Full Moon Day: There’s an Elephant Behind You

March 10, 2009


I’m not sure how it happened, but the Forest Hermitage’s email address has been sucked up by a local new-age group and so we now have the pleasure of receiving their e-newsletter. I glanced at the contents of one and quickly decided to condemn it and its successors for ever more to the spam bucket.

It was all right, I suppose. It was full of love, light and peace, maaan. (Plus a bit of sex.) And so it could have been a lot worse – talking about love, light and peace is not a bad thing, obviously.

But so often when people emphasize the good they ignore the bad. They pay no attention to the greed, hatred and delusion that is writhing beneath the surface of their minds. And of course this is not healthy, nor is it wise, because the bad needs to be addressed. For if it isn’t it will fester and grow and end up bursting through that positive veneer with little provocation.

Also loving the ‘light’ but shunning the ‘dark’ are the people of some Buddhist groups. Finding the five precepts rather acerbic, only their positive counterparts are taught. So, no ‘avoiding killing’ please, just ‘cherishing life’. No ‘avoiding stealing’, just ‘cultivating generosity’. No ‘avoiding lying’, just ‘being truthful’, etc… But don’t you think we are only getting half the message here? Don’t you think the precepts have lost their clarity? When we are told: ‘Don’t lie’, we don’t lie. When we are only encouraged to be truthful, well, might we be a little less inclined to refrain from lying? The precept (if you can call it that) is not as distinct, and consequently the kilesas – the defilements – have room to play.

It is important to remember that the Buddha taught both that which is to be ‘performed’ (caritta), and that which is to be ‘avoided’ (varitta). We must heed the word both ; the two approaches are complimentary. We clearly need to be taught that which is to be performed and that which is to be avoided.

So it’s all very well talking about the good and the wholesome and the positive; indeed as followers of the Buddha we should. But we need to be practical, and that means we must deal with the dirt. Because the unfortunate reality is we are all under the sway of the defilements; we are totally riddled with the things. And, what’s more, these defilements are no pushovers: they are huge, drooling, snarling beasts. And so they need more than: ‘Be truthful’. They need: ‘ DON’T LIE!’

Clearly these defilements are a very real problem. They are the source of all suffering. And so the only sensible thing to do is to expose them, limit their influence, investigate and understand them, and eventually overcome them. Just this is the aim of Buddhist practice.

I know of a couple of self-ordained married ‘monks’. (Yes, they are ‘monks ‘, and yes, they are ‘married ‘ – the death of Buddhism, anyone?) Looking at photos of these people and their ‘disciples’ they seem to occupy that special part of the atmosphere that lies approximately two inches above the ground. Clad in sumptuous red robes they pose, bearing eyes and teeth, compassionately hugging any hapless creature who finds himself within striking distance. And, of course, they exude love, light and peace, maaan. But have these people faced up to their defilements? Have they addressed the real problem? Have they done the work? Or have they just stuck a naff plaster over a festering sore? Have they just planted a grin over a growl?

When people do a fine job of constructing the perfect outward appearance but neglect to seriously address their defilements within, it’s as if they are acting like angels while all the time a frustrated bull elephant is rolling his head and stomping his feet behind them. One day he’s going to blow his trumpet and the aforementioned floating persons will land with a thud and find themselves scrambling for the door. “Gosh! I didn’t realise he was there!”

In the Simile of the Saw the Buddha tells the following story which perfectly illustrates the folly of dressing up the exterior but neglecting to attend to the interior. Here it goes:

A certain mistress called Vedehika had the following good reputation: “The mistress Vedehika is gentle, the mistress Vedehika is meek, the mistress Vedehika is calm.” Now, this very fine lady had a diligent servant girl called Kali. Things between them generally went along swimmingly, as you’d expect with two such virtuous characters.

But one day Kali began to wonder just how kind and patient her mistress really was. “Suppose I test her.” She thought. So the next morning she got up late. Mistress Vedehika was not happy: “Kali!” She shrilled.Why do you get up so late in the day?!” “Hmmm.” Thought Kali. “Though she does have anger within she does not show it. Suppose I test her again.”

So the following morning she got up even later. “KALI!” Yelled mistress Vedehika. “What is wrong with you? You wicked girl! Why do you get up even later in the day?!” “Interesting.” Thought Kali. “I wonder what will happen if I test her again.”

So the next morning Kali got up even later than before. This time mistress Vedehika was so furious she clobbered Kali with a rolling pin! Then Kali ran amongst the neighbours with blood pouring from her head: “See ladies, this gentle lady’s work?! See ladies, this meek lady’s work?! See ladies, this calm lady’s work?!” Then a bad reputation of her mistress spread about thus: “Mistress Vedehika is violent. Mistress Vedehika is arrogant. Mistress Vedehika is not calm.”

Compare that to Ajahn Chah. In our monastery we have an old photo of him sitting on his wicker chair beneath his kuti. The first time I looked at it I thought: ‘This looks like a man who could handle anything.’ Now here is a man who faced his defilements. Here is a man who teaches others to face their defilements. Here is a man who, for the most part, has overcome his defilements. And having overcome them, what was left? Peace. Unshakable peace.

Superficially slapping the good over the bad is not the aim of Buddhism. What does ‘Arahant’ mean? It means ‘Worthy One’. It refers to someone who is free from all greed, hatred and delusion. This is how we refer to the Buddha. If you think about it, the most important thing for us to do is to free oursleves from all defilement too; to aim to be like the Buddha. Because when there is no defilement the virtues flow unhindered. Without greed there remains only generosity; without hatred there remains only love; without delusion there remains only wisdom. 

Exposing the Kilesas

I went to give an assembly at a school a few weeks ago and on the way the Headteacher bombarded me with questions. “Why did you become a monk? What’s it like.” etc. I told him why and went on to talk about our precepts and the fact that we only eat once a day. Naturally he was taken aback. To live in such a restricted way must be difficult, he commented. But I said, actually, these restrictions are not seen as difficulties, because a) you want to be a monk and live this way, and b) they help you to see your desires and defilements. Because it is only when you see your defilements that you are able to be free from them. If you don’t, you can’t. Being a spiritual man himself he understood.

Recognising and confronting these puppeteers is a prerequisite to freedom. To this end we keep the precepts. The precepts enable us to see the defiled mental states that drive harmful actions. Look at how the precept to avoid lying affects us. When that restriction is in place then whenever we are speaking it is as though we have this little Jiminy Cricket conscience perched on our shoulder, drumming his feet and tapping his stick – his sole purpose to ensure we don’t lie. Now sometimes not lying is difficult. In situations where to tell a lie is tempting the defilements that provoke you to lie start to churn. This is where Jiminy steps in: “Oh no you don’t, buddy! I see you there!” We thus become aware of the defilement, a defilement that would have gone unnoticed were it not for the precept.

Monastery life is geared to exposing the defilements. Monks talk about kilesa all the time. “I need a new pair of wellies.” – “Kilesa – you don’t really need them, you’ve just got your eye on that nice new pair of Hunters.” Or: “I need a new robe.” – “Kilesa – patch up your old one.” Or, in Thailand: “I don’t like this frog curry.” “Kilesa – eat it.” “But I really don’t like this frog curry!” – “Kilesa! be grateful for what you’ve got.” “Now you’re making me angry!!!” – “KILESA!” So, the opportunities in monastery life abound. But this is good. For if we are to free ourselves from the kilesas we must pull the pretty mask off every one of them and have a good and thorough look.

Investigating the Kilesas

So the kilesas need to be exposed. But once we’ve done that what do we do? We observe and investigate them. Going back to that defilement that is driving us to lie: having been revealed we are able to observe it. By observing we detach from it. Being watchful and detached it loses its power over us. Having lost its power it passes away. Having passed away we perceive its impermanence. Having perceived its impermanence we have undermined it; we have seen how it isn’t real, and we are on route to destroying it altogether.

Sometimes after the meal on a Sunday I’m called to sit with Luangpor in the conservatory while he talks to a group of Thais. For me, these occasions can be torture. But this is good. Because it’s not me who is being tortured: it’s my kilesas. (Note: I seem to have progressed a little and so the following account refers to treasured times gone by).

So, I’m fixed to the floor on one side of the conservatory, eyes downcast or closed, while Luangpor speaks to the guests. Now, consider this: I’ve got Burmese, Thai and Sri Lankan curries locked in a scrum inside my distended belly; I’m sitting there listening through the post-meal fog to a conversation that I cannot understand, while my stomach is trying to figure out how exactly to deal with what I’ve put in it; and the conservatory is hot – awfully hot. Enduring this for five minutes is not too bad. But we’re not talking in terms of minutes here. We’re talking in terms of hours. “WHY!!!” I scream internally. WHY DO I NEED TO SIT HERE?!!!  I COULD BE DOING SOMETHING USEFUL!!! —- “FOR *%^^$£&^%’s SAKE!!! But no, there is no escape. All frustration is in vain. So I just sit there. And endure.

My mind on these occasions is not a pretty sight. Young children would certainly not be allowed to see it. The anger, the resentment, the frustration, the desire, (and perhaps a private swear word or two), it comes in droves. But what can I do? Can I run out and do something ‘useful’? Can I turn the fan to point at me? Can I magic away the colliding curries? No. I have to sit there. And endure.

But, I tell you now, I have learnt a few things through these experiences. Because I have been forced to watch my defilements. When you are unable to react and all you can do is sit and watch, you cannot help but see the impermanence of these mental states. At first they are loaded with power and they thrash and they roar and they wail. But as you are not following them – as all of their thrashing is confined to the mind – they eventually begin to tire. You are not providing them with the fuel they need to live. Continuing to sit and watch in this manner they eventually pass away. You have now seen through them. You have outrun them. You have beaten them.

Try it. Next time you have anger firing away, hold on and confine it to your mind. Don’t express it. Put it in a little padded box and leave it to throw itself around until it wears itself out. It will pass away if you don’t feed it. By doing thus insight gradually accumulates. The mind starts to understand: “These things rise and then fall, that is all. There is nothing to them. There is nothing to fear. They are empty.”

And this is part of the wisdom which arises through the confrontational and penetrative observation of all our experiences that enables the mind to cut off the defilements; to “make them like a palm stump: no longer subject to future arising.” 

Freedom from Kilesa

So I’ve spoken a lot about monastic life and how it is geared to highlight our defilements. And we’ve seen how this rooting out is turned to our advantage. But it isn’t only in the monastery where this exposing and observing takes place. And it isn’t just monks who must practise in this way. Anyone who practises the Dhamma follows this same path. We all experience defilement. We can all practise patience and mindfulness. So whatever you experience and whatever situation you are in: turn it to your advantage. Expose, probe, and investigate your mind. Examine your actions and follow the strings upwards to see which defilements are pulling them.

This path to freedom from kilesa is a path that requires unrestricted honesty. If we do not admit to or confront our defilements we can never be free. We need to bring the bright white and honest light of Dhamma into our lives and shine its healing beam into even the darkest and dampest corners of our mind. All intentions and motives behind our actions of body and speech must be exposed.

One area of the mind where people are a little reluctant to shine the Dhamma light is on that which governs livelihood. Right Livelihood – the fourth aspect of the Eightfold Path – is an area where people skimp the Dhamma. Producing music? Acting? Advertising? Surely these are harmless? Well, see for yourself. What states of mind are you inducing in the people you affect? Be honest. Is it greed, hatred or delusion? Is it the desire to acquire?… to hear / read / buy more? Are you fostering the cloud of delusion? Are you encouraging moral and spiritual blindness? These are questions that it pays to ask, that is if we wish to be happy.

The path of Dhamma pulls no punches. It takes us all the way inside to places we never knew existed. It exposes our defilements. It enables us to observe those defilements. And it equips us with the means to be free from those defilements. It is a wonderful medicine, and the result is a wonderful untainted happiness.

So talk about love, light and peace by all means. But don’t forget the elephant that’s standing behind you. Because he’s about to blow his trumpet.


The next teaching will be on:

The new moon day, Wednesday 25th March


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