Buddhist practice is all about understanding suffering, and then based on that understanding, ending it. This is what is expressed in the Four Noble Truths – the central teaching of Buddhism. Our meditation practice is undertaken in the service of this project of understanding and ending suffering. We have to understand suffering, and know its cause, before we can end it. While we each must do this work for ourselves, the Buddha left us teachings, which point to the cause of suffering. These teachings give us an advantage. They show us where we should direct our awareness in order to understand suffering.
According to these teachings, suffering arises based on the presence of three “defilements” in the mind. Those defilements are greed or clinging, hatred or aversion, and delusion or confusion. The term “defilement” might be troubling to some. It can have a moralistic connotation in our culture, like we’ve done something dirty or wrong, but that’s not what we mean in this context. The term “defilements” is used because these mental qualities come and corrupt our awareness. It’s not that we have necessarily done anything wrong. It’s the defilements themselves that are arising unbidden, and corrupting self-awareness. People don’t decide to be angry or clinging, or deluded. The defilements just show up on their own based on causes and conditions. The true and original nature of the mind is clear, calm, and illuminated, but greed, anger and delusion arise and cover over this clear self-awareness. This is why they are called defilements – they are sort of soiling or blocking our natural state of awareness.
The defilements are almost always there at some level. They are described as an underlying tendency that is present in all of us until we are liberated. Sometimes we are conscious of them, if they are particularly strong, but normally we do not even know they are there. It is like they are secretly whispering in our ears. They tell us what we want and don’t want, and they urge us to pursue this, or push away that, accordingly. We usually just follow those whispered instructions without really knowing that is what we are doing – following the orders of the defilements. The way out of this begins with becoming conscious of the whispering – becoming aware of the defilements and seeing them clearly. When they are clearly seen, when they are found out, they lose their power over us.
We normally don’t recognize the defilements because they tend to hide behind a veil of thought. We always have some story playing in our heads. The story is justifying and encouraging what we want or don’t want. Furthermore, we are identified with that story and so we think we are following our own interests, not realizing that it is the defilements who are really pulling the strings. This is the dynamic that we must see through with our practice.
Proliferating thought itself comes from the defilements – a combination of delusion and greed, or delusion and aversion. We can see how this happens when we are meditating. Thought comes up and we lose ourselves in the thought, even though we had previously decided that we would practice meditation. When the thought arises, the defilements tell us that this is a really important thought, either about something we want, or about something we hope to avoid, and we are told we should be with that thought. The defilements make us want the thought, and so we turn it over and over again in our heads. Our practice is not to suppress this cycle, but to see it clearly. That is how we free ourselves. So each time we get caught in thought, we use awareness of the body to come out of it, observing how the thought drops away when we disengage. If we do this repeatedly and with some continuity, we eventually see that the story is really not who we are, and the defilements behind it begin to come into focus. When the defilements are seen clearly, they no longer have power over us, and we begin to glimpse the possibility of freedom.