Defilements Are Real

February 14, 2017

A lot of people don’t like the word “defilement.” This is true not just of modern people in the West. Even way back in Buddhist history there were people who said, “Well, as long as you realize that the defilements are not real, then they have no power over you and that’s the end of the problem.” That particular attitude has managed to hang on in the Buddhist tradition up to now.

But the problem with that is if you say that the defilements like greed, aversion, and delusion aren’t real, that they’re not even defilements, it’s like saying that when there’s dirt in your house, it’s not really dirt. It’s just a natural part of the floor and a natural part of the wall, so you’re just going to leave it there. You’ll never know what it’s like to have a really clean house.

The whole purpose in having a teaching on defilement is to realize that the mind could be a lot brighter than it is. Maybe it’s true that a dirty house is natural, but a clean house is possible, and it’s a much nicer house to live in. In the same way, the Buddha’s saying that a clean mind is possible, and a much nicer mind to be with as well. So instead of taking the word “defilement” as an affront to your dignity, think of it as a very useful concept for living well.

After all, there are parts of the mind that get in the way of practicing virtue, there are parts that get in the way of practicing concentration, get in the way of practicing discernment. Those are defilements. If they’re cleaned away from the mind, the mind’s going to be a lot brighter.

How do you clean them away? One, you learn how to gain a sense of distance from them. The reason they have power over us is that they disguise themselves as us. Greed comes in, we assume that it’s our greed, it’s the way we feel about that particular object we want and it’s our wanting. The same with anger: We’re angry. Delusion sneaks up on us and doesn’t even let us know it’s there, but it’s there, and we identify with whatever deluded ideas it may bring.

This is where the concept of the committee of the mind is very useful. All too often we see the committee of the mind as a problem, in that the mind has so many desires, so many different wants, and there so much conflict inside. All those different voices can often get in the way of getting the mind to settle down and be still. But the positive side of having a committee is that you can identify with the discernment, you can identify with the mindfulness, you can identify with all the other good voices in the mind. That allows you to step back from the voices of greed, aversion, and delusion, to look at them from the outside.

After all, when you look at anger in somebody else, it’s obviously a problem. You look at greed in somebody else, it’s obviously a weakness. So you want to be able to see your own anger and your own greed in the same way.

This is why we develop the path. We develop all the different strengths of the mind that the Buddha talks about. Conviction in the Buddha’s awakening, conviction in the power of action; persistence in trying to give rise to skillful qualities and abandon unskillful ones; mindfulness to keep all this in mind, so that the mind can get into concentration and have a sense of its home where it can stay apart from the greed, aversion, and delusion; and then the discernment to take them apart.

When greed comes in, you want to be able to see why you’re attracted to it. The same with anger, lust, jealousy: These things all have their attractive side. If you don’t admit that to yourself, you’ll never be able to get past them. But you also have to see the drawbacks. It’s in seeing the drawbacks and weighing them against the attractive side: That’s when you can finally get past them, because you can see that they really are stains on the mind. They really obscure a lot of the clarity that could be there in the mind. You’re better off without them.

The problem, of course, is that we tend to feed off of their allure, thinking that the allure is what gives spice to life. That’s the flavor that we get from the greed or the aversion or the lust or the jealousy. So we need a sense of well-being in the concentration as our food while we peel away from our old feeding habits. We realize that the spices have been hiding the fact that we’ve been feeding on dirt.

It’s like that Far Side cartoon where the cows are in the pasture and one of them jerks her head up and says, “Hey, wait a minute. This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!” Well, we’ve been eating dirt. We’ve been eating all the stains in the mind. But because they’re dressed up with a little bit of spice, we think they’re really good. So now we’ve got to feed the mind on better things.

The food of concentration may not be as exciting, it may not be as spicy, but it is nourishing and does strengthen the mind. With that strength, we can withstand some of the appeal of those defilements. We can step back from them and say, “This really is dirt in the mind.” We’re ready to start cleaning it away—learning to see where we perceive the attraction, where we perceive the need to identify with these things, and learning to question that.

A lot of discernment lies in questioning things we don’t usually question, things we simply assume to be unavoidable. The mind’s going to have to have these emotions, we assume. Well, why? Why do we have to run with them? When they do come up, why do we have to embroider them further?

It’s not the case that they simply arise full-blown on their own. We’re implicated in the process. A little something comes into the mind, a little stirring, and depending on what we want at that point, we identify the stirring as that thing and then we run with it. So you have to question the perceptions you apply to these things.

When something gets you angry, take the perception apart. Is what that person has said or done really all that bad? And even if it is all that bad, is anger justified? Or rather: Is it helpful? If it’s something you really have to deal with, anger’s going to get in the way because you’re not going to be able to see things clearly. The same with greed: You start doing all kinds of foolish things under the power of greed. The same with lust. These things make us their slaves.

So however you perceive the drawbacks—whether it’s just as a stain on the mind that obscures its clarity, or something that comes in and turns you into a slave, whatever you can see to realize that these are things you don’t want to get involved with—recognize that they’re there and learn how to pull yourself away from them.

When the Buddha said that the mind is luminous and the defilements come in and visit, he’s not saying that we have a pure nature to begin with. If our nature were pure, then we wouldn’t go for the defilements anyhow. The luminous quality of the mind means that there’s a clarity to it, that you can actually see the things you’re doing. You can begin to see that when you follow a particular unskillful state, these are the consequences. You can also see when the unskillful state arises in the mind. You can start seeing the stages by which it comes, in the place where there’s a little bit of allure and you go for the allure and then you swallow the whole hook along with the bait. It’s this luminous quality of the mind that allows us to see these things, to step back from the greed or the aversion or the delusion or any of the other subsidiary defilements.

And then we benefit. We realize that the mind is a lot cleaner than it was before, a lot brighter than it was before. It’s less likely to be picked up by these things and dragged around. And that’s when you see the benefit of the teachings. It’s really good to be reminded again and again and again: greed, aversion, and delusion are stains on the mind. They’re faults in the mind. And there’s a way to get past them.

The fact that we can have different committee members in the mind allows us to step away from the unskillful ones. If the mind were totally one identity and it were defiled by nature, there would be nothing you could do. You’d have to wait for some help from outside. But the fact is that the mind does have that clarity, that luminous nature, where it can see what’s going on inside. And the committee has skillful members that can be strengthened, so they can step back and view the defilements as alien, as something that doesn’t have to be there, something that’s intruded into the mind. All of this means you can do something about this yourself: You can clean out your mind.

So remember that the mind could be a lot brighter than it is, a lot happier than it is. Some people take that as a burdensome thought—that there’s more work to be done—because they’d like to hear that there’s nothing more they need to do. Which means that they just want to live with the dirt and tell themselves that it’s not dirt. But they never get to see what a really clean mind would be like.

The Buddha’s telling you about your defilements, not to burden you with an extra unpleasant duty, but to provide you with an opening, a possibility where you could find what it’s like to have a really good mind with a goodness that’s so good, a cleanliness so clean, that you’ll never need anything else.

So see the teaching on defilement as something that’s really helpful and kind, and not as a personal affront. That’ll allow you to get the most out of it.