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How to practice Sense Restraint? (guarding the sense doors)


#1

I’d like to explore the sutta references to sense restraint.

This is what I’ve got so far:

  • sn35.127 - guarding the sense faculties by not grasping at the signs and features of sense objects
  • sn35.120 - guarding the sense faculties by not grasping at the signs and features of sense objects
  • sn35.94 - restraining from pleasant and unpleasant sensations/feelings arising from contact with each of the senses, not greedily enjoying nor angrily averting
  • an5.113 - being intolerant of sense impressions prevents you from jhāna, being tolerant of sense impressions opens the way

I’m sure there are more references. Do they describe different practices? How can we practice this dhamma in our day-to-day lives?


#2

in all of them i see the same type of bhavana and AN 5.113 makes a lot of sense, because impingement on the senses compels reaction from the mind which is almost automatic, it’s not automatic insofar as it actually can be controlled, and due to this habitual reactivity the mind becomes and stays constantly unsettled which impedes concentration and focus

the practice in my view amounts to constantly watching the mind when awake, tracking your own reactions and willfully stopping them as soon as a tendency to delight or aversion starts to develop, assuming an equanimous disposition instead, in other words disallowing perception of pleasure and displeasure invading and/or lingering in the mind

and in the aspect of the mental activity it’s continuously observing one’s own emotional state, curbing unwholesome emotions preferably at their root and stimulating wholesome ones


#3

The following comment from Ajahn Brahmali might also be helpful:


#4

I use the eightfold path for each individual item that I need addressing in the lists I produced for desires, aversions and delusions.
So I take one item, say “anger with my wife when blah, blah”, and pass it through the moulinette of the eightfold path.

  1. what are all the aspects (pleasants, un pleasants, skillful, unskillful, etc.) around this situation. i.e. right view
  2. establish my resolve: intention
  3. watch my internal and external speech around this issue
  4. action: again speech
  5. livelihood: what in my life contributes to improving the situation or the opposite
  6. effort: quickly replace negative thinking about my wife by positive. i.e. develop gratitude
  7. sati: pay attention that my thoughts, speech, actions are as per my resolve
  8. samadhi: develop the Jhāna factor of sukha (joy, happiness) around my wife

With Metta


Polak's Reexamining Jhanas
#5

undoubtedly this is the ideal approach, the problem is that wisdom is very slow to develop, it takes years, while sense restraint can be practiced as early as today

a good advice by the Buddha from MN 45 and MN 46 where he discusses dependence of future pleasure and pain on the current ones

And what, bhikkhus, is the way of undertaking things that is painful now and ripens in the future as pleasure? Here, bhikkhus, someone by nature has strong lust, and he constantly experiences pain and grief born of lust; by nature he has strong hate, and he constantly experiences pain and grief born of hate; by nature he has strong delusion, and he constantly experiences pain and grief born of delusion. Yet in pain and grief, weeping with tearful face, he leads the perfect and pure holy life. On the dissolution of the body, after death, he reappears in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. This is called the way of undertaking things that is painful now and ripens in the future as pleasure.

Suppose there were fermented urine mixed with various medicines, and a man came sick with jaundice, and they told him: ‘Good man, this fermented urine is mixed with various medicines. Drink from it if you want; as you drink from it, its colour, smell, and taste will not agree with you, but after drinking from it, you will be well.’ Then he drank from it after reflecting, and did not relinquish it. As he drank from it, its colour, taste, and smell did not agree with him, but after drinking from it, he became well. Similar to that, I say, is the way of undertaking things that is painful now and ripens in the future as pleasure.

training in virtue, which is another aspect of gradual training immediately preceding sense restraint, is too performed by forcing or persuading oneself into maintaining the precepts and following the rules, if one were to await for wisdom to arise in order to start practising virtuous conduct, one might not start right until their death

out of tranquility and insight, the two overarching aspects of the practice, sense restraint in my opinion satisfies the aspect of tranquility, and they can be cultivated independently from one another though preferably in parallel

These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (samatha) & insight (vipassana).
“When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.
“When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.
“Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.

AN 2.31


#6

No doubt some willpower is needed at the beginning to hold you back from the courser kinds of bad deeds, but as a layperson I don’t think we can just cut off all sensual pleasures at will if we can’t substitute them with purer spiritual pleasures (jhanas). Perhaps if someone has very deep faith in the Triple Gem, he/she can do it for some time but even then I think if their wisdom isn’t strong enough there tends to be an accumulation of tension in the mind that might snap at some future time. They might start criticizing and even punishing themselves for little mistakes and criticizing and punishing others for “not living accourding to Dhamma”, justifying it all with their “superior morality”. Or they might break, give it all up and binge on sensuality. Of course it depends on the person.

Like you said in your first post, it’s all about watching our minds. The sooner we see something unwholesome popping up, the less willpower we need to expend to stop it. We should also at that time remind ourselves why it is unwholesome, so we’re not just mindlessly suppressing “natural” urges but conditioning them to be less “natural” by focusing on the danger aspect of them. Then after a few months (in some cases years) of doing that, just seeing them is enough for them to fall apart without any willpower and eventually they stop popping up altogether. If something manages to get by us, we should not feel guilty about that and use the old AFL code by Ajahn Brahm - Acknowledge, Forgive, Learn. In my own practice I’ve found that shifting the workload from willpower to wisdom power like that, seems to be a much more sustainable way to do sense restraint.

Of course the more I meditate, the easier it all is to do. A few days ago a couple of hours into my meditation, I even happened to catch a thought while it was being formed. I could see it kind of being put together and then all of a sudden decided: “Naah…I don’t want to think that thought”. Because I didn’t let it form, I have no idea whether it was an unwholesome thought or a wholesome thought but the experience kinda shocked me by showing that theoretically I could regulate what I think and don’t think. It seemed exactly the same as doing/not doing a bodily or verbal action. Meditation is really cool! :slight_smile:


#7

@SCMatt you quotes nicely “not to grasp at the signs and features”. The ‘signs’ here are triggers for new thoughts and feelings. Classic example for hetero men: to look for the visual triggers for lust in the female body, shape, eyes, hair, whatever. Here, restraint of the senses would be simply, not to look at, or if looking not to focus or add on to the impressions, so that no more thoughts or desires proliferate from the sight. A sutta that brings a good example (even though the focus is more on sati) is SN 47.20 ‘The Most Beautiful Girl of the Land’ - we can be sure that the practitioner in this sutta has proper sense restraint :slight_smile:


#8

Hi all,

I’m resurrecting this dead thread as it is very close to my question.

Can anyone point to any commentaries translated to English on the stock sense restraint passage found throughout the suttas? E.g. the one at SN 35.20:

Here, having seen a form with the eye, a bhikkhu does not grasp its signs and features. Since, if he left the eye faculty unrestrained, evil unwholesome states of covetousness and displeasure might invade him, he practises the way of its restraint, he guards the eye faculty, he undertakes the restraint of the eye faculty. Having heard a sound with the ear … Having smelt an odour with the nose … Having savoured a taste with the tongue … Having felt a tactile object with the body … Having cognized a mental phenomenon with the mind, a bhikkhu does not grasp its signs and features. Since, if he left the mind faculty unrestrained, evil unwholesome states of covetousness and displeasure might invade him, he practises the way of its restraint, he guards the mind faculty, he undertakes the restraint of the mind faculty. It is in this way, friend, that one guards the doors of the sense faculties.

Thank you.


#9

Will power!
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.206.than.html

SN.35 206. Chapanna Sutta. The six animals


#10

I find that simple labelling can be helpful, eg “sights”, “sounds” etc. It helps with the recognition that what is arising at the sense gates is just stuff, transient conditions - you don’t have to get too involved with it, you don’t have to take it too seriously.


#11

I have always struggled with the word ‘restraint’ because of wisdom versus will power discussion.
My practice is to develop insight to the Three Marks of Existence, to replace ignorance with wisdom.
Restraint seems to be more about denying at the six sense base. Is restraint used while wisdom is developed?


#12

This sutta instructs where seven methods are used, including restraint. Impermanence is the primary mark of existence, and applying it to the body and external materiality is the task in developing wisdom, as ignorance regards them as permanent.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html


#13

As I’ve thought about this topic more, I’d have some additional notes to add…

It seems to me that the two practices I referenced in the OP aren’t actually that different. They simply occur at different “levels” in the process of perception. The “features and details” as in MN107 seems to be at an earlier stage in the perceptual process than what’s described in suttas like SN35.94. In the first, the practice described seems to actually be a “filtering” of perception so as to not even register, to not even “pick up” the specific “signs”, features, “characteristics” of phenomena in the sensory field. In the second, it seems to be some phenomena is already “picked up”, and then dealing with the feelings that arise dependent on that contact. Getting rid of desire and aversion for “the world”, as it were.

Sense restraint, or guarding the sense doors, is one of the most common practices described in the Gradual Training as can be seen here. I think it’s worth noting it’s place in the Training Path: after virtue practice, and before mindfulness & contextual awareness. This is also reflected in the Eightfold Path if you consider that bodily and verbal “right” actions N8FP.2-5 (similar to the morality section of the Gradual Training) come before Right Effort (sense restraint), and afterwards comes mindfulness. Actually, further considering the relation between right effort and sense restraint… the first practice described above could be considered the first right effort to prevent the arising of unwholesome states, and the second could be considered an instance of the second right effort to get rid of unwholesome states already arisen.

It seems to me that what is described in the first practice above, the “features and details”, the characteristics/signs/nimittas are all referring to secondary and specific aspects of objects/data/impressions in the sense fields. So it seems to me the practice then is in generalizing, being non-specific, in other words, taking a step back to the broader, more distant view, to the entirety of the each sense field, of just seeing, just hearing, etc. as in the instructions to the Ascetic Bāhiya.
Of course, I’m open to others feedback, this is just how I currently interpret it.

The general attitude towards sense restraint is also noteworthy, as some advice is given in the suttas. The sutta mentioned in the OP, AN5.113, I see as a warning against misinterpreting sense restraint to mean being intolerant of the senses. This same attitude is similarly described in MN152 where the Brahmin Uttara describes his practice of sense restraint as being developed “when the eye sees no sight, and the ear hears no sound”. The Buddha retorts if that were the case then a blind and deaf person would have developed faculties/senses. He then goes on to teach how liking and disliking arise dependent on sense contact, to reflect on their dependent origination, and to abandon both by considering the peacefulness and sublimity of equanimity. The sense restraint instruction to arouse equanimity is slightly different from the others already discussed, but perhaps it’s implied in the abandoning of delight and discontent.

Restraint does sound a bit forceful, but I guess you could say the development is in learning to guard the sense doors with wisdom.
Wisdom Bouncer! :guardswoman:


#14

You might be interested in this sutta:

“Mendicants, there are these four efforts. What four? The efforts to restrain, to give up, to develop, and to preserve. And what, mendicants, is the effort to restrain? When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes, they don’t get caught up in the features and details. If the faculty of sight were left unrestrained, bad unskillful qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming. For this reason, they practice restraint, protecting the faculty of sight, and achieving its restraint. When they hear a sound with their ears … When they smell an odor with their nose … When they taste a flavor with their tongue … When they feel a touch with their body … When they know a thought with their mind, they don’t get caught up in the features and details. If the faculty of mind were left unrestrained, bad unskillful qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming. For this reason, they practice restraint, protecting the faculty of mind, and achieving its restraint. This is called the effort to restrain.

And what, mendicants, is the effort to give up? It’s when a mendicant doesn’t tolerate a sensual, malicious, or cruel thought that’s arisen, but gives it up, gets rid of it, eliminates it, and obliterates it. They don’t tolerate any bad, unskillful qualities that have arisen, but give them up, get rid of them, eliminate them, and obliterate them. This is called the effort to give up.

SuttaCentral

:anjal:


#15

Good exploration of the topic, and good observation about sense restraint v. sense intolerance.

One point I’m not sure about: The MN107 passage you referenced (and AN4.14) says not to get “caught up” in the features and details. I wonder whether this is more to do with appropriate attention?
So for example seeing a pleasant sight, but not dwelling on it, not indulging it, not delighting in it. Moving attention elsewhere.

I’m not sure that sense-restraint relates directly to “In the seen, just the seen” (Bahiya Sutta), which I see as similar to MN1, a direct way of seeing which is no longer self-referential. “When there is no you there” as the Bahiya Sutta puts it.
I guess that here too one doesn’t get “caught up” in the features and details of sense-objects, but now it’s a result of insight, rather than a result of practising sense restraint. Because the Arahant has “fully understood it”, as MN1 puts it. It’s almost as if the Arahant has “seen through” the signs and features, and is no longer distracted by them.


#16

Thanks @Polarbear, that’s perfect.

@Martin , my impression is that yoniso manasikāra is a practice aimed at something deeper, to do with dependent origination, the underlying condition of “that is” — “when this is”. Whereas, sense restraint deals with the process of perception at the sense level. Of course, the Buddha’s Dhamma is intricately related, and I think if you contemplate or study a particular dhamma you can start to see it’s relation to all the other dhammas.

I think the state of Bāhiya is the ultimate fulfillment of sense restraint, as it is the ultimate fulfillment of the Path. The way it is usually described though is in it’s development, and at that an earlier practice than even mindfulness. It seems that both in the GT and the N8FP, the gradation goes from training body and speech via virtue (or perhaps more accurately: restraint from actions that are ill-conducive to clear-mindedness), to more internal practices that deal with the mind. Sense restraint bridges the way from body (and speech) to mind.


#17

Also keep in mind that monastics (to whom a large part of the nibbanic teaching was given) sometimes have to exercise sense restraint at all costs in order to avoid an offense that would have them excommunicated, no matter if it’s elegant or subtle. This is especially the case in sexual matters, hence the restraint when it comes to visual features (nimittas) of the attractive gender.


#18

It’s often overlooked that the very first step of the Gradual Training is “going forth”. Of course, that doesn’t mean that non-monastics can’t benefit from study & practice…


#19

Are there any instances of indriya saṃvara (sense restraint) that are limited to the lower 5 senses?

I know the sense domains are usually 6 in count (including manas - mind sense). However, there’s also the 5 strands of sensuality, which draws distinction between lower bodily and higher mind.


#20

@SCMatt

Yeah, but with the mind you can imagine sensual pleasures so I think it always needs to be included in sense restraint. The higher mind is the mind in samadhi which is devoid of sensual thoughts.

I don’t know of suttas explicitly mentioning sense restraint without the mind included but there is this:

“Once upon a time, mendicants, a hawk suddenly swooped down and grabbed a quail. And as the quail was being carried off he wailed, ‘I’m so unlucky, so unfortunate, to have roamed out of my territory into the domain of others. If today I’d roamed within my own territory, the domain of my fathers, this hawk wouldn’t have been able to beat me by fighting.’

‘So, quail, what is your own territory, the domain of your fathers?’

‘It’s a ploughed field covered with clods of earth.’

Confident in her own strength, the hawk was not daunted or intimidated. She released the quail, saying, ‘Go now, quail. But even there you won’t escape me!’

Then the quail went to a ploughed field covered with clods of earth. He climbed up a big clod, and standing there, he said to the hawk: ‘Come get me, hawk! Come get me, hawk!’

Confident in her own strength, the hawk was not daunted or intimidated. She folded her wings and suddenly swooped down on the quail. When the quail knew that the hawk was nearly there, he slipped under that clod. But the hawk crashed chest-first right there.

That’s what happens when you roam out of your territory into the domain of others.

So, mendicants, don’t roam out of your own territory into the domain of others. If you roam out of your own territory into the domain of others, Māra will find a vulnerability and get hold of you.

And what is not a mendicant’s own territory but the domain of others? It’s the five kinds of sensual stimulation. What five? Sights known by the eye that are likable, desirable, agreeable, pleasant, sensual, and arousing. Sounds known by the ear … Smells known by the nose … Tastes known by the tongue … Touches known by the body that are likable, desirable, agreeable, pleasant, sensual, and arousing. This is not a mendicant’s own territory but the domain of others.

You should roam inside your own territory, the domain of your fathers. If you roam inside your own territory, the domain of your fathers, Māra won’t find a vulnerability or get hold of you.

And what is a mendicant’s own territory, the domain of the fathers? It’s the four kinds of mindfulness meditation. What four? It’s when a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world. They meditate observing an aspect of feelings … mind … principles—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of desire and aversion for the world. This is a mendicant’s own territory, the domain of the fathers.” - SuttaCentral

:anjal: