Indulgence in Pleasure and Pain, the two obstacles to Enlightenment

By Desmond Yeoh SC

brown driftwood on bech line

Imagine that we are all pieces of driftwoods floating along a river towards the ocean which represents enlightenment. If we do not get stuck in either the left or right banks of the river, we will quickly reach the ocean. On the other hand, if we often get trapped, our journey will be slow and tedious, or we may never reach the ocean of enlightenment.

The left river bank represents our tendency to indulge in pleasure or in other words, to seek happiness. There appears to be nothing wrong with this but enlightened masters taught that even this is futile. When we do not get what we want, we feel discontented. When we do get what we want, we worry about losing it or have to waste time maintaining it[1]. Eventually, we have to part with it because nothing in this material world is permanent.

The wise ones cautioned us that happiness conditions unhappiness. This is because happiness will eventually end; and what comes after is unhappiness. An obvious example is indulging in alcohol. The ‘high’ from taking alcohol will only last so long. Eventually we will need to suffer the consequences of a hangover and a foul mood.

When we indulge in pleasure or happiness, we are never contented. We are always seeking for something or someone or someplace better. We are jealous of others who have what we don’t. What we already have is never good enough. Even when we are better off compared to the majority of people in the world, we are still not at peace. This is the suffering of discontentment.

The other side of the river is indulgence in pain and suffering. On the surface, this does not make sense. Who would even want suffering? But it really happens. One example is harbouring hatred or anger towards others who have hurt us in the past. This hatred or anger may even last for years or decades. For some, the hatred may occupy their thoughts day and night, never allowing them a moment of peace.

Another example is being overly critical of others. This is often described as having a fault-finding mind[2]. Being too judgmental comes with the price of being angry all the time.  It stems from pride as it makes us feel superior over others. That is why many of us, to some extent, indulge it this.

Excessive or unproductive worrying is another example. We worry about many things, creating various scenarios in our minds that never happens. The forest monks of Thailand have many death threatening matters to worry about but they have trained hard to put such worries out of their minds. Our worries are much less critical and we should be able to do the same.

As the indulgence in pain or suffering is more emotionally charged, it may be, that many more drift woods are stuck in this ‘river bank’ as opposed to the ‘river bank’ of indulgence in pleasure or happiness.

Once the Buddha and his disciples saw a jackal, a wild dog, run out of the forest where they were. It stood still for a while, then it ran into the underbrush, and then out again. Then it ran into a tree hollow, then out again. Then it went into a cave, only to run out again. One minute it stood, the next it ran, then it lay down, then it jumped up. That jackal had mange. When it stood the mange would eat into its skin, so it would run. Running it was still uncomfortable, so it would stop. Standing was still uncomfortable, so it would lie down. Then it would jump up again, running into the underbrush, the tree hollow, never staying still.

The Buddha said, “Monks, did you see that jackal this afternoon? Standing it suffered, running it suffered, sitting it suffered, lying down it suffered. In the underbrush, a tree hollow or a cave, it suffered. It blamed standing for its discomfort, it blamed sitting, it blamed running and lying down; it blamed the tree, the underbrush and the cave. In fact, the problem was with none of those things. That jackal had mange. The problem was with the mange”.

Our ‘mange’ is our tendency to indulge in pleasure and pain or in happiness and suffering. We blame other things or other people for our unhappiness when the true cause of our suffering is this tendency, this ‘mange’.


[1] See A Small Circle of Concern is Conducive to Peace
[2] See The Karma of being Overly Critical of Others


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