The Real Problem Is That You Just May End Up In Heaven
Before my enlightenment, O monks, when I was still a Bodhisattva, this thought occurred to me: ‘what is the gratification in the world, what is the danger in the world, and what is the escape from the world?’ Then I thought: ‘whatever joy and happiness there is in the world, that is the gratification in the world; that the world is impermanent, pervaded by suffering and subject to change, that is the danger in the world; the removal and abandoning of desire and lust for the world, that is the escape from the world.’
In what can be seen as another version of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha explains this triad: gratification, danger, and escape, in the numerical sutras.
In essence, the sutras are explaining that what we generally call joy and happiness is the feeling of gratification from a sense pleasure–from seeing, hearing, tasting, touching feeling or thinking something we like or want or think ought to be. There are two levels of danger in this.
On the first level, we are attaching our happiness to pursuing and acquiring external things and experiences. The nature of these externals is that they are impermanent and fleeting, so we must always be seeking others and more. Doing our best is never enough. If we like golf, we need more time on the course and better scores to stay gratified. Even score of 66 is only gratifying until the next game. And so it is with clothes and music (why do people have 900 tunes on their iPhone and still need more?), and everything else. Additionally, because everything is impermanent, we are constantly losing the things on which we bank our happiness–houses burn down, portfolios collapse, restaurants close, and so on. So inherent gratification, we begin to see, is danger.
No sense experience is ever enough. No amount of gratification is enough. Therefore we are constantly seeking, constantly in need, always unsatisfied. Often almost unaware of how unsatisfied we really are. As we know, we are insatiable for sense pleasures because we deludedly think they are the source of happiness, when in fact they are the source of our discomfort, of our uneasiness and anxiety. Yet more danger.
On another level, there is the danger that if we get a great deal of sense gratification, we will be able to convince ourselves that we are happy, that we aren’t stressed, that we feel peaceful and happy. In Buddhist cosmology, constant sense gratification leads us to become devas, gods in the heavenly realm.
What’s wrong with being a god in a heavenly realm? Appealing as that may seem on the surface, what’s wrong is that it leaves us unaware of how fraught with danger our lives have become. We are unable to see that running from one purchase to another, from one vacation spot to another, from concert to another, is stressful and destructive. Once we become devas, we are stuck in the fog of our own delusion that we’re happy, and then one small event, like loosing our iPhone, can shatter us. A market crash that means we can no longer indulge ourselves in material luxuries leaves a deva karmically devastated, without any understanding of how to heal and find a path to spiritual renewal.
So the dangers are that we are pinning our happiness on impermanent externals and that, with enough sense gratification, we will no longer be able to see that there is really no need, or a way to escape this self-destructive cycle.
The way to escape, of course, is to stop believing that sense pleasure is the answer and to realize that we can have real longterm peace and happiness by abandoning our lust and desire for sensory pleasure and allowing our hearts to guide us into lives of compassion and service to others.
As another version of the Four Noble Truths, gratification suggests the first and second noble truths, that craving and clinging are the source of suffering, danger suggests the first noble truth, the truth of suffering, and escape suggests the third and fourth noble truths, that there is a way out of suffering, nirvana, and that there is a way to end suffering: the noble eightfold path.