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Causes of the afflictions

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • Reducing the afflictions
  • What causes the afflictions to become manifest in our minds
  • Reducing contact to the objects of our afflictions
  • Using the thought training techniques

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: The six causes of the afflictions, Part 1 (download)

We’ll continue with the second line,

The best discipline is taming your mindstream.

To tame our mindstream we have to reduce our afflictions. That’s one of the main things. Before we can even work on the cognitive obscurations that prevent omniscience we have to reduce the afflictions. Well, we have to eliminate them. And before we eliminate them we have to reduce them. In order to reduce them we have to know what causes them. Also to eliminate we need to know what causes them.

The lamrim talks about six factors which cause the arising of the afflictions. Here what we’re talking about is the manifest afflictions. What causes afflictions to be manifest in our mind so that they take control of our mind and pull us here, pull us there and make us create karma. We’re talking about the gross afflictions that we succumb to all the time.

One of the factors that causes them is we have the predisposition, or the seed, of the affliction. What the “seed of the affliction” is is it’s a potency for the affliction to arise. Right now, let’s say, you’re not angry, but that doesn’t mean that anger is gone from your mindstream altogether. There’s no manifest anger right now. You can have manifest anger, then you can have a period of no anger, and then something triggers it and you have manifest anger again. What is it that connects (the first anger) with (the second anger)? You have the seed of the anger. When it’s not manifest it goes into the form of a potency, and then when it’s triggered later it comes up as manifest.

That seed is part of the afflictive obscurations that we want to get rid of. What this means is as long as we have the seeds of the different afflictions in our mindstream then we need to be very careful because any kind of cooperative condition can provoke them and then they become manifest.

What are those cooperative conditions? One is the object: contact with the object, specifically. We can see this in our own experience. You may be going along, completely fine, but as soon as you smell those chocolate chip cookies attachment arises. Today I didn’t smell them, no attachment. Yesterday I smelled them, attachment. Contact with the object.

This is one of the reasons why, when you’re doing retreat, why you come to a quiet place to do retreat, because when you’re at home you have contact with all the objects that give rise to your attachment, to your anger, to your jealousy, to your arrogance, to all these kinds of things.

This is also one reason why when people ordain they go to live in a monastery, try to reduce the contact with the objects that trigger the arising of the afflictions. This isn’t an escape method from reality. What it is is it’s like by avoiding the object it gives you some mental space to be able to go deeper in your practice and understand how the afflictions arise, understand that they’re based on ignorance, understand how the wisdom realizing emptiness counteracts the ignorance, and then to cultivate that wisdom. We’re not escaping. It’s like taking a break so that you can really develop your strong antidotal powers.

It’s kind of like if you want to be a doctor just having the motivation to be a doctor isn’t going to make you one. In the same way that just having the motivation not have afflictions arise isn’t going to make them not arise. If you want to be a doctor you have to do something, you have to go to medical school. The motivation isn’t enough. You don’t want somebody to operate on you who hasn’t been to medical school and surgery internship. Same way, we need a break to go deeper in our practice to develop the antidotes to the afflictions. That’s why for retreat you go to a quieter place. For monastic practice you also do that.

We can see that quite immediately in our own practice. When we have some distance from the object the affliction related to that object doesn’t arise as easily. Of course, if our mind thinks about the object then the affliction arises. You can be 100 million miles away and think about the chocolate chip cookies and the affliction arises. Why does that affliction arise? You don’t really have contact with the object at that time….

Well, then there’s a third factor that makes the afflictions arise. It’s called inappropriate attention. This is a mental factor that exaggerates the good qualities, the bad qualities, some quality of the object, or projects qualities that aren’t there, and then that triggers the affliction to arise. You aren’t near your boyfriend, but you think of him, and boom. Why? Because that inappropriate attention is projecting that what is actually foul is beautiful. That what is in the nature of suffering is happiness. That what is impermanent is permanent. That what doesn’t have its own nature has its own inherent nature. This inappropriate attention is distorting how we’re cognizing the object and producing affliction.

The inappropriate attention is one that we really try to work on in our practice, to calm this one down. When you have an affliction arise in your meditation, then instead of just trotting after it (like it’s the sergeant and you’re just following instructions), then you stop and you say, “Am I seeing this object correctly?” Here’s this person. What is he (or she) really? Skin, bones, flesh, blood, and a mindstream. Is there anything that is pure in all of that? Is there anything that is clean in all of that? What am I desiring? Then you watch, and how your mind goes, “Oh, but being with that person’s going to make me happy!” Then you stop and you say, “What kind of happiness is that?” Is it true happiness? Or is it just the happiness that is making my gross suffering go down a little bit. Is it the happiness that’s going to last a long time? Or is it the happiness that’s going to change with changing circumstances? Or the happiness that will even change because my mind gets tired of it. Because that kind of happiness, after a while, becomes actually unpleasant. You start doing this questioning process of, “Am I seeing this object correctly?”

Or, you’re sitting and meditating a million miles away, and 20 years away, from what somebody in grade school said to you that hurt your feelings tremendously, and you remember Suzie Jones or Bobby Smith in fifth grade said, “Dada dada,” to me, and I even think of it now and, “Ahhhhh! I’m so angry at him, he destroyed my self-confidence…. He didn’t pick me to be a member of his team, and he told everybody why, because I was so awful….” And you’ve been holding onto this for 20, 30, 40 years…. You stop and you say, “Am I seeing this situation correctly?” Why do I have to experience so much pain as an adult because Suzie Jones or Bobby Smith did such and such to me when I was in fifth grade? Is it happening now? No. Was it really such a catastrophe, that nobody else on the entire planet has ever experienced? I think everybody in fifth grade has gone through something like that. So why am I all these years later so upset about it?

And then the mind is (saying), “Well he did this to me.” And then you start remembering the thought training teachings and you say, “Well yes, he may have said or done that, but why did that happen to me? Because I created the karma in a previous lifetime (or earlier this lifetime) for that to happen. So if i created the karma, why am I so mad at Suzie and Bobby? Why don’t I distrust my own self-centered thought that made me create that negative karma that brought that suffering upon me? Because Bobby and Suzie were kids, they were just the cooperative condition. Their minds were ruled by afflictions. The real cause is my own karma which was caused by my self-grasping and self-centeredness. So why don’t I point my finger at those? Why don’t I drop the anger at Bobby and Suzie, and put some energy into eliminating my self-centeredness and my self-grasping? That would do me a lot more good than holding onto these hurt feelings and hatred for Bobby and Suzie for another 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Because I really don’t want to die with my last thought being of what somebody said to me in fifth grade. So if I don’t want to die with that being my last thought, why do I keep holding onto that now?

You apply the thought training teachings, all these different techniques, to help us undo the inappropriate attention that is one of the causes for the afflictions to arise.

We did three of them today: the seed, the object, and then the inappropriate attention. We’ll continue on. But I think there’s something here to think about and practice, maybe?

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.