The Roots of Good and Evil: An Anthology by Nyanaponika Thera
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Once the venerable Ananda was staying in Kosambi, at Ghosita's monastery. At that time a certain householder, a lay devotee of the Ajivaka ascetics, went to see the venerable Ananda. Having arrived, he saluted him and sat down at one side. So seated, he said this to the venerable Ananda:
'How is it, revered Ananda: Whose doctrine is wellproclaimed? Who are those who live well-conducted in the world? Who are the blessed ones in the world?' 16
'Now, householder, I shall ask you a question on this matter, and you may answer as you think fit. What do you think, householder: as to those who teach a doctrine for the abandoning of greed, hatred and delusion, is their doctrine well-proclaimed or not? Or what do you think about this?'
'I think their doctrine is well-proclaimed, revered sir.'
'Then, householder, what do you think: those whose conduct is directed to the abandoning of greed, hatred and delusion, do they live well-conducted in this world or not? - Or what do you think about this?'
'I think they are well-conducted, revered sir.'
'And further, householder, what do you think: those in whom greed, hatred and delusion are abandoned, cut off at the root, made (barren) like a palm-stump, brought to nonexistence, no longer liable to arise in the future again - are they the blessed ones in the world or not? Or what do you think about this?'
'Yes, I do think, revered sir, that these are the blessed ones in the world.'
'So householder, you have admitted this: Well-proclaimed is the creed of those who teach a doctrine for the abandoning of greed, hatred and delusion. Those are well-conducted whose conduct is directed to the abandoning of greed, hatred and delusion. And the blessed ones are those who have abandoned greed, hatred and delusion and have totally destroyed it in themselves.'
'Wonderful, revered sir! Marvellous, revered sir! There was no extolling of your creed, nor a disparaging of another's creed. Just by keeping to the subject matter, the doctrine was explained by you. Only facts were spoken of and no selfish reference was brought in.
'It is excellent, revered sir, very excellent. It is as if one were to set aright what was overturned, reveal what was hidden, point the way to those who have lost it, hold up a light in the darkness so that those who have eyes may see what is visible. Thus was the teaching in diverse ways explained by the worthy Ananda.
'I now go for refuge to that Exalted One, to his teaching and to the Order of monks. May master Ananda accept me as a lay follower from this day onwards as long as life shall last. May he regard me as one who has thus taken refuge.'
This text introduces us to an unnamed lay follower of the Ajivakas, a sect of naked ascetics contemporary with the Buddha. The questioner must have been a person of sensitivity, and was obviously disgusted with the self-advertisement he may have found in his own sect and among other contemporary religious teachers. So he wanted to test a disciple of the Buddha to see if they too indulged in self-praise. He even laid a trap for the venerable Ananda, by phrasing his questions in terms of the well-known Buddhist formula of homage to the Triple Gem. Perhaps he expected that the venerable Ananda would answer thus: 'These are the very words we use, and we claim these achievements for our doctrine, for our monks and for our Buddha.' But the venerable Ananda's reply, being free from self-praise and blame of others, came as a happy surprise to him. And as the questioner was perceptive, he immediately grasped the profound significance of the venerable Ananda's words connecting the Three Gems with the abandonment of the unwholesome roots. Moved to admiration for both the speaker and his teaching, the inquirer declared on the spot his dedication to the Triple Gem.
This dialogue between a non-Buddhist and a Buddhist monk suggests that the teaching on the three roots can be immediately convincing to anyone with an open mind and heart. It offers an eminently practical, non-creedal approach to the very core of the Dhamma, even for those reluctant to accept its other tenets. It is for this reason that the awareness of those three roots and their significance is elsewhere called a directly 'visible teaching' (Text 18) and a doctrine that can be grasped without recourse to faith, tradition or ideologies (Text 29). It can be easily seen that greed, hatred and delusion are at the root of all individual and social conflict. Those who still hesitate to accept the Buddha's teaching on the truths of suffering and its origin in their entire range of validity may not be ready to admit that all degrees and varieties of greed, hatred and delusion are roots of suffering. Yet even if they only understand the more extreme forms of those three states to be the root causes of evil and unhappiness, such understanding, practically applied, will be immensely beneficial to themselves and to society.
From such an initial understanding and application, it may not be too difficult for an honest searching mind to proceed to the conclusion that even the very subtle tendencies towards greed, hatred and delusion are harmful-seeds from which their most destructive forms may grow. But the Dhamma is a gradual teaching: the extension of that initial understanding should be left to the natural growth of the individual's own insight and experience without being forced upon him. This was the very attitude which the Enlightened One himself observed in his way of teaching.
Following the example of the venerable Ananda, it
will be profitable also in the present day if, for various levels of understanding,
the practical message of the Dhamma is formulated in terms of the wholesome
and unwholesome roots. In its simplicity as well as its profundity, this
teaching carries the distinct seal of Enlightenment. It is a teaching that
will directly affect everyday life, and will also reach to the very depth
of existence, showing the way to transcend all suffering.
Abandon what is unwholesome, O monks! One can abandon the unwholesome, O monks! If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do so.
If this abandoning of the unwholesome would bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as the abandoning of the unwholesome brings benefit and happiness, therefore I say, 'Abandon what is unwholesome!'
Cultivate what is wholesome, O monks! One can cultivate the wholesome, O monks! If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do so.
If this cultivation of the wholesome would bring harm and suffering, I would not ask you to cultivate it. But as the cultivation of the wholesome brings benefit and happiness, therefore I say, 'Cultivate what is wholesome!'
This text proclaims, in simple and memorable words, man's potential for achieving the good, thus invalidating the common charge that Buddhism is pessimistic. But since man also has, as we know only too well, a strong potential for evil, there is as little ground for unreserved optimism about him and his future. Which of his potentialities becomes actual-that for good or that for evil-depends on his own choice. What makes a person a full human being is facing choices and making use of them. The range of man's choices and his prior awareness of them expand with the growth of his mindfulness and wisdom, and as mindfulness and wisdom grow, those forces that seem to 'condition' and even to compel his choices into a wrong direction become weakened.
These hope-inspiring words of the Buddha about man's
positive potential will be grasped in their tremendous significance and
their full range,, if we remember that the words wholesome
not limited to a narrow moral application. The wholesome that can be cultivated
comprises everything beneficial, including those qualities of mind and
heart which are indispensable for reaching the highest goal of final liberation.
The unwholesome that can be abandoned includes even the finest traces of
greed, hatred and delusion. It is, indeed, a bold and heartening assurance
- a veritable 'lion's roar'- when the Buddha said, with such wide implications,
that what is beneficial can be cultivated and what is harmful can be abandoned.
There may be outsiders, O monks, who will ask you:
'Now, friends, what is the cause and condition whereby unarisen greed arises and arisen greed becomes stronger and more powerful?' 'An attractive object', they should be told. In him who gives unwise attention to an attractive object, unarisen greed will arise, and greed that has already arisen will become stronger and more powerful.
'Now, friends, what is the cause and condition whereby unarisen hatred arises and arisen hatred becomes stronger and more powerful?' 'A repulsive object', they should be told. In him who gives unwise attention to a repulsive object, unarisen hatred will arise, and hatred that has already arisen will grow stronger and more powerful.
'Now, friends, what is the cause and condition whereby unarisen delusion arises and arisen delusion becomes stronger and more powerful?' 'Unwise attention', they should be told. In him who gives unwise attention, unarisen delusion will arise, and delusion that has already arisen will grow stronger and more powerful.
'Now, friends, what is the cause and condition for unarisen greed not to arise and for the abandoning of greed that has arisen?' 'A (meditation) object of impurity', they should be told. In him who gives wise attention to a (meditation) object of impurity, unarisen greed will not arise and greed that has arisen will be abandoned.
'Now, friends, what is the cause and condition for unarisen hatred not to arise and for the abandoning of hatred that has arisen?' 'Loving-kindness that is a freeing of the mind', they should be told. In him who gives wise attention to lovingkindness that is a freeing of the mind, unarisen hatred will not arise and hatred that has arisen will be abandoned.
'Now, friends, what is the cause and condition for unarisen delusion not to arise and for the abandoning of delusion that has arisen?' 'Wise attention', they should be told. In him who gives wise attention, unarisen delusion will not arise and delusion that has arisen will be abandoned.'
This text shows the decisive role attention plays in the origination and eradication of the unwholesome roots. In the discourse 'All Taints' (Sabbasava Sutta, Majhima Nikaya a) it is said: 'The uninstructed common man . . . does not know the things worthy of attention nor those unworthy of attention. Hence he fails to give attention to what is worthy of it and directs his attention to what is unworthy of it.' And of the wellinstructed disciple the same discourse says that he knows what is worthy of attention and what is not, and that he acts accordingly.
The commentary to that discourse makes a very illuminating remark: 'There is nothing definite in the nature of the things (or objects) themselves that makes them worthy or unworthy of attention; but there is such definiteness in the manner (akara) of attention. A manner of attention that provides a basis for the arising of what is unwholesome or evil (akusala), that kind of attention should not be given (to the respective object); but the kind of attention that is the basis for the arising of the good and wholesome (kusala), that manner of attention should be given.' It is this latter type of attention that in our present text is called 'wise attention' (yoniso manasikara). The former kind is 'unwise attention' (ayoniso manasikara), which elsewhere in the commentaries is said to be the proximate cause of delusion.
Things pleasant or unpleasant - that is, those potentially attractive or repulsive - are given to us as facts of common experience, but there is nothing compelling in their own nature that determines our reaction to them. It is our own deliberate attitude towards them, the 'manner of attention', which decides whether we will react with greed to the pleasant and with aversion to the unpleasant, or whether our attention will be governed instead by right mindfulness and right understanding, resulting in right action. In some cases, it will also be possible and advisable to withdraw or divert attention altogether from an object; and this is one of the methods recommended by the Buddha for the removal of unwholesome thoughts. (See Text 24 and Comment.)
Our freedom of choice is present in
our very first reaction to a given experience, that is, in the way we attend
to it. But only if we direct wise attention to the object perceived can
we make use of our potential freedom of choice for our own true benefit.
The range of freedom can be further widened if we train ourselves to raise
that wise attention to the level of right mindfulness.
A monk who is intent on the higher consciousness (of meditation) should from time to time give attention to five items. What five?
1. When, owing to an object to which the monk has given (wrong) attention, there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire,17with hatred and with delusion, then that monk should give his attention to a different object, to one connected with what is wholesome. When he is doing so, those evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, hatred and delusion are abandoned in him and subside. With their abandonment, his mind becomes inwardly steady and settled, unified and concentrated.
2. If, when giving attention to an object that is wholesome, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hatred and with delusion, then the monk should reflect upon the danger in these thoughts thus: 'Truly, for such and such reasons these thoughts are unwholesome, they are reprehensible and result in suffering!' When he is reflecting in this way, those evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside. With their abandonment, his mind becomes inwardly steady and settled, unified and concentrated ....
3. If, when reflecting upon the danger in these thoughts, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hatred and with delusion, he should try not to be mindful of them, not to give attention to them. When he is not giving attention to them, those evil unwholesome thoughts will be abandoned in him and subside. With their abandonment, his mind becomes inwardly steady and settled, unified and concentrated ....
4. If, when he is not giving attention to these thoughts, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hatred and with delusion, he should give attention to the removal of the source of these thoughts. 18 When he is doing so, those evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside. With their abandonment, his mind becomes inwardly steady and settled, unified and concentrated ....
5. If, while he is giving attention to the removal of the source of these thoughts, these evil unwholesome thoughts still arise in him, he should, with teeth clenched and the tongue pressed against the palate, restrain, subdue and suppress mind by mind. 19 When he is doing so, those evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside. With their abandonment, his mind becomes inwardly steady and settled, unified and concentrated . . . .
When those evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, hate and delusion, which have arisen owing to (wrong) attention given to an object, have been abandoned in a monk and have subsided (due to his applying these five methods), and when (due to that) his mind has become steady and settled, unified and concentrated, - then that monk is called a master of the pathways of thoughts: he will think the thoughts he wants to think and will not think those he does not want to think. He has cut off craving, severed the fetter (to existence) and with the full penetration of conceit, he has made an end of suffering.
Majhima Nikaya 20 (Vitakkasanthana Sutta) 20
This Discourse on the Removal of Unwholesome Thoughts was addressed by the Buddha to monks devoted to meditation, especially to the attainment of the meditative absorptions (jhana), which constitute the higher consciousness (adhicitta) mentioned in the sutta. But the five methods for stopping unwholesome thoughts are not restricted to those engaged in strict meditative practice. They are also helpful when desire, aversion and delusion arise during less intensive contemplations undertaken by monks or lay people. Even in situations of ordinary life, when one is confronted with an onrush of unwholesome thoughts, these methods will prove effective, provided one can muster the presence of mind needed to promptly apply them. In applying them, one will be practising right effort, the sixth factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. For the attempt to overcome arisen unwholesome thoughts is one of the four great efforts (sammappadhana), constituting the path factor of right effort.
By the first method one tries to replace harmful thoughts by their beneficial opposites. The discourse gives the simile of a carpenter removing a coarse peg with the help of a fine peg. The commentary explains as follows: when an unwholesome thought of desire for a living being arises, one should counter it by thinking of the impurity of the body; if there is desire for an inanimate object, one should consider its impermanence and its ownerless nature. In the case of aversion against a living being, one should direct thoughts of loving-kindness and friendliness towards that being; one should remove resentment against inanimate things or against adverse situations by thinking of their impermanence and impersonal nature. When deluded or confused thoughts arise, one should make an effort to clarify them and discern things as they are.
The sutta statement deals with the case of countering undesirable thoughts immediately on their arising. For sustained success in substantially reducing and finally abolishing them, one should strengthen the wholesome roots opposed to them whenever one meets the opportunity to do so. Non-greed should be enhanced by selflessness, generosity and acts of renunciation; non-hate by patience and compassion; nondelusion by cultivating clarity of thought and a penetrative understanding of reality.
The second method for removing unwholesome thoughts is that of evoking repugnance and a sense of danger with regard to them. The simile in the discourse is that of a well-dressed young man or woman who feels horrified, humiliated and disgusted when the carcass of an animal is slung around his or her neck. Calling to mind the unworthiness of evil thoughts will produce a sense of shame (hiri) and abhorrence. The awareness that these unwholesome thoughts are harmful and dangerous will produce a deterring 'dread of consequences' (ottappa). This method of evoking repugnance may also serve as an aid for returning to the first method of 'replacement by good thoughts', unless one has now become able to check the intruding thoughts through the second method. This method can be very effective when encounters in ordinary life call for quick restraint of the mind.
By the third method one tries to ignore undesirable thoughts by diverting one's attention to other thoughts or activities. Here the simile is that of closing one's eyes at a disagreeable sight or looking in another direction. If this method is applied during a session of meditation,. it may require a temporary interruption of the meditation. For a diverting occupation, the commentary gives as examples recitation, reading or looking through the contents of one's bag (or pocket). Reciting or reading may be helpful outside meditative practice, too. Until those troublesome thoughts have subsided, one might also take up some little work that requires attention.
The fourth method is illustrated in the discourse by a man who runs fast and then asks himself. 'Why should I run?' and he slows down; he then continues that process of calming his activity by successively standing still, sitting and lying down. This simile suggests that this method involves a sublimating and refining of the coarse unwholesome thoughts. But as this sublimation is a slow and gradual process, it may not be applicable to a meditative situation when a quicker remedial action is required. The commentarial interpretation seems, therefore, to be preferable: one traces unwholesome thoughts back to the thoughts or the situation which caused them to arise and then tries to remove that thought source from one's mind. This may often be easier than confronting directly the fullgrown end-result. It will also help to divert the mind (according to the third method) from those unwholesome thoughts, which at this stage may be hard to dislodge. We may thus describe the fourth method as 'tracing the thought source'. But from the longer view of a continued endeavour to eliminate the harmful thoughts, interpreting this method as sublimation and gradual refinement need not be excluded. Such refinement can reduce the intensity and the immoral quality of the three unwholesome roots and even divert their energy into wholesome channels.
The fifth and last method is that of vigorous suppression. This method is to be applied when unwholesome thoughts have gained such a strength that they threaten to become unmanageable and to bring about situations of grave peril, practically and morally. The discourse illustrates this method by a strongbodied man forcing down a weaker person by sheer physical strength.
If the application of these five methods
is not neglected but is kept alive in meditative practice as well as in
ordinary circumstances, one can expect a marked and progressive weakening
of the three unwholesome roots, culminating in the perfect mastery of thoughts
promised at the end of the sutta.
For one's own sake, monks, vigilant mindfulness should be made the mind's guard and this for four reasons:
'May my mind not harbour lust for anything inducing lust!' - for this reason vigilant mindfulness should be made the mind's guard, for one's own sake.
'May my mind not harbour hatred toward anything inducing hatred!' - for this reason vigilant mindfulness should be made the mind's guard, for one's own sake.
'May my mind not harbour delusion concerning anything inducing delusion!' - for this reason vigilant mindfulness should be made the mind's guard, for one's own sake.
'May my mind not be infatuated by anything inducing infatuation!' -for this reason vigilant mindfulness should be made the mind's guard, for one's own sake.
When now, monks, a monk's mind does not harbour lust for lust-inducing things, because he is free from lust;
when his mind does not harbour hatred toward hateinducing things, because he is free from hatred;
when his mind does not harbour delusion concerning anything inducing delusion, because he is free from delusion;
when his mind is not infatuated by anything inducing infatuation, because he is free from infatuation - then such a monk will not waver, shake or tremble, he will not succumb to fear, nor will he adopt the views of other recluses.21
Anguttara Nikaya, 4:17
Monks, it is good for a monk if, from time to time:
he perceives the repulsive in the unrepulsive,
if he perceives the unrepulsive in the repulsive,
if he perceives the repulsive in both the unrepulsive and the repulsive,
if he perceives the unrepulsive in both the repulsive and the unrepulsive,
if he avoids both the repulsive and the unrepulsive (aspects), and dwells in equanimity, mindful and clearly comprehending.
But with what motive should a monk perceive the repulsive in the unrepulsive? 'May no lust arise in me for lust-inducing objects!' - it is with such a motive that he should perceive in this way.
With what motive should he perceive the unrepulsive in the repulsive? 'May no hatred arise in me towards hate-inducing objects!' - it is with such a motive that he should perceive in this way.
With what motive should he perceive the repulsive in the unrepulsive as well as in the repulsive? 'May no lust arise in me for lust-inducing objects nor hatred towards hateinducing objects!' - it is with such a motive that he should perceive in this way.
With what motive should he perceive the unrepulsive in the repulsive as well as in the unrepulsive? 'May no hatred arise in me towards hate-inducing objects nor lust for lust-inducing objects!' - it is with such a motive that he should perceive in this way.
With what motive should he avoid both the repulsive and the unrepulsive, and dwell in equanimity, mindful and clearly comprehending? 'May lust for lust-inducing objects, hatred towards hate-inducing objects, and delusion towards deluding objects never arise in me anywhere in any way!'- it is with such a motive that he should avoid both the repulsive and the unrepulsive, and dwell in equanimity, mindful and clearly comprehending.
This fivefold method of mastering perception is called in Pali ariya iddhi, a term which may be rendered as noble power, noble success or noble magic; or, alternatively, as the power, success or magic of the noble ones (ariya). In its perfection, this arduous practice can be ascribed only to Arahats as several suttas and commentaries indicate. But, as our text shows at the beginning, the Buddha recommended this training to the monks in general, including those in whom the three unwholesome roots were still active. It is eradication of these roots which is said to be the motivation for taking up this practice.
For applying this fivefold power, the following directions have been given in the canon and commentaries.22
1. To perceive the repulsive in the unrepulsive, one pervades attractive living beings with the contemplation of the body's impurity; towards attractive inanimate objects one applies the contemplation of impermanence.
2. To perceive the unrepulsive in the repulsive, one pervades repulsive living beings with loving-kindness and views repulsive inanimate objects as consisting of the four elements; but living beings too ought to be contemplated by way of the elements.
3. To perceive the repulsive in both the unrepulsive and the repulsive, one pervades both with the contemplation of impurity and applies to them the contemplation of impermanence. Or, if one has first judged a being to be attractive and later repulsive, one now regards it as unrepulsive throughout, i.e. from the viewpoint of impurity and impermanence. 23
4. To perceive the unrepulsive in both the repulsive and the unrepulsive, one pervades both with loving-kindness and views both as bare elements. Or, if one has first judged a being to be repulsive and later attractive, one now regards it as unrepulsive throughout; i.e. from the viewpoint of loving-kindness and as consisting of elements.
5. Avoiding both aspects, one applies the six-factored equanimity of which it is said: 'On perceiving (any of the six sense objects, including mental objects), he is neither glad nor sad, but keeps to equanimity and is mindful and clearly comprehending.' He does not lust after a desirable object nor does he hate an undesirable one; and where others thoughtlessly allow delusion to arise, he does not give room to delusion. He remains equammous towards the six objects, being equipped with the six-factored equanimity which does not abandon the pure natural state of the mind.
These five methods of applying the noble power have several applications. They are first for use during meditation, when images of repulsive and unrepulsive beings or things arise in the mind. At such a time one can overcome the attraction or aversion by dwelling on the counteractive ideas - such as loving-kindness or analysis into elements -as long as required to dispel the defilements. Second, these methods can be used in the encounters of everyday life when the counteractive ideas must be tersely formulated and rapidly applied. This will require previous familiarity with them and alertness of mind. In encounters with repulsive people one may also think of their good qualities and of their common human nature, with its failings and sufferings. When meeting a physically attractive person, one may vividly visualize that person's body as subject to ageing and decay.
These five modes of perception, as perfected in the Arahat, reveal the high-point of the mind's sovereign mastery over the world of feelings and emotions. They show a state where the response to provocative objects, usually so habitually fixed, can be chosen at will. This approach differs from that used in the contemplation of feelings- as shown below (Text 31). In the latter the feeling-values of experience are accepted as they are given, but by applying bare attention to them, one 'stops short' at the feelings themselves without allowing them to grow into the passionate reactions of lust or aversion. However, in this method of the noble power, the meditator does not take the feeling-values for granted; he does not accept them as they present themselves. His response is to reverse the feeling-value (mode 1, 2), to equalize the response to the repulsive and the unrepulsive (mode 3, 4) and to transcend both by mindful equanimity (mode 5).
These fives modes thus constitute a subtle 'magic of transformation' by which pleasant and unpleasant feelings, as they habitually arise, can be changed at will or replaced by equanimity. A mind that has gone through this training has passed the most severe test, indeed. Through that training, it obtains an increasing control over emotive reactions, and internal independence from the influence of habits and passions. It is said in the Satipatthana Sutta, 'He dwells independent and clings to nothing.' These words conclude a statement recurring after each of the exercises given in the sutta. In the light of the above observations, it is significant that they also occur after the section on contemplation of feelings found in that sutta.
According to our text, the purpose for cultivating the noble power is the eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. In a mind disciplined in this radical training, the root defilements cannot find a fertile soil for growth. The training also provides the experiential basis for comprehending the true nature of feelings as being relative and subjective. This the five modes of the noble power demonstrate in a convincing way. The relativity of feelings and of the emotions roused by them was succinctly expressed by Aryadeva (2nd century CE):
By the same thing lust is incited in one, hate in the other, delusion in the next. Hence sense objects have no inherent value.
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