Is refraining from indulging in sense pleasures such as snack food, a good practice?

A student writes:

I have a question about craving: My understanding is that the Hinayanaist work with craving for sense pleasures by applying discipline and practicing abstinence, i.e. not coming into contact with the thing they crave. In the Living the Awakened Heart Training this form of craving isn’t really addressed. Instead the focus is more on noticing what behaviour leads to a sense of opening and joy and what behaviour leads to a sense of tightening and cramped-ness.

So, is refraining from indulging in sense pleasures a good practice? It can involve a lot of will power rather than relaxation. I was thinking about some of the foods I enjoy but probably eat too much of. A lot of the time it’s not so much about health as about body image and looking good. And if I manage to give it up and lose weight this could just lead to a more inflated ego. Do we need to be concerned about giving up sense pleasures or is this insignificant when compared to the suffering of clinging to a sense of self?

Lama Shenpen responds:

This is such an important question.  I wonder about this a lot myself.   Craving in the pratityasamutpada (dependent origination) formula – the craving that leads to grasping, becoming, birth, old age, sickness, death, lamentation and sorrow is just one link in the chain reaction isn’t it?  If it didn’t lead to grasping the rest wouldn’t follow, but what transforms the craving so it doesn’t lead into grasping and so on?  The way we see it – that is the answer. If we wake up and see it with vidya – recognition of its true nature – then the chain collapses – the problem is though, how to access the vidya that recognises our true nature?

So as you say, one way is to try to stop the craving by not allowing contact which give rise to feeling and then craving but simply preventing contact isn’t necessarily wakening vidya – it could just be a heavy handed attachment to the idea that I should give up contact – rather a joyless state and one that tempts one to transgress the rule of no contact because one is suffering from deprivation.   However if instead one develops a joyful feeling of freedom from craving it sets up the right situation for vidya to break through – so it might work well.

On the path it is important to keep a light touch so that we don’t develop parts of ourselves that feel deprived and oppressed by our attempts to follow the path – so I think a good way to approach this is to avoid contact until a kind of sense of freedom and joy arises, at least relative freedom – one is not obsessed any more – one has developed a state of mind that can be happy with the sense pleasure and also happy without it – at least to some extent. 

Then why not have a go at enjoying the sense pleasure without grasping – see how that goes?  For example have you enough freedom (will power) to stop eating a biscuit the moment you stop enjoying it?  If you are awake, attentive and enjoying a sense pleasure then it is not suffering is it?  As soon as you start continuing to crave the sense pleasure to the point that it’s becoming a problem – it’s suffering. Can you be awake enough to discern when it’s becoming a problem and when it’s simply a pleasure you can enjoy, or continue to feel happy if its not there?

It is important to try to keep the mind relaxed and happy as possible whatever the situation – that is also called kshanti (forbearance, patience) – dana (generosity), shila (discipline/right conduct) and kshanti – these are the Buddha Qualities we can use to accumulate punya – that gradually brings about the right situation for vidya to break through – and which cuts the chain reaction of the mandala of suffering.

It is interesting how difficult it is to cut the craving by just thinking about one’s health or good looks – the motive has to be much deeper than that – otherwise the result of cutting off the craving is simply to feed other ego-centric cravings that feed the mandala of suffering. That is why it is important to keep remembering how samsara is suffering and to develop real and genuine revulsion for the whole process and a determination – the clarity to be determined to do all one can to leave it behind – then it’s much easier to give up craving and simply enjoy life as it is.


Thank you, that’s really helpful. I have often felt even more joyless and deprived when I have tried to give something up that gives me some sense pleasure. Especially as you say, my motive wasn’t very deep, it was more about trying to improve samsara than leave it behind.

Interestingly, when I did a retreat recently, my retreat vow included not having crisps, chocolate and surfing the internet, which was difficult at first but eventually I began to enjoy the stillness and I noticed I had so much more appreciation for things when I did have them. It reminded me of when I was young, when certain things were real treats that you didn’t have very often and really looked forward to. But now we can have them whenever we like yet don’t seem to be any happier because of it.

I think a lot of the time I want to give up a craving is because I see that it’s a such a habit of chasing after a short term pleasure that never deeply fulfills and keeps me going round and round in the cycle of suffering. Thinking about the bigger picture of wanting to be fully free from samsara gives me much more inspiration. It’s inspiring to think of that quality of Kshanti (forbearance/patience) being equally happy to have or not have a sense pleasure. Forbearance seems so inextricably linked to contentment which encourages me to want to aspire to it. Thank you so much for your answer it was really helpful and gave me lots to think about.

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