Refocusing on the Defilements

Ajahn Yatiko

Refocusing on the Defilements

One of the problems we come across is the tendency to forget the goal of our practice and life—in other words, the direction in which we should point ourselves. We can return to the basic understanding that we wish to be free from the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. It’s easy to get caught up in the conditions of daily life. You want the conditions to be a certain way and you either like them or you don’t. You can believe that the condition is the problem. People who coordinate activities and plan work can easily spend the whole day manipulating conditions and become quite skilled in this.

I once knew a German monk in Thailand who candidly and honestly said to me that he could look at anything, for instance this water fountain, and tell me five things that are 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 aren’t working well or people aren’t behaving the way you think they should behave. In your mind you think you can get it all sorted out. Yet, in reality, it doesn’t usually work according to your wishes. Sometimes you worsen the situation when you sort it all out when you’re unaware of the defilements that condition your view of the right way to do something. It’s as if we have a spot light of awareness focused on the conditions. We believe our minds and we want conditions to be a particular way or we have judgments and very strong views. This can create a great amount of suffering in some cases. Basically, we’re looking in the wrong place. You can focus your whole life outwards trying to get things, situations, or people to do what you want and forget that our awareness and perception should be focused on ourselves. Especially in the monastic context, 95% 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.

We drove up to the Old Gold Mine Hermitage for five or six days and in the car I listened to a classic talk from Ajahn Jayasaro. It’s called “Recognizing the Upakilesas.” In this talk he analyzes various defilements of the mind such as anger, ill will, cruelty, envy, belittling, and self righteousness. As I listened in the van, a mood of irritation came up, and I started investigating what this irritation could be and how I could describe it.

Ajahn Jayasaro was describing the nature of these different defilements in the same way. To really describe a defilement you need to study it. It’s not so helpful to study defilements intellectually, as in the Visuddhimagga, where it says irritation is this or the proximate cause of irritation is that. Instead, one studies the irritation that has arisen right now and investigates what it’s all about, what it feels like, and what conditions gave rise to it in this specific case. It can become very clear that the conditions will change and the irritation will re-arise in another situation. Sometimes you want to resolve the situation by fixing something, changing the way something is done, or changing somebody’s attitude. Even if you could succeed, a week later that same irritation is going to come up again. So we have our priorities wrong and the spotlight of awareness is in the wrong place.

We can use whatever arises as an object of study. Taking an extreme hypothetical situation, let’s say an anāgārika calls me “Ajahn Fatico” and I get really upset. I think that what he said is inappropriate. Let’s say this gives rise to a lot of anger and I really want to set that anāgārika straight. However, that specific situation with the anāgārika is not the point at all because even if I explained it to him and made him change his ways, that doesn’t necessarily free him from his defilements. What he needs to do is free his own heart from his presumptions that gave rise to that comment. Even if I did get him to apologize, there may be another situation in the future where I feel hurt or angered by another comment somebody else makes.

So we need to change our focus from the external conditions of what other people say and do to see how our attachments, cravings, and defilements move through experience. We can see that they aren’t ours and they don’t belong to us. We have to be able 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 and may have different standards of vinaya or does not know know the way we do things here. The Buddha says the defilements are āgantuka. There’s a passage where the Buddha says the mind is intrinsically pure and the defilements come into the minds as visitors (AN 1.49-52). He uses the word āgantuka. So the defilements are just like visitors. They don’t really belong in the mind and they’re not a part of who we are. We have to see how these defilements arise and pass away and how they are not who we really are and do not need to define us. To see that takes attention, focus and a clear sense of our priorities in practice. Then we can take this away and reflect on it throughout the day.