You do not have to study Buddha’s teachings for very long to understand that the very heart of his teachings centre around the mind. Sometimes the essence of his teachings is reduced to three points:
If you cannot help, at least do not harm them;
And calm your mind.
These three points form a graded sequence of steps that leads you from an external practice to the essential internal practice. If we want to reduce our suffering, we cannot do it just by knowledge and meditation alone. We need to live a responsible life by understanding that we do not live in a vacuum and our actions influence others, as their actions have an effect on us. We should look upon Buddha’s teachings as a bird. On one wing there is ethics, and on the other there is the calming of our mind. The bird cannot fly with just one wing and, likewise, we cannot reduce our suffering with only one part of the teachings.
This is what Buddha said to his monks in the Vatthupama Sutra regarding defilements of the mind:
Why is a simile of a soiled piece of cloth used in this discourse? It is because the cloth is naturally pure, so it is possible to remove the dirt by washing it, as it is not permanently stained by the dirt. The same can be said for our mind. The defilements have not permanently stained our mind; they have just temporarily polluted it. The defilements can be cleansed, but as with cleaning the cloth, it will take effort on our part. However, before we can start cleansing our minds we have to first understand that our minds are defiled, as Buddha stated in the Pabhassara Sutra:
Before I talk about what the defilements are I must point out that we are not trying to stop the defilements from arising; I believe this is not possible, or even desirable. We are also not trying to repress them either, as that again will not be desirable. What we are aiming at here is being aware of the defilements when they arise and having a strategy to deal with them. I will talk more on this later.
Depending on what book you are reading, defilements can range from three to one hundred and eight. The three defilements are known as the base defilements and are clinging desire, anger or aversion and unawareness—the three poisons. What I want to go through here are the ten defilements. These form the basis for all the other defilements.
Briefly, the ten are:
Clinging desire—holding on to sensual objects, thinking they are going to bring us permanent happiness.
Anger or aversion—getting thoughts of hatred towards others and discriminating against certain people and material things.
Unawareness—not understanding the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions.
Conceit—believing yourself to be better than others.
Wrong views—thinking things are permanent, there is a solid and lasting self, and believing whatever you do will not have any consequences.
Doubt—when something does not seem to agree with your experiences.
Torpor—inactivity resulting from lethargy and lack of vigour or energy.
Restlessness—when your mind is hopping about like a demented frog and cannot settle on anything.
Shamelessness—behaviour marked by a bold defiance of what is considered right and proper.
Recklessness—the trait of giving little thought to danger towards yourself or others.
The defilements arise in our mind and, if we want to reduce our suffering, we need to focus our work on the mind. As these unhelpful mental states run beneath the surface of our stream of consciousness, we have to exert sustained effort to be aware of them when they start to arise.
The process of becoming aware of the defilements starts with self-understanding, and we can do this in a daily reflection session. Before we can work on the defilements, we must first learn to know them, to notice them at work penetrating and influencing our day-to-day thoughts and lives. In today’s world we strive for instant results, but this is not possible with the defilements. It takes patience, time, and perseverance. We have to systematically understand each defilement, what the consequences of them are, and then work out a strategy where we can let them be without engaging with them. Luckily, there are antidotes for each of the defilements and I have listed some below, but it has to be noted that different things will work for different people. So, this is just a list of suggestions.
Clinging desire—see that everything is impermanent and so our happiness with the sense object is not going to last. If we love someone and we get attached to them, when they want to move on, we suffer. Just enjoy your time with the person while you can but understand that one day it will come to an end.
Anger or aversion—when we let anger and aversion arise they lead us into inappropriate speech and action. We must understand that in these states of mind nobody wins. It is better to walk away or not let yourself get involved in the situation.
Unawareness—we have to study and reflect so that we understand the concepts of impermanence, nonself and cause and conditions. It is no good just intellectually knowing these three key concepts; we must reflect on them, so they become a part of our lives.
Conceit—if we believe ourselves to be better than others, we are going to lack compassion as we will not care for what others think or feel. We are actually denying others their opinions because we believe our opinions are more valid. We will also not be making ourselves very popular as conceit is not a good trait to have. So, listen to others with an open mind and welcome their point of view. This way we will not become conceited.
Wrong views—First, if we see things as permanent we will suffer when they change. So, understand that all things are impermanent. Second, if we think we have a solid and permanent self, we will waste our time and money on pampering it and trying to reinforce this sense of self. This will make us suffer when we become old or sick. See that this body is just a vehicle to carry us through this life. It is made up of innumerable parts and so is impermanent. Whatever we experience in this world is not through a sold self, but through the five aggregates, which are form, feeling, conception, action and consciousness. Finally, we need to see that any action we take is going to have a consequence. This will steer us towards helpful actions and away from harmful ones.
Doubt—this can really eat at us if we do not resolve it satisfactorily. When doubt arises ask questions, reflect on it, look in books or on the Internet for answers, whatever is best for you; don’t just leave it, as it will grow and eventually become a real obstacle.
Torpor—when we allow this to take hold we become lazy and cannot be bothered with anything. If you start to feel like this, take a walk, splash cold water on your face, have a break. Again, it is for you to see what works best, but do not just follow the torpor or you will end up a couch potato.
Restlessness—usually we get restless when our minds are stuck in the past or drifting off to the future. It may be caused by stress or anxiety. The best thing to do is a breathing or body scan meditation. This will relax you and bring you back to the present.
Shamelessness—this behaviour shows that you really do not care for yourself. It could be that you have low self-confidence or have reached a low point in your life. If you leave this unchecked it could lead to an addiction, such as alcohol or drugs, and even may land you in prison. You need to look at the cause of these feelings of self-worth. You may need to seek professional help, such as a therapist.
Recklessness—when our thoughts are of a reckless nature, our actions will also be of the same nature. This is dangerous for you and those around you. As with the defilement above, you really need to find the root cause of this behaviour. Having compassion for others will help here, as you will be able to see that your actions may bring harm to them.
During a daily reflection practice, look at a situation where a defilement arose. See what caused the situation to arise. After a while you will begin to see patterns emerge. Certain defilements associate themselves with certain situations. Armed with this information, you will be able to apply the appropriate antidote. What we are aiming at is to be able to spot the defilements when they arise and deal with them. As I said before, we are not ever going to stop them, and we shouldn’t try to repress them. Just spot them and apply the antidote.
If we are not aware of the defilements, they will arise and we will unwittingly follow them. Remember what I have spoken about all the way through this series on the Mangala Sutra: first we think and then we act. Keeping this in mind is the key to reducing our suffering.
noble truth describes how life has suffering running through it and in the
second truth Buddha gave some of the reasons for this suffering. There is not
just one cause of our suffering, as there is not one cause of anything. Things
come into being through a series of causes and conditions, and that is the same
for our suffering. However, there are three main things that cause us emotional
and psychological suffering, namely, the three poisons. They are clinging
desire, anger and aversion and unawareness.
In the Dhammapada it states:
‘The one who protects his mind from clinging desire, anger and aversion and unawareness, is the one who enjoys real and lasting peace’.
Not all of
our desires cause us suffering; only the ones we cling to. We may have a desire
to help people, a desire to reduce our suffering or to improve ourselves. As
long as we are not clinging to these desires there is no problem.
on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is our clinging and grasping at the
things we desire. We wrongly believe that material things and people, such as
family, friends and loved ones, can make us permanently and truly happy.
However, if we take the time to investigate, we will find that these desires
eventually lead us into a feeling of discontentment, sadness and loss. Why is
that? It is because we have grown attached to the people we love or the things
we own. Again, there is not a problem with loving the people close to us; the
suffering starts once we get attached to them, believe they will be with us
forever and their thoughts and feelings for us will never change. This simply
isn’t the case.
test this theory out. Think of a time when someone not very close to you died.
How did you feel? I expect you expressed your condolences but didn’t have too
much sadness. Now think of a time when a member of your family, a friend or a
loved one died. How did you feel? I expect you were devastated and extremely
upset for a long time. So, what is the difference between these two deaths?
Attachment. You were not attached to the first person and so did not suffer a
lot when they died, but you were attached to the second person, and your
clinging attachment is what caused you so much suffering.
attached to our belongings and believe they make us happy. We think we can buy
happiness. The problem with that is our desires are never ending. Once we have
something new, we start wanting something else. We never quite manage to buy
the happiness we are so desperately seeking because there is no happiness
inherent in material things. We just project happiness onto an object and then
cling and grasp at this imaginary happiness, and we eventually suffer once the
object is stolen or stops working.
no problem in wanting things and trying to make our lives more comfortable; the
problem is clinging and grasping at these desires. So do not stop loving the
people close to you or stop wanting to improve your life believing Buddha told
us to do that—he didn’t.
clinging desires lead us to act in certain ways, such as being proud, jealous
and protective, and this in turn leads to our discontentment. This is because
our clinging desires lead us into action, which in turn leads us into
discontentment. It is a vicious cycle. Buddha said:
‘From desire action follows; from action discontentment follows; desire, action and discontentment are like a wheel rotating endlessly’.
this cycle, we have to see that clinging, grasping and getting attached to
people and material objects brings us suffering because things are compounded
and are subject to change. If we can truly embrace this point and apply it to
our daily lives, we will be able to reduce the suffering caused by this poison.
Buddha stated, ‘Human desires
are endless. It is like the thirst of a man who drinks saltwater: he gets no
satisfaction and his thirst is only increased.’ This is surely something we
should be reflecting on.
and Aversion – Aversion is the opposite to attachment and
anger leads to hatred, discrimination, aggression and a lack of compassion. None
of these are helpful. With desire we want to cling to objects, but with
aversion we do the exact opposite. We spend all our time and energy trying to
push the thing away we do not like. As with desire, we just need to let go, not
hold on to this aversion. Don’t engage with it, hold it or repress it – simply
acknowledge you have an aversion for it, understand that it is causing harm to
yourself and others and find a way of letting it go.
Buddha said this about anger:
‘This fury does so cloud the mind of man that he cannot discern this fearful inner danger’.
Some say that anger is
natural and should be expressed at all costs. This is because most people only
see two ways of dealing with anger, that is, express or repress. Both are
unhealthy. If you constantly express it, you will find that after some time it
will become a habit and you will react angrily all of the time. If you repress
it, you are just storing up trouble for the future. You may be able to keep it
down for some time, but eventually it will surface and may even come back more
violent and hurtful.
Anger is such a destructive
emotion because we engage with it and let it take control of us. So, the Buddha
had a different idea. He advised us to look at the anger and see where it comes
from. It is not to be dealt with but observed. If we do this, we will see that
it stems from our exaggerating the negative qualities of someone or projecting
negative qualities that are not actually there, on to someone or something.
Two of the best ways of
counteracting anger is patience and acceptance.
is something we should cultivate. The best advice is to try and walk away from
the situation that is making you angry. If you cannot do that, then you should
not react straight away, but should first try counting to ten and spend a
little time reflecting on the situation. This will give you the space to calm
down and see things more rationally. Of course, this is not a simple thing to
do when one is wrapped up in the moment, and this is where patience comes in.
The most hurtful things are said in the heat of the moment, so defuse that
moment with patience.
could try watching your breath for a moment, use your senses to engage with
what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch or you could try reciting the
word patience over and over again. All of these will give you a chance to calm
down and build patience.
There is no evil like anger, and no courageousness like patience.
is accepting that people are the same as we are. Everyone is struggling to find
their way in life. We strive for happiness, and so does everyone else. If we
think in this way, a feeling of warmth, empathy and compassion will arise in
us. If we are empathic or compassionate towards others, it is harder to get
angry at them. This, again, takes time to master but is something we are all
is a lack of understanding of the true nature of things, which leads us into
wrong views. Buddha stated:
‘Because of their unawareness, people are always thinking wrong thoughts and always losing the right viewpoint and, clinging to their egos, they take wrong actions. As a result, they become attached to a delusive existence’.
we are unaware of the true nature of the world, we start clinging to objects,
people and ourselves, which leads to wrong actions and causes us to grow
attached to our perception of reality.
is something we understand on an intellectual level, but it is not how we live
our lives. That is because we are unaware of the true implications of
born is impermanent and is bound to die.
Whatever is stored up is impermanent and is bound to run out.
Whatever comes together is impermanent and is bound to come apart.
Whatever is built is impermanent and is bound to collapse.
Whatever rises up is impermanent and is bound to fall down.
So also, friendship and enmity, fortune and sorrow, good and evil,
All the thoughts that run through your mind – everything is always changing.
(Taken from ‘Words of My Perfect Teacher’ by Patrul Rinpoche)
All compounded things are impermanent and if we
look closely, everything is compounded. So, everything is impermanent. This may
seem negative or depressing but actually it is a breath of fresh air. Let me
The definition of compounded is ‘something that
consists of two or more things combined together.’ As I have just stated, all
phenomena are compounded, and that includes you and me. Just think for a
moment, is there anything in this universe that isn’t compounded? As of yet we
haven’t found anything.
The point Buddha was making here is that anything
that is made up of a combination of other things will eventually fall apart. It
will come into being when the various causes and conditions are right, it will
exist for a certain amount of time, and then it will disintegrate – this is the
nature of all things, this is impermanence. It is an undeniable and inescapable
fact of life.
Impermanence isn’t a word we readily warm to, and
it would be much nicer for us to believe that everything is permanent. But this
simply isn’t true, and in order to stop our suffering, we need to acknowledge
this fact. The reason we do not like to hear about impermanence is because it
brings up visions of sickness, pain, disintegration and death. We get a
horrible sick feeling in our stomachs because we equate impermanence with loss
– loss of a loved one, loss of our friends or even loss of something as trivial
as our iPhone. So, it is vitally important for all of us to understand
Why is it important? What are the benefits of understanding it? It means we
will achieve freedom from fear, freedom from suffering and freedom from panic,
because when we know things are not going to last, we are free from any fear,
agony or pain of losing something or someone.
Our mistaken belief is that things come into
existence on their own, and last forever. This kind of mistaken belief causes
us to cling to worldly possessions, such as material objects, the search for
pleasure, recognition, honour and so on. It causes pride, attachment, aversion
and arrogance to grow within us because we truly believe things are here to
stay. We grow completely attached to the concerns of this life.
So, it’s a relief when we finally understand that
everything is impermanent, and we can’t do a thing to change that fact. We can
now let go and relax our grip on things – that’s a real breath of fresh air!
Impermanence is not only true for pleasurable things,
but for painful things as well. Maybe someone you care for has died or left
you, and you are sad and lonely. These emotions are also impermanent and so
will, after time, also change. All the things we have aversion towards will
only last a short time. Like the morning dew, it will all soon change and
Like the dew that remains
for a moment or two
On the tips of the grass and then melts with the dawn.
The pleasures we find in the course of our lives
last only an instant, they cannot endure.
(Taken from ‘Thirty-Seven Practices of All Buddha’s Sons’ by Thogme Zangpo)
So, the first noble truth stated that there is suffering flowing through our lives, and the second truth explains some of the causes. In the third truth Buddha explains that there is freedom from suffering.
This truth is called by
various names, such as nirvana, liberation, enlightenment and so on. It is
hotly debated these days. Some think that if you reach nirvana you will never
be born again, others think you will be reborn, but you can pick where. For
people who do not believe in rebirth, they see it as something we can achieve
in this lifetime. I have no idea who is right and who is wrong – it maybe they
are all wrong.
People think that nirvana is
like heaven, full of happiness, the opposite of this world. They image that
there, the sun shines brightly every day, only ‘good’ people are around, one
doesn’t have to work, there are no money worries, everybody is friendly, and
every moment is filled with happiness.
However, this is just a
projection of our dualistic minds, trying to fill heaven with all the things we
like best. But what about all the things other people like and we don’t? I
would want a heaven where no one eats meat, while others would want one where
they could eat a big fat juicy steak every day. Do we each get a heaven of our
own? I believe if people really gave some thought to their concept of heaven,
they would understand they were just changing one conditioned world for
another. That way, heaven, like this world, would be equally impermanent.
I am just going to give my
own thoughts here and you can decide for yourselves what you believe. I will
show you that there are two good bits of news in this third noble truth.
I feel that the best word to describe this third truth is awakening. We awaken from the sleep of unawareness. I do not see the process of awakening as some mystical or metaphysical thing.
Buddha said that awakening is the ‘highest happiness’, but he wasn’t talking about the mundane happiness we strive for in our everyday lives. He was talking about absolute freedom from unskillfulness, freedom from craving, attachment, desire, hatred and unawareness. All of this we can achieve in this lifetime by truly understanding the four noble truths and following the eightfold path. Once we start meditating on these teachings and turning them from knowledge to wisdom, we will start to change our actions of body, speech and mind.
This state of being awake can
be reached by anyone, whether they call themselves Buddhist or not, in this
very lifetime – you just have to put the effort and hard work in. That’s the
first bit of good news.
The second bit of good news
is we do not have to die to become awakened. It can be obtained during this
lifetime. Death is irrelevant to this process. People feel like this life is
full of discontentment and causes them nothing but suffering, and the only way
out is death. They feel at death they will be miraculously transported to a
better place. But the third truth is not talking about a place; it is the
cessation of the three poisons, namely, desire, anger and aversion and
unawareness. The Buddha defined it as ‘perfect peace’, or a state of mind that
is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states. We can find this
perfect peace in this body, on this planet and in this lifetime.
I honestly believe the third
truth isn’t talking about a metaphysical thing, it isn’t a place to go to and
we do not have to die to realise it. We just need to put in a huge amount of
effort so we can extinguish our afflictive states of mind.
I will leave you to reflect on this third truth, so you can decide which version makes the most sense to you.
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