Tuesday, January 10, 2012

In Defense of Sensual Pleasure

Gérard de Lairesse's Allegory of the Five Senses (1668)
Three days in the hospital with pneumonia makes one appreciate the pleasures of the senses.  Discharged on Christmas morning, I reveled in the warmth of the Bangkok sun as I got into the taxi.  Even the pollution smelled good.  At home I indulged myself by listening to Christmas songs, sipping soda and eating Oreos.  The familiar feel of our pseudo-velvet couch was comforting.  The very air taken in by my somewhat worse-for-wear lungs was nectar of the gods.  I was alive and loved it.

Pleasure gets a bad rap from all religions which see the physical as something to flee rather than embrace.  The body is the source of temptation, the root of evil intentions and bad deeds.  Despite my appreciation of many of the teachings of Buddhism and the Catholic Christian tradition, I cannot abide their distaste for the physical.  The mostly male priests and monks shun the opposite sex in order to preserve purity.  Each religion has an otherworldly, metaphysical goal: enlightenment for Buddhists and heaven for Christians.  And each contains doctrines that encourage renunciation of the world and the avoidance of physical temptations that appeal to the senses.

Buddhism advocates a middle way between indulgence and mortification of the senses, as my friend Phra Cittasamvaro points out in "So What is Wrong with Sense Desire?"  Even though "desire causes suffering" (one translation of the Second Noble Truth), not all desire is harmful, he believes.  Unrestrained desire is the problem.  Refined sense pleasures, for Mozart, Picasso, Shakespeare and the like, are "often blameless," although equal to coarser pleasures in their ability to distract from one's true goal.  And aspirations, desires for qualities such as compassion, patience and wisdom, as well as enlightenment, should be cultivated.  It's OK, he writes, "to enjoy nice food, good company or stroking your pet cat," but through meditation one sees that "sense pleasures are really a temporary cover for a deeper discomfort in the heart."

Since the Greeks, Hedonists have claimed that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.  Philosopher and gay rights advocate John Corvin disagrees:  He believes there are goods beside pleasure.  "But from the fact that pleasure isn't the only good, it does not follow that pleasure isn't good at all." He calls this argument the "Prude's Fallacy."  "To deny pleasure's value is just silly."    I doubt that many Buddhist teachers will ever see pleasure as a distinct good rather than a distraction from the only true good of enlightenment.  Buddha founded a community of renunciants who abandoned the world to concentrate on awakening from samsara as their teacher had done.  Today's sangha of monks in Thailand follow in that tradition.  I have no problem with anyone's choice of the robe and renunciation, and the practice of ritual and meditation to support that life.  Some of my best friends follow that path.  But I cannot agree with teaching that rejects the sensual pleasures which I feel help to make us fully human.

Prudes often argue that the senses require selfish gorging.  If food tastes good, the sensualist will gorge himself until he is bloated.  Even when there is someone hungry in the room, the glutton will feed his own desire to the exclusion of others.  The same goes in spades for sexual desire which is interpreted as inherently self-centered.  But arguing from extremes is to draw up a straw man, a figment of the prude's imagination.  People, as Phra Cittamasvaro suggested, learn to restrain their senses from an early age.  Delayed gratification, partly for the heightened sense of pleasure it can provide, is a basic lesson on the road to maturity.  But the most important factors that undercut the prude's argument are the developed virtues of compassion and sharing.  Contrary to the survival of the fittest crowd, human beings are designed to cooperate more than compete.  (I'll save footnotes for the book)  In the fulfillment of our sensual desires, most of us take others into consideration.  And we don't even need religious rules and threats of punishment to comply with this universal achievement.

I'd quote Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller or Allan Ginsberg here, but I think I've made my point.  Along with my skepticism about karma and rebirth, this belief in the value of sensual desire restrains me from becoming a committed Buddhist.  Or at least it did until recently when I began reading numerous books and articles about the history of Buddhism and the current modernist interpretation of doctrine that has dominated east and west thinking since the 19th century.  Thai Buddhism with its infusions of Brahmanism and animism has fascinated me since I moved here in 2004.  Its iconography and rituals do not seem to fit within the western narrative of Buddhism, and I've discussed this anomaly in various blog posts.  Last week I attended a conference on Buddhist Studies at Chulalongkorn University where Justin McDaniel presented a radically different view of Thai Buddhism in his talk and in remarks at the launch of his new book.

The Lovelorn Ghost & The Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand focuses on the practices of Thai Buddhists rather than history, doctrine and the institution of the monastic sangha.  McDaniel tells of the mostly legendary exploits of Mae Nak, vengeful mother and ghost, and popular 19th century monk Somdet To.  "Now it is painfully clear that any major study of Thai Buddhism is simply ludicrous," says McDaniel, "if these two are not prominently featured.  Ignoring them is ignoring what millions of Thai Buddhists know and value."  He aims to write about what Thai Buddhists do rather than explain what they believe or the meaning of their actions. And this involves him in "astrology, protective magic, fortune-telling, ghost belief, 'Hindu' deities, multiple Buddhas, [and] amulets," while "many scholars still dig and dig looking for their idea of Theravada buried under the weight of Thai culture...Looking for the Theravada, the Buddhist, and the authentic often prevents scholars from seeing what is going on."

I've only just begun reading McDaniel's book and cannot provide a proper review (for that, see Chris Baker's review in the Bangkok Post).  It's obvious to me this he is on to something with this radical approach.  A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, McDaniel has studied Buddhism in Thailand and Laos for many years and even wore a robe as a monk.  This is his second book and one I think that will prove controversial.  Nan and I maintain an altar of icons on top of our bookcase and freshen it with flowers and water for every Wan Phra.  We often  make merit at a nearby temple by taking gifts and lighting candles and incense while the monk chants a blessing over our goblets of water (which are then poured on the nearest bush or tree).  My western-educated brain is caught up in debates about beliefs and reality which make pure deeds difficult.  From my observation of my wife and her family, however, I do not see that concerns about sensual desires play a role in their practice of Buddhism.  More important for them is the practice of generosity and the metta prayer that all beings be happy.

As my body slowly recovers from the megadoses of antibiotics and steroids in the hospital to kill the infection and jump-start my lungs, I am enjoying the turning of the world after the shortest day at the Winter Solstice.  The sunrises have been spectacular lately and I try to capture the colors of the sky while waiting for my morning coffee to brew.  The dawn sun had moved a few degrees to the right of the Rama IX Bridge spire and is now moving back to the left.  This is all that I can know of the seasons in Bangkok, although occasionally the mornings are chilly (to Nan more than me who puts on a sweater).  Up north several provinces have been declared disaster zones because of temperatures that yet remain above the freezing mark but can kill Thais without heaters or warm clothes.

School resumed last week and I took the Mahachula pink bus to Wangnoi in Ayutthaya past fields still filled with garbage that floated in on the flood last month.  Many trees had died. Our classroom building has electricity but neither air conditioning nor functioning elevators (fortunately my classrooms are on the 2nd floor).  I learned that the subject of my new class for 4th year students is translation which might be a stretch for someone without one of the two languages needed.  For their first assignment, I asked them to find a short poem by Sunthorn Phu, considered Thailand's greatest writer, and translate it into English.  My usual class of 3rd year students in Listening & Speaking English has been cut in half and I will teach 14 students with a new Thai teacher taking an equal amount.  I'm not particularly happy about this non-sensical split but it will mean less papers to grade.  Only one student showed up the first day.  The graduate class in linguistics continues on Saturday mornings and students seem to be enjoying The Little Prince which I'm using for a text in hopes that it can provide examples of phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.

The Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is continually affirmed as my body continues its relentless journey toward oblivion.  I learned last week of the deaths of my cousin, Ted Ballard, and my friend Joe Hudgins.  Coincidentally, both were 67 years old and lived near Ashland, Oregon.  Ted died on my birthday last year of Lewy Body dementia, a horrible mix of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.  He'd built his own home on 140 acres in Gold Hill and was an accomplished master carpenter.  In college Ted was gardener for painter Morris Graves at his Eureka retreat and is mentioned in a poem by Graves' friend, John Cage.  Ted played the banjo, disliked the internet, and is grandfather to his step-daughter's son with Foo Fighter Nate Mendel.  His mother, my aunt Margaret, was an important mentor when I was falling in love with literature.  I miss them both.  Joe had the dubious fame in his youth of playing Dr. Flexi Jerkoff in the cult film "Flesh Gordon" (He's at 20 minutes to the hour in the poster).  In recent years he sold real estate and taught others how to sell.  Joe had a distinguishing laugh that you could hear miles away. He was a founder of the non-profit KSKQ in Ashland and hosted the first transmitter on his property as well as various radio shows. I'm happy to hear that he enjoyed himself at a New Year's Eve party the night before the heart attack that killed him.  R.I.P., Joe and Ted.

While I'm feeling better, a few aches and pains remain.  But impermanence was reinforced last week when I lost my wallet.  It either dropped out of my pocket, or it was picked from it during a crush of people getting on a bus after the conference.  I lost several thousand baht and a few important cards, but so far no one has charged anything.  The following night, as if to make sure I'd learned the lesson, I lost my house keys.  Needless to say, it took awhile to transcend upset and the fear that I really am losing it in general.  But, with the help of a good woman, I eventually was able to see that I'll never really lose it.  May all beings and especially my family and friends have a wonderful New Year in 2012 (or 2555 here, pronounced "song ha ha ha" which is quite funny).


Janet Brown said...

I love this, Will.

Ian H said...

If you are prone, like me, to the odd "senior moment" then beware of going through doors. Apparently the mind subconsciously interprets moving from one room to another as a kind of "reset" button.

Note to self, write note to self.

christao408 said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post. Here's to wishing you a full recovery. I had pneumonia a few years ago here in Bangkok and it does take some time to regain your full strength.