Further development of purification requires restraining the senses or guarding the senses against activities that would provoke and fuel mental defilements.
By following the precepts, you will be able to say no to the body’s untamed desires. A person who lacks moral boundaries or precepts cannot restrain himself. And as long as the senses aren’t tamed, the mind will remain agitated and polluted.
If you have been able to keep the precepts, you have already been restraining the senses and are now in a position to refine that practice. To do so, you must have a broader understanding of what will harm you and what will benefit you. Without such foresight, looking after yourself is hopeless.
So how to begin? Before you act, ask yourself: “Will such actions by the body, speech, or thought result in a composed, peaceful mind? Will it result in clarity regarding the nature of experience? Or will it simply result in dullness, passionate fever, agitation, depression, and confusion?” If you know that your action is and will result in that which is harmful to yourself and another, then do not do it. In that way, you will be enclosing the senses within a wholesome boundary so that they can calm down. They will initially not like being limited but after some time, once they relax and the pleasure of restraint arrives, it will be the new preferred mode of being.
That pleasure of renunciation is higher than any pleasure previously experienced. It’s a pleasure that comes from the senses being at peace for the first time. To achieve it, you must renounce all things that cause suffering – greed, aversion, and distraction. It doesn’t take much, all you need to do is stop doing unwholesome actions. Yet this is one of the most difficult things to do due to your addiction to self-inflicted suffering.
Guarding the senses is a sign that you are taking responsibility for your well-being and no longer leaving it in the hands of the body, which can’t even consider your welfare.
Take for example the internal itch of sexual desire. It belongs to the body, and the body wants it scratched. Now you could continue to be a slave to the body and attempt all sorts of sexual activities to satisfy that itch but the result of that is a body that is even more empowered, feverish, and unsatisfied, and a mind which is lustful, depressed and clouded. In other words, the result of allowing the body to consume or act in a way that only promotes dissatisfaction both mentally and physically, is you suffering and being liable to future suffering. It’s a lose-lose. In fact the body is much better off without such agitating actions but unfortunately, it has no innate wisdom to guide it. That’s where ‘you’ come in. Without the discernment born from self-reflection and willpower to do what is wholesome and refrain from the unwholesome, both body and mind will remain defiled and ferment in that regard.
How do you guard the senses against making a mess?
As you experience different sense objects, you have to try and be aware of the different senses as wild creatures ‘over here’ that want to consume things ‘over there’ which are pleasing, and fight or run away from anything displeasing. Try and change the way you regard the senses, see them for what they are – as things that do not appear yet are determining the various sensory experiences that appear. See them as being inaccessible to you, yet determining what is perceived and felt. You have no access to them but can incline them in certain directions if you have wisdom born of self-reflection.
If you leave the senses unrestrained, then it is guaranteed that unwholesome states will invade the mind. They are not calm in themselves and have no innate self-aware governance. They will blindly go towards whatever is pleasant and easily accessible, which in turn will result in continued suffering.
So as you perceive something, if you attend carelessly without having discerned the general context of wholesome and unwholesome, you will automatically just go for whatever is pleasant and be repelled by anything unpleasant. By responding blindly to experience and not having the above-mentioned perspective, you will be in for quite a ride, ending up in places you would rather not be in.
If you do not keep any precepts and have not set up some boundaries, you will not be able to see the body in such a detached way, and as such the body’s desires will be your desires and therefore sense restraint will not be possible. When your body wants something – you want something, and you will do what it takes to get it regardless if it’s beneficial or not.
What defilements should be abandoned by restraining? Here a bhikkhu, with a concurrent reflection (knowing the senses and perceiving the sense-objects, simultaneously.), lives with the eye faculty restrained. While defilements, agitation, and fever might arise in one who lives with the eye faculty unrestrained, there are no defilements, agitation, or fever in one who lives with the eye faculty restrained. With a concurrent reflection, he lives with the ear faculty restrained… the nose faculty restrained… the tongue faculty restrained… the body faculty restrained…with the mind faculty restrained…While defilements, agitation, and fever might arise in one who lives with the faculties unrestrained, there are no defilements, agitation, or fever in one who lives with the faculties restrained. These are called the defilements that should be abandoned by restraining. – Mn2
To cultivate such restraint, you need to remember to do so. This is, if you haven’t already figured it out, the development of sati – the recollecting of what is present(the senses and senses objects) and discerning the context of wholesome and unwholesome, i.e knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it. To remember a present intention and action, you need to exercise your present memory by concurrently reflecting on what you are doing and why you are doing it:’what is my intention? Will this action lead to more problems or not? Is what the eye wants to see beneficial for it? Should I allow the ear to hear what it desires? Is what is being perceived for the long-term health of the mind? Etc.
This is Nanda’s guarding of his senses: If he should look to the east, he collects his mind, thinking: ‘As I am looking to the east, longing and irritation, evil unbeneficial qualities, will not flow out.’ That’s how he is alert there. If he should look to the west… the north… the south… above… below… to the intermediate directions, he collects his mind, thinking: ‘As I am looking to the intermediate directions, longing, and irritation, evil unbeneficial qualities, will not flow out.’ That’s how he is alert there. This is Nanda’s guarding of the doors of his senses. – An8.9
The body doesn’t want to crave
If you become competent at guarding those senses, eventually those external sense objects will lose their sway over you, because you will be attaining a satisfaction apart from sensuality, and in fact, it is the only satisfaction that you can ever feel because it does not involve craving or sensuality which is always unsatisfied in its nature even if it gets what it desires.
The only reason that senses objects are craved for, is because you are unsatisfied – the body is wild and agitated. However, once you stop persistently feeding the body objects that are agitating, it will calm down and receive that which it wanted all along. Then it also doesn’t matter what object arises in front of you, there will be no desire for it since one is already fulfilled, and as such, to whatever degree that sense object was there due to past engagements, it will naturally decrease in its pressuring manifestation, i.e it will not be able to bother you anymore, and you will also be free from any further bother that would have resulted in you engaging with it in the first place.
Bhikkhus, in the past a tortoise was searching for food along the bank of a river. On that same evening, a jackal was also searching for food along the bank of that same river. When the tortoise saw the jackal in the distance searching for food, it drew its limbs and neck inside its shell and passed the time keeping still and silent. (dwelling at ease, unconcerned, inactive, silent, etc). ‘The jackal had also seen the tortoise in the distance searching for food, so he approached and waited close by, thinking, ‘When this tortoise extends one or another of its limbs or its neck. I will grab it right on the spot, pull it out, and eat it.’ But because the tortoise did not extend any of its limbs or its neck, the jackal, failing to gain access to it, lost interest in it and departed. In the same way, a bhikkhu guards his senses – Sn35.240
Having tamed the senses through withdrawal, you will to a large extent, be unmoved by the arising and ceasing circumstances of the world. Your mind would be elevated and no longer narrowed through absorption, infatuation, or concentration into/with sense objects. Such a position is vital for developing further liberating wisdom.
…Suppose, bhikkhus, a man would catch six animals with different domains and different feeding grounds and tie them by a strong rope. He would catch a snake, a crocodile, a bird, a dog, a jackal, and a monkey, and tie each by a strong rope. Having done so, he would bind them to a strong post or pillar. Then those six animals with different domains and different feeding grounds would each pull in the direction of its feeding ground and domain. The snake would pull one way, thinking, ‘Let me enter an anthill.’ The monkey would pull another way, thinking, ‘Let me enter a forest.’ “Now when these six animals become worn out and fatigued, they would stand close to that post or pillar, they would sit down there, they would lie down there. Likewise, when a bhikkhu has developed and cultivated recollection of the body, the eye does not pull in the direction of agreeable forms nor are disagreeable forms repulsive; the ear does not pull in the direction of agreeable sounds nor are disagreeable sounds repulsive; the nose does not pull in the direction of agreeable odors nor are disagreeable odors repulsive; the tongue does not pull in the direction of agreeable tastes nor are disagreeable tastes repulsive; the body does not pull in the direction of agreeable tactile objects nor are disagreeable tactile objects repulsive; the mind does not pull in the direction of agreeable mental phenomena nor is disagreeable mental phenomena repulsive.” “It is in such a way that there is restraint… – Sn35.247
Basically, by not reflecting on your behavior, i.e whether it is beneficial or not, or whether your actions or things that you attend to will lead to an increase in defilements or not, you will be attending to things that are sensually pleasant and avoiding things with are unpleasant without knowing whether those things will increase your suffering or bring it to an end. By acting so blindly, you will be ‘going with the flow’ of the world, heaping up suffering. And contrarily, the more you reflect on those things, the more perspective you develop, and the more ‘against the flow’ you will go, ever closer to complete purification of mind.
When perceiving a sight (sound, smell, taste, touch, thought), recollection (of the context) is lost, if attention is placed on the pleasing aspect. Experiencing it with a passionate mind, one remains attached to it. For him, with the arising of sights, various feelings increase. For him, the mind is damaged by longing and irritation. Heaping up suffering like this, is said to be far from Nibbāna.
He is not impassioned by sights (etc…). Having seen a sight, he is recollected (he remembers the context). He experiences a dispassionate mind and remains unattached. For one practicing like this while seeing a sight, feeling is exhausted, not accumulated. He lives like this recollected. Diminishing suffering in this way, Nibbana is said to be nearby. – Thg16.5
The pursuit of sensual pleasures may seem harmless due to their ordinariness but it is the very act that keeps you from becoming aware of the Dhamma or the nature of things – such as the mind, intentions, feeling, and body. Even on a mundane level, the more sensually absorbed you are, the less perspective you have. The more restraint, the more likely it is that you will succeed in life, in terms of health, wealth, and family. The person who indulges and gets addicted to sensual pleasures is not the one who ends up in a happy place. Such indulgences, instead lead one to misery.
Now, any pleasure and happiness that arises dependent on these five types of sensuality are called sensual pleasure, a filthy pleasure, an ordinary pleasure, or a blameworthy pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is not to be cultivated, not to be developed, not to be pursued, that it is to be feared. – Mn66
Having fear for the cultivation of such pursuits is a virtue. It will protect you from an immense amount of suffering. However you cannot fear what you love, so you are going to have to reflect a lot on the danger of such indulgences and at the same time try your best to not indulge simply by trusting that the Buddha is right and that following his instructions is the best possible way forward.
What’s the worst thing that could happen if you had to give up all lustful pursuits, coarse and subtle? Is not being purified from the fever of lust a good thing?
Sāriputta, let your sense faculties be peaceful. Let your mind be peaceful. Let your bodily actions be peaceful. Let your verbal actions be peaceful. Let your mental actions be peaceful, reflecting, “Just by this peacefulness, I will give a gift to my friends in the holy life.” In this way, you should train yourself – An 2.36
The result of not being restrained is an unsettled, disturbed, and sensitive mind. We can see this with anyone who has pursued sensual pleasures to the fullest or those who cannot get all they want but live with expectations and unfulfilled desires. This, although a normal way to live, is the way of an insane person.
To cultivate craving goes against what that person really wants, which is satisfaction. But to see this ridiculous act as wrong, he must first have some perspective on those acts. But the only way to get perspective is to refrain from the unwholesome acts that he is doing. Restraint then is pretty much impossible if the person gets what he is pursuing. Eventually, because such pursuit will lead to an increase in particular sufferings, there is a small chance that he can in those moments catch a wake-up and see that what he is doing is harmful and he might even follow through with some restraint. He may not make it far, but if he manages to go long enough, he will experience what it feels like to not have the burden of unfulfilled desires or what it feels like to have a partially settled and unagitated mind. Such experience, if he recognizes it and understands its implications, can propel him further along the path.
When they have this noble sense restraint, they experience an unpolluted pleasure inside themselves. – Mn27