I love the old zen saying that the best way to clear muddy water is to leave it alone and the mud will settle. But I have been musing on what exactly it is that stirs up the mud in the first place. Or, put otherwise, if our original nature is pure and good (Buddha Nature) then how does it get all caught in the muck and the mire of our day to day living?
The Buddha said that there were three ways: Desire (greed), Hatred (aversion), and Delusion (ignorance).These three “poisons” have their roots at the deepest levels of our psychological makeup, and ultimately are rooted in the Vedanas, or “feeling tones”. I understand this psychological analysis in the following way:
The Buddha said that if we pay very close attention to our thoughts and feelings, our mental states in general, then we see at the root of every thought is what we can term a feeling tone. There are three of them: positive, negative, and neutral. But in Buddhist thought, these three conditions are based on much more primary states which are deeper, and much more subtle.
Basically, with every sense object, with every thing we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and think (in Buddhism thought is a sense object, and the mind is considered to be a sense organ) our minds attach a natural, organic, “feeling tone.” That is to say, with every perception we attach a “label”: positive (which leads to desire), negative (which leads to aversion) or neutral (which leads to ignorance). A feeling tone, thus, is a kind of “color” that the mind attaches to its object of perception and occurs before thought. As a result, the thoughts and emotions that arise in response to the object of perception are biased in the direction of the feeling tone.
Let’s take a basic example. Let’s say I see someone eating an ice cream cone. My perception of the event is accompanied by the positive feeling tone. As a result, my eyes linger just a bit longer, and the thoughts that begin to emerge in my mind as a response to the perception quickly spin into desire. I want ice cream. What can I do to get myself an ice cream cone? Ice cream sounds good. Maybe I should get a whole pint, or quart, or half gallon. Desire, the inevitable result of the positive feeling tone, is thus the root from which the tree of my thoughts and feelings grow. For as I am thinking about how tasty the ice cream will be I also reminisce about the times I got ice cream as a child, how much fun it was to be with my family, or friends when we would get ice cream, etc. Ice cream, for a time, fills my whole mind, and the fact that it is based in desire indicates that the original sense contact between eye and object was colored by the positive feeling tone.
Or, perhaps we could give an even more basic example, one that is more crude, but nevertheless instructive. Each one of us is naturally attracted sexually toward other human beings. We normally call people that we are attracted to “beautiful.” So, lets say you are walking through the mall at a particularly busy time, and you are making your way through the crowds. Normally you do not notice what people look like, they are just people and they are all around you, but go largely unnoticed (this by the way is neutrality, or ignorance, but more on that soon).
All of a sudden you pass someone who catches your eye as beautiful. Now, instead of passing by him/her as you would the rest of the crowd, your eyes linger, and your head may even swivel as this person passes you by, you are so enamored. Now, while this process may pass in the blink of an eye, the perception of beauty and the lingering of your eyes have happened before a single thought or emotion has arisen in your mind. It is only after the contact and the immediate arising of desire that your mind erupts into thought, and the exclamations of beauty and desire begin flooding your mind.
The point of the example is simply to show that feeling tones, here the positive feeling tone, which sparks desire, is co-arising with each perception and thought. Indeed, the feeling tone is the root, as I said, of every thought and emotion, and hence, of any action that we have and take. In this way, we are pretty much biased about everything since there is no perception that is unaffected by this chain beginning with the positive feeling tone and ending in desire. Everything you find pleasing, from sights to smells, from touch to taste, from hearing to thoughts is the result of the positive feeling tone, and the immediate desire that arises from it.
The reason we are traveling this path is to show that this is the way that desire gets caught up in our very perception of the world, for the subtle arising of a thought based in desire will inevitably and immediately lead to thoughts and feelings building upon thoughts and feelings until the world literally becomes for you according to the desire you have cultivated in your constructed thoughts. This is because of a subtle result that the perception of the world coupled with a feeling tone produces.
Let’s take a beautiful person again. As I have said, the sight of a beautiful person is accompanied by the positive feeling tone. This process occurs before we have a single thought. So when the thoughts arise, the “fact” has already been established that so and so is beautiful and is pleasing to look at. That is to say, we take the sense perception and the feeling tone together as the object we see. In this way he/she is beautiful, they are pleasing to look at as if this were an established and objective fact that we observe in the world. We mistake our perceptions and the accompanying feeling tones as objective facts that we discover in the world, rather than what they truly are: our mental events. We thus confuse these mental events for reality, over and over again.
What I mean here is simply that any given person is going to believe that certain things in their world are good and pleasing and right in their very makeup. Take patriotism. The belief that “America is the Greatest Nation on Earth” is an obvious example. While I am not making a claim for or against that belief, we can learn two things from it: it is built upon the desire, emotions and thoughts of patriotism and the like, and those thoughts and feelings are opinions at best. For one can easily point out that America lags behind the rest of the world in many areas: education, healthcare, poverty, etc. The fact that giving such statistics will not only fall on deaf ears (that is, it won’t change a person’s beliefs), but may actually result in violence (I get a punch in the nose) only further shows that this example is correct. The thoughts and emotions based on the positive feeling tone, and the corresponding desire (here the desire would be attached to certain patriotic thoughts and beliefs) lead to entrenched beliefs that literally define the reality of those involved.
So, the positive feeling tone leads to the way we understand the world from a positive perspective. Perception sparks a feeling tone that leads to thoughts and emotions, spinning and spinning into habitual patterns of understanding. Our thoughts create our world, the Buddha argued. But, if this were the only feeling tone, things would be rosy, the world filled with nothing but positive beliefs. Sadly, we have other factors of our mental conditioning, and the next one up is aversion. Aversion is the “I don’t like” of our experience. And if the positive feeling tone leads to desire results in the grasping of the object of desire (i.e. the eyes lingering on a beautiful person), then aversion is the outcome of a negative feeling tone, and the pushing away of things we don’t like.
Again, we can give a couple of examples. Consider this. We are friends and I have, graciously, I think, invited you over for a traditional Scottish dinner. You accept, and eager to try new cuisine, show up at my door promptly on time and ravenous. After having some appetizers, I bring out the main course: freshly prepared Haggis. Never having dissected anything large in your college biology class, not to mention arriving at my door under the expectation of eating something that looks like a nicely prepared meal, you are unprepared for a large plate of sheep intestines. The visual perception of guts lying before you is accompanied by a pretty foul smell. Your mind quickly overwhelmed by the sights and smells pushes away. It may push away so violently that it triggers a physical response and you vomit, or it may be that you make up a quick excuse that your grandma has just passed away, or something. The perceptions of sight and smell, colored by the negative feeling tone cascade into a strong aversion for the situation at hand, and you seek a way out by any means.
But here we can see what I mentioned earlier: While you become grossed out by the sights, smells and, yes, by the idea (thought) of eating sheep intestines, I, on the other hand am looking forward to what I consider to be comfort food. So, for you, the negative feeling tone leads to aversion and you want nothing to do with the meal, and may seek escape. For me, on the other hand, there is the positive feeling tone that leads to the desire for a satisfying meal of Haggis. Thus, we have the truth I stated before: the feeling tones are subjective; conditioned by society, culture, a person’s individual makeup, psychology, etc. They are also mistaken for reality and thus Haggis to you is disgusting, and for me it is tasty. You and I have differing models of reality on this issue that we both take to be true, objective statements about the world.
Another example points deeper into our psychology: Sigmund Freud was once treating a patient who had a very strange neurosis. A neurosis is anything that is considered irrational behavior, that is, behavior that doesn’t have a rational explanation. The neurosis that this particular woman displayed was to cry uncontrollably whenever she entered an ice cream shop. Now, this seems to be true neurosis, for a rational appraisal of the situation would be that the sights and smells of an ice cream shop produce joyful responses, or at least indifferent ones. Yet here it did not. Freud was determined to find an explanation, so he applied his new method, talk therapy—psychoanalysis—to see if he could discover the roots of this particular neurosis. He succeeded.
Freud discovered through this procedure, that this woman had been repeatedly molested by her uncle when she was a girl, and afterwards he would take her to get ice cream. In order to survive the trauma, the woman’s mind buried—repressed—the memory deep in her unconscious. But the repressed memory resurfaced in the form of this neurosis—crying in ice cream shops—but because it was a repressed memory she did not know why she was doing that. She could not consciously connect the behavior to the root trauma lest the trauma overtake her again.
From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy we see that there was a residue of negativity and aversion left over so that when the woman walked into the shop, the feeling tone was overwhelmingly negative and sparked the powerful reactions in her, and this is true even if she did not know why it was occurring. As we have said, the feeling tone that leads to such negativity, such aversion, occurs before thought, and hence, before the ability to rationally account for behavior. It simply triggered a nameless but immediate aversion to the place she was in. Add to that the repressed trauma this woman suffered and you have the results that Freud discovered. But the negative feeling tone and the resulting aversion is not limited to such deep traumas. Many of us may feel something like this if we go someplace or encounter someone who just immediately sparks a negative reaction, that feeling in the gut.
We can also use the example, again, of seeing a beautiful person. Here, imagine you are walking in that mall, but instead of a beautiful person, you see an enemy, or someone you dislike. While your gaze lingered on the beautiful person, here your eyes are averted pretty quickly. That is, instead of your gaze being drawn in by beauty, your gaze is pushed away by dislike. And then, as in the previous example, your mind becomes filled with all kinds of thoughts and feelings that are unpleasant as you are reminded by the sight of that person, why you dislike them, and what a rotten so and so they are, and so forth.
Aversion works in the opposite way of desire in terms of the thoughts and emotions that arise: repulsion rather than attraction, negative distasteful thoughts and feelings, rather than positive, desirous ones. Nevertheless, we can create our worlds just as surely through aversion as we can through desire. For the thoughts spin, the emotions are strengthened, and pretty soon the world appears to us in the negative fashion of our habitual thoughts and emotions, sparked by negative feeling tones that we take to be real states in the world.
Just like with desire, so too with aversion, someone’s cherished beliefs become true beyond a question. We see this, unfortunately, in our country with many people and the religion of Islam. This kind of entrenched belief, bigotry, really, leads people to believe that Islam is a violent religion, and that all Muslims are terrorists hell bent on destroying America. But just like the example of patriotism, no matter how many statistics were provided to show that the overwhelming majority of Muslims (i.e. billions of people) are decent, peaceful, God-fearing people, those who hold such negative stereotypes will more often as not simply ignore that fact and hold on to whatever shred of hatred their minds have created out of the minority of Muslims who indeed hate America, etc. The negative feeling tone sparking aversion and ending in hatred is the sad creation of such people’s minds.
In between positive and negative feeling tones lies neutrality, which spins into what Buddhism calls ignorance. Here the term ignorance does not mean anything derogatory. It points to the fact that we live most of our lives unaware of everything that is happening to us, and around us. One example is to simply ask how many trees did you pass on your way to work this morning? Can you answer that question? Judging that your answer is probably going to be no, we can ask why? And the answer is simple. You don’t pay any attention to the trees on your way to work. Therefore, the perceptions that arise on your way to work are colored by the feeling tone of neutrality. You are unaware of much of the surroundings on your commute. All you likely notice is the exigencies of driving. The cars immediately around you, the stop lights, the streets you need to navigate to get where you are going. Everything else, as they say, is just a blur. You have neither positive feeling tones, nor any negative ones unless something happens. And then it is usually negative: a car cuts you off, etc.
Once again, we return to the crowded mall. Here, with regards to the other people milling about, your experience is likely colored by neutrality insofar as they are simply people you are passing. Again, that may change if you spot a friend (positive) or an enemy (negative), or you may get bumped into (negative), but on the whole, your trip through the mall is dominated by ignorance insofar as you blindly pass people to get to where you are going. In this regard we have to be wary of neutrality or ignorance also because it bogs down the practice of acceptance with a kind of “I don’t care” attitude, since any given encounter with unchangeability is always an opportunity for insight, wisdom and growth, which we will certainly miss if we are stuck in ignorance of what is exactly going on.
Ignorance is also a major factor in how we understand our minds, and reality as such. As I have been saying, we tend to miss what is really real because we have mistaken the way our minds attach feeling tones to the sense perceptions we have. Experiences of seeing a beautiful person or wanting ice cream, or being a patriot and believing we live in the greatest country on earth are all subjective experiences through and through—and this is true even if we can find others, millions of others, perhaps, who share the same view.
So, any given supermodel, actor or actress may have many, many people believe they are beautiful. But that does not indicate any kind of hard and fast objective reality, but rather that the way feeling tones interact with sense perceptions in the mind operates in a similar fashion across humanity. That is, we are all wired similarly in the way we perceive objects that become desirous. The old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is proof positive that what we are talking about is a subjective affair through and through. The same can be said of beliefs like the claim that America is the greatest country on earth, or that ice cream is tasty and the like. Subjective experience taken to be objective reality is the mental condition we face, and ignorance is the sad reality that we make the mistake each and every time.
It is in this way that the mud is churned and the pure brilliance of our Buddha Natures are obscured, and we, thus, remain in ignorance of what and who we truly are.