Joy and asceticism

I’m back from just over a week in Italy, which times well with all the reading I’ve been doing about ultra-processed food. Naturally, I ate pizza, pasta, and pastries to my heart’s content without putting on any weight and always feeling nothing but delight.

An ultra-processed frozen pizza back home not only has more calories, it doesn’t leave me full. An hour later, I’m scrounging around the pantry for something else. Not the case with a pizza margarita in Naples.

In the Anglo world, weight loss is something of an ascetic feat. And you should to be miserable while doing it. In Italy and France, people aren’t the least bit deprived, and in fact I’d argue they derive far more joy from food than an American eating a frozen pizza or trying to lose weight.

In my meditation tradition, the founder teacher often referred to the broader practice of Buddhism as the path of joy and happiness. One doesn’t adopt austerities or turn away from worldly things through force of will or some sort of love for misery. Instead you develop a much deeper joy and happiness through practicing the path and then the coarser pleasures of the world simply hold no appeal. It’s not asceticism though. It’s a path of greater happiness.

In the same vein, I couldn’t imagine wanting a Big Mac or a bunch of packaged junk food in Italy. It’s just as easy and cheap to get deeply satisfying food.

Quoting from the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta of the Pali Canon:

Even though a noble disciple has clearly seen, as it is, with proper wisdom, how sensual pleasures provide little gratification, much suffering (appassādā kāmā bahudukkhā) and much despair, and how great is the danger in them, he is (still) not un-enticed by sensual pleasure. As long as he does not attain (mental) joy and (bodily) pleasure other than sensual pleasures (aññatreva kāmehi), other than unwholesome states, or to something more peaceful than that, he may still be enticed by sensual pleasures (anāvaṭṭī kāmesu). (M I 91)

And then from Keren Arbel’s ‌The Liberative Role of Jhānic Joy (Pīti) and Pleasure (Sukha) in the Early Buddhist Path to Awakening:

Recalling the question with which we concluded the last section — do jhānic pīti and sukha [joy and happiness] have a certain purpose on the path to liberation additional to the contribution of clear seeing? — we find that the Cūḷadukkhakkhandha Sutta (and the Māgandiya Sutta) provide an answer: jhānic pīti and sukha, the result of clear seeing, also have a significant liberative role in the path of purification (as sammā samādhi). By experiencing jhānic pīti and sukha, the practitioner can let go of ‘coarse’ attachments, such as the desire for sensual and divine pleasures. (24 / 202)