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Finding Joy in the Practice of Insight

By | 5/9/2022

From the viewpoint of cultivating liberating insight, a central distinction to be made is that between avoiding the types of joy that lead to attachment while at the same time recognizing that there are commendable forms of joy. These are in particular the wholesome types of joy that come from deepening insight and learning to let go of clinging and attachments. Finding joy in such letting go can provide an important inspiration for dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly to the continuity of practice and for this reason should not be underestimated. Bhikkhu Anālayo Analayo

Attachment and Joy

The need to distinguish between different types of joy (as well as of sadness and equanimity) comes up for discussion in the Saḷāyatanavibhaṅga-sutta (MN 137) in the context of several perspectives on sense experience. The chief distinction here is between types of joy that are related to attachment and those that are related to its absence. The Saḷāyatanavibhaṅga-sutta expresses this contrast with the terms “based on the household” (gehasita) and “based on renunciation” (nekkhammasita). The terminology employed here should not be taken too literally as being about lay life in contrast to monastic life.

In fact, the Saḷāyatanavibhaṅga-sutta has parallels in Chinese and Tibetan which express the same distinction in terms of contrasting “attachment” to its absence. The point is simply to introduce an ethical distinction in relation to experiences that have the same pleasant affective tone. The terminological difference that emerges in this way is one of the examples why it can be helpful to take into account parallels to a Pāli discourse. These are products of the same oral transmission of the teachings given by the Buddha and his disciples as the Pāli discourses, and for this reason can be consulted to broaden our perspectives on a particular teaching. To help the reader contextualize the presentation in the Saḷāyatanavibhaṅga-sutta, I provide a translation of the relevant exposition in its Madhyama-āgama parallel, which presents the case of visual experience:[1]

Having seen a form with the eye, joy arises. One should know this to be of two types; it could depend on attachment or it could depend on dispassion.

What is joy based on attachment? The eye comes to know forms that are conducive to joy and the mind reflects on them, craves for those forms, and experiences happiness conjoined with desire. One desires to obtain those [forms] which one has not obtained, and on having recollected those which one has already obtained, joy arises. Joy of this type is reckoned joy based on attachment.

What is joy based on dispassion? One understands that forms are impermanent, changing, [of a nature to] disappear, fade away, cease, and subside; that all forms, both formerly and in the present, are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and of a nature to cease. Having recollected this, joy arises. Joy of this type is reckoned joy based on dispassion.

The Madhyama-āgama version continues by applying the same exposition to the other senses of the ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. A minor difference in the presentation is that the Pāli parallel first works through all six senses for one type of joy and only then turns to the other type of joy in relation to the same six senses.

From a practical perspective, the passage can be taken to highlight a crucial point. Chasing after pleasant experiences through the senses merely leads to increasing attachment. The key to counter the tendency toward succumbing to attachment is simply directing mindfulness to the impermanent nature of vedanā. If impermanence is clearly seen, the path of dispassion opens up and the danger of attachment diminishes. Hence, in terms of meditation practice, this particular teaching mainly calls for contemplating the impermanent nature of all vedanās.

Notably, implementing this mode of practice does not require avoiding all types of joy. It is not the case that dispassion means only having bland or even unpleasant experiences. Instead, staying free from attachment can in turn serve as a source of joy.

Commendable Joy

The indication that some types of joy are commendable, as demonstrated in the passage taken up above, can be explored further with the help of the Kīṭāgiri-sutta (MN 70) and its Madhyama-āgama parallel. The narrative setting of the discourse shows a group of monastics unwilling to follow the Buddha’s injunction to restrain their food intake by not eating at night. After rebuking them for their obstinate behavior, the Buddha explained that his instructions were based on his own knowledge and insight into the potential repercussions of pleasant vedanās. The relevant part in the Madhyama-āgama discourse proceeds as follows:[2]

If I had not known as it really is, had not seen, had not understood, had not grasped, had not rightly and completely realized that there can be pleasant vedanās that increase [bad and] unwholesome states and decrease wholesome states, it would not be proper for me to teach the abandoning of such pleasant vedanās.

If I had not known as it really is, had not seen, had not understood, had not grasped, had not rightly and completely realized that there can be pleasant vedanās that decrease bad and unwholesome states and increase wholesome states, it would not be proper for me to teach the cultivation of such pleasant vedanās.

Both versions apply the same explanation to unpleasant and neutral vedanās. This passage confirms the conclusion drawn above: the progress of insight is not just about avoiding all that is pleasant and giving oneself as hard a time as possible. Of course, some pleasures need to be left behind, in clear recognition of their potential to keep us in bondage. These are the pleasant vedanās that increase unwholesome states. But other pleasant vedanās instead increase wholesome states. These could include the joy of maintaining moral conduct, of sharing one’s possessions with others, of deepening concentration, and above all the joy of insight and letting go.

Keeping in mind that the crucial distinction is not between pleasure and pain, but between vedanās that foster what is wholesome and those that stimulate what is unwholesome, can serve as a guiding principle for conduct and practice. Adopting this guiding principle is a way of directly walking in the footsteps of the Buddha himself. It actualizes a key insight he developed during his own quest for awakening.[3]

During his quest for awakening, the Buddha-to-be had cultivated the higher two immaterial spheres, which are states of profound concentration that are characterized by neutral vedanās. Then he engaged in ascetic practices that involved self-inflicted pain. The inability of both approaches to lead him to liberation made him reflect and realize that there is no need to be afraid of happiness as such.[4] There are pleasant vedanās not related to sensuality that are wholesome and which for this reason can contribute to progress on the path to awakening.

On the night of his awakening, the Buddha’s decisive insight that the ethical dimension of a particular experience is more important than its affective tone found further corroboration in the three higher knowledges he attained successively: the recollection of his own past lives and witnessing the passing away and rearising of sentient beings enabled a direct witnessing of the repercussions of wholesome and unwholesome actions. Notably, the description of recollection of his own past lives explicitly mentions the pleasure and pain experienced in various past lives, thereby providing a direct relationship to the topic of vedanā. All of this then prepared the ground for the destruction of the unwholesome influxes (āsavā) in his mind, which was the third and decisive higher knowledge attained during the night of his awakening.

In sum, then, insight into the nature of vedanās and the overarching importance of their ethical quality—instead of their affective tone—can be seen as a crucial aspect in the Buddha’s own quest for liberation. This insight can also serve as a guiding principle for anyone wishing to progress to awakening. In this way, joy needs to be distinguished into unwholesome and wholesome types. Joy derived from sensual indulgence is unwholesome and an obstruction for progress on the path. Yet, this does not mean that joy must always be shunned. Instead, joy of a wholesome type, being the result of renunciation, of giving (dāna), and of liberating insight, is a crucial ingredient for progress on the path to liberation.


[1] MĀ 163 at T I 692c20, parallel to MN 137 at MN III 217,13 (translated by Ñāṇamoli 1995/2005: 1067) and Up 3069 at D 4094 ju 166a5 or P 5595 tu 191b8.

[2] MĀ 195 at T I 750c27, parallel to MN 70 at MN I 475,28 (translated by Ñāṇamoli 1995/2005: 579).

[3] See in more detail Anālayo 2017: 74–76.

[4] MN 36 at MN I 247,3 (translated by Ñāṇamoli 1995/2005: 340); on the parallels see Anālayo 2011: 242f.


CBETA Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association

D Derge edition

Madhyama-āgama (T 26)

MN Majjhima-nikāya

P Peking edition

T Taishō edition (CBETA)

Up Abhidharmakośopāyikā-ṭīkā


Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2011: A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya, Taipei: Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu 2017a A Meditator’s Life of the Buddha, Based on the Early Discourses, Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.

Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu 1995/2005: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, Bhikkhu Bodhi (ed.), Boston: Wisdom.

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