2021-05-26 Kusala (3 of 10) Understanding the Unwholesome
2:53PM May 26, 2021
I have been talking about wholesome and unwholesome this week. Today I am going to talk about the unwholesome.
I think that understanding what the Buddha's teachings are on this topic, or how he sees this topic, helps us to study – investigate – how it is for us personally. It gives us ideas, or an orientation, to really see the impact of some of our attitudes, some of our behaviors, some of the ways we speak, even some of the ways we think. Some of that – maybe occasionally – can be unwholesome, uninspiring, unskillful, or unbeneficial.
We will look at this topic of the unwholesome and, in particular, at what is called the three roots of the unwholesome. They are the source for all things that are unwholesome.
First, the unwholesome is described as involving suffering in this very life. It involves stress in this very life. The word suffering, sometimes people take it to mean that only the big things in life are suffering. But the word dukkha can be applied to even mild forms of stress – not just to discomfort, because that is too broad – but to mild forms of distress, mild forms of suffering. The unwholesome – whatever is unwholesome – always involves some degree of dukkha.
The Buddha goes on to say it involves vexation, despair, and fever. Those are strong words. We have to understand that there can also be mild versions of it. But it always involves some way that we harm ourself. There is a kind of self-harm involved. And it involves discomfort. The unwholesome always involves dukkha, harm, and discomfort.
When we act with hostility, when we act in a mean way to people, when we are consumed with meanness or criticalness of ourselves, when we are greedy. It is not a moralistic teaching like, "I shouldn't do those things, because that's an immoral thing to do," and with some abstract morality coming from outside. But, rather, the pragmatic and experiential orientation of the Buddha is always, "How does it feel? How am I experiencing myself? What's the impact of this on myself, here?"
Rather than looking into the rule books – the moral rule books – to find out, "Is it okay to lie? Is it okay to steal? Is it okay to gossip negatively about my friends?", what we can do is practice. This is why mindfulness is so amazingly useful. When you develop a strong capacity for self reflection, self awareness, you do not go to the rule books. But you go to your own heart. You go to yourself. And you see what is the impact of this – of this behavior, this attitude, this way of speaking.
It is possible, with heightened sensitivity, to feel the way it causes suffering for oneself, pain for oneself, discomfort with oneself. It is not nourishing. It is not inspiring, In fact, in really being mindful and seeing some of the impact of the way we are, some people actually get uninspired. They get dismayed and discouraged. They feel this way even though some of the ways of acting unwholesome are energizing. And people feel the pleasure of being alive when they are hateful and angry at other people.
There is a way that it really drains some essential vitality and goodness within us – some wholeness, some sense of being really connected to ourselves. Because in anger – and, many times, in unwholesome behavior, the focus is outwardly directed. This happens in such a way that we are out of touch with what is behind that outward movement.
That is true for ourselves as well. If we are really mean or critical of ourselves, then there is a way in which we treat ourselves as an object. We do not see what is behind it. We do not see the way that we are aware. We do not see the impact it has in closing us down, or contracting, or the discomfort of it.
Take as a reference point the impact that our attitudes, thoughts, speech, and behavior has. Really take that in in a deep way. I have known people who have only experienced the impact of their behavior – what they have done – years later. They finally woke up, and they were just shocked. Sometimes it came like lightning. "Oh. My. Wow! I can't believe it. And I really hurt someone." It is better later than never. But even better is to feel it right away.
For the Buddha, the unwholesome is, in modern English, "instant karma." There is an instant way in which, simultaneous to the acting on it, we can feel how it is debilitating or draining. It limits us. It closes us off and compartmentalizes us so we are not really whole and full anymore. This is vexation, despair, and a fever, even, when it is really strong.
We can certainly look at all this – become aware of it, so that we can then not do it. I think that is good. That is fine in itself. But I think it is important not to underestimate the value of this: The Buddha has a very pragmatic orientation toward the Dharma, toward his teaching. It is very functional, very experiential, and immediate. It is not metaphysics. There aren't abstractions. There is not some kind of divine authority beyond. For the Buddha, everything unfolds here in our experience. This is where we discover peace. This is where we discover how we are not at peace.
The Buddha talked about how you can know the Dharma really, for yourself. The way he talked about it is the Dharma he is teaching, or pointing to, is visible here and now. It is immediate. It has to do with right now. It invites itself to be seen by you. It is saying, "Come here. Look at this." There is a kind of pull of attention toward this, if you are really attentive. It is onward leading, It has beneficial consequences that lead to more and more goodness. It is personally realized by the wise. Again, it is very personal pragmatism. So that is the Dharma.
And how is it that way? When you know, there is no greed, no hatred, and no delusion within you. And when you know there "is" greed, hatred and delusion – first, you have to know it is there. Then you know that there is no greed, no hatred, and no delusion within you. You see the movement from the unwholesome to the wholesome. The absence of the unwholesome, and then the presence of the wholesome. Then you know that the Dharma is visible here and now, immediate, inviting inspection, waiting to be seen, onward leading, and personally realized by the wise.
The emphasis on greed, hatred, and delusion here is because, in the Buddha's eyes, and the Buddha's experience, all things that are unwholesome – and maybe it is almost a definition of unwholesome – all things that are unwholesome are, in one way or the other rooted in greed, hatred and delusion.
It could be very mild forms of greed, craving, compulsion, compulsive desire, or hatred. It can be very mild or can be very strong. But the mild forms of the unwholesome – maybe you have mild forms of greed, hate and delusion – are the common denominator for all things that are unwholesome.
That is why we really get down and see underneath our behavior and see the greed, hate and delusion. We let go of it, and come to the end of it. That is how we see this pragmatic teaching of the Buddha, orientation of the Buddha, the experiential approach he has. It is very personal because this is only something that we can know for ourselves in the way we experience and know it for ourselves.
The emphasis today is on this very personal, experiential reference point – for the Dharma, for the Buddhist teachings, for the path of liberation. And, if you use modern English terminology, for ethics, for morality. That morality can spring out of a very deep connectivity, a connection to oneself. We know for ourselves. That is kind of inspiring, to have our ethics or morality – how we live in the world – really well up from a deep understanding within, a wellspring, a source of goodness, that carries us along in that goodness, as opposed to carrying us along in a sense of grim duty or fear of some retribution.
So, the unwholesome. It might happen, in the next twenty-four hours, a few of you might have some thought, speech, act, or behavior that you recognize as being unwholesome. If you do, take that opportunity to turn the attention back on yourself. Really see how it is impacting you, yourself. See if you can see the way it has a negative impact, maybe an impact you do not really want to have, one that is not very inspiring.
The stronger your bout of unwholesome is, the better it is for this exercise. Do not go invent unwholesomeness for the exercise. But the stronger your bout of doing something unwholesome – expressions of greed, hatred, and delusion – is, the more clarity you can have in this exercise of really seeing the impact it has on you. We will continue with this tomorrow. Thank you.