The Burden of Selfishness, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

Six Arm Kuan Yin. Photo RSR, V&A, London

As soon as there is ‘self’, there is selfishness. These two are very different, nonetheless, they are inseparable. The ‘self arises, then selfishness comes. And selfishness is a powerful and destructive burden which can easily be observed in oneself and in the world.

Selfishness gives rise to love, greed, anger, hatred, fear, worry, frustration, envy, jealousy, possessiveness. All of these are aspects of selfishness. Love through fear and worry, are just different aspects of selfishness. All this is such a powerfully destructive burden upon the mind. It weighs the mind down. If we get outside of our little worlds and start to observe what is really happening around us and also within us, if we come out of our clouds, break free of our daydreams, and really look, we shall see all this selfishness and all the harm and pain that it causes, both to ourselves and to others, This is the burden of selfishness.

Selfishness is a terrible burden for the entire world. You can see that all the problems, all the conflict, all the crises, are the result of selfishness. Many people come to Asia to get away from the constant sense of crisis that they meet with in the West. But they can’t escape it by coming to Asia. The same problems are here as well! They may not notice them, of course, because they don’t speak the language, or the crises come in a different form, but the whole world is under this burden. All crises, wars, exploitation, destruction of the environment, pollution, population growth that is still out of hand in much of the world, the piling up of food by certain countries, other countries starving — all of this can be traced back to selfishness. And selfishness derives from the belief in a self or a soul. It doesn’t take much thought.

Take the UN as an example. Here is this beautiful dream that the politicians came up with. The United Nations was formed, supposedly, to create peace in this world. How successful is it? The UN itself is handicapped by selfishness. It is the selfishness of individual countries, or blocks of countries. Little groups have banded together and cling to each other in selfishness. And so the UN is unable to seriously do anything to develop peace. This is just a symptom of the selfishness that not only dominates the world, but is deeply rooted in ourselves.

Boxing Rock Art © Marcelle Hanselaar

So long as we cling to this illusion of a self, there will be selfishness. And as long as there is this selfishness in us, we cannot blame others for the selfishness we see around us. You are very deluded if you think that you can separate yourself from that. Everything is oriented towards ourselves. And selfishness prevents the arising of dhamma or the doing of that which needs to be done. This is a terrible problem for everyone.

Selfishness arises because of vedana, the feelings we have towards our sensory experiences — we like things, we dislike things, we’re uncertain of things. Vedana is our master. We are at its beck and call, doing whatever it tells us to do. With the arising of a vedana comes mental impurity, kilesa, defilements. These are foul things which pollute the mind.

There are three basic kinds of defilement. The first is lobha, trying to get, trying to become, trying to scoop up everything. This is often translated as ‘greed’ or ‘lust’. The second we call dosa. This is the opposite of the first group. Dosa is the trying to get rid of things, knocking them away, hitting them, kicking them, killing. This is usually translated as ‘anger’, ‘aversion’, ‘ill will’, or ‘hatred’. The third kind of defilement is moha, the mind running round and round. There is neither a trying to get, nor a trying to get rid of, just confusion. The mind doesn’t know what to do, so it runs in circles. This is what kilesa, mental impurity, does to the mind. If you observe the mind closely enough, you will see these defilements in action. And when you really see the defiled mind, you will know what a burden it is, how ugly it is, and what damage it does.

Every time one of these defilements arises, it leaves a little something behind. They are like pigeons! They always leave something behind. And what they leave piles up in the depths of the mind. This dirt and filth left by the defilements, we call ‘the anusaya’. This dirty pile of tendencies has piled up in the depths of the mind. The more that these filthy tendencies pile up, the easier it is for the defilements to arise. Each time a defilement arises, it strengthens the tendency to defilement. And so, if we allow this to continue, the defilements grow stronger and stronger, the anusaya becomes stronger and stronger, the defilements occur more and more. The tendency develops, say, for anger. And then anger itself occurs more and more. These kilesa, defilements, are one burden and they cause this other burden— the familiarity with impurity which can develop. These anusaya, then, in turn, cause further kilesa. This is how this whole burden can develop. If you really observe it and experience it, instead of trying to deny it, or convince yourself it doesn’t exist, — ‘Oh, I never get angry. I’m never greedy. I’m never confused, or stupid,’ — if you begin to face these things, then you will see what a problem they are. You will actually become aware of this burden and weight upon the mind. And then you will understand, not intellectually, but through your own experience.

Take a look back over your life and guess how many times the defilements have arisen. How many times have you been angry, or greedy, or confused? That is how much and how strong the anusaya, the ugly tendencies, are. It’s as if you had a big jar for storing water. Water drips into it, one drop at a time. The water accumulates and the jar begins to fill up. Each drop is a defilement which begins to fill up the mind. The mind accumulates the habitual defilements and the tendency towards defilement. Now, imagine, there is a leak—a small hole appears in the bottom of the jar. The jar contains a lot of water and so the water gushes out through that small hole at a tremendous rate because there is so much pressure. The habitual defilements build up and then gush out through the cracks in the mind.

Defilement arises. Defilement piles up as anusaya and then flows out, becoming defilement again, which further strengthens the tendency, which further builds up the pressure, which increases the amount of outflow, leading to more defilement. If we allow this to go oh forever, it just gets deeper, stronger, filthier and heavier, and causes more and more dukkha, more and more suffering for the mind. It’s like being caught in the middle of the ocean, and being spun round and round in some gigantic whirlpool. Does that appeal to you? Is this the kind of life you want? This is something you ought to consider.

Earth Touching Buddha © BPG

Now, imagine what would happen if there were enough mindful-wisdom to prevent that outflow, so that when some object made contact with the mind, the mind did not follow the tendencies that have built up. Instead of allowing things to make leaks in that jar so that the water spurts out, one could use sati-pahha, mindful-wisdom, to plug it up. Every time something comes up to start a leak, mindful-wisdom could stop it. Leaks would not then develop in the jar. Also, the jar would start to empty itself of the water that has built up. In this way, the tendency to defilement would weaken. And, if this course of action were continued with, diligently, no more filthy water would be left in the jar. It could all be got rid of!

There are the arahants, the perfected ones — those whose minds have completely shut off the outflow of impure tendencies. All tendency to defilement has been cleansed; there is complete freedom from defilement. This is the mind that has let go of the burden of life. This is the mind that has put down all heavy loads and is light and liberated. This is the arahant, the perfected one.

Life becomes the burden because of this ‘I’, this illusion of ‘self. This extra weight is imposed upon life. And then life is nothing but self, selfishness and defilement. In this way, life becomes a burden. Life, free of this burden, is pure mind and pure body. It is at ease, clean, clear, bright, light. It is not burdened.

First published in the May 1995 Buddhism Now

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

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Categories: Beginners, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Theravada

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