2021-05-28 Kusala (5 of 10) Seeing Wisely the Unwholesome
1:59PM May 30, 2021
I want to continue my thoughts on the topic for these two weeks – wholesome- and unwholesomeness, or skillfulness and unskillfulness. This week, I want to continue with more focus on the unwholesome. Next week, more on the wholesome.
I'll begin with a story. When I was 27, I was ordained as a Zen monk or Zen priest. It was a big turning point in my life to enter into the religious life as a calling that was going to be my life. One of the surprises for me in the ordination ceremony was that afterwards I had a shaved head and I wore robes. Also I was now a more public figure – someone whom people could see that I was publicly demonstrating in how I shaved my head and the clothes I wore that I was dedicated to the religious life, the Dharma life. So I felt much more accountable to people. I felt more acutely sensitive to other people studying me and seeing how I behaved. I think as a consequence, I became much more acutely aware of my own shortcomings. I had lots of them. So I became much more acutely sensitive to them.
But at the same time, the remarkable thing was that, because I had been ordained, I felt metaphorically or figuratively, that I was now a child of the Buddha. So it was more okay to have the shortcomings. I was accepted with them. This combination was really precious to me – that I became more aware of my shortcomings and it was more okay to have them. This did not mean that I indulged in them and now I had free rein to act them out or continue merrily going along with my shortcomings.
I had a practice – to look at the shortcomings, to work with them, and to find freedom from them. To see this combination of heightened sensitivity to my own shortcomings as a good thing – as a helpful thing. At the very same time, not to be troubled by those shortcomings – not to feel defined by them. Not to feel somehow belittled by or ashamed of them. This is the way forward in the Dharma.
Many vipassana teachers give talks about the hindrances. The hindrances are five unwholesome states of mind and unwholesome forms of behavior and thinking. We can get caught in greed, or caught in ill will, or we are caught in sloth and torpor, or restlessness and regrets, or caught in doubt.
The vipassana teachers will often say, "Do not take them personally – do not define yourself by them. Do not judge yourself by their presence". It is completely natural for the human mind to produce hindrances. We have millions of years of evolution behind us that has shaped us the way we are, and we cannot undo that in some automatic way. You did not choose how many arms and hands you were born with. You are not sitting there as an embryo forming your body parts and saying, "This time, I think I want four arms or six arms, so I can be much more efficient and do more things – that would be a good idea."
Our genetics operate in a certain way before we're consciously aware and can make choices, so much of who we are has been shaped by the continuum of evolution, of genetics. This unfolding of our lives is part of the natural world. With that come tendencies to behave in certain unskillful, unwholesome, or unbeneficial ways. But to see these tendencies as part of nature, as opposed to seeing it as a sin or a great moral crime that we should behave this way. To have a willingness to see clearly – to acknowledge and to recognize our shortcomings.
If we think the word "shortcomings" is a bit judgmental, maybe we could say, "our foibles", or maybe say, "to recognize our unwholesome states of mind." If even that seems a little judgmental, we could use the translation of 'akusala' as "unskillful" – "Well, that's unskillful." "Unskillful" can be much more simple and straightforward, like: "That is not useful. That's not beneficial. That's not a good thing to do."
But this combination of being willing to acknowledge we have shortcomings. Sometimes to be amused. Sometimes maybe a little sad that they are there, because they are a way of causing harm to self and others. But not to carry the weight of them. Not to allow ourselves to be defined in some negative way so we add more suffering on top of suffering on top of suffering. Just to see them as natural, and then work with them. To be wise about them and very careful not to cause harm with them.
There is a wonderful list of unwholesome states in the suttas – the teachings of the Buddha. One particular teaching is to see the presence of these states and really acknowledge them. Then to see when they are no longer there, when they are definitively clearly absent. This shows us the movement and the potential of what we are looking for here in the Dharma. We are not looking to simply accept our foibles. We are actually looking, in the Dharma, to live without them – to be free.
This is a radical teaching that some people feel is unattainable or unrealistic. But it is phenomenal how much we can redo the software of our minds so that certain tendencies or habits that we have can fall away. It takes practice. It takes dedication. It is not going to happen from wishful thinking. But to see the presence of these unskillful states, and then to really experience the absence of them, and say, "Wow, this is a possibility". To be inspired by that. "This is what inspires me to practice – this possibility of freedom, of fresh air, open space, and clarity. This is possible, and now that I have a taste, this is what to practice with."
So this wonderful list – I think it is a wonderful list – of unwholesome states. What is interesting about it is that almost all of them are social in nature – meaning that the motivations we have usually exist in relationship to other people. In these unwholesome states, we can feel, as we hear them, how they are painful for the person who has them. They also inflict pain, suffering or problems for the people whom they are inflicted on or applied to.
Here is a list of unwholesome states of mind or unwholesome motivations. Covetousness – coveting the things of other people. Ill will – having ill will or hate towards others. Anger – having anger is often directed towards others. Resentment – resentment is often directed towards others. Contempt towards others. Insolence. Envy – envy is often related to others. Avarice – wanting things of other people. Deceit – usually we do that in relation to social situations. You can deceive yourself. Fraud is even more so, in relationship to other people. Rivalry. Conceit – conceit is often formed in relationship to others. We are better than others, or we are worse than others. We want something from others, and so the conceit about one's status. So without other people around, maybe there would not be much reason for conceit. Arrogance – same thing – arrogance is often in relationship to others. And vanity – vanity is also that way.
All these things could be addressed to oneself, perhaps. One could maybe have ill will towards oneself, or anger, resentment, even contempt. There could be some deceit towards oneself and self-deceit. And rivalry – some people have inner wars between different sides of who they are, so it can be within us.
But I want to highlight how much these are social emotions. So if we want to contribute to a better society, a better world – if we want to contribute to a world where we do not want to harm others – how useful it is to settle and resolve these unwholesome states in ourselves. As we do that, we do not experience the self harm that all of these create. I think it is really fantastic and amazing that it is also natural that we can resolve, settle, and undo these forces in our life, and simultaneously benefit ourselves. I do not know if it exactly simultaneously benefits others – maybe not in the moment – but it will, because we are not going to go around acting on these unhealthy behaviors.
Seeing these benefits brings motivation for us, hopefully, to look at our unwholesome or unskillful states – greed, hatred, and delusion in all their different forms. In doing so, not doing it unskillfully – not doing it in unwholesome ways. Not looking at our unwholesome behavior and thoughts and motivations in ways that are the same as ill will – that just add suffering upon suffering.
The Dharma approach is to see unwholesome states as natural, and in a certain way, impersonal. To see them as if you are a child of the Buddha – you are a child of nature – of the world. The world is not judging you. Nature is not judging you. You are accepted. You belong here. But please, in this deep sense of acceptance and not non-criticalness of yourself, be realistic and honest about your shortcomings and unwholesomeness. And in a certain way, be inspired by that. Wow. If I see this in me, now it is possible to work towards freedom. Without knowing it here and seeing it clearly, where is the freedom?
So, this is a call to a loving, peaceful, and very clear recognition of your foibles, your shortcomings, your unwholesome tendencies – whatever you do that is not healthy. To try to see them, be with them, and relate to them in healthy, skillful, and wholesome ways, and to be inspired by the wholesome. That will be the topic for next week. We cannot really separate these two so much, so I will go back and forth a bit. But next week, we will look at the wholesome. What I have in mind is to do more with the translation of 'kusala' – the Pali word for this in the alternative translation, which is "skillful."
So we'll look more at skillfulness next week. Thank you so much. I look forward to next week.