Defilements as Not-self
March 15, 2024

One of the things you notice about the teachings of the forest ajaans is that they treat your defilements almost as if they were other beings inside you. You latch on to greed, aversion, and delusion as yours, but as Ajaan Lee says, they come in and they possess you. Seeing them as somebody else is a useful exercise in not-self.

These are identities you’ve identified with for a long time, and they’ve held power in your mind for a long time. How would you deal with them if you saw them as somebody else?

Here it’s useful to think about the different ways they have in Thailand of dealing with spirits possessing people: One is to chase them out, another is to do battle with them, and the third is to convert them. You have to decide, of your various defilements, which ones require which treatment: With some of them, the more you do overt battle with them, the more they fight back. So you’ve got to figure out how to convert them. The general way of dealing with them is to start out as Ajaan Fuang would recommend: You fill your body with good breath energy – in other words you lay claim to the body, make it a good place to be, that strengthens you—and then you spread lots of goodwill.

The goodwill is a form of indoctrination. For a lot of us, having goodwill for ourselves is hard. We come from a guilt culture in which we’re taught to feel bad for ourselves, to feel that we don’t deserve happiness.

This is a vein that lies deep in our culture. It’s one of the things that Ajaan Suwat had the most trouble understanding: Where did it come from? He saw people behaving in very self-indulgent ways and he thought that they had no feelings of guilt about it, but I had to explain to him that guilt runs very deep. So you really do have to teach yourself how to have goodwill for yourself.

I talked one time to a person who was working in a meditation center where they held both vipassanā and mettā retreats. I asked him if he noticed any difference between the two types of retreats. He mentioned two things: One was that in the mettā retreats the people would leave nice notes to one another on the note board, things like: “I saw that you looked kind of down today, so I want you to know that I was spreading goodwill in your direction.” Loving-kindness, they would call it.

Whereas in the vipassanā retreats the notes were, “Who’s wearing that loud jacket? Stop moving and making so much noise!”

The other thing he noticed was that people went through a lot more honey on the mettā retreats. In other words, they were kind to themselves in that way— putting more honey in their tea—which is goodwill on one level. But a deeper level is when you to ask yourself, “Why would you want yourself to suffer?” The Buddha doesn’t discuss the issue of deserving or not deserving happiness. He says that you should take that desire you have for happiness and honor it, knowing that there’s a skillful way that you can do it: It’s not selfish, it’s not self-serving, or if it is self-serving, it’s serving yourself as you’re serving others.

So first you have to overcome that resistance to wishing yourself well. This requires some thinking and some discussion inside, asking yourself, “Who in here wants me to suffer?”

There’s a part of the mind that says, “I’d be okay telling myself that I have no ability to create true happiness, so I might as well give up trying, so I’ll tell myself that I don’t deserve it.” That kind of thinking is basically laziness disguising itself. But as the Ajaan Lee says, there’s not just you in this body. I’ve forgotten what percentage of your body is made up of other organisms, but it’s pretty large and who knows what their attitudes are? Maybe you’re listening to them.

So you can say to yourself, “I’ll identify with the voice that says, ‘I want to be happy. I want to be happy in a skillful way, in a way that’s long-lasting, which requires it to be harmless.’” After all, if your happiness harms other people, they’re not going to want it to last.

This is why the Buddha says that goodwill is a determination. You have to make up your mind that you really want to develop this attitude. Then when you feel secure in yourself, you can deal with the voices inside the mind that exemplify greed, aversion, delusion, or ill-will—whatever the defilement—realizing that in some twisted way they want happiness. Then you can offer them an alternative, pointing out to them: “The way you’ve been acting all along hasn’t gotten you anywhere. It gets you some quick fixes sometimes, but that’s all. And then there’s the long payback. Wouldn’t you prefer something that’s long-term and harmless?” That’s the negotiation.

There was a case in which Ajaan Fuang had a student suffering from what we in the West would call Tourette’s syndrome. She couldn’t live with anybody but she really wanted to practice the Dhamma. One day she came and offered him some sugarcane juice in the afternoon. He took a slight sip and then he gave the glass back to her and told her to drink the whole glass of juice. That’s when the nasty voices started coming on. So he started talking to them. He said, “Who are you, why are you in here, why are you harassing this woman?”

But, as he told me, before asking that, he had protected himself and then spread lots of goodwill.

A voice said, “This woman did this, this, and this to me in a previous life, and I don’t want to see her get away without punishment.”

As he said to the spirit, “Don’t you realize that by doing this you’re going to be creating bad karma, and she’s going to come and try to get you the next time around?”

There was a moment of silence. He continued: “Wouldn’t be better if you allowed her to have a normal life, make merit, and then dedicate the merit to you? That way you would both benefit.”

There was another moment of silence, and the voice finally said, “Yes. That would be better.”

That was the agreement. From that point on, she didn’t have the symptoms anymore.

So however you want to interpret that, it is a good way of dealing with your defilements, asking them why they want you to suffer, and persuading them that it would be their best interest to stop trying to exert control over you. That’s the conversion. That’s the negotiation.

There are other times when you basically say, “Look, I just can’t have this in my life.” The way you overcome that kind of defilement is by developing as many good qualities as you can so that there will be no room for these other things.

Then you can get into a discussion about their reasons for why you should give in to your lust or in to your laziness or in to whatever, and basically have some arguments: Point out the weakness in their logic, the weakness in their reasoning, until they’re weaker and weaker—and then you can convert them.

Every becoming that we take on wants happiness in one way or another. In some cases, it sees happiness in making you miserable. But you have to point out that this is not going to be very long-lasting, it’s not going to be very healthy, so it’s not going to be good for anybody at all—whatever the reasoning that helps that voice in the mind understand.

So as I said, this is an exercise in not-self, seeing these voices in the mind as something other. Even though they may have had power over you for a long time, you don’t have to see them as necessarily powerful beings.

A lot of the stories of spirits in Thailand are of beings who are very weak and neurotic. They’re in a pretty miserable place, so they get their pleasure by doing what they can to scare people. That’s what little sick pleasure they get out of life, but they’re pretty weak.

I saw a meditation manual one time that had a drawing of a tiger. The face of the tiger was very large and fierce and very realistic looking, but the body of the tiger was folded origami paper. A lot of our defilements are like that: They come on really strong but they’re really just paper tigers.

Still, you have to make sure you’re strong, make sure that you’re heedful, because they do have a lot of tricks. After all, they’ve been tricking you into following them around for how many lifetimes now? How many eons? How many universes? They’re used to having their way, and you’re used to giving in to their weak logic. But as Ajaan Suwat said, when you gain some discernment, it’s like lighting a candle in a dark place—say, in a cave that’s been dark for who knows how long. The darkness doesn’t have any right to say, “This little tiny light has no right to come in and chase us away; we’ve been here before for a much longer time.”

Wherever there’s light, the darkness has to go. So think of the practice as bringing a candle into the darkness of your mind so that you can see what’s going on and change the balance of power inside so that the light wins out.