Purifying the mind
Well-makers direct the water;
Fletchers bend the arrow;
carpenters bend a log of wood;
Good people fashion themselves. (Dhammapāda 145)
Our actions, for harm or benefit, arise first in the mind, as thoughts with certain intentionality behind them. For most of us, as we attempt to refrain from evil and accomplish good, the mind is often contrary and unsupportive, agitated and rebellious; it has another agenda. Following the precepts and practicing generosity is something we need to struggle with. Occasionally, however, we may experience the enormous joy of mind and body coming into full alignment as our most virtuous intentions flow effortlessly into actions harmless and of great benefit. This is a moment purity of mind. There are those noble ones among us whose experience of life is like this all of the time. The mind for them has become an instrument of virtue, of kindness and compassion, wisdom and strength. They have become adepts in virtue through the practice of purifying the mind, and so walk the earth with unbounded good-will, equanimity and wisdom, selfless, beyond delusional views, with an unobscured vision of what is of harm and what is of benefit. They are, by the way, also among the happiest of us.
Purifying the mind begins with the practices of refraining from evil and practicing good, but also to a significant degree takes on a life of its own and in the end floods the practices of refraining from evil and practicing good with pure intentions.
The rationale of purifying the mind.
All that we are is the result of thought,
Thought is its master, it is produced by thought.
If one speaks or acts,
With corrupted thought,
Then pain follows,
As the wheel follows the foot of the ox.
All that we are is the result of thought,
Thought is its master, it is produced by thought.
If one speaks or acts,
With pure thought,
Then happiness follows,
Like a shadow that never leaves. (Dhammapāda 1-2)
The practice of purifying the mind belongs to virtue ethics. It sees ethics as a quality of mind, not specifically of physical action and its consequences for benefit or harm. We have seen that refraining from all evil and accomplishing good focus on the latter. Purifying the mind places the emphasis of ethics on the development of the kind of mind that naturally seeks benefit action and eschews harm.
Training the mind toward virtue might, at first, seem like a hopeless task. Most of us have a lot of activity rattling and buzzing around between our ears, and it is not clear how it might be brought into any reasonable order much less under control:
“Hubba hubba.” “That jerk!” “Out of my way!” “It’s his own fault.” “Oh boy! Beer!!” “Aha!” “There, there now; let me get you a paper towel.” “If I slide my sunglasses up my forehead I’ll look really cool!” “Good Morning, God!” “Arrrrgh.” “Yaaawn.” “What th…, huh?” “I’m gonna get even!” “Good God: Morning!” “Yikes!” “Yakity yakity yak.” “Relaaaaaax.” “Tomorrow … is another day!” “Let’s be logical about this.” “Mine, all mine! Haha.” “No more … Mr. Nice Guy!”
How do we sort through this, much less point it in the general direction of virtue? Exactly what is a pure thought as opposed to a corrupted thought anyway? Can we actually get rid of one and keep the other so that happiness will follow like a shadow instead of pain like a wheel? The Buddha reports that he had began with such questions early on:
Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, it occurred to me, ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes’. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will and thoughts of non-cruelty. (MN 19)
The first set he deemed wholesome or skillful (kusala) and the second unwholesome or unskillful (akusala). Thoughts that are either skillful or unskillful have the potential for driving our choices about how to act, that is, they are volitional or intentional. For instance, among the thoughts identified as unskillful are restlessness, agitation, conceit, jealousy, guilt, pride, cynicism, greed, miserliness, thoughts of revenge, spite, envy, grumpiness, ill-will, anger, hatred, rage, sorrow, fear, bias, delusion, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, torpor, complacency, affection, and lust. Among those identified as skillful are generosity, renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, patience, intelligence, discernment, shame, rectitude, mindfulness, concentration, equanimity, pliancy, buoyancy, conviction, open-mindedness, composure, proficiency and gladness for the good fortune of others.
What criteria did the Buddha employ to create this dichotomy? Unless we understand this, we will never thoroughly understand the role of skill and non-skill in our own mind, we will continue to be driven by forces we do not understand, and we will never find satisfaction in our life. The Buddha discovered that several criteria coincide remarkably in these designations.
There are these three roots of what is unskillful. Which three? Greed as a root of what is unskillful, hatred as a root of what is unskillful, delusion as a root of what is unskillful. These are the three roots of what is unskillful. (Itivuttaka 3.1)
The roots of the skillful are the opposites: non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion, also known as renunciation, kindness and wisdom.
Greed (lobha) is the desire, longing, attachment or lust for sensual pleasures, for reputation or fame, for wealth, for power, for comfort, for security and so on. I would prefer to translate this as the more general “neediness,” but “greed” has become standard in English. Greed causes anxiety and restlessness, initially from not having what we desire, then later, if we have acquired what we desire, from knowing we will lose it, or from simply wanting more.
Hatred (dosa) is the aversion, dislike, dread or fear of pain, of discomfort, of enemies and so on. It includes thoughts of anger, revenge, envy or jealousy (these two also involve greed), resentment, guilt and self-hatred, disdain, judgmental attitudes. “Aversion” is probably better for “dosa,” though “hatred” has become standard. Hatred immediately manifests as anxiety and restlessness, in short, suffering, because it entails dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Often it arises when our desires are thwarted or threatened.
Delusion (moha) is found in erroneous opinions or justifications, misperceptions, ignorance and denial. Many of our delusions may be widely held beliefs in a given society, or even across cultures, for instance, that material abundance produces happiness, that unconditionally evil people walk among us or that one race or class is superior to others. These lead to endemically misguided decisions and actions. Others are often pervasive across cultures, manifesting particularly in the sense that certain things are unchanging, fixed or reliable, and that there is fun, happiness and beauty where in fact there is decay and suffering. The greatest delusion for the Buddhist is that there is an abiding self, a “me,” that in some way remains fixed in spite of all the changes that happen all around it, that is also the owner and controller of this body and mind. For the Buddha, delusion is the most dangerous of the three unwholesome roots.
But there is a taint worse than all taints,– delusion is the greatest taint. O mendicants! throw off that taint, and become taintless! (Dhammapāda 243)
The root of delusion is also the basis of the other two roots, in fact the delusional sense of self is the source of it all and the basis of our resistance to ethical conduct. In the absence of the capacity to take them personally, greed and hatred do not arise.
This relation of delusion to greed and hatred is also reciprocal. The Buddha observed:
Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbāna. (AN 3.71)
Here we see that the arising of any of these is tied up with misperception, that is, they distort reality for those under their influence. They also cause personal suffering and are a diversion from the Buddhist path to awakening. The second of the Four Noble Truths (e.g., SN 56.11), that craving is the origin of suffering, should also be mentioned here, since greed is a kind of craving for the presence of something, and hatred for its absence.
Let’s consider anger, as an example, one of the great fountainheads of karmic intentions. Perceived through angry eyes the object of our anger, even a close friend or family member, easily appears as a jerk or a schmuck if not a demon, but when the anger subsides will remorph back into its normal more amicable form. The level of dukkha (suffering) associated with the arising of even slight anger is astonishing and great anger plunges us into a hell-like state. We are all aware that habitual or sustained anger can even affect our physical health in a profound way. As anger becomes more ingrained through habit, it will become increasingly difficult to bring the mind into states of calm and insight.
The Buddha also discovered that an unwholesome/unskillful thought …
… leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna. (MN 19)
This reiterates the suffering, misperception of reality and lack of progress on the Buddhist path associated with the unwholesome, and adds to it the inflicting of harm on others. Harm naturally results when greed, hatred or delusion forms the volitional basis of our karmic acts. Consider how often violence or dangerous behaviors, such as road rage, arises from anger, or how our anger leads to fear in others. On the other hand, skillful thoughts bring proportionate success to the practices of refraining from all evil and accomplishing good. It is easy to see why this might be so: We misperceive reality under the influence of greed or hatred, our actions are like driving with a frosty windshield. We may spot our ignoble goals but don’t know who we might be running over as we head toward them. As we have seen, it is difficult enough to track consequences of actions into the future even when we see the present reasonably clearly.
To summarize the Buddha’s observations, unwholesome/unskillful thoughts are recognizable in terms of the following handy checklist:
- They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
- When they give rise to actions, those actions usually cause some degree of harm.
- They give rise to misperception.
- They cause personal suffering.
- They subvert development along the Path.
Let me take lust as another example of an unwholesome mental factor. Like anger, lust is a major fountainhead of human intentionality. Although we tend to think of lust in our culture as a positive factor in our lives (unlike anger), in terms of the five factors listed above, we discover otherwise. Lust is grounded in greed, that is, in neediness. Lust also tends toward harm. For instance, stealing is often a result of lust, including stealing someone’s man or someone’s woman. Often it is even consciously self-destructive: people sacrifice physical health out of lust for food, drink, cigarettes and so on, and sacrifice mental health out of lust for electronic entertainment, drugs and so on. People are often propelled by lust from one unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationship to another. We lose wisdom under the spell of lust, sometimes sacrificing careers and marriages as well as health in the hopes that “love will find a way.” When the object of lust is not attained or is lost, depression, and even suicide or murder can result. Lust is always at least a bit painful, sometimes so painful we can hardly stand it. It often flares up into a fever of longing. Relief is possible if the object of lust is realized, but otherwise lust may lead to bitter disappointment, itself a kind of aversion or hatred. Finally, lust diverts from the path to awakening: It agitates the mind, obstructing stillness and other skillful factors. It easily spins out other unskillful thoughts such as anger, jealousy, and greed for various instruments needed for satisfying lust such as those sporty clothes or that sexy sports car. It easily becomes ingrained as unskillful habit patterns, that is, addictions.
This is quite an indictment against lust, one that the Buddha makes repeatedly. Why, then, do we tend to think of lust as something positive? I think it is because we confuse lust with pleasure. Lust seeks pleasure, and pleasure often evokes lust for more of the same, or for an escalation of pleasure. Together they often intimately bound in a cycle of mutual conditionality, and are thereby identified with one another. However, the two are quite distinct: lust is painful, pleasure is, uh, pleasurable. Addiction is when this cycle spins out of control. The failure to properly understand the cycle of lust and pleasure, and to recognize which is which, has miswritten many lives, and even the histories of nations. The Buddha warns us,
There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; Even in heavenly pleasures he finds no satisfaction, the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires. (Dhammapāda 186-7)
Notice that the last two characteristics of the unwholesome, that is, 4. suffering and 5. retarded development, together tell us that virtue is its own reward. As long as we act with unskillful intentions we suffer. Moreover, since we also fail to make progress, in fact regress, on the path we sacrifice the future happiness enjoyed by those of advanced spiritual attainment, for when we repeatedly weaken the habit patterns that trigger skillful thoughts and strengthen the habit patterns that trigger unskillful thoughts, we ensure greater suffering in the future as well. In short, when we act with unskillful intentions, we suffer twice. This consistent with the law of karma tells us.
Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. (AN 5.57)
While we make the world through our actions, we also make ourselves. While we perform virtuous actions, we become virtuous people. While we perform beastly actions we become cads. We therefore expect merit-making/good karma to adhere to the intentions, wholesome or unwholesome, behind our actions rather than to the form of the physical actions themselves.
Notice that the Buddha’s psychological observations anticipate many cases the law of karma, probably the bulk of cases. Recall that naïve understandings often see it as a rather mysterious cosmic accounting mechanism. Additional examples of karmic results from the early texts also have applicable explanations: Our harmful actions tend to incite retribution to our detriment from those affected, because people are by nature vengeful. People tend not to like those of angry or greedy disposition. Habitual anger and other unwholesome mental factors are demonstrably associated with physical health problems. Even physical beauty adheres to the virtuous; kind people often exhibit a kind of angelic glow where hateful people often seem perpetually under a cloud. Remaining mysterious examples from the discourses, such as offering a monk alms in one life and then receiving great riches for oneself in the next, are fairly rare in the earliest texts and could well be entirely allegorical. Moreover, the very common misconception that everything that happens to us for good or evil – like winning the lottery or being run over by a truck – must have some kind of karmic basis in past actions, is explicitly denied by the Buddha (SN 36.21).
We might suspect that if we continue practicing generosity and precepts for many many years, the mind will eventually become perfectly pure when greed, hatred and delusion have completely disappeared as motivational factors in our actions. It is not quite so simple: There are points at which we will get stuck, largely related to recalcitrant delusional conceptualizations that need to be broken down. There are also certain shortcuts we can take, largely through practices that focus directly on specific dispositions or specialized mental skills. An example is the development of loving-kindness through meditation techniques. Purifying the mind therefore includes the practice of mental acts alongside physical (bodily or verbal) acts. Mental practices have direct value only with respect to purifying the mind, that is, they do not directly entail external harm or benefit in the world.
The practice of purifying the mind.
I hope none of this discussion evokes images of goose-stepping thought police in the minds of readers. In fact, if we have entered into the practices of refraining from all evil and accomplishing good, we have already slipped into the practice of purifying the mind. This is because we are forced to confront volitional impulses wherever they tend toward harm or away from benefit. Every time we override a contrary mental factor in order to adhere to a precept, we are deconditioning an unskillful habit pattern and thereby purifying the mind. Every time kindness or generosity inspires our good deeds, we are strengthening our tendency in that direction, and thereby purifying the mind. Even mixed motives, such as responding to peer or authority pressure, or just a sense of obligation rather than kindness, have a way of eventually giving way to purer motives.
For instance, there is a precept not to kill living beings. Maybe we do not initially, for the life of us, understand why the life of an ugly twiddle bug matters one snippit, but a twiddle bug is a living being, and we want to be good Buddhists, so we don’t kill twiddle bugs. After a few months we discover something that was not there before: a warm heart with regard to tweedle bugs—they have become our little friends—and not just toward twiddle bugs but toward other beings as well, even certain people that we had once put into the same category with twiddle bugs. Our mind has become purer. Try it! Let’s put away the twiddle swatter and the Twiddle-Enhanced® Raid and see if we don’t soften right up.
A number of precepts actually have little to do with refraining from evil, except insofar as they support purification of the mind. A precept against idle chatter, for instance, is rather victimless, especially given that cases in which it spills into disparagement of others are are covered by other precepts concerning speech. Nonetheless if we refrain from idle chatter over many months we discover a quieter mind, less prone to proliferation of spurious thought and therefore less prone to delusion. We have through observing this precept purified the mind. Similarly, practices of enactment of accomplishing good, such as making food offerings to an inert and definitely not hungry Buddha statue, commonly serves to develop generosity and reverence, and are found in virtually any later Buddhist tradition. Beyond these are a range of mental trainings that do not so much take advantage of the intimate relationship of intention and physical action as a means to purifying the mind. Most of these are meditation practices, and all involve mental karma, deeds of mind, that provide purity as karmic results. For instance, mettaa meditation focuses on developing kindness as a personal virtue without having, for the time being, to do an actual bodily or verbal act of kindness for anyone.
The motivations for undertaking the practice of purifying the mind per se are quite a bit different than for precepts and generosity, because the focus shifts away from doing the right thing on a case-by-case basis, to the personal development of a quality of character. In taking purifying the mind to its logical conclusion, we remake ourselves, metamorphing into someone who reliably and readily does the right thing without hindrance, someone whom our friends, relatives, even mother will someday hardly recognize and that we ourselves cannot foresee. Generally a personal crisis or unshakable state of despair is necessary to give this practice depth, for this will show us that the extend of the human dilemma dwarfs the meaningless distraction of sensual pursuits. In fully purifying the mind we commit ourselves to the renunciation of what common people consider indispensable to human happiness, even our sense of self, in order to realize what is most valuable and meaningful.
Let’s see where we are in terms of the Buddha’s teaching of the gradual training. Recall that the gradual training looks like this:
- Generosity, the practice of accomplishing good.
- Precepts, the practice of refraining from all evil.
- The heavens, which refers to the law of karma, most commonly conceived as an assurance of rebirth in a heavenly realm.
- The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions.
- The rewards of renunciation.
When, from the understanding and pursuit of the foregoing, the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the Buddha recommends that the following should be taken up:
- The Four Noble Truths, including the Noble Eightfold Path.
The first two steps constitute accomplishing good and refraining from all evil, respectively. The remainder is concerned with purifying the mind per se. The law of karma is the basis of purifying the mind, the recognition of the shallowness of the life centered in selfish pursuits and the importance of giving up this way of being in this life provide the motivations for undertaking the wholehearted practice of purifying the mind. Renunciation is always present where we make progress on the path. Once we are committed to purifying the mind, we are ready to go off the deep end of practice, represented by the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. I will skim over the bare essentials of the Noble Eightfold Path here.
The Noble Eightfold Path itself largely reiterates and reinforces the ethics the Buddhist practice begins with. Three of the eight folds constitute the virtue group:
(3) Right Speech,
(4) Right Action,
(5) Right Livelihood.
These cover refraining from evil and accomplishing good, which apply to verbal and bodily actions. Right Livelihood avoids employment that compromises the other two practices. The ethics group is bookended by factors that also relate directly to ethics:
(2) Right Resolve,
(6) Right Effort.
Right Resolve is to uphold the values of renunciation, kindness and harmlessness, primary intentions underlying purity of mind, accomplishing good and refraining from all evil, respectively, intentions that should already have been developed early in the gradual training. Right Effort is the process specifically of cultivating wholesome intentions and discouraging unwholesome, the process right at the heart of purification of mind. This leaves three folds:
(1) Right View,
(7) Right Mindfulness,
(8) Right Concentration.
These function in support of the other five (ethical) factors in the Noble Eighfold Path. Right View lays out the law of karma, the relationship of suffering to craving and the matrix of interrelated mental factors that produce karmic actions. Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are aspects of mental cultivation that extend the power of introspective examination, necessary for deep purification of the mind.
In summary, both the gradual training and the Noble Eightfold Path are organized around ethics; ethics is intrinsic to the logic of either. This raises an important question: Is there some part of Buddhism that is not about ethics? What I have in mind is awakening, Nirvana, the complete extinguishing of worldly concerns, final liberation, the ending of karma itself. I will discuss practice beyond ethics (inadequately) in our fifth and final episode in this series.