Sutta Meditations: MN 54: the Potaliya Sutta

Sutta Meditations: MN 54: the Potaliya Sutta July 6, 2008

The sutta* is an address to a householder on the importance of practicing meditation, cultivating the equanimity of the fourth jhana, and being mindful of the nature of sensuality.

The teaching consists of a series of comparisons used to illustrate sensuality as being “of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks.” Perhaps the most visceral passage is:

Now suppose there were a pit of glowing embers, deeper than a man’s height, full of embers that were neither flaming nor smoking, and a man were to come along — loving life, hating death, loving pleasure, abhorring pain — and two strong men, grabbing him with their arms, were to drag him to the pit of embers. What do you think: Wouldn’t the man twist his body this way & that?”

“Yes, lord. And why is that? Because he would realize, ‘If I fall into this pit of glowing embers, I will meet with death from that cause, or with death-like pain.'”

“In the same way, householder, a disciple of the noble ones considers this point: ‘The Blessed One has compared sensuality to a pit of glowing embers, of much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks.’ Seeing this with right discernment, as it actually is, then avoiding the equanimity coming from multiplicity, dependent on multiplicity, he develops the equanimity coming from singleness, dependent on singleness, where sustenance/clinging for the baits of the world ceases without trace.

Here multiplicity seems to refer to external objects or stimuli, even extending to the ‘equanimities’ of the first three jhanas, or levels of meditative absorption. By singleness then, it is implied that it is an equanimity that stands on its own, free of dependency on the world.

This is one of the many suttas that may confuse us about Buddhism if we do not understand it in its fuller context. The Buddha is not suggesting a ‘go-it-alone’ attitude to spiritual development. Quite the contrary, his life and his intentional community were built on the foundation of mutual dependence between lay people and monks and nuns. However, that foundation is just that – a foundation. Once established in healthy practices of mainly generosity for the laity and mainly study or meditation practice for the monastics, much of the practice was (and is) quite solitary.

Yet as with much of our practice in the modern world, we can quite easily lose sight of the importance of this foundation. Failing in proper foundations we build so many spiritual “castles upon sand” only to see them crumble as the bottoms slip away. This is a primary failing of much of contemporary ‘pop-psychology’, a topic I plan to address in some future posts. Awakening takes preparation, proper conditions, and dedicated effort. With those in place, we see sensuality as it truly is, we see too the ephemeral nature of wealth, praise, fame, and their opposites. We taste freedom. But that taste is only as strong as our foundations, our community, our open-handed generosity, our friendships – so don’t forget them.

One final note should be added about the nature of sensuality, or delighting in sense-experience. As an amateur photographer, a lover of movies, foreign music and foods, I am no stranger to delighting in sense-experience. The trick of awareness – not a trick actually, but a disciplined ability – is to maintain understanding of the ephemeral nature of that which we delight in.

As I’ve blogged about before, the greatest teaching in this I have ever had was from a 10 year-old girl, the daughter of a classmate of mine in Bristol. Her mother asked her, “how do we hold on to things we love?” And the girl held out her hand, fingers extended, palm up, and said, “like this.” Clenching her hand into a fist she said, “not like this.”

So as we travel the world we are invited to take joy in its many wonders and beauties. But always doing so with understanding of their true nature, that of change, non-substantiality, and sorrow (for all in the world that clings to them). This is the path of the enlightened hedonist or epicure, and it is a narrow path with much to pull us this way (past issues not dealt with) or that (unnecessary worries for an future yet to come).

* Accesstoinsight.org has an excerpt of this sutta available.

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