The Kāma Sutta

A Discourse on Sensual Pleasures

Introduction

The Buddhist Kāma Sutta is poles apart from the infamous Kāma Sutra, an ancient Hindu text on sexuality. Buddhists are not generally puritanical about sexuality, but the Buddhist texts advise treating it with great caution, as one treats a fire in one’s own house. The third precept to abstain from sexual misconduct (kāmesu micchācārā verāmaṇi sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi). 

In particular, kāma refers to sexual relations, but the word covers sensual pleasures of all types. The Commentary makes it clear that not only sexual pleasures are referred to here. Though such coarse pleasures are greatly desired by ordinary mortals, the most refined sensual and aesthetic pleasures suffer from the same defects.

Translation

“One who desires sensual pleasures, having succeeded in his aims,
Will surely be delighted, having obtained what a mortal desires.

“However, one who desires those sensual pleasures,
If those pleasures come to ruin,¹ is oppressed like someone pierced by an arrow.

“One who avoids sensual pleasures, like one avoids treading on a snake’s head,
Such a one overcomes attachment to this world.

“Fields, clothing, or gold, cattle and horses, slaves and workers,
Women, relatives, various sensual pleasures, a man who covets these;

“Being feeble will be overpowered, oppressed by troubles,
Suffering will follow him, like water penetrates a damaged ship.

“Therefore a person should always be mindful, avoiding sensual pleasures,
Abandoning them one will cross the flood,² as a bailed-out boat reaches the far shore.”

Notes:

1. In the Commentarial introduction, a brahmin farmer was anticipating a good harvest. The Buddha, knowing that it would be destroyed, asked the brahmin how his crop was doing. Venerable Sāriputta and Moggallāna also spoke politely to the brahmin. The brahmin therefore promised to offer alms after the sale of his crop. A great storm came just before the brahmin could harvest his crop, and he was greatly disappointed. The Buddha therefore taught him this discourse on the disadvantages of sensual pleasures.

2. A flood (ogha) is often used as a simile for defilements. The brahmin farmer’s crop was ruined by a great flood, and the happiness of human beings is destroyed by the flood of sensuality (kāmogha). Having abandoned sensual desires, and bailed-out one’s “boat,” a mindful person can cross the river that is in full flood and reach the far shore (a simile for nibbāna).