Reflections on Dispassion and Pleasure

I’d like to explore dispassion, renunciation, and the notion of pleasure or enjoyment. I welcome challenges / affirmations / questions / insights on any of the writing below.

Last year, I started with consistent contemplation of the three characteristics / perceptions in daily life and in meditation. I saw the fruit of this as I felt more and more disenchanted with worldly things. Then, two months ago, I came across the work of Allen Carr who created the ‘easyway’ method for quitting any addiction. I was astonished. I’d gritted my teeth and struggled for years to let go of addictive behaviors with sugar/processed foods, technology, and caffeine - with very little success. Upon reading Allen Carr’s work related to these areas, letting go of them became easy and enjoyable.

In essence, he teaches dispassion by stripping away the brainwashing / acculturation that these substances bring us any kind of real pleasure or benefit. He likens using an addictive substance to wearing a tight shoe only for the relief of taking it off. Likewise, that we use the substance only to feel like a non-substance user does all the time. Or, that getting your fix is only a partial relief of the withdrawal symptoms created by the last time you used your substance. Again, he emphasizes that there is no real / genuine pleasure in these substances, that it is a form of delusion. The mind of the reader thus becomes disenchanted with the substance and no longer desire the substance, therefore, nipping the addictive behavior at the root. This concurs with SN 22.95 - “Being disillusioned, desire fades away.”

I started to think deeper about his teachings as they relate to the Buddha’s teachings, and to activities that don’t have the destructive downsides of addictive substances and are widely considered to be a natural or genuine pleasure - companionship with a lover, eating, or taking a walk in nature.

Do these activities also have no genuine / substantial pleasure to them? It seems any pleasure is based on a conglomeration of the five aggregates, especially perception. For example, taking a walk on a sunny day may bring one person joy / pleasure, while for another it brings anxiety / suffering about getting sunburnt. Each person attends to different forms / sensations and perceptions thus creating different feelings. So, I think pleasure comes from a fixing of the aggregates but cannot be inherent in any activity. Then I wonder about things like endorphins from taking a run, or the ‘feel-good’ chemicals released when having intercourse. Is this some kind of ‘genuine’ or inherent pleasure? Or is this just a matter of form (sensations/workings of the body) that we perceive as pleasurable.

I’ve read through SC D&D for matters related to dispassion and pleasure and I’ve found some helpful suttas below to inform my perspective.

SN 22.95
In the same way, a mendicant sees and contemplates any kind of form/ feeling / perception / choices / consciousness at all … examining it carefully. And it appears to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial.

AN 9.36
Take a mendicant who, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption. They contemplate the phenomena there—included in form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness—as impermanent, as suffering, as diseased, as a boil, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as falling apart, as empty, as not-self.

AN 4.49
“Mendicants, there are these four perversions of perception, mind, and view. What four?

  1. Taking impermanence as permanence.
  2. Taking suffering as happiness.
  3. Taking not-self as self.
  4. Taking ugliness as beauty.

The Buddha seems to confirm the notion that there is no inherent pleasure in the five aggregates - or in any activity.

I sense there is a potential leverage point in the mind whereby one recognizes that these more ‘natural pleasures’ are equally as empty and void as the more obvious harmful pleasures. And that these ‘natural pleasures’ actually have no inherent pleasure to them, it is a kind of brainwashing, delusion, or perception that makes them seem so. It doesn’t mean that you would avoid taking a walk in nature or connecting with a loved one, but you would see the concoction of aggregates that creates a sense of ‘pleasure’, thereby making it easier to be detached, disenchanted, and equanimous.

I think part of what makes renunciation / letting go of ‘pleasurable’ activities is thinking that there actually is some inherent pleasure or benefit to them. But by recognizing there is literally nothing inherently worthy in any of the aggregates, dispassion can be further developed. It starts with obviously harmful substances, but then can be applied to more subtle attachments to activities such as idle chatter, entertainment, food, companionship, etc.

Thus, this is also true for meditation, concentration, and the like, although they are among the highest wholesome activities that we have access to now - and we are encouraged to form perceptions of pleasure within these activities(?). While they are based in the aggregates and are ‘empty and void’ in some sense, they are essential to reaching the ultimate pleasure / bliss / unbinding, and are abandoned much later in path.

Thank you for reading, I look forward to discussion and reflection.


In a sense, the Buddha also didn’t deny that there’s certain things which are lovable, and wished for by many in the world. Such as long life, beauty, happiness and strength.

“Householder, there are these five things that are wished for, desired, agreeable, and rarely gained in the world.

“What is the cause, Master Gotama, what is the reason why even among those who are human beings some are seen to be inferior and superior? For people are seen who are short-lived and long-lived, sickly and healthy, ugly and beautiful, insignificant and illustrious, poor and rich, from low and eminent families, witless and wise. What is the reason why even among those who are human beings some are seen to be inferior and superior?”

Many deities and human beings
Have pondered what are blessings,
Which they hope will bring them safety:
Declare to them, Sir, the Highest Blessing.

I would put these as in the goal vs method framework, or more traditionally, conventional vs ultimate truth.

Conventionally, there’s somethings which are desirable etc, ultimately, they are suffering too.

these are interesting questions
My understanding is that ultimately in buddhism there are no positive pleasures since pleasure is understood as the cessation of suffering. The 5 khandas are understood as suffering too.
For example in mindfulness Bliss and Beyond which has been quoted recently in another thread Ajahn Brahm clearly states that pleasure happens when something painful ceases (as in the tight shoe example)- and vice versa.
In contrast for example Socrates in one of the dialogues acknowledges that many pleasures are indeed due to the ending of pain as in the example of the shoe you gave but that there are some positive pleasures as well. The first simple example he gives is the perfume of a flower which does not seem to be due to the cessation of a previous pain.

Are there any suttas to back up this idea? How would this fit with what the Buddha taught about vedanā and dependent origination?

A feeling can also be designated or perceived as pleasure due to cessation of neutral feeling. Pleasant or painful is quite subjective and somewhat arbitrary designation or perception for any change from neutral feeling.

I guess one way to see this in relation to the suttas are the teachings on the jhanas: as the five senses disappear you feel bliss so you make the inference that the pleasureand arises because so much has ceased, so you can deduce that pleasure=cessation of pain and the world of the 5 senses is pain. Not sure how explicitly this is stated in the suttas as I understood this mostly from discussions with some monks.


Thanks for the sutta references. From the first one you cited:

AN 5.43
Being heedful, the wise person
secures both kinds of good:
the good in this life,
and the good of the future life.
By attaining the good, the steadfast one
is called one of wisdom.

I see the Buddha is encouraging us to what is good, and perhaps instilling the perception in his listeners that what is ‘good’ is in some sense ‘pleasurable’ or leads to the highest pleasure - release, unbinding.

I find Snp 2.4 quite interesting. the Buddha gives an array of the ‘highest blessings’ -

“congenial place to dwell… Ample learning, in crafts ability… Mother, father well supporting… Types of work unconflicting… Acts of giving… This/these, the highest blessing(s).”

At the start of the sutta, I thought he would be referring only to nibbana, complete unbinding, as the highest blessing. Though he refers to many conventionally wholesome things. He doesn’t refer to these as pleasurable in and of themselves, but worthy of attention and cultivation.

So I’m gleaning that there are activities that are good, wholesome, skillful, but nothing in a conventional sense is pleasurable in and of itself. Now thinking of it, I imagine nibbana doesn’t even prescribe to this notion of pleasure, as the experience of conventional pleasure is based in a fixing of the aggregates… ? Nibbana may be a pleasure that happens in the absense of pain, stress, dukkha, as stef brought up.

I just came across this sutta where the Buddha says in the absense of regrets, joy and subsequently rapture will naturally arise; to me, insinuating that there is some natural pleasure in the path, but it still seems to be a fixing of the aggregates - a clear, softer consciousness without regret, relaxed form/feelings in the body due to lack of tension from breaking precepts, perception of rapture and clear consciousness as pleasurable / joyful. Though the notion of naturally tells me that perhaps it is without the aggregate of intentional fabrication.

AN 10.2
“Mendicants, an ethical person, who has fulfilled ethical conduct, need not make a wish: 1.2‘May I have no regrets!’ 1.3It’s only natural that an ethical person has no regrets. 1.4When you have no regrets you need not make a wish: 1.5‘May I feel joy!’ 1.6It’s only natural that joy springs up when you have no regrets. 1.7When you feel joy you need not make a wish: 1.8‘May I experience rapture!’ 1.9It’s only natural that rapture arises when you’re joyful.

Perhaps it would be helpful to define ‘pleasure’ here.
Is it related to sukha-vedanā or something else?

Yes, I thought this too in my pondering the last few days. I think Sukha-vedana (pleasant feeling) does justice to what I am speaking of in terms of pleasure. So again the main inquiry being: can sukha-vedana be inherent in any activity such as exercise or generous acts or does it always involve a fixing of the aggregates to create that sukha-vedana in the mind.


Ajahn Brahm clearly states that pleasure happens when something painful ceases (as in the tight shoe example)- and vice versa.

This idea finds expression in MN44, as explained by the Venerable Dhammadinnā:

“What is pleasant and what is painful in each of the three feelings?”

“Pleasant feeling is pleasant when it remains and painful when it perishes. Painful feeling is painful when it remains and pleasant when it perishes. Neutral feeling is pleasant when there is knowledge, and painful when there is ignorance.”

I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘a fixing of the aggregates’. Could you explain?

According to the theory of dependent origination, sense-contact conditions feeling (vedanā), but it is not possible to fully disentangle feeling, perception and consciousness, as explained by the Venenerable Sāriputta (in MN43):

“Feeling, perception, and consciousness—these things are mixed, not separate. And you can never completely dissect them so as to describe the difference between them. For you perceive what you feel, and you cognize what you perceive. That’s why these things are mixed, not separate. And you can never completely dissect them so as to describe the difference between them.”

1 Like

For example, taking a walk on a sunny day may bring one person joy / pleasure, while for another it brings anxiety / suffering about getting sunburnt. Each person attends to different forms / physical sensations and perceptions about the benefits/drawbacks of the sun’s rays, thus creating different feelings - joy or anxiety. I’m sure consciousness and fabrications can be tied into this example as well. This is what I mean by a fixing of the aggregates - they work together to create and experience.