses! :sweat:

Last but not least, mind that the idea and the point is not to force oneself into the contemplative life, but not stop oneself to giving it a try when the causes and conditions are present and ripe.

I think this is what the gradual progression of the contemplative life as found in DN2 is all about.



I think the decision in many circumstances can boil down to how seriously you take the possibility of endless wandering from birth to death to birth.

If you don’t take rebirth that seriously and you’re a fairly normal person in terms of desires etc. then celibacy is probably not going to be particularly compelling. If you seriously believe that you are trapped in an endless series of lives, many of which are spent in hells and other largely unpleasant circumstances, then the obvious choice is renunciation, even if you have to struggle against the flow.

“And how is one an individual who goes against the flow? There is the case where an individual doesn’t indulge in sensual passions and doesn’t do evil deeds. Even though it may be with pain, even though it may be with sorrow, even though he may be crying, his face in tears, he lives the holy life that is perfect & pure. This is called the individual who goes against the flow…

People unrestrained
in sensual passions,
not devoid
of passion,
in sensuality:
They return to birth & aging,
again & again—
seized by craving,
going with the flow.

Thus the enlightened one,
with mindfulness here established,
not indulging
in sensuality & evil,
though it may be with pain,
would abandon sensuality.
They call him
one who goes against
the flow. - AN 4.5


Every-body is different. Some can achieve celibacy relatively easily, or even easily, for others it may be impossible. It all depends where in the journey of abandoning fetters the individual is. This has nothing to do with will power, or judgements, it will happen when the time is right. I think this is the case for all humans - it’s just that it is an expected condition for monastics. If it’s not the right time YET, just keep cultivating the path. I love the image of cultivating the path, it’s like a garden… you plant the seed, water it, fertilise it, care for it, watch out for diseases etc etc… With all the conditions in place, the plants will flourish :smiley:

I think that I think the order in which sensual desires are given up is important.

Without giving up the craving for relationships and intimacy > I don’t know if celibacy would be possible… So I’d suggest to first give up the desire for intimate connection with anyone. If one still wants this - then celibacy is probably not a useful goal. Start small and slowly pare back on sensual desires



This certainly appears to be the case. Nevertheless, the Buddha didn’t expect all lay followers to meet the standard set by Citta and Hatthaka.

There are 74 suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya alone on stream-entry. 27 of those are addressed to lay followers [1]. In SN 55.39, when the Sakyan woman Kāḷigodhā declares attaining the fruit of stream entry, the Buddha describes this as “very fortunate”.

In SN 55.53, the Buddha directs a group of 500 lay followers to stream-entry after the lay follower Dhammadinna explains their situation in the following way:

“Sir, we live at home with our children, using sandalwood imported from Kāsi, wearing garlands, perfumes, and makeup, and accepting gold and money. It’s not easy for us to undertake and dwell from time to time upon the discourses spoken by the Realized One that are deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness. Since we are established in the five training rules, please teach us further.”

To which the Buddha replied:

“So, Dhammadinna, you should train like this: ‘We will have experiential confidence in the Buddha … the teaching … the Saṅgha … And we will have the ethical conduct loved by the noble ones … leading to immersion.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.”

It’s amazing how considerate the Buddha was of people’s circumstances. It’s an example that we could all learn from.