the right understanding of “sense restraint” in the Buddha’s teaching

Suppose, monks, a man catches six different animals, with different territories and different feeding grounds – a snake, a crocodile, a jackal, a bird, a dog, a monkey, and ties each with a strong rope. Then he ties all the ropes together and lets them go. Then those six animals each pulls in the direction of its own feeding ground – the snake pulling to go to an anthill, the crocodile pulling to enter the water, the bird pulling to go to the sky, the dog pulling to go to a town, the jackal pulling to go to the graveyard, the monkey pulling to go to the forest. 

Then finally when they are all worn out, they go in the direction of whichever is the strongest. 

In the same way, monks, when a monk has not developed mindfulness at the six senses, the eye pulls towards agreeable sights and pushes away from disagreeable sights; the ear pulls towards agreeable sounds and pushes away from disagreeable sounds; the nose pulls towards agreeable odours and pushes away from disagreeable odours, the tongue pulls towards agreeable flavours and pushes away from disagreeable flavours, the body pulls towards agreeable sensations and pushes away from disagreeable sensations; the mind pulls towards agreeable ideas and pushes away from disagreeable memories. 

This is when there is no sense restraint. 

And what is sense restraint? …

Suppose, bhikkhus, a man catches all six different animals as before, tying them all together with rope, but now instead of letting them go, he ties them all strongly to a strong post or pillar. Then the animals would all still pull in the direction of their own feeding grounds, but when they become tired and worn out, they would sit down next to the post or pillar, sitting down or lying down there. 

So too, monks, when a monk has developed and brought to completion mindfulness at the six senses, the eye does not pull towards agreeable sights nor does it push away from disagreeable sights; the ear does not pull towards agreeable sounds, nor does it push away from disagreeable sounds; the nose does not pull towards agreeable smells nor does it push away from disagreeable smells, the tongue does not pull towards agreeable flavours, nor does it push away from disagreeable flavours, the body does not pull towards agreeable sensations nor does it push away form disagreeable sensations, the mind does not pull towards agreeable ideas nor does it push away from disagreeable ideas. 

This is sense restraint. 

The strong post or pillar, monks, this is an image to represent mindfulness at the six senses. Therefore, monks, you should train yourselves day and night in mindfulness at the six senses, making it your refuge, making it your  base, stabilising it, developing it, and perfecting it. 
SN 35.247

I hope we can all agree that when you are pulled everywhere in all directions by six hungry animals, you have no happiness and no peace.

This is what it is like being without any sense-restraint, which is what we know as “normal” – When practically everything that touches your senses is a thing that you either love and want, want more of, or hate and want to get rid of, and you know nothing else than this running towards what is loved and running from what is hated – then there is no peace of mind.

We can realise that it is suffering when we have a disagreeable object – when something makes us angry, or something frightens us, or when we have to do something we don’t want to do. A disagreeable object is actually defined by what the mind does with it, not by the thing itself. It’s disagreeable when the mind reacts with the desire to get rid of it. It’s agreeable if the mind reacts by wanting to keep it.

 Being pulled constantly between these two extremes, is never peaceful. But we need to be able to see it for both sides, not just one. If we work on the principal of “whatever I like I keep, whatever I like I don’t keep” we will never get any understanding of what mindfulness is or what sense restraint is. 

How does the mind behave when it meets something agreeable – an idea of eating ice-cream arising in the mind, for example? Or seeing a new video pop up in youtube from your favourite channel, or hearing a faint sound that might be your favourite song – or anything that touches any of the six senses? Can we observe what happens in our mind at that moment?

We will see that even when the mind is happy with something agreeable, it is pulled towards that thing. It is not stable and not calm, and so there can be no true happiness: no calm, no concentration, no peacefulness. One of the hungry animals is having its way for the time being, but we can’t yet say that this is a situation of peace between the animals or restfulness for them. 

What is sense restraint, then?

What is the opposite of this situation? We are searching to find true happiness, calm and peace for the sake of having a mind that can be concentrated, instead of a mind that is mercilessly pulled in all directions by the six ever-hungry animals that are our six senses.  

The Buddha tells us in the above sutta, that the opposite of running for sense-desires is right “sense restraint”, led by “mindfulness”. But who can tell us what these things mean?

Which mindfulness is “right mindfulness” of all the many methods and explanations we can hear about? And what is really meant by “restraint”? 

The first general misunderstanding about these things arises when people think that “restraint” is the same as “control” – basically meaning “not giving in to the desire.” According to this idea, the mind, based on whatever touches it at the six senses, will still run in all directions, still pulling in all directions, but you do not allow yourself to act on these desires or emotions, standing your ground and holding on while the six animals continue to pull. 

Now, in regard to this, first thing that should be said is that although this form of restraint is highly inadequate, as we will see, yet it is still better than nothing. There are wrong actions that should be avoided at all costs – killing, stealing, committing adultery –  and in this, even if there is restraint only through fear of God or fear of police instead of through true inner morality, this is still much better than the alternative of committing these wrong actions. Even if you are so angry with someone that you are at the stage of planning your murder of the person, yet you are able to restrain yourself enough to be able to refrain from carrying out the act – this is better than having no restraint at all and ending up with the blood of someone else on your hands. 

A basic level of self-control and self-discipline is certainly necessary, then; if you do not even have the ability to restrain yourself in the face of temptations and desires, how can you go deeper? If you cannot practice basic morality due to a lack of basic self-discipline, it is impossible for the mind to become concentrated enough to develop right mindfulness and sense-restraint. So the importance of the ordinary and basic form of self-control shouldn’t be overlooked. 

That said, this is not what we are talking about here. It is something that is already practiced at least to some extent by everyone with a conscience or a religion – but we wish to understand what is the “sense-restraint” that the Buddha is teaching, with the story of the six hungry animals, and how can we begin to apply it.  

Apart from the fact that this kind of control over one’s physical actions only lasts as long as you can stay in control, and it can easily be broken (to give just one example, a person who is usually very mild-tempered and controlled will suddenly pull out their gun and start shooting when they think their child is in danger,) there is a more subtle but important point: we can see by ourselves that the mind is still suffering under this kind of control; the problem is far from being solved.

For the sake of a banal example, let’s say we have a craving for chocolate, but we decide not to eat any, for whatever reason we might have that we wish to not give into the craving. Yet when we do this, as long as the desire is still there yet we are not following it, as long as the mind is still pulling towards chocolate but we don’t go for chocolate, in the mind there is struggle, fighting, discomfort and un-ease. There can be no contentment, no peace and no concentration. How can we solve this? 

We need to find a third way, a third option, because following the craving for chocolate will not solve anything either – there will be momentary happiness as the mind gets hold of the agreeable object, enjoying, wanting more, being continually pulled – again without any true happiness or concentration. 

To do this, we need to see that both in getting the object of desire and not getting it involve suffering. Suffering first – now what is the cause of suffering here? We are all born and live thinking that we suffer because of “not getting what I want”. But if we can watch and see that both getting the desire and not getting it are suffering, then we can understand that this is not the truth. The real problem is the “I want”. Here is the basic truth of the Buddha’s teaching that we who practice supposedly ‘’know’’ in theory: in everything, in every moment, the suffering is caused by wanting, by desire.

Suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering and the path to end suffering are all present right here, right in the moment when the mind pulls towards the agreeable object. Letting go of the cause, the end of suffering arises here: the true contentment arises in the mind. 1

Thus, proper sense-restraint should lead directly to contentedness, for the opposite of desiring something that can be touched by the senses is simply to be content whether with or without them.

This is what is meant when the Buddha says that a monk should be “content with little” – not that he should have few possessions, but that he should have few desires, few attachments. 

If what we think of as “restraint” leads to struggle as soon as we come into contact with the object of desire, until at some point we change the topic and the desire dissipates by itself – then it is not right sense restraint, for the mind should be content in order to be concentrated, not busy struggling to keep hold on six hungry animals. 

What is, then, the “mindfulness” that is represented by the strong post in the story about the six hungry animals? 

It is not “you” with your willpower holding onto them by force, but rather right mindfulness that stops them from being able to pull anywhere. Let’s try to begin to see with another example, this time not with a desire for something agreeable, but a desire to get rid of something disagreeable – let’s say you have an itch. 

What do you want to do with an itch? Scratch it of course – get rid of the itch, which is a disagreeable sensation that you don’t like to have.  If you do not scratch it – or if it’s in an awkward place in your back that you cannot reach – then it’s uncomfortable, even painful, the mind is not happy – it’s suffering. Then what is the cause of the suffering in that moment? Is it the sensation, the itch? Are you suffering because of the sensation itself, how things are? No – the itchy sensation simply is as it is, neutral, neither agreeable nor disagreeable. Does the body feel pain or itch? No, it is the mind that takes hold of the sensation and makes it into something painful and disagreeable that is hated, that I want to get rid of. Again, the desire for it to be different is the problem, the element of suffering. Not the sensation as it is. 

Most of the time- or actually practically 100% of the time – we don’t even notice this, we don’t even see what is going on; there is an itch and the hand goes to scratch it automatically, we don’t even realise why we do that, we don’t see what makes the hand move. Even if we think we are paying a lot of attention and are very “mindful” – for example our “mindfulness method” involves putting all attention on the soles of our feet as we walk – but as soon as there is an itch we will scratch automatically, without noticing, seeing nothing of what our mind was doing at that moment or how the mind gives the order to the hand to move. 

If we can at least realise that we don’t know and that we are not aware when this happens, then we can ask, why not? Is it not “our own” head, “our own” hand? And what kind of awareness, where should we pay attention, such that it would allow us to know and be aware of these things, to put a gap, a little gap like a sheet of paper, between becoming conscious of an itch, and the hand moving to scratch it? What causes the hand to move and scratch?

It’s this that is called right attention, right sati – that can serve as the strong post or stake to which one ties the six hungry animals. This attention and discipline has to be there the mind gets hold of an itchy sensation felt on the body, to take our present example, otherwise we will just automatically, unknowingly scratch. It has to be there when flavours come in contact with the tongue, not to allow the mind to be pulled one way or another by it. At the most subtle level, it has to be there when an idea meets the mind, not to allow the mind to play with an agreeable or interesting subject, nor to allow the mind to get irritated about a disagreeable subject.

It’s important to realise that this is a practice, not something to be done only rarely or once in a while; and it requires the support of a strong base of morality and understanding. It is not easy. We should also see that these examples which are physical and related purely to the body are much easier to deal with than other emotional troubles that arise, such as a loved one dying, the theft of a dear belonging, or hearing a criticism or reproach from somebody you respect and admire. Mostly we only focus on the physical kind of restraint, while it is the mental one that is both most important and most difficult.

To say one truly has ‘’sense restraint’’ means that we are able to apply the same discipline to every situation. We should be able to catch our mind before anger arises as a reaction to how we are spoken to. This is true “sense-restraint.” We must make a guard over all the doors to the mind, a watchman of whatever comes in. 

In everything there is something neutral – sounds heard through the ear, sights seen through the eye, an idea arising in the mind – but which the mind grabs and makes into “disagreeable” turning to hate or love, wanting to keep it or wanting rid of it. In the situation when our loved one has died, we might want so badly to see them again and get them back, but wanting it to be different doesn’t change the situation – they are still dead and still it is impossible to see them again. Suffering doesn’t change it, desiring doesn’t change it. We cannot follow this desire and get back the thing we lost. So how can we solve it? If we could always get the thing we wanted, there would be no use for the Buddha’s teaching. 

  1. Since we have given an example to do with eating food, we should probably also mention that being “content with little” does not mean to go and become anorexic and not eat. When your car needs fuel, you need to go to fill up the tank, and in the same way your body needs fuel for energy, you need to give it the fuel it needs, but with the same attitude as filling up the tank of gas in the car; not out of greed. This is also why the word “renunciation” is often wrongly assumed to mean that one has to renounce objects of attachment, such as giving up chocolate entirely if my favourite food is chocolate.  What is needed is to remove the attachment, remove the element of desire. We should still look for what the body and mind needs to work well and be healthy, whether in terms of food, shelter, medicine or clothing – but not out of attachment to the body or acting automatically based on desire.

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