The triad of gratification, danger, and escape is one of the Buddha’s most concise and simple teachings for investigating everyday lived experience. This formula can be applied to every single aspect of our experience. Many Buddhist scholars point out that this teaching contains the earliest roots of what we have come to know as the four noble truths, the basic framework for all Buddhist traditions.
What is interesting about this simple teaching is that the Buddha came to this realization before his awakening. He discusses this triad on four separate occasions, relating them to the aggregates, feelings (vedana), the four elements and the six sense doors.
The sheer simplicity of this teaching provides a framework for understanding human experience, particularly for those of us living in the digital complexity of the modern world. This is not a realization given from high diction, or a pedestal of great wisdom and knowledge. Nor does it seek to bewilder us with metaphysics such as teachings on non-self, emptiness, rebirth and karma. Instead, it is easily understood and readily available to any of us, at any point in our process.
Let’s take a look (translated by Dave Smith):
“Monks, before my awakening while I was still a Bodhisattva, not yet fully awake, it occurred to me: ‘What is the gratification, what is the danger, what is the escape of the world?’
Then, Monks, it occurred to me: ‘The pleasure and joy that arise in dependence on the world: this is the gratification of the world. That the world is impermanent, unreliable and subject to change: this is the danger the world. The overcoming and abandonment of grasping and attachment for the world: this is the escape from the world.
So long monks, as I did not directly know, as they really are, the gratification of the world, the danger of the world, and the escape from the world, for so long I did not claim to have fully awakened in this world with all of its inhabitants.
But. When I did directly know all of this, then I did claim to have a peerless awakening in this world with all of its inhabitants. Knowledge and vision arose in me, ‘unshakable is the liberation of my mind’.”
This is a rare passage where the Buddha’’ focus is on something positive, first – unlike the four noble truths where suffering tops the list, giving Buddhism its much undeserved grim outlook on life.
Focusing on gratification first is important, because it brings to mind all the pleasant aspects we find in the material world, in which modernity provides a wide and magnificent buffet. This reality pulls us toward attachment, driven by our psychobiological instinct. If we stay asleep to the power that material things have upon us, we will be unable to escape from its unrelenting grip.
What is the danger of the world? Here we see the second noble truth discussed under a different light. Craving, grasping and attachment aren’t wrong or bad, they are just dangerous. They simply don’t provide the satisfaction that they promise. So, we need to be careful.
So, what is the escape from the world? This is not a repression or avoidance of the world. Not at all. This is what my good friend and teaching colleague Eve Ekman calls Genuine Happiness in her Cultivating Emotional Balance work (CEB).
Generally speaking there are two types of happiness or well-being that we can experience: hedonic and genuine. Hedonic happiness is stimulus-driven pleasure(world) that is derived from what we get from the world. Most importantly, hedonic happiness comes especially when our basic needs are met.
Happiness researchers have discovered that after our basic needs are met, our sense of well-being has very little to do with what we acquire from the world (danger).
Genuine happiness is the distinct experience of fulfillment and flourishing based upon the quality of being that we bring into the world, rather than the pleasure that comes from getting what we can from the world. In other words, genuine happiness is based upon how we are and not what we get (escape).
This is the core aim of dharma practice. How do we develop a middle way between worldly hedonic happiness and inner cultivation? How do we participate in all the joy in this world? And know its gratification, its danger and its escape.