2021-05-25-Kusala (2 of 10) Discerning Wholesome and Unwholesome
2:54PM May 25, 2021
Continuing on this topic of wholesome and unwholesome.
It is such a central orientation in the teachings of the Buddha. So much so, that one of the short, pithy sayings from the early tradition that encapsulates the teachings of the Buddha goes like this: "Avoid doing what's harmful. Cultivate what is wholesome. Purify the mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha."
The word for harming is translated many ways in English. It could be wicked. Sometimes it's translated as evil. But it has to do with causing harm in the world. And it could just be said: "Abandon what is unwholesome. Don't do what's unwholesome. Cultivate the wholesome. And purify the mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha."
There is the idea that, at the heart of Buddhist practice, there is a distinction and a dichotomy – some people will say a duality – between two different directions. To make it pragmatic – which it is – we could say, what works, and what doesn't work. If something works – even if it partially works in the right direction – great! Let's do it. And if it doesn't work in the direction we want to go in, then don't do it.
To be able to distinguish between what works and what doesn't work, what's helpful and what's not helpful, is at the center of this. It is what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness is meant to place us in the center of our experience, so that we can make pragmatic choices in this direction.
To illustrate a little bit more how important this is in the Buddha's teachings, I'm going to paraphrase now. Some of my examples are not going to be quite as I quoted in the text.
So, somebody comes to the Buddha and says, "Do you teach that we should avoid all pleasure?" And the Buddha answers, "No. I teach that we should avoid pleasure that is unwholesome. But we should cultivate pleasure that is wholesome." "Do you say that we should always speak the truth?" "No. I say that we should speak the truth when it's wholesome and beneficial to do so. Not when it's unwholesome and harmful to do so." "Do you say that we should always be x, y, believe in this or that? Is it always one way?" And the Buddha keeps coming back saying, "No. If it's wholesome, we do it. If it's not wholesome, we don't do it."
This essentializing and 'absolutisizing' of behavior, beliefs, and ideas seems to be something the Buddha was very reluctant to do. In fact, there is a whole discourse in the Middle Length Discourses which is based on the idea of what should be cultivated and what should not be cultivated. It goes through all these different categories of what should be cultivated through actions, through speech, through mind, and different categories. And the answer always is: We cultivate what is wholesome. We abandon what is unwholesome.
In discussing the wholesome, the Buddha says these are qualities leading to a sense of abundance. They grow. We thrive. There is a thriving with them. We want to take the wholesome and make it abundant, thriving, increase it – make it grow. This is dramatic language, emphasizing the value and importance of what is wholesome.
Now, I think in my early years of Buddhist practice, especially when I was doing Zen practice, this kind of message was not something I understood or picked up from the teachings I heard and was engaged in. In fact, I got the opposite message – not quite the opposite – but more like, any attempt to cultivate intentionally or orient toward what is wholesome was somehow missing the boat. What we should do is just sit in emptiness – sit as if we are a Buddha, without trying to do anything, or make something happen.
I kind of sat that way in Zen, and it was very beneficial for me. There is a whole Zen dharmology, or approach to life where that is coherent. If you understand it, it works really well. But I also felt that, as time went along, it was limiting if that was 'all' I did. But rather, meditate that way when it's wholesome, but not when it's unwholesome.
In making this distinction between wholesome or unwholesome, we become our own teacher. It isn't that we are supposed to go into the books – to the manual – and, "What should I do? What should I not do?" But we are using our own inner intent – our own psychosomatic apparatus for sensing, feeling, and knowing our own wisdom – to recognize the impact our behavior has – behavior in body, speech, and mind.
If it is healthy, wholesome, if it brings a sense of goodness, if it brings joy, happiness, well-being? Then, yes. Do it. Develop that. You're allowed to develop that. If it does the opposite, abandon it. Avoid it.
Another criticism I would have had of my early years for this is it lends itself to selfishness. It lends itself to pursuit of the hedonic, to just pleasure and hedonism. I think that it doesn't when what we're doing is practicing real mindfulness, real careful attention, really sensing and feeling what is happening in here. What we'll feel, we're going to recognize if it is selfish, if it is hedonistic. That, in itself, is unwholesome, unhealthy. We can feel that. We can feel the impact it has. That it actually debilitates, deflates, and undermines us. It is not such a good thing to do.
Part of what this practice is about is starting to become a connoisseur of the impact of our behavior. Not whether it's good or bad in some abstract way. Not that it's right or wrong in some abstract way. But what we know from the inside out – what we learn to recognize directly. It's almost like we feel the wholesomeness and the unwholesomeness. We feel the "Ouch." We feel the "Ahh. That's going in a good way."
The importance of doing that for oneself – being one's own teacher this way – is that that there is no divine authority in Buddhism who is judging us. There is no external source for what is right and wrong. It's all mediated here. In our own psychophysical being, can we really find the wisdom, the deep understanding, for exactly how this works?
In this way, early Buddhism has a tremendous trust in the human being's capacity, provided we have a heightened mindfulness, a heightened sensitivity, maybe even a heightened ability to be still and peaceful. So we can really tune in to what happens.
When we do that, we start feeling like when we are in hostility, we are hurting ourselves. When we are greedy, we are hurting ourselves. When we are caught in delusion, that very tightness, contraction, and being lost in delusion, feels also like something is being lost here – the obscuring going on, or the confusion. And to feel that, "Oh. Look at that. There it is."
Sometimes the early warning sign that we're going in the wrong direction does not come from our abstract ideas, but rather from our body, and the felt sense – the movement. "It looks like what has happened just now, I feel diminished, contracted. I feel drained a little bit. I feel like there's a tension building up."
Then we look more closely. Is this wholesome or unwholesome, healthy or unhealthy?The Buddha described the unwholesome as something that harms the very thing that is producing the unwholesome.
The analogy he used was of a some kind of reed, some kind of plant in ancient India. When the fruit ripens, it takes all the nutrients from the plant – the rest of the plant – and the plant dies. The unwholesome is like that. It takes the energy from the person in some way of being, and something gets diminished. Something, at times, can even die, if the unwholesome thing we do is really dramatic. Like we really harm someone in terrible ways.
In this way, there is a possibility of not getting caught up in old ideas that we've inherited from our society, our religions – that we're good or that we're bad, that we're right or that we're wrong. Rather, we just lovingly, caringly, evaluate, look, consider, is this wholesome, or is it unwholesome? Is it helpful, or not helpful? Does it lead to growth of wholesomeness, or diminishment of our wholesome qualities?
What we're looking for in the path to liberation is a growth of our wholesome qualities. We'll talk more about those over these next couple of weeks – and the diminishment of the unwholesome ones.
On the path to liberation, the unwholesome qualities agitate the mind, obscure the mind and heart. That makes it very hard to be on the path of liberation. The cultivation of wholesome qualities – looking for what's more and more wholesome – leads to a deep sense of well-being, settledness, and peace that allows us to move into freedom and to liberation, freedom from all unwholesomeness.
Tomorrow, I'll talk a little bit more specifically about the unwholesome. That's because, in a sense, we're supposed to become a connoisseur of the unwholesome, so we can recognize it and not be caught by it.
In the meantime, please study yourself, and see what you know, what you recognize, how you recognize this distinction between healthy and unhealthy, wholesome and unwholesome. What does it mean for you right now? Maybe, over these next days, you will come to a more refined understanding of what these concepts are. Thank you.