Know thyself

Ven. Analayo recently said: “If I knock myself for being angry each time anger arises, eventually I won’t see anger arising.” When we chastise ourselves for having defilements (which we all do), then we are training ourselves to ignore our defilements so we won’t be (self-)punished. It’s a self-defeating strategy; only if we acknowledge our shortcomings can we slowly wear them away.

From a column by David Brooks (12 April 2015, NY Times):
The Humility Shift – We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

David Brooks is not Buddhist but he has articulated a central principle of the Buddha’s teachings: when we speak and act in ways that harm ourselves and others, we create distress in our own hearts. We make inner peace impossible, through shame, regret or other negative feelings.

I’m reminded of the story of the father who gave each of his three sons a chicken and told them to go away and kill the chicken in a place where no one can see. The first two sons killed the chickens. The third son said he couldn’t kill the chicken because wherever he went, the chicken could see. Whenever we commit unwholesome acts, we ourselves know that they are unwholesome, and we feel bad.

Do we know what quality in us is our biggest obstacle to freedom? Can we discover it through observing our interactions with others? If we do know it, what is our relationship to it? Do we feel helpless to mitigate its effects? Or have we developed strategies to acknowledge and correct for it? Have we enlisted the help of trusted friends in working on our central weakness?

On the other side, do we know what our strengths are? What are the qualities that our friends and families most appreciate about us? Are we reliable? Gentle? Truthful? Generous? These qualities live alongside our weaknesses, and may help us to overcome our flaws.

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“Ought” vs. actual experience

A comment on a previous post:
Our dukkha (stress or suffering) comes from three major sources. (1) We want something we don’t have, or want some form of …

This is perhaps one of the hardest things for me to overcome, though I try! My concepts of what “ought” to be feel to me so logical, reasonable, and excellent, that I forget that they’re just more attachments, liable to cause me suffering.

The commenter quoted above points out that we normally see the world through a filter of “how things should be”. This feels natural, automatic and normal for most of us. However, we can interrupt ourselves when we hear the thought “it shouldn’t be like that.” No one is listening to this internal monologue; it only serves to keep us tied in a knot of resistance to our actual experience.

Part of the worldview many of us grew up with includes the idea that there is someone (usually a God) in charge of all that happens on earth. Some power, which uncannily thinks in human terms, is deciding who lives, who dies, who gets rewarded and who gets punished. In the Buddha’s teachings, there is no such power, only an unimaginably large universe of causes and results. One could think of the laws of physics as an analogy. No one needs to manage the workings of gravity and momentum; they just respond to stimuli according to their own logic, some of which we understand and some of which we don’t.

In our world, sometimes it rains and sometimes the sun shines, according to the laws of nature, at no one’s command. Sometimes people (including ourselves) are kind and sometimes unkind, sometimes thoughtful and sometimes careless, sometimes selfish and sometimes generous. Material things are made, used or not, and after a time they fall apart. Everyone who is born must die; some suffer a lot and some only a little. These are not personal judgments, just the facts of life on earth. Can we accept, with humility, how little we have control over?

We could replace the usual inner “should” commentary with asking ourselves some questions: “What’s going on here?”, “Is this mind-state wholesome or unwholesome?”. If it’s unwholesome, then “How might I refocus or redirect my attention in a more wholesome way?”; if it’s wholesome, then “How might I sustain this wholesome mind-state?” If we stop labelling ourselves and our experience as good or bad, better-than or worse-than someone/something else, then energy is freed up to observe with a broader lens, without ourselves and our judgments at the center.

Mindful investigation takes place mid-stream in our experience. If we can step back from the feeling that we are the all-seeing, all-knowing center, then we can start to observe and experience the world as a flow of interdependent events (including our effects on others) rather than as a universe of things to be claimed or rejected.

I recognize that this is a challenging concept – it was invisible to me through many years of practice. But some of you will appreciate that our assumptions about the world and our place in it may obstruct our understanding, and that these unhelpful assumptions can be abandoned when we’re ready.

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Changing our world

In the article by Bhikkhu Bodhi quoted in the previous post (, introspection, personal change, and self-control are suggested as necessary to making spiritual progress. This may be an unwelcome message – we can’t think, buy or exercise our way to freedom from suffering. We can’t change the world in any significant way, but we can change “our world” dramatically.

The work of purification must be undertaken in the same place where the defilements arise, in the mind itself, and the main method the Dhamma offers for purifying the mind is meditation. Meditation, in the Buddhist training, is neither a quest for self-effusive ecstasies nor a technique of home-applied psychotherapy, but a carefully devised method of mental development — theoretically precise and practically efficient — for attaining inner purity and spiritual freedom. The principal tools of Buddhist meditation are the core wholesome mental factors of energy, mindfulness, concentration, and understanding. -Bhikkhu Bodhi

Meditation practice is the most powerful tool we have for uprooting the defilements in our minds, the causes of all of our suffering. But meditation practice requires a purified mind, i.e., a mind untroubled by the worries and guilt that our own bad behavior or unhelpful reactions can precipitate. So, the ethical trainings of body and mind (the five precepts) are a necessary foundation for a meditation practice. That’s what the oldest Buddhist scriptures say, and the message can be born out in our own experience. It doesn’t matter how long we sit on a cushion if we are daily telling lies or being cruel to others. Both ethical and mental trainings are needed for progress.

What is meditation, in this context? It starts with patience – being willing to sit and do nothing until the mind naturally settles into an non-agitated state. The energy, mindfulness and concentration (with whatever wisdom we have in support) are all mental states. We sit down with our bodies, but our minds need to learn how to sit down, too.

There are many different ways to meditate, and which approach will work for whom is hard (or impossible) to predict. One could start with a mantra meditation (Transcendental Meditation) without a lot of instruction, but most of the techniques drawn from the Buddha’s teachings are best begun with a live teacher. For those who are interested in establishing or renewing a sitting practice but don’t have access to a compatible teacher, I recommend Gil Fronsdal’s published introduction to meditation:

One reason I focus on the ethical trainings so much is that we can do them on our own, wherever we are, anytime. We can reflect, increase awareness of our own actions and words, and make adjustments in a wholesome direction. This is never wasted effort and can lead us onward towards a lasting form of inner peace.

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Wearing away the defilements

From an essay titled “Purification of Mind” by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
The defilements, the Buddha declares, lie at the bottom of all human suffering…
The achievement of this preparatory purification of mind [by meditation] begins with the challenge of self-understanding. To eliminate defilements we must first learn to know them, to detect them at work infiltrating and dominating our everyday thoughts and lives.

(full article here:

We are accustomed to thinking of life and experience in terms of problems and solutions. We identify a problem, solve it, and move on to the next one. It’s a sometimes useful, but misleading way to see things.

Our most important job in this life (I think) is to understand and gradually wear away the imperfections/defilements in our own minds that cause our dukkha/dissastisfaction. This process may be so gradual as to be imperceptible. And yet, if we understand where our troubles come from (the specific clinging in the moment), we can address them at the source, persistently and patiently.

From SN 3.155, translation revised by Bhikkhu Analayo:
When a carpenter or a carpenter’s apprentice looks at the handle of his adze, he sees the impressions of his fingers and thumb, but he does not know: ‘So much of the adze handle has been worn away today, so much yesterday, so much earlier.’ But when it has worn away, the knowledge occurs to him that it has worn away.

So too when…one dwells devoted to cultivation, even though no such knowledge occurs in one: ‘So much of the influxes [defilements] has been worn away today, so much yesterday, so much earlier’, yet when they are worn away, the knowledge occurs to one that they have been worn away.

Over time, we can perceive whether we are becoming calmer and wiser or more agitated, angry or impulsive; more compassionate and generous or less. Whatever we give our attention to will be strengthened.

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What’s the problem?

Our dukkha (stress or suffering) comes from three major sources. (1) We want something we don’t have, or want some form of satisfaction that is not forthcoming; (2) We don’t want something that we do have, e.g., an illness, a problematic relationship at work or at home, a chronic irritation caused by ordinary life; and (3) We don’t know what’s going on – we’re confused or grossly misunderstand our situation.

For most of us, one of these three themes dominates, although we all experience all three in some degree. It can be helpful in sorting out what we want to work on, how we want to start reducing our everyday stress, if we know what our basic position is. For some people it’s obvious whether they spend more time wanting or avoiding or in a fog of indecision; for others, it’s not clear.

Which one dominates is not as important as recognizing all three as they act in our lives. These are the unwholesome roots in each of us, and they express themselves in the form of defilements, or more politely, imperfections. The defilements are our own compulsions that create the sense of things not being right.

How can we see these defilements more clearly? It’s a tricky business and we are adept at fooling ourselves. I’ll share one example that has power for me. Years ago, I was walking along a sidewalk and a group of young women approached from the other direction. There were three or four of them and they spread out across the width of the path. Their manner made it clear that they were not going to make way for me, and I got upset. I even asked them, “What did you want me to do?” and one of the young women replied, “You just stand still and we’ll go around you.” This was one personal example of many situations in which people don’t make way for others.

Only recently was I able to see that it is my own idea that people should make space for each other, that people should consider the needs and feelings of others when they act, that was creating my problem. The fact is: people are sometimes considerate and sometimes not. That’s just how we humans are.

I have to work to remember this truth if I feel myself getting irritated when I witness an inconsiderate act. I’ve made progress and in many situations I can just back away from a potential conflict, or at least limit my reaction to a thought.

There is no end to this problem, but the solution is in our own hearts, it is in remembering that things are just like this. This is the normal dukkha of being human.

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It’s up to us

In the last post, Ven. Pannavaddho said it was our defilements that cloud our wisdom, that prevent us from seeing the causes of our discontent clearly.

The defilements (kilesas in Pali) are the roots of unwholesome action within each of us: greed, hatred and delusion in all their various (sometimes disguised) forms. When these roots are completely eliminated, that is one definition of nibbana (Pali) or nirvana (Sanskrit). The process of recognizing and countering our defilements forms a central part of our spiritual work in the world. The causes of our discontent are not to be found anywhere other than within our own hearts, and no one other than we ourselves have the power to uproot them.

The Buddha’s teachings (I have recently learned) are more directive and exemplary than prescriptive and comprehensive; they point us in the right direction for practice, but they don’t describe every possible situation. In a particular moment in time, it’s up to us to figure out which way lies freedom, and which way lies more suffering.

From SN 56.31, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the simsapa forest?”

“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the simsapa forest are more numerous.”

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

“And what have I taught? ‘This is stress [dukkha]… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress': This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them.

Our duty with respect to dukkha (the first noble truth) is to recognize, acknowledge and comprehend it. Can we discover and see clearly the causes of our discontent? Today, in this body and mind? This is where real change can begin.

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What actions?

From Uncommon Wisdom (teachings of Ajaan Pannavaddho), chapter called Purpose:
…We start off with the fundamental basis of Buddhism, the fact that we all experience dukkha or discontent which we are trying to cure. We attempt to cure our discontent by using cause-and-effect methods; in other words, we initiate those causes that we believe will lead to the relief of our suffering. In doing so, we search for causes, or actions, that result in less dukkha and greater contentment. Dukkha can be anything from small irritations all the way up to intense suffering. This is fundamentally what we are trying to remedy. It makes no difference whether we are Buddhists or not, we are all driven by this quest to find happiness.

If we’re wise and we understand the situation correctly, then we might actually choose the right course of action and manage to get the happiness we are seeking. But because our minds are clouded by defilements, we tend to make the wrong decisions. Due to thinking and acting wrongly, we pile up more and more suffering. Failing to understand the correct way to get rid of suffering, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. This is the situation that we are in.

We can get into a tangle when we want to get rid of a particular instance of dukkha; we may think if we can only acquire something desirable or get away from something undesirable, all will be well. Sometimes it is not clear to us what the best course of action is because our vision is clouded by our (often subconscious) desires and aversions. But the Buddha has given us the five precepts to help simplify the situation. If we learn and remember the precepts and commit to using them as our guide to behavior, even in the dark we can sense the direction of wholesome action.

In traditional formulation:
I undertake the training rule to abstain from harming life.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not offered.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from sensual/sexual misconduct.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

In shorthand:
Preserve and protect life.
Counter greed by not taking more than we need, or things others may have a claim on.
Do no harm with sexual energy.
Be truthful and careful in speech.
Keep our heads as clear as possible.

How do we apply the precepts in daily life? The truth in a particular moment may be that we are unsure, that we don’t know what to do right now. In that case, if possible, do nothing; we can wait for our perception of the situation and our intentions to become more clear. Sometimes we assume that there’s an imperative to act, but the opposite may be true; we may be facing an imperative to wait until we correctly see the source of our discontent and what we might do to counter it.

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