The triad of gratification, danger, and escape is one of the Buddha’s most incisive contemplations for investigating everyday experience. In his book on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, Anālayo says that “each of these insights can be considered a particular aspect of [the Buddha’s] comprehensive realization” of the dhamma. (p. 106n57). The Buddha applies the formula quite literally to all aspects of experience.
On rare occasions in the Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha discusses the time prior to his enlightenment. When he does, it is to outline various methods of thought that he found particularly useful or transformative. He discusses this triad on four separate occasions, more than any other realization. (SN 14.31 on the four elements, 22.26 on the five aggregates, 35.13 on the six internal sense bases, 36.24 on feeling).
It is particularly telling that this realization happened before the Bodhisatta attained enlightenment, and that it was critical in that attainment. That means it may provide a powerful scheme of framing experience, particularly for those of us of a more worldly bent. This is not a realization given from on high, from a position of great wisdom and knowledge, as for example non-self, emptiness, and dependent origination often appear to be. Instead it is a reframing that is easily understood and readily available to any of us.
For the most literally down-to-earth example, let us take the elements:
Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisatta, not yet perfectly enlightened, it occurred to me: ‘What is the gratification, what is the danger, what is the escape in the case of the earth [water, heat, air] element?’
Then, bhikkhus, it occurred to me: ‘The pleasure and joy that arise in dependence on the earth element: this is the gratification in the earth element. That the earth element is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change: this is the danger in the earth element. The removal and abandonment of desire and lust for the earth element: this is the escape from the earth element.’ (SN 14.31).
And so for the other three elements.
Let’s set aside the fact that this contemplation is based upon a prescientific understanding of elementary matter. This is a topic I dealt with before in “Meditating on the Mud Machine”; it is also the subject of a book by Bodhipaksa. The point is that this is a contemplation directed towards physical matter, be it solid, liquid, or gaseous, and be it heated or cooled. The concepts are only the roughest approximations to the way a chemist or biologist (much less a physicist) would approach them, however they will do for daily contemplation, or can be substituted for more accurate concepts if so desired.
The point, however, is to reflect on these three aspects of matter: the way it gratifies us, the way it causes us pain, and the way we can escape its harmful effects. Focusing on gratification first is important, since it brings to mind all the positive aspects we find in the material world around us, the ways it pulls us toward attachment. If we are unaware of the power that material things have upon us, we will be unprepared to escape from it.
It takes but a moment’s thought to bring to mind the many ways we find pleasure and joy in physical objects. We enjoy artwork of all kinds: photographs, paintings, sculptures, musical vibrations of the air, plays and movies, food and drink. While some of this pleasure may be intellectual, taking us perhaps into contemplations of the aggregates or sense bases, much of it is enjoyment of physicality in its various forms, both gross and subtle. We enjoy other bodies of course, we enjoy the feel of skin on skin, the feel of fabric, the feel of sand beneath our toes. We find pleasure in the warm sun and cool water of the beach. We enjoy our homes, the four walls, the roof, furniture, even the smell and sound. We enjoy mountains, rivers, forests, deserts; sunsets and sunrises; urban centers, museums, parks; boat rides and carriage rides, trains and cars, it used to be we even enjoyed airplanes. Warm air and cool breeze, cave or mountaintop, stars at night or clouds during the day, there is a great deal of pleasure to be found in the physical world around us.
Much of what passes for secular spirituality nowadays is a kind of earnest reverence for this world: seeing beauty in its interconnectedness, its dependent origination. Informing ourselves about the sciences provides intellectual joy, often aroused when confronted by the beauty and majesty of nature. Richard Feynman notes that scientific understanding “only adds” to one’s appreciation of the beauty of a flower.
Both Feynman and Carl Sagan identified this pleasure as an experience of “awe”. Sagan says, “I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky.” (p. 2). Awe is, of course, more accurately a feeling of fear and respect rather than beauty, so one question which we might pause to consider is why under certain circumstances “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder” (New Oxford American) would seem pleasurable. Presumably this is due to the fact that we are not in any danger from stars or flowers, or at least seem not to be, so fear is overshadowed by the more comfortable sense of wonder.
If we are comfortable, or even if we are not, the contemplation of danger can seem a downer. Why focus on the bad, the unpleasant, when we can instead turn our eyes to what pleases?
Perhaps the two most powerful contemplations of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and change in the Buddhist canon involve contemplations of the internal organs of the body, and contemplations of death and decay. Tricycle published a recent feature essay on this topic by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. Introducing the piece, James Shaheen, editor and publisher of the magazine, provided an interesting editorial (“It Takes Guts“) about one recent experience he’d had with such contemplations:
It didn’t go over well. During the question-and-answer period that followed, howls of protest arose in an otherwise subdued retreat setting. Wouldn’t this practice only deepen the self-reproach so many already feel in a culture that feeds us abundant images of bikini-clad perfection? And what of our own Hellenistic heritage and its celebration of sublime corporeal beauty? A longtime meditator turned to me and whispered, “I think we can safely skip this practice.” To him, as to others, it appeared at best anachronistic, at worst psychologically detrimental.
Of the many practices available to Buddhists, perhaps few are as difficult and challenging as this one. Like the Tibetan charnel-ground meditation, it forces into consciousness the body’s fragility and unavoidable fate. Because it doesn’t resonate with contemporary sensibilities, the practice can elicit deep resistance—even disgust—in the modern student, appearing to be little more than a morbid obsession. The mother of one young Buddhist I know once admonished her, “You’re too young to be thinking about death!” (Winter, 2014).
Both of these contemplations appear in the famous Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, arguably the earliest and most famous treatise on meditation. They are part of contemplation of the body. Are they simply a kind of iron-age anachronism now, along with the practice of seeing past lives? Is it really possible to be “too young to be thinking about death”?
I don’t think so.
Indeed, I would argue these are two of the most important and powerful meditations in the entire practice, and two that may be in the most danger of being left behind in our rush towards corporatized pleasure and happiness.
There are, we might say, healthy and unhealthy forms of happiness, skillful and unskillful forms of pleasure. The unskillful relies only on a partial inventory of the world’s appearances: it picks out “all things bright and beautiful” for contemplation, leaving aside “all things dull and ugly”.
This is unskillful precisely because we cannot depend on the bright and beautiful. They are impermanent and subject to change, hence unsatisfactory. To base our meditation solely upon them is not to develop true equanimity.
In Ṭhānissaro’s wise and incisive essay “Under Your Skin” he lays out the essence and aim of these body contemplations. By contemplating our internal organs and those of others we do not aim toward hatred of the body. Nor do we aim toward hatred by contemplating the disintegration of the body after death. Instead these contemplations may be seen as illustrating the dangers inherent in the body: its impermanence and unsatisfactoriness.
Impermanence and unsatisfactoriness are not dangers in themselves. They become so in the presence of ignorance, and in particular in the presence of attachment. When we are attached to our bodies and to the bodies of others, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Because the beauty to which we become attached cannot last; it is only part of the picture. And while in the legend the Buddha’s father apparently believed his son was too young to be thinking about death, none among us really is so. Our hospitals are full of children facing death, either themselves or through loved ones. The lucky among us may be able to put such thoughts aside until adulthood, but there can be no guarantees.
Although attachment to bodies may be among our most fundamental, there is danger in attachment of any kind. Illustrating the vivid example of sensual pleasures, in the Mahādukkhakhanda Sutta the Buddha asks,
And what, bhikkhus, is the danger in the case of sensual pleasures? Here, bhikkhus, on account of the craft by which a clansman makes a living … he has to face cold, he has to face heat, he is injured by contact with gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and creeping things; he risks death by hunger and thirst. …
If no property comes to the clansman while he works and strives and makes an effort thus, he sorrows, grieves, and laments, he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught, crying: ‘My work is in vain, my effort is fruitless!’ …
If property comes to the clansman while he works and strives and makes an effort thus, he experiences pain and grief in protecting it: ‘How shall neither kings nor thieves make off with my property, nor fire burn it, nor water sweep it away, nor hateful heirs make off with it?’ …
Again, with sensual pleasures as the cause … kings quarrel with kings, nobles with nobles, brahmins with brahmins, householders with householders; mother quarrels with son, son with mother, father with son, son with father; brother quarrels with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend. …
… men take swords and shields and buckle on bows and quivers, and they charge into battle massed in double array with arrows and spears flying and swords flashing …
… men break into houses, plunder wealth, commit burglary, ambush highways, seduce others’ wives, and when they are caught, kings have many different kinds of torture inflicted upon them. … Now this too is a danger in the case of sensual pleasures, a mass of suffering here and now, having sensual pleasures as its cause … (Majjhima Nikāya 13.8-14).
Nowadays our minds may turn to thoughts of home insurance and proper policing, not to say the decades of relative peace in the West. But the dangers remain. How many of us toil in dangerous or unfulfilling work in order to indulge in sensual pleasures? How many strive in vain for pleasures they cannot attain? In a winner-take-all society, one in which it is all too easy to become accustomed to whatever pleasure surrounds us, there are always higher rungs on the ladder. No matter how much we make, there is always something that stands tantalizingly out of reach. If we cannot take vacations, the chance to fly somewhere may seem particularly alluring. If we can fly coach, there is business class that stands above us with its luxuries. If we regularly fly business, we think of those lucky few who avoid airport lines by flying their own planes. If we fly a small plane, there are those who fly larger ones. There are yachts, and estates, and staff. There is almost literally no end to the sensual pleasures we can grasp for. No matter in what station we find ourselves, we can feel our efforts are in vain, that what little we have gained may yet fall through our grasp.
As meditation teachings become more corporatized, there is the danger that these kinds of contemplations may be left behind as antithetical to the relentless striving that progress requires. Framing them as “morbid” or “downers” serves to avert our eyes from what is really unpleasant in favor of subtle reinforcement of attachment to work and its pleasant results. For while as we have seen the Buddha had no problem with “righteous wealth righteously gained” (Aṅguttara Nikāya 5.41), he nevertheless saw a direct link between striving for material pleasures and suffering.
These are some of the dangers involved in attachment to material things. There is also of course attachment to aspects of our mind, our memory, our personality, all of which will eventually leave us.
It is not pleasant to contemplate such things, but that is the point: the world is not satisfactory. To gain wisdom, one must realize its true nature. This involves seeing its bad as well as its good side, to understand the dangers in becoming attached to deluded notions of permanence, pleasure, and happiness.
What is the escape from this “mass of suffering”? “The removal and abandonment of desire and lust … : this is the escape …” (SN 14.31).
“Removal and abandonment of desire” occurs at nibbāna. The point is to cultivate a mind of non-attachment, this is why it is so important to contemplate danger as a kind of antidote to gratification.
The same process can be used to remove and abandon hatred. After all, getting angry and lashing out has its benefits, its gratification. For a time we feel better about ourselves, we feel victorious or at least avenged or vindicated. We may be treated more deferentially by others. Indeed, we may find ourselves rulers of new territory. But anger has its dangers as well. As the Buddha said to his son Rāhula,
Rāhula, when you wish to do an action with the body, you should reflect upon that same bodily action thus: ‘Would this action that I wish to do with the body lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome bodily action with painful consequences, with painful results?’ (MN 61.9).
This can be seen as a kind of contemplation of the danger involved in anger, causing affliction to oneself and others. Nowadays we might even term it the contemplation of “blowback”.
By becoming aware of the dangers involved in anger, as well as those involved in desire, we work to cultivate equanimity and non-attachment to the world. Based upon equanimity and non-attachment, grasping and hatred fade. With their fading, danger fades as well. Without grasping at beauty and permanence, we are less threatened by the sickness and eventual decay of our body and those of others. Without grasping at sensual pleasures, we are less attracted by the so-called “hedonic treadmill”, or the ladder of fame and fortune. Setting aside hatred, we can view decay and unpleasantness with equanimity: it is just another part of reality.
Thereby we are more able to be effective in dealing with unpleasantness and pain in ways that will actually be effective, rather than in ways that simply work to discharge our own internal anger, fear, and disgust.
The Buddha’s contemplation of the triad of gratification, danger, and escape appears to have been one of the most, if not the single most important contemplation in getting him to nibbāna. It is a contemplation that comes up time and again when he discusses his period as a bodhisatta. And when discussing it he typically finishes by emphasizing,
So long, bhikkhus, as I did not directly know as they really are the gratification in the world as gratification, the danger as danger, and the escape from it as the escape, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world … (AN 3.104)
The triad can also be seen as a subtle reformulation of three of the Four Noble Truths: “gratification” is a version of the Second Noble Truth of craving, “danger” is a version of the First Noble Truth of unsatisfactoriness, and “escape” is a version of the Third Noble Truth of cessation. If we take the Buddha to have formulated some notion of Four Noble Truths at his enlightenment (SN 56.11), it may very well be that he did so after long reflection upon the triad of gratification, danger, and escape. The only thing that would have required later development would have been the path itself, which constitutes the Fourth Noble Truth.
It is also interesting that this early contemplation, arguably so centrally important to the Buddha’s own path, does not involve the notion of non-self (anatta). Danger is always defined as something’s being “impermanent, suffering, and subject to change”, not as in the Three Marks of Existence, “impermanence, suffering, and non-self”. Further, the third aspect of danger, something’s being “subject to change”, appears as little more than a reformulation of the first: it’s being “impermanent”. One might say that being “subject to change” adds a causal element to impermanence, and hence in an odd way it presages the later notion of emptiness, at least as defined by Sharon Salzberg. (See: “Impermanence and Emptiness”).
At any rate, we saw earlier in “A World of Impermanence” that in the early tradition impermanence (anicca) seems to play a more central dhammic role than non-self (anatta). Our understanding of the pedagogical role played by “gratification, danger, and escape” appears to provide more evidence that the earliest tradition, in which the Buddha wasn’t yet Buddha, was one based more upon awareness of impermanence, change, and suffering than upon non-self, per se.
One might perhaps understand the picture something like this: the Bodhisatta’s awareness of the dangers involved in gratification led him to an ever fuller practice of non-attachment through the abandonment of desire and hatred for the world. The final step in this process would have involved the Bodhisatta’s abandonment of desire and hatred for the self, abandonment of conceit and desire for rebirth or nonexistence.
Then, accompanied by followers, the (now-) Buddha formulated a structured path to practice, and the triad of gratification, danger, and escape became the Four Noble Truths of unsatisfactoriness, craving, cessation, and the path.
This is only speculation, but perhaps not entirely idle.
Bhikkhu Anālayo: Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (Windhorse, 2003).
Bhikkhu Bodhi: Nikāyas (Wisdom).
Bodhipaksa: Living as a River (Sounds True, 2010).
Carl Sagan: The Varieties of Scientific Experience (Penguin, 2006).