The Allure of Form

As some of my readers may be aware, I have been reading the Majjhima Nikaya, or Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, as a major part of my study and practice of Buddhism lately. I have found this text, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, to be amazingly easy to read and thought provoking, and I would suggest it to anyone with even a moderate attention span and a seriousness about understanding the discourses of the Buddha.

But already, I digress…

Often I find that my memory fails to incorporate the details of the things I read, which basically means I read things many times if I want to absorb it properly, but about a week ago I came across a passage that still crosses my mind frequently. While this happens from time to time, I have found this to be particularly useful and thought provoking on a daily basis, so it feels appropriate to share.

The Majjhima Nikaya’s Greater discourse on the Mass of Suffering, verses 18 – 31 reads, in part, as follows:

And what, bhikkhus, is the gratification in the case of material form? Suppose there were a girl of the noble class or the brahmin class or of householder stock, in her fifteenth or sixteenth year, neither too tall nor too short, neither too thin nor too fat, neither too dark nor too fair. Is her beauty and loveliness then at its height?” — “Yes, venerable sir.” — “Now the pleasure and joy that arise in dependence on that beauty and loveliness are the gratification in the case of material form.

And what, bhikkhus, is the danger in the case of material form? Later on one might see that same woman here at eighty, ninety, or a hundred years, aged, as crooked as a roof bracket, doubled up, supported by a walking stick, tottering, frail, her youth gone, her teeth broken, grey-haired, scanty-haired, bald, wrinkled, with limbs all blochy. What do you think, bhikkhus? Has her former beauty and loveliness vanished and the danger become evident?” — “Yes, venerable sir.” — “Bhikkhus, this is a danger in the case of material form.

“Again, one might see that same woman afflicted, suffering, and gravely ill, lying fouled in her own urine and excrement, lifted up by some and set down by others. What do you think, bhikkhus? Has her former beauty and loveliness vanished and the danger become evident?” — “Yes, venerable sir.” — “Bhikkhus, this too is a danger in the case of material form.

“Again, one might see that same woman as a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter. What do you think, bhikkhus? Has her former beauty and loveliness vanished and the danger become evident?” — “Yes, venerable sir.” — “Bhikkhus, this too is a danger in the case of material form.

[verses 22-29 truncated]

“And what, bhikkhus, is the escape in the case of material form? It is the removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for material form. This is the escape in the case of material form.

“That those recluses and brahmins who do not understand as it actually is the gratification as gratification, the danger as danger, and the escape as escape in the case of material form, can either themselves fully understand material form or instruct another so that he can fully understand material form — that is impossible. That those recluses and brahmins who understand as it actually is the gratification as gratification, the danger as danger, and the escape as escape in the case of material form, can either themselves fully understand material form or instruct another so that he can fully understand material form — that is possible.

It is a somewhat lengthy passage for anyone who is unfamiliar with these texts, and I passed over some of it for the purpose of brevity and because I think the point is well made regardless. A slightly different rendering of this passage can be read here.

The point I get from this particular passage speaks to me on the subject of my proclivity toward lust. This is a subject to which I imagine many men in today’s oversexed society can relate as it is nearly impossible to go out of your home without seeing pleasurable forms. In fact, it could be argued we aren’t really safe even there when you factor in all of the electronic media available at our fingertips. From sleek cars to barely-dressed women (or not at all), the distracting (and often unwholesome) visual elements bombard us incessantly.

As a practice of mindfulness, I have found it very useful that this small drop of wisdom has fallen into the cavernous depths of my memory. As pleasurable distractions arise in my eye-consciousness, especially as it pertains to women, I often can regain my focus by remembering the danger, and escape, as described above.

This is something that seems to get easier with time invested in practice, and I suggest anyone dealing with so easily a distracted mind to think on this, if they wish to tame it.

I share this in the hopes that it might be useful to others as it has been to me. I hope you are well today, and at peace, friends.

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2 comments

  1. Your blog is filled with wonderful information and your commentary is wise and thoughtful. I completely understand as a busy home-schooling father and husband you may not have time or interest but I want you to know I have included you in my list for The Sunshine Award so that others seeking joy and inspiration may find you as well. Namaste. Gina
    http://professionsforpeace.com/2012/05/26/the-sunshine-award/

    1. Thank you very much, friend. I assure you, I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and will pass it on in kind.

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