CHAPTER 15: OVERCOMING IGNORANCE AND DEFILEMENT
Buddhism is very practical; all its philosophy is not meant for speculation or decoration, but as means for solving practical problems, be they physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.
3.49 Six Kinds of Defilement
Original Text in Chinese
Defiled mind, six kinds. What six? One, mutual-reaction with attachment, liberated by the Hinayana vehicle, and by the faith of non-attachment. Two, mutual-reaction with continuity, liberated by practicing expedient means, gradually being able to discard, and attain the state of purified heart for perfect detachment. Three, mutual-reaction with discriminating consciousness, liberated by practising wholesome precepts for gradual detachment, through expedient means till the stage of no characteristic, and become perfectly detached.
Four, disharmonious-reaction with phenomenal perception, state of spontaneous phenomena able to detach. Five, disharmonious-reaction with heart perception, state of spontaneous heart able to detach. Six, disharmonious-reaction with karmic effect, at final stage of Bodhisattva's development, able to enter the stage of Tathagata to detach.
There are six kinds of defiled mind. What are the six kinds?
One, there is the defiled mind as a result of mutual-reaction (xiang ying) with attachment. One can be liberated from this defilement by following the Hinayana vehicle, and the faith of non-attachment.
Two, there is the defiled mind due to continuity of attachment. The aspirant can practice expedient means to free himself from attachment. In this way, he can gradually discard his mental defilement, and when he reaches a state of purified mind he can achieve perfect detachment.
Three, there is the defiled mind as a result of mutual-reaction with discriminating consciousness. As the aspirant practises wholesome precepts of the Buddhist teaching, he gradually detaches himself from defilement. When he reaches through expedient means the stage of meditating on the void, he will be perfectly detached from this defilement.
Four, there is the defiled mind which is due to disharmonious-reaction (bu xiang ying) with the realm of phenomena. The aspirant can overcome this defilement by mental cultivation to the stage where he can view the phenomenal world with detachment.
Five, there is the defiled mind due to disharmonious-reaction with the perception characteristic of the mind. The aspirant can overcome this defilement by purifying his mind through meditation.
Six, there is the defiled mind due to disharmonious-reaction with karmic effect. This defilement can be overcome when the aspirant reaches the final stage of the Bodhisattva's development, and is able to enter the stage of Tathagata.
Since Rene Descartes (1596-1650) separated the mind from the body in his Cartesian model which has since become the "official doctrine" in the West, Western philosophers, psychologists and medical scientists have been debating the mind-body relation keenly. The great 17th century English philosopher John Locke suggested that we are only bodies to which God has superadded the mind.
The 18th century French physician and philosopher Pierre Cabanis said that "Just as the stomach and intestines are destined to operate digestion, the liver to filter bile, the parotid and maxillary glands to prepare the salivary juices, so the brain performs organically the secretion of thought." Possibly echoing Cabanis' idea, Charles Darwin in the 19th century asked, "Why is thought being a secretion of the brain more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance and admiration of ourselves."
Modern psychologists, at the height of materialism and behaviourism, tend to alienate the mind even further. The American D. Drake asserts that "The mind is the brain. In using the term 'mind' we are conceiving these cerebral events as they are on the inside." Nevertheless, the American philosopher David Lund retorts, "How can the brain, a material substance, produce something as radically different from it as consciousness is? How can the brain create out of its own material substance a reality that has no mass, no shape, no size, and is not even in space."
In Buddhism and Eastern philosophies generally, there is no question about the mind not being the brain. The brain is never given the special position as the seat of consciousness; at best it is a form of super computer. Instead of debating the mind-body relation, Buddhist masters concentrate on an in-depth study of the mind. Unlike Western philosophers and scientists whose concepts of the mind are mainly derived from speculation, those of the Buddhist masters are derived from direct experience.
In this passage, after having explained the principles of ignorance that generates the transformations of transcendental Cosmic Reality into the phenomenal world, Asvaghosha explains the kinds and causes of defiled mind that causes people to perceive reality as illusion; then he suggests methods to overcome the defilement.
While the transformations that cause people to perceive transcendental reality as the phenomenal world, operate from fine to gross, the cultivation processes to overcome the defilement moves from gross to fine. The first three kinds of defiled minds are due to mutual-reaction (xiang ying). They are the result of gross transformations, and involve the intellect consciousness. The last three kinds are due to disharmonious-reaction (bu xiang ying). They are the result of fine transformation, and involve the alaya consciousness. The meaning of mutual-reaction and disharmonious-reaction will be explained in Passage 3.51 below.
Original Text in Chinese
Not understanding the meaning of one Dharmarealm, from first stage observing the faith, to entering purified heart with partial detachment, to Tathagata stage with total detachment.
Not understanding that the one and only Dharmarealm is transcendental and undifferentiated, is the source of ignorance, which leads to attachment. By following the faith an aspirant starts his first stage in spiritual development, and when he has reached the stage when his mind is purified he has achieved partial detachment. When he reaches the final stage of the Tathagata or Supreme Reality, he has achieved total detachment, thereby attaining perfect Enlightenment.
A dharmarealm, or a realm of sub-atomic particles and forces, means a sphere of phenomenal existence. It may refer to one of the three major realms, namely the realm of desires, the realm of form and the realm of non-form. Or it may refer to one of the planes of existence in one of these major realms, like the realm of humans or the realm of heavenly beings.
However, when the term "one Dharmarealm" is used, it means the one and only Dharmarealm, referring to the summation of all the dharmarealms, that is, the Supreme Reality.
3.51 Mutual-Reaction and Disharmonious Reaction
Original Text in Chinese
Talking about mutual-reaction, heart and thought are related, according to purity or defilement, being aware of characteristics, and the effects are similar. In the meaning of disharmonious-reaction, the heart is not Enlightened, not with environment, and has different characteristics.
By mutual-reaction is meant that the mind on one hand, and thoughts and their resulting phenomena on the other, are directly related. When the mind is pure, thoughts are pure; when the mind is defiled, thoughts are defiled. The mind is aware of the characteristics of the thoughts, and they produce similar karmic effects.
On the meaning of disharmonious-reaction, the mind is already defiled before the gross transformations into the phenomenal world begin. Hence there is disharmonious-reaction between the defiled mind on one hand and the transcendental aspect of reality on the other; or from the other perspective if the mind had not been defiled, disharmonious-reaction between the (otherwise) purified mind and the phenomenal world. The relationship between the inner and the outer world is inverse. As a result, the characteristics observed by the defiled mind are different from what they really are.
Although this is a short passage, the original Chinese text and its subsequent literal translation are among the most difficult to understand, because not only the concept presented here is profound, the classical language is very concise. If not for the commentaries from masters of earlier centuries, even Chinese scholars in the modern time may not know its meaning.
Here, Asvaghosha explains the meaning of "mutual-reaction" and "disharmonious-reaction", which are significant in the six types of defiled mind mentioned in Passage 3.49 above. This concept may supply modern psychologists and psychiatrists with some unexpected insight.
Mental defilement can be caused by six major factors divided into two broad groups:
- mutual-reaction with
(c) discriminating consciousness.
- disharmonious-reaction with
(a) phenomenal world,
(c) karmic effect.
Once we have understood the concept, it is not difficult to simplify it for our more prosaic daily needs. For example, according to the concept of mutual-reaction, if the mind is defiled, it will see the outer world as defiled. If the mind is pure, or purified through training, it will see the same outer world as pure. On the other hand, according to the concept of disharmonious-reaction, a person with a defiled mind will consider any action by another person as hostile, though it may be well-intended; whereas a person with a purified mind can readily regard malicious remarks against him as some form of jokes.
Asvaghosha's teaching may be useful to modern psychiatrists. For example, neurotic depression, an ailment that is becoming prevalent in Western societies, may be interpreted as mutual-reaction of a defiled mind with continuity. This means a defiled mind is continuously attached to some defiled phenomena. Schizophrenia, an illness that is giving many psychiatrists a big headache, may be interpreted as disharmonious-reaction of a defiled mind with perception. This means when a defiled mind perceives a phenomenon, even though the phenomenon is pure, the defiled mind will see it as defiled.
Besides dressing these psychiatric disorders in some philosophical terms, can Asvaghosha's concept provide any practical help? It can. Buddhism is very practical; all its philosophy is not meant for spe-culation or decoration, but as means for solving practical problems, be they physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. If we find any Buddhist philosophical concepts far-fetched or ludicrous, it is because we have not understood them. The profound elaboration on the different dharmarealms or on the cause of ignorance, for example, is not meant as material for mythology or mental gymnastics, but as serious teaching to help humanity attain Enlightenment.
Let us see how Asvaghosha's philosophical concept may be used to overcome psychiatric problems. As the problems can be conceptualized into two parts, mind and phenomena, we may overcome them by working on either one part or on both parts. Hence, instead of using drugs, psychotherapy or electroconvulsive therapy, the three conventional treatment methods which unfortunately have often turned out to be ineffective, we may remedy neurotic depression, for example, by strengthening the patient's mind so that he can better cope with continual unpleasant situations, or change the situations so that his mind, despite being weak, may still cope with them.
In the case of schizophrenia, as the problem lies with the mind (which is defiled) and not with the perceived object (which is pure), the treatment is to purify the mind. Meditation is the best way for mind purification, but as a schizophrenic patient usually lacks the ability and discipline for mediation practice, expedient means like doing charity work, reciting religious verse (or inspiring poetry), mental relaxation and simple focusing exercises can be helpful.
3.52 Defilement and Ignorance
Original Text in Chinese
Next, meaning of defilement, called mental disturbance, can hinder original wisdom of Zhen Ru. Meaning of ignorance, called hinderance to wisdom, can hinder the spontaneous karmic wisdom of phenomenal world.
After discussing the six states of defiled mind, and mutual-reaction and disharmonious-reaction, let us discuss the meaning of defilement and ignorance. Defilement is called mental disturbance. It can mar our understanding that Zhen Ru or the Supreme Reality is undifferentiated and transcendental, thus hindering our spiritual realization. Ignorance is called hinderance to wisdom. It can hinder our understanding of the spontaneous operation of karma in the phenomenal world.
Mental defilement refers to the six states of defiled mind mentioned earlier. Because of it, we fail to understand that Cosmic Reality is actually undifferentiated and transcendental; consequently we view reality as differentiated into myriad phenomena which are therefore illusory.
Ignorance, which creates the illusory outer world, is a hindrance to higher wisdom which reveals the transcendental aspect of reality. Because of ignorance, we fail to understand the working of karma, the universal law of cause and effect, which is natural and spontaneous in the phenomenal world. We also fail to realize that karma is also illusory, because it ceases to operate in the transcendental aspect.
Realizing this higher truth can be of tremendous impact. As transcendental reality is undifferentiated, there is no right and wrong, either in the absolute or relative sense. That was why when they were perfectly Enlightened, when they realized that they are an integral expression of Cosmic Reality, Zen masters freely hit their Enlightened students, and their students them. That was also why in the Bhagavad-gita when Arjuna hesitated to go to battle because he did not want to murder, God speaking in the person of Sri Krishna told him all that was happening is maya, or illusion, and no one ever dies.
Of course, no masters ever suggest anyone to hit or kill. But, even though we are so far behind Zen masters and Arjuna in spiritual development, we can derive much consolation and inspiration that even if we do not accumulate as much worldly wealth, power or pleasures as we would like, there is definitely no cause for disappointment or dejection, because all these worldly gains are merely tricks of our defiled minds.
This does not mean we should be complacent. Contrary to what many mis-informed people might think, Buddhist teaching expounds that great and right effort must be put in to attain set goals in this or other better worlds. If we wish to enjoy heavenly bliss, for example, there are more than thirty heavens where we can definitely go to, but we must work hard to build up sufficiently good karma. Yet the greatest achievement is obtainable here and now, that is realizing Cosmic Reality. This book will show us how.
3.53 Universal Law
Original Text in Chinese
What is the meaning? Due to the defiled heart, one can see what can appear, with illusion taking in the phenomenal world, which is far from undifferentiation. All phenomena are quiescent: there are no arising of characteristics. Due to ignorance and non-Enlightenment, delusion and phenomena are related. Hence one cannot know and follow the various phenomenal operation in the realm of objects.
What is the meaning of saying that mental defilement hinders our understanding of transcendental reality, and ignorance hinders our understanding of the phenomenal world?
Actually there is only one reality, but because of mental defilement, there arise two dimensions, the subject and the object, or the knower and the known. The knower sees the known that appears, as the illusory phenomenal world, which is differentiated into countless entities, far unlike the undifferentiated nature of transcendental reality.
Actually all phenomena in their absolute aspect are quiescent, without any arising of differentiated characteristics. Because of ignorance and non-Enlightenment, delusion and phenomena become directly related, with the result that the deluded mind sees phenomena as differentiated and separated. This is contrary to the natural law of reality. Hence a deluded mind does not know the universal natural law governing the operation of various phenomena in the phenomenal world.
This passage contains two universal truths that can explain the working of psychic abilities or miraculous powers. These two truths are that there is no difference between subject and object, or the knower and the known; and that the phenomena we see in our ordinary consciousness as separate and differentiated, are actually an intimately connected organic whole. These two truths are the same; they describe Cosmic Reality from two perspectives.
A psychic is able to know what is in another person's mind because, at a heightened state of consciousness, he the knower, and the other person's mind, the known, are the same unity. Or, explained from the other perspective, his own mind and the other person's thought are organically connected. Similarly, a master who understands and is able to actualize this universal law governing the operation of phenomena in the phenomenal world, is able to perform what ordinary people would call miracles, such as bilocation, materialization and distant healing.
There are many records of Mahayana masters using miraculous powers to save people. While many Theravada masters consider such powers as a hindrance to spiritual development, Mahayana masters regard them as one of the expedient means to help others to attain spiritual fulfilment.
Certainly many people would find it hard to believe that psychic and miraculous powers are possible. When I made a public announcement in 1988 on distant transmission of cosmic energy (which can be employed for healing people hundreds of kilometres away), there was a huge public outcry against me. In 1989 I proved that this was true in a month-long public experiment organized by an independent national newspaper.
How can one acquire miraculous powers? By purifying the mind. Would he abuse them? If he can attain such a level, he would realize that spiritual growth is much more important than any other considerations.
3.54 Gross and Fine
Original Text in Chinese
Next, discriminating life-death characteristics, two kinds. What two? One, gross heart mutual-reaction. Two, fine heart disharmonious-reaction. Gross of the gross, realm of ordinary people. Fine of the gross, and gross of the fine, realm of bodhisattvas. Fine of the fine, realm of buddhas.
Having explained mental defilement and ignorance, explanation is now given for "life-death characteristics" (sheng mie xiang), or the characteristics of samsara. They refer to the characteristics of existence in the phenomenal world, i.e. the phenomenal aspect of the Supreme Reality.
These characteristics of the phenomenal world can be divided into two main groups, namely gross mutual-reaction with the mind, and fine disharmonious-reaction with the mind.
The fine and gross groups can be further divided into fine and gross again, making four types. The gross of the gross mutual-reaction operates in the realm for ordinary people; the fine of the gross mutual-reaction, and the gross of the fine disharmonious-reaction operate in the realm for bodhisattvas; the fine of the fine disharmonious-reaction operates in the realm for those about to become buddhas.
The classification of the characteristics of the phenomenal world, which leads to the operation of karma, are related to the six defiled states mentioned earlier (Passage 3.51). These six states of defilement consist of three gross mutual-reaction types, and three fine disharmonious-reaction types:
- gross mutual-reaction with attachment,
- gross mutual-reaction with continuity,
- gross mutual-reaction with discriminating consciousness,
- fine disharmonious-reaction with phenomenal world,
- fine disharmonious-reaction with perception,
- fine disharmonious-reaction with karmic effect.
The fine of gross characteristics are related to the second and the third types of defilement. The gross of fine characteristics is related to the fourth and the fifth types. All these defilements generate karma.
These characteristics are common among people who have started their spiritual training, which is divided into ten stages of spiritual growth (please see Commentary for Passage 3.19.) In Asvaghosha's time, these spiritually minded people are known as bodhisattvas, whose karma is usually good. Now the meaning of "Bodhisattvas" is different; they refer to Enlightened beings, who may have transcended karma, but who voluntarily delay entering into Buddhahood because of their great compassion in helping other beings in the three phenomenal realms.
The fine of fine characteristics is related to the sixth type of defilement. These characteristics are common among highly spiritual masters who are about to become buddhas. Their minds are almost perfectly purified, but there is still traces of defilement because in their great compassion to help others, they still differentiate between self (themselves) and others. In other words, they have not completely overcome the distinction between the knower and the known. Bodhisattvas, in the modern sense, have this kind of characteristics.
Those who are about to enter Buddhahood have almost completely overcome all their karmic effect. Some have actually completely overcome their karmic effect, because having actualized (not merely understood) the Supreme Reality, they have overcome the last trace of illusion, and karma does not work for them any more. But they still have a very fine trace of defilement in their minds; as they still have thoughts of helping others, there is still some manifestation of the phenomenal aspect in them. Therefore, there is disharmonious-reaction between their slightly defiled mind and their termination or near termination, of karmic effect. Or, for Bodhisattvas who have perfectly purified their minds, but returned to the phenomenal realms to help others, the disharmonious-reaction is between having a pure mind but involved in karmic effect while operating phenomenally.
3.55 Ignorance and Karma
Original Text in Chinese
These two life-death due to ignorance. Due to cause, due to effect. Cause, because of non-Enlightenment. Effect, delusion concerning the phenomenal world. If cause ceases, effect ceases. Cause ceases because disharmonious-reaction of heart ceases. Effect ceases because mutual-reaction of heart ceases.
These two types of characteristics of the phenomenal world are due to the function of ignorance, which generates both cause and effect. The cause of ignorance, which also causes the two types of phenomenal characteristics, is non-Enlightenment. The effect of ignorance, which also brings about the characteristics, is delusion concerning the phenomenal world.
If cause ceases, effect ceases. If ignorance ceases, there will be no delusion concerning the phenomenal world. Cause ceases because the disharmonious-reaction of the mind ceases. Ignorance ceases when the individual mind harmonizes, or be united organically, with the Universal Mind. Effect ceases because the mutual-reaction of the defiled ceases. We will not distort reality if our mind is purified.
Ignorance, the central problem in Buddhism, is the crucial factor contributing to our distortion of reality. Ignorance, as used here and elsewhere in Buddhist philosophy, refers to spiritual ignorance, and not merely a lack of knowledge in the ordinary sense.
This ignorance factor is both the cause and the effect of characteristics of the phenomenal world. In other words, ignorance is both the cause and the effect of man's suffering in samsara, or the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Because of ignorance there arise the three fine defiled states; and as a result of ignorance there arise the three gross defiled states (please see Passage 3.51). One of the most important objectives of Buddhist teaching is to overcome ignorance.
This may come as a surprise to many readers who believe that the whole business of Buddhism is to eliminate desires. This belief is mainly because of reading the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are of course a fundamental teaching of Buddhism, and eliminating desires a basic tenet. But if they are mis-understood, or understood only at its elementary level, it is easy to mis-interpret Buddhism as pessimistic, or at best reduce its followers to unthinking, unfeeling individuals.
The Four Noble Truths state that there is much suffering in life, the cause of suffering is attachment, to eliminate suffering it is necessary to eliminate attachment, and one effective, practical way to do so is the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Eliminating desires, therefore, is in the third noble truth.
Everything can be interpreted at two levels -- elementary or profound, ritualistic or philosophical, ordinary knowledge or higher wisdom. For most ordinary people, especially those are steep in dishonest activities and licentious indulgence, the Four Noble Truths should be taught at the elementary, ritualistic level of ordinary knowledge, and eliminating unwholesome desires is a definite, positive step towards spiritual development. Obviously for others who are already on the way to spiritual realization, the Buddhist teaching should be given a more profound interpretation.
One must not be so obsessed with the doctrine "there is much suffering in life" that he forgets the other important Buddhist doctrine "to be born a human is an extremely rare blessed opportunity", just as in Christianity one must not be so carried away by the tenet "man is a sinner" that he forgets "man is godlike" too. Eliminating desires means eliminating harmful desires. Having useful desires is not against the teaching of Buddhism. Indeed, one of the tenets in the Noble Eight-fold Path is right intention, with emphasis on the desire for spiritual cultivation. In some Mahayanist schools, like the Amitabha and the Maitreya schools, the basic doctrine is the expressed and explicit desire to be reborn in the Paradise of Eternal Bliss.
When the Buddha says that there is much suffering, he specially refers to the endless cycle of birth and rebirth in the human realm, in comparison to blissful life in heaven, or eternal joy in nirvana or Buddhahood. The cause of this suffering is carving for worldly things, thus perpetuating the karmic effect of being reborn in the human or even lower realms. To eliminate this suffering of samsara, one must eliminate this carving, thereby ending karma, or if he is not ready yet, improve his karmic effect so that he may be reborn at a higher level. The way to achieve this is the Noble Eight-fold Path, which consists of morality, higher wisdom and spiritual cultivation to attain Enlightenment.