In <The Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā> （or The Essentials for Practicing Calming-and-Insight & Dhyāna Meditation, 小止觀）, it talks about berating the five desires. Five desires are associated with the five worldly, external conditions – form, sound, smell, taste, and touch. We call them “five desires” because when coming in contact with the conditions, it is easy to raise a sense of clinging internally. There are so many external objects or conditions in our daily life that can often stir such clinging within. For instance, you like chocolate very much. If you are sent to the mountain area, you probably will feel very uncomfortable for the first few days and perhaps be thinking about chocolate everyday. Thinking is the function of consciousness, which originates from past experiences of tasting the sweetness of chocolate. But, is your mouth sensing sweet when you think about chocolate? No. Your tongue did not touch the chocolate, and the remembered taste did not stimulate your senses, you are only thinking, “Hum, it is delicious.” After a few days, your attention will slowly be moved somewhere else. So it is actually possible to adjust yourself and adapt to the environment.
When applying yourself to the method in practice, you should try your best to avoid these types of external distractions. At a certain degree, if such conditions can be isolated, the distracting effect of such stimulants to our senses will naturally decrease, and discomfort or irritations will not easily arise. Even if it arises, there will be no direct external object inducing the internal desires and clinging. In this way, life can become naturally simpler and pure, which is in accord with Chan practice.
At the time of the Buddha, there were many who practiced asceticism. What they did was to reduce their needs to the minimum necessary for human survival. They lived a very simple life without concerns about clothing and food, and spent their time only on practice, from morning to night, with only breaks from meditation to fill their stomachs with fruit and water. When they were thirsty, they would drink water from the stream; when their rags wore out, they would just go to cemeteries, pick up some cloth from the dead, wash them and wear them. This was in India at that time. We should understand that it is not easy to truly live like that. The ascetics must have certain foundations in practice, or it would turn into some kind of extreme. Therefore the Buddha basically disapproved of asceticism and Buddhism emphasizes the so-called middle way. Of course the Buddha taught people not to follow endless desires, but he also did not tell people to go to the other extreme.
If you are unable to completely let go of desire and clinging, and you have not taken proper action to redirect them, you have in fact suppressed them. You use the power of concentration to suppress them instead of using wisdom to clear them out or using the method of contemplation to transform them. Then, once your strength is not strong enough to resist further, it will bounce back and go to an extreme. Usually people who can truly practice asceticism are considered extraordinary because it does require rather strong willpower to accomplish it.
However, can one’s willpower be so strong as to resist any kind of temptation? Maybe in the beginning, one can suppress the temptation of desire with willpower, but it does not mean the desire does not exist. Such suppressed desire can accumulate and become a lurking energy. How much energy does it need to suppress desires? It probably requires continued energy to keep at it. But how long can it be sustained? If not very long, as soon as the strength drops down, the power of suppressed desire will show up. Therefore, the Buddha believed that asceticism is not the ultimate path of practice; it will lead to an extreme. We must use wisdom to reduce and manage the impact of desires until reaching complete elimination of them.
In <The Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā>, Great Master Zhi Yi listed various conditions as prerequisites for practice. They are recognized and accepted by Chan and yoga practitioners. What we are learning here is the spirit or essence of them. We know that the biggest obstacle in practice is worldly desires and attachment, and the external conditions can help to create an environment that is favorable for reducing clinging. So, when you come in contact with the five worldly conditions, you need to guard the doors of the five senses. It does not mean that you would not have contact with the world, but to be alert with an observing mind when you are in contact with them, see the actual situation clearly, and reflect on it in order to not let desire arise.
We need to eat everyday. For example, today a served dished is your favorite. You do not have to eat more when you see it just because you love it, but eat according to your body’s need as usual. What if the dish is something you dislike? Often you may reject it. Actually, the mind of rejecting or hating is originated from the same mind of loving and clinging. It is just the opposite function. With understanding, we would not reject it and take it as needed. In such a way, we are not tempted by the five desires but properly receive what is necessary.
(Teachings during Chan retreat at Ipoh, Maylasia. Originally published in Chinese by Fa Lu Yuen Publications, 1998)