issue 19 winter 02
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Have Map, Can Unravel

Buddhist ethical psychology offers a map of the mind that shows how to investigate our mental events moment by moment. Subhuti outlines the territory.

Two years ago, in August 2000, my teacher Sangharakshita handed on his responsibilities as the Head of the Western Buddhist Order to eight men and women who form the 'College of Public Preceptors'. At the same time, he appointed me the first Chairman of the College. That gave me a particular responsibility for our Order, and made me consider more deeply – and discuss with other senior Order members – the question of how best to sustain and enhance the Order's spiritual vitality.

Such fundamental reviews are necessary from time to time. For any Dharma practitioner there is always a danger of getting set in a particular mould. It's all too easy to think that by following a particular teaching or practice you are 'doing Buddhism'; but, as the Buddha pointed out, the habit of treating specific practices and observances as ends in themselves is a fetter. As Buddhists we all need to revisit our basic aims regularly, and consider how well they are being served by our present methods of practice. Looking at the way we practise in our Order, I sensed that one thing we needed to help us go further was a more systematic form of mind-training.

One source of this conclusion was a review of my own practice. I have been a Buddhist for many years, so in general I don't act grossly unskilfully, and I dwell mostly in positive mental states. Nevertheless I recognise in myself a stratum of mind that is obscured and prone to subtly unwholesome tendencies – a deeper dimension of consciousness that is elusive and hard to grapple with. Also it is when I am alone that these negative tendencies are most likely to emerge. I have therefore become interested in what I call 'the morality of the private moment'. I began to feel the need for deeper and subtler methods of mind-training to transform this layer of consciousness.

My recognition of this challenge has been heightened by the practice of celibacy for eight years. For me, celibacy was a liberating step that emerged 'naturally' out of the fact that I felt fulfilled and happy, and no longer needed the outlet of sex. (I think this is the only sound basis for a permanent commitment to chastity.) But this doesn't mean that sexual impulses never arise. If I let myself become distracted by sexual desire, the tension is uncomfortable because of my commitment not to act on it. The key to avoiding this tension is therefore to guard the mind: to be sufficiently in touch with my thoughts and feelings to detect the arising of such desires quickly, before they take hold; to understand how they arise and in what conditions; and to know how to redirect the energy in them in a more positive direction.

Guarding the mind demands a level of clarity that is possible but by no means easy. I'm not just speaking of myself now. There are many Buddhists who are sincere and dedicated – who perhaps have deep faith in the Three Jewels – but who still have much to learn about how to apply that dedication to the task of transforming the mind. My impression is that, even among committed Buddhists, quite a few are rather fuzzy about the real nature of their mental states and how best to work on them. They might, for example, meditate for an hour every day. That is important, but it is merely the spearhead of the unceasing task of working on ourselves.

For Buddhist mind-training to be effective, the effort has to be three-pronged. Firstly, we have to make a continuous effort to exchange unskilful states for skilful ones; secondly, devote regular periods to entering deeply concentrated states; and thirdly, understand the mind – and therefore everything – in its depths. Sitting meditation is the key to the second of these, but the other two require a lot of effort both within and outside of meditation. And without the other two, our spiritual life is like the sun fitfully breaking through on a cloudy day.

If enough members of a spiritual community are effectively practising all three aspects of mind-training, this quickly becomes apparent in the vitality and harmony of the whole community. The sangha becomes attractive to others; it thrives and grows. On the whole the WBO is remarkably harmonious. However, like any other large community, it has its share of disputes – not just disagreements about ideas, but clashes that give rise to bad feeling. I began to see this as another pointer towards the potential usefulness of deeper methods of mind-training. When I took a hand in helping resolve them, I noticed that typically each party in a dispute thought a lot about the other person's motives and mental states. Yet the Buddha taught that the way to restore harmony is to take responsibility for our own mental states, and leave others to sort out theirs.

Harmony in a spiritual community – which is vital to its nature as a spiritual community - therefore requires its members to be aware of their mental states, and that demands both continuous effort and an understanding of how the mind works. But such understanding cannot be wholly intuitive: it calls for some kind of conceptual framework. We need a way of naming what is going on inside us, and tools for analysing it, so that we can see what we need to change, and how to do so. It was seeing this need that led me towards the Abhidharma – scriptures that elaborate and systematise (in philosophical and psychological terms) the basic ideas taught by the Buddha.

When I first began to think about these issues, I was trying to devise a broad course on the Dharma for Indian members of our Order (which in India is called the Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha). Thinking about the needs of my Indian friends, it dawned on me that they tend to see ethics mainly in social terms. In disputes they tend to criticise the other's behaviour according to conventional moral norms, rather than looking at their own states of mind. They too easily assume their indignation to be righteous, and therefore don't examine it enough. I saw that what was needed in India was an inward, psychological dimension to ethics.

At the same time I saw that for westerners the situation is often the mirror image of the Indian one: the two sides of the problem are reversed. Western Buddhists are often fascinated by their own psychology. One of the traits of the 'me generation' is that we are absorbed in our inner workings – but mostly in a non-discriminative way that fails to infuse psychological insights with an ethical perspective. Westerners in dispute are likely to feel their rights have been infringed, that they have been exploited or misused. They contact feelings of anger but seldom shine the light of Buddhist ethics on those feelings. I saw that what we needed in the West was a stronger ethical dimension to our habits of self-analysis.

So, although they may tumble into it from different sides, western and Indian Buddhists are equally prone to fall into the pit of resentful dispute. They can therefore use the same ladder to climb out. What they need is a form of mind-training that allows a synergy of psychology and ethics – a framework that permits a deep understanding of one's mental life from an ethical viewpoint. In Buddhist tradition, the Abhidharma provides just such a framework.

The Buddha spoke not so much in terms of 'good' and 'bad' when teaching ethics, as of 'skilful' and 'unskilful' (kusala or akusala). In other words, he was not concerned with condemning the person who entertains unskilful thoughts, but with showing that such thoughts cause harm – possibly to others and inevitably to the thinker. Combining this insight with a detailed analysis and classification of mental states, the Abhidharma draws a 'map' of the mind that helps us first to recognise and then to transform our inner world – the source of all our doings.

The Abhidharma 's lists of mental events are not to be understood as a kind of periodic table of mental molecules that combine to form a finite range of compounds. Every moment of the mind is completely new and unique. Nevertheless the moments fall into typical patterns, which we can learn to recognise. The value of the Abhidharma is that it points us towards some of the most characteristic and important of these.

As the various schools of Buddhism evolved and diverged from each other, several of them developed an Abhidharma , so various versions are now extant. In my recent work, I have been using the Yogachara Abhidharma , mainly because my teacher Sangharakshita once led a substantial seminar on it (now published under the title Know Your Mind). This Yogachara version starts with a classification of basic mental events – an analysis of the way in which we know, and are conscious. The analysis then goes on to deal with the way in which consciousness intensifies, and so penetrates the nature of its objects. Finally it moves on to the ethical level, describing various skilful states (or 'positive mental events'), a range of unskilful ones (the klesas or defilements), and a few that are morally undetermined.

I have been studying this map and teaching it – mainly to groups of Order members in India. Its abstract and technical flavour doesn't appeal to everyone at first, but I've found that once people apply themselves to it, they can, with guidance, come to understand their own mental processes. We don't have to learn the lists by heart (although that may help); nor does using it entail a laborious and alienating attempt to label each and every passing state of mind. Instead, familiarity with the system nurtures and moulds a spontaneous, ethically discriminating awareness of what goes on in the mind, allowing us to recognise intuitively whether it is skilful or unskilful.

Naturally, we have to use the Abhidharma intelligently. History suggests that some Buddhists in certain eras made the mistake of thinking that just learning these lists constituted 'knowing the mind'. Clearly that is one danger to watch out for. Another potential problem is that no traditional Abhidharma system offers a perfect fit for the modern mind, and the Yogachara one is no exception. There are some odd omissions (no mention of fear, for instance).

Yet some of the terms are very revealing. For example, one of these is kaukrtya – a Sanskrit word that refers to the uneasy feeling that one has done something wrong, either practically or morally (the feeling may therefore be either neutral or skilful, depending on which). Nowadays many people are afflicted by anxiety – a sense that they have done something wrong (or left undone something necessary) and that this will bring them suffering. For probably millions today this feeling is almost habitual. Perhaps it stems from the complex stresses of the modern world, where time is minutely measured, and a competitive environment is always spurring us to keep up to the mark.

I have found that people often don't recognise kaukrtya for what it is; and even if they do, they may not know what to do about it. But it can give rise to seriously unskilful behaviour. Authoritarianism, for example, often stems from an anxious over-concern to get things right, or to prevent others doing something wrong. Those who suffer from habitual anxiety tend to see it as necessary – as 'justified'. But only when they recognise it as unskilful can they start to take responsibility for it. Until then, they can only try to take responsibility for apparently external problems or dangers that may be chimeras.

Having recognised an unskilful mental state, we can then ask, 'Why does it arise? What sets it off? How can I change it?' The answer to the last question can range from just being a bit more mindful to making quite drastic changes in our lives. Of course we may be unable to answer the questions on our own: talking them over with spiritual friends may be the key.

The Yogachara Abhidharma is not just concerned with unskilful states. It also lists 11 'positive mental events'. The first, for example, is sraddha. This is usually translated as 'faith' – an emotional and imaginative response to higher moral or spiritual value, and not to be understood as 'belief'. Sraddha is said to be an essential element in all skilful mental states, even quite ordinary ones. It promotes mental health and positive interaction with others. Recognising all this consciously fosters the growth of sraddha. Again the Abhidharma helps us by setting all this out clearly.

In India I have led several retreats for Order members on the theme of 'Know Your Mind', in which we have explored this Abhidharma system, and practised it intensively. The retreats combine exposition and discussion of the mental events with meditation and silence. During the retreats the participants are often inspired, and have deep insights into themselves. But afterwards they go back to the stresses and strains of what is often (especially in India) a difficult life. The retreat can fade or seem like a dream, unless one learns from it how to apply its lessons in daily life. I therefore ask the participants, at the end of each retreat, to clarify what traits they need to work on, and how they are going to work on them at home.

I give special emphasis to reflection on the positive mental events. It is unwise to reflect too much on negative ones, for obvious reasons. But each of the negative events is linked to a corresponding positive one; and, according to the Buddha, practice of the positive state drives out the negative one, rather as a driving a peg into a hole drives out a blockage. So I encourage the participants to become familiar with the positive states, and to identify them in their own experience. The effort to do this brings them to a clearer awareness of the mental states they habitually dwell in, and how they arise. I then encourage them to reflect on the circumstances that produce these customary states of mind.

There are dangers in making an effort to change your state of mind. These are of two kinds, which correspond to the two different ways of working in meditation. One is making an effort to develop higher states, while the other is receptively tuning in to whatever is going on in the mind – just witnessing it directly and dispassionately. If you over-emphasise the effortful approach at the expense of the receptive, you run the risk of feeling increasing strain. Also, success in this approach may bring egoistic pride, while difficulties can be demoralising. On the other hand, over-emphasising the receptive approach can lead you to 'justify' the ordinary, distracted unskilful mind, without making the effort needed for change.

We therefore need an approach to meditation that acknowledges the actual nature of the mind – allowing its depths to emerge spontaneously – but also includes the effort to cultivate higher states. As well as striving to change our mental states, we should also just relax and be interested in them.

This self-exploration need not be solitary. Spiritual friendship offers precious opportunities for confession or self-disclosure. Speaking personally, I know that I need to open up my ethical life to others, especially in areas they would never think to ask about unless I told them. I talk almost every day with a friend about my mental states and the traits I want to work on. Friends can help us clarify our experience, not necessarily by helping to analyse our mental states, but just by asking questions and making suggestions.

The practice of confession is the key to getting more closely to grips with our habits and mental states. Confession starts with a feeling of remorse, which leads us to disclose unskilful actions, words or emotions. Where necessary, confession should be followed up by making amends for any harm done, and taking steps to ensure we don't do it again. Surprisingly, it is often the petty weaknesses that are hardest to transform. All this is only possible with the benefit of a clear understanding of the mental processes that led to the unskilful action, and this is why the Abhidharma has such a helpful part to play. The method only really works in a context of regular practice and intimate, trusting communication, so confession is best understood as an aspect of spiritual friendship.

This whole process of involving others in your spiritual struggles, and involving yourself in theirs, is intrinsic to sangha. The very essence of a spiritual community is that its members help each other in the task of mind training. The Western Buddhist Order is organised into chapters, typically comprising five to ten members. Each chapter meets once a week, coming together in a confessional spirit, on the basis of their ethical practice. A major part of my recent review of practice in the Order has been the exploration of ways to help chapters to see the importance of confession, so as to deepen their experience of it.

We need to learn how to translate our spiritual aspiration into effective practice. Spiritual life has to be lived continuously – it is no nine-to-five job, with weekends off. How can we practise the Dharma when we are walking down the stairs, taking a bath, or catching the bus to work? A method of mind-training that incorporates Abhidharma concepts and methods can be a powerful but sensitive instrument, clearly revealing what the spiritual life is and how to embody it.