We have spoken of the afflictive emotions and the harm they wreak upon our spiritual practice. It is, I must admit, natural for us to experience emotions such as anger and desire. However, this does not mean that we needn’t do anything about them.
I am aware that in Western psychology, expressing feelings and emotions, even anger, is often encouraged. Certainly many people have endured traumatic experiences in their past, and if these emotions are suppressed, they may indeed cause lasting psychological harm. In such cases, as we say in Tibet, “When the conch shell is blocked, the best way to clear it is to blow into it.”
Having said this, I do feel that it is important for spiritual practitioners to adopt a stance against strong emotions such as anger, attachment, and jealousy and devote themselves to developing restraint. Instead of allowing ourselves to indulge in occurrences of strong emotions, we should work at decreasing our propensity toward them. If we ask ourselves whether we are happier when angry or when calm, the answer is evident. As we discussed earlier, the troubled mental state that results from afflictive emotions immediately disturbs our inner equilibrium, causing us to feel unsettled and unhappy. In our quest for happiness, our main aim should be to combat these emotions. We can achieve this only by applying deliberate and sustained effort over a long period of time - we Buddhists would say many successive lifetimes.
As we have seen already, mental afflictions do not disappear of their own accord; they don’t simply vanish over time. They come to an end only as the result of conscious effort to undermine them, diminish their force, and ultimately eliminate them altogether.
If we wish to succeed, we must know how to engage in combat with our afflictive emotions. We begin our practice of the Buddha’s Dharma by reading and listening to experienced teachers. This is how we develop a better picture of our predicament within the vicious circle of life and become familiar with the possible methods of practice to transcend it. Such study leads to what is called “understanding derived through listening.” It is an essential foundation for our spiritual evolution. We must then process the information we have studied to the point of profound conviction. This leads to “understanding derived through contemplation.” Once we have gained true certainty of the subject matter, we meditate on it so that our mind may become completely absorbed by it. This leads to an empirical knowledge called “understanding derived through meditation.”
These three levels of understanding are essential in making true changes in our lives. With greater comprehension derived through study, our conviction becomes more profound, engendering a more powerful realization in meditation. If we lack understanding derived through study and contemplation, even if we meditate very intensely, we have difficulty becoming familiar with the subject we are meditating on, be it the devious nature of our afflictions or the subtle character of our emptiness. This would be similar to being forced to meet someone whom we don’t wish to meet. It is therefore important to implement these three stages of practice in a consecutive manner.
Our environment also has a great influence on us. We need a quiet environment in order to undertake our practice. Most important, we need solitude. By this I mean a mental state free of distractions, not simply time spent alone in a quiet place.
OUR MOST DESTRUCTIVE ENEMY
Our practice of the Dharma should be a continual effort to attain a state beyond suffering. It should not simply be a moral activity whereby we avoid negative ways and engage in positive ones. In our practice of the Dharma, we seek to transcend the situation in which we all find ourselves: victims of our own mental afflictions, the enemies of our peace and serenity. These afflictions - such as attachment, hatred, pride, greed, and so forth - are mental states that cause us to behave in ways that bring about all our unhappiness and suffering. While working to achieve inner peace and happiness, it is helpful to think of them as our inner demons, for like demons, they can haunt us, causing nothing but misery. The state beyond such negative emotions and thoughts, beyond all sorrow, is called nirvana.
Initially, it is impossible to combat these powerful negative forces directly. We must approach them gradually. We first apply discipline; we refrain from becoming overwhelmed by these emotions and thoughts. We do so by adopting an ethically disciplined way of life. For a Buddhist, this means that we refrain from the ten nonvirtuous actions. These actions, which we engage in physically by killing or stealing, verbally by lying or gossiping, and mentally by coveting, are all expressions of deeper mental afflictions such as anger, hatred, and attachment.
When we think along these lines, we come to realize that extreme emotions such as attachment - and particularly anger and hatred - are very destructive when they arise in us and that they are also very destructive when they arise in others! One could almost say that these emotions are the real destructive forces of the universe. We might go further and say that most of the problems and suffering we experience, which are essentially of our own making, are ultimately created by these negative emotions. One could say that all suffering is in fact the result or fruit of negative emotions such as attachment, greed, jealousy, pride, anger, and hatred.
Although at first we are not able to root out these negative emotions directly, at least we are not acting in accordance with them. From here we move our meditative efforts to directly counter our afflictions of the mind and to deepen our compassion. For the final stage of our journey we need to uproot our afflictions altogether. This necessitates a realization of emptiness.