Since the days of Freud, it has become virtually an axiom of modern psychology that the fundamental determinants of the human mind are fixed and immutable. The legacy of our evolutionary past, psychologists believe, is indelibly coded in the brain’s hardwiring, making us pawns in the hands of primal lust and aggression. Our smart conversational skills and costly wardrobes may win the admiration of our peers, but when our clothes are stripped away and we appear without cover, we turn out to be just a peculiar species of monkey that writes poetry and studies quantum physics. The best we can hope for—what distinguishes us as human—is the capacity to sublimate our hot emotions into cooler channels than our primate cousins. But beyond this our situation appears to be a sad one. If we are honest with ourselves, the realists say, we would admit our lofty dreams and noble ideals to be what they really are: nothing but wishful fantasies that camouflage a mind bent mainly on money, sex and power.
The Buddha, too, does not offer us a particularly buoyant view of human nature. With a candor bordering on ruthlessness, he pulls away the pretenses we use to congratulate ourselves on our civility and lays bare a diagnosis that can match the grimmest reports in the annals of psychopathology. The unenlightened mind, for the Buddha, is a whirlpool of deluded emotions kept spinning by three toxic streams and four deadly floods. It is blocked by five hindrances, harbors seven latent tendencies, and congeals into four bonds, four knots and ten fetters. Soiled by sixteen mental corruptions (see Majjhima Nikāya 7) and prone to forty-four types of misconduct (see MN 8), we recklessly meander along the ten courses of unwholesome action, reaping their bitter fruits (see MN 9, MN 41).
Unlike modern psychologists, the Buddha does not limit human suffering to a single lifetime, nor for that matter does he focus solely on the perils of the human state. He sees living beings as wandering among the five realms of sentient existence in the beginningless treadmill of samsara, shedding tears more copious than the water in the ocean (Sam.yutta Nikaya 15:3). But despite the starkness of this analysis, the Buddha does not sustain his teaching on a plaintive note. Rather, he proclaims a message of hope. The hope he holds up is not merely the offer of a way to sublimate our harmful tendencies in order to pass our lives in quiet rather than anxious desperation. What he proposes instead is a radical cure that reaches right down to the hidden causes of our anguish and removes them in their entirety.
The treatment the Buddha prescribes is governed by a striking insight of psychological genius. In a single stroke he traces all our mental afflictions to three fundamental forces, called the unwholesome roots: greed, hatred and delusion. Thus the entire practice of the Dhamma can be viewed as a sequential process of removing these unwholesome mental qualities by developing their antidotes. Its culmination, known as nibbāna, literally means the extinguishing of the flames—the inward fires of greed, hatred and delusion (see SN 35:28).
The three stages of the training are intended to methodically implement this process of extinguishing. We begin by restraining the outward expressions of the defilements in bodily and verbal behavior; this is accomplished by moral observance (sīla). We then proceed to mental tranquility, which aims to tackle the defilements as they infiltrate thought, emotion and volition; this is accomplished by the training in concentration (samādhi). Finally, because all defilements ultimately stem from ignorance, we undertake the training in wisdom (paññā), which brings direct insight into “things as they are.” It is this clear discernment of the true nature of existence that can extinguish the flames of the defilements and open the door to ultimate freedom.
One major factor in this process of inner transformation, often overlooked by American Buddhist teachers, is the use of reflection to generate a strong motivation for practice. In the American assimilation of Buddhism, we are commonly taught to plunge directly into intensive meditation with hardly any prior preparation. The canonical texts, however, insist that in order to succeed in our efforts to eliminate greed, hatred and delusion, it is important to carefully reflect upon their dangers (ādīnava)—the misery and suffering they entail—and the benefits (anisamsa) that accrue to us when we eliminate them. Though our minds normally revolve in the grooves of irrational emotions, we are not their inevitable slaves. Wise reflection (yoniso manasikāra), thorough and systematic, can effect momentous changes in our mental habits that shift the functioning of consciousness on its pivot.
The Buddha teaches that our minds incline to what we habitually reflect upon. If we persistently think thoughts driven by lust, ill will and harmfulness, these traits will become habitual. If we recognize the danger in these thoughts and the benefits in their opposites, we will incline instead toward nonattachment, lovingkindness and compassion, which will eventually become habitual. The discourse on Two Kinds of Thoughts (MN 19) offers a splendid example of this process as the Buddha himself applied it during the period prior to his enlightenment. While meditating in solitude, he tells us, he realized that his thoughts could be divided into two categories, the unwholesome and the wholesome. Whenever a thought of sensual desire, ill will or cruelty arose, he would consider: “This thought is harmful. It obstructs wisdom, brings trouble and leads away from nibbāna.” In this way he abolished those thoughts. And whenever a thought of renunciation, kindness and compassion arose, he reflected: “This thought is beneficial. It brings no trouble but promotes wisdom and leads to nibbāna.” In this way he cultivated these thoughts.
As an aid to reflection, the suttas reveal the manifold dangers in sensual lust, hatred and delusion. The Greater Discourse on the Great Mass of Suffering (MN 13), for example, exposes the misery created by sensual craving, which ranges from the grind of daily life to the heart-wrenching tragedy of war. A dialogue with the hedonist Magandiya (MN 75) compares sensual pleasures to the enjoyment a leper feels when scratching his infected wounds. Other suttas expose the dangers in hatred and the benefits of lovingkindness. Thus one discourse (Anguttara Nikaya 7:60) details seven perils in anger, which include ugliness, loneliness and rebirth in hell. Another sutta (AN 8:1) explains eight benefits of lovingkindness, from pleasant sleep to rebirth among the gods. Ultimately, the Buddha traces our suffering to ignorance, the most obstinate of all the mind’s defilements, and as the remedy he prescribes insight into the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of phenomena. Each insight has its respective benefits. Insight into impermanence makes the mind incline towards nibbāna; insight into suffering brings disenchantment with all conditioned things; and insight into selflessness puts an end to self-identification (AN 6:102–104).
The Buddha taught the dangers in the defilements and the benefits in removing them not merely as an exercise in objective analysis but as a spur to wise reflection. It is wise reflection that can help us discern the true meaning of the teaching and guide us in proper practice. To stress the role of reflection in the contemplative life is not to say that the human mind is a transparently rational instrument that scrupulously follows the prescriptions of reasonable thought. The underlying tendencies are powerful and cunning, able to subvert and distort our most lofty ideals. But calling attention to this function of wise reflection highlights the ability of reflective thought to transform our views and motivation. To perceive the dangers in greed, hatred and delusion is to acquire a powerful reason to abandon them. To see the benefits in cultivating wholesome qualities is to aspire to achieve them. Such conceptual reflection has limits, of course, but it can profoundly alter the orientation of the mind. Once it has achieved its purpose, wise reflection must be followed by the further work of earnest practice that transforms cognitive understanding into personal realization.