Refocusing on the Defilements

Ajahn Yatiko • May 2012

One of the problems we come across is the tendency to forget the goal of our practice and life—in other words, the direction where we should be aiming. We need to frequently return to the basic intention to be free from the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the conditions of daily life, wanting the conditions to be a certain way, either liking our present conditions or disliking them. People who are active, work a lot, coordinate a lot, or do a lot of planning can easily spend the whole day manipulating conditions, especially if they are skilled at this.

I once knew a German monk in Thailand who candidly said to me that he could look at anything, for instance a water fountain, and tell me five things that were wrong with it. He said he could look at anything and tell me how to improve it, whether it’s in the wrong place, designed poorly, or not properly cared for. He said this in a sweet, non-boasting way. It’s easy for people with that ability to believe that they can sort out all the conditions. Sometimes things truly aren’t working well or people aren’t behaving the way they should, and in our minds we think we can get it all sorted out. But when we try, it doesn’t usually work out the way we want. Or if it does, that can be even worse, because then we’re not likely to have been aware of the defilements that came up when we attached to our view about the right way of doing things.

It’s as if we have a spotlight of awareness focused on external conditions, applying strong views and judgments about the way things are or should be. This can create a great amount of suffering in some cases. Basically, we’re looking in the wrong place. We can spend our whole lives focusing outward, trying to get things, situations, or people to do what we want, forgetting that our awareness and perception should be focused inwardly, on ourselves. In our tradition it’s been said that as monastics 95 percent of our focus should be on our own state of mind, our own movements of mind. We focus internally because we want to be free from suffering and this is how we accomplish this task.

Not long ago we drove up to the Old Gold Mine Hermitage and in the van I listened to a classic talk from Ajahn Jayasāro. It’s called “Recognizing the Upakkilesas.” In this talk, he analyzes various defilements of the mind such as anger, ill will, cruelty, envy, belittling, and self-righteousness. As I listened, a mood of irritation came up, and I started investigating what this irritation could be and how I could describe its nature. To really describe a defilement we need to study it. For me, it’s not so helpful to study defilements intellectually, as in the Visuddhimagga, where each defilement is defined as having specific attributes and proximate causes. Instead, the way of study I find most helpful in practice is through direct experience. So with irritation, for example, we study what’s going on right now, once irritation has arisen. We investigate what it’s all about, what it feels like, and what conditions gave rise to it in this specific case. Doing this, we can clearly see that the conditions which gave rise to irritation will change, and that irritation will arise again in another situation if those same conditions are present.

We can use whatever arises as an object of study. Taking an extreme hypothetical situation, let’s say an anagārika calls me “Ajahn Fatico,” and I get upset about this, thinking what he said was inappropriate and insulting. Let’s say this gives rise to anger, and I really want to set him straight. However, in terms of my own practice, the fact that he insulted me is not the point at all because even if I do set him straight and he apologizes, in the future I may feel hurt or angered by a comment somebody else makes—I’ve done nothing to prevent that hurt and anger from arising when the same conditions recur. It’s an endless cycle for us if we go about things in this way. So we need to change our focus from being set on external conditions, such as what other people say and do, and instead focus on the way our attachments, cravings, and defilements move through experience. We can see that they aren’t ours—they don’t belong to us. We need to recognize and appreciate that.

The Pāli word āgantuka means newcomer or guest. An āgantuka monk is a visiting monk who comes from a different tradition, who may have different standards of Vinaya, or who does not know the way we do things here. In one sutta passage, the Buddha says that the defilements are visitors—that the mind is intrinsically pure, and the defilements come into the mind as āgantuka (AN 1.49). So the defilements are merely visitors, they don’t really belong in the mind. We have to see how these defilements arise and pass away, how they’re not part of us and don’t define who we are. To see that takes attention, focus, and a clear sense of what our priorities are in the practice.