The words ‘spiritual’ and ‘mental’ have widely divergent meanings. ‘Mental’ refers to the mental factors that are connected to and associated with the body. If we suffer from a mental illness, we go to a psychiatric hospital or an asylum. It is not a spiritual matter. The word ‘spirit’ here doesn’t mean spirit in the sense of a ghost or a being that takes possession of people or anything like that, but it refers to the subtle aspects of the mind that are ill through the power of defilement — in particular through ignorance or wrong view. The mind composed of ignorance or wrong view suffers from a ‘spiritual disease’; it sees falsely, and seeing falsely causes the mind to think falsely, speak falsely, and act falsely. The disease lies right there in false thought, false speech, and false action.
You will see immediately that everyone, without exception, has a spiritual disease. As for physical and mental diseases, they only occur in some people, at some times; they are not so terrible; they don’t give people constant suffering with every inhalation and exhalation in the way that spiritual diseases do. Thus, physical and mental diseases are not dealt with by the Buddhist teachings — which are the cure for ‘spiritual diseases’ — or by the Buddha who is the ‘Doctor of the Spirit’. Thus, there remains only that which the commentators called ‘mental disease’ and which we have decided to call ‘spiritual disease’.
Remembering the point that the commentators called the Buddha the ‘Spiritual Doctor’, I feel that taking up this term as a way of exposition will make the matter easier to understand, because everyone suffers from spiritual disease and everyone has to cure it spiritually. It is Dhamma which is the cure, the ‘single handful’ of the Buddhist teachings that must be realised, used, and digested so as to overcome this disease.
What you must pay further attention to is the point that, these days, mankind pays no heed to spiritual disease and so it is getting worse, both in terms of the individual and for the whole. For when everyone has the spiritual disease, then the whole world has it. It’s a diseased world, both mentally and spiritually; and rather than lasting peace we have permanent crisis. However we strive and struggle, we can’t find peace even for a moment. It’s a waste of breath talking of lasting peace because all sides have this spiritual disease — all sides say that they are right and the others are wrong. All sides have this spiritual disease, so it’s all just a matter of creating Dukkha for themselves and others. It’s as if a machine manufacturing Dukkha has appeared in the world. How then can the world find peace?
The solution lies in ending ‘spiritual disease’ in all the people of the world. What can cure it? There must be an antidote for this disease. It is the one handful of Dhamma of the Buddhist teachings that must be used.
This then is the answer to the question of why, today, the teachings are not as much of a refuge for people as the monks intend, even though it is held that Buddhism is developing and spreading much more than previously, and that those who have a correct understanding of it are more numerous than before. It’s true that there is much study of the teachings and a greater understanding of them, but if we don’t realise that we have a spiritual disease, how will we take them and make use of them? If we don’t realise that we are ill, we won’t go to see the doctor and we won’t take any medicine; anyone can see that. For the most part, people don’t see their illness, so what has developed is a mere fad for medicine. We go and listen to Dhamma and study it as a medicine, without feeling that we are ill. We just take it in order to store it away and clutter up the place, or else we use it as a subject for discussion, or in some cases for argument and dispute. This, then, is why Dhamma is not yet an effective means to cure the world.
If we are going to establish a Buddhist society here and now, we should know its ultimate aims, so that the work can proceed decisively: that is, in a way that Dhamma can help to treat spiritual diseases directly and speedily. Don’t leave the aims so undefined that you don’t know in which direction to go. Let there be one handful of ‘sacred nectar’ used correctly and used decisively. Let’s make it really beneficial, not a subject of ridicule, even to the slightest extent.
Now, as to what the spiritual disease is and how it can be treated with a single handful of Dhamma, will be explained. Spiritual disease is the disease whose germ lies in the feeling of ‘we’ and ‘ours’, ‘I’ and ‘mine’, which is regularly present in the mind. The germ that is already in the mind develops first into the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and then, acting through the influence of self-centredness, becomes greed, hate, and delusion, causing upset for both oneself and others. These are the symptoms of the spiritual disease that lies within us. To remember it easily, it may be called the disease of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.
Every one of us has the disease of ‘I’ and ‘mine’; and we absorb more germs every time we see a form, smell an odour, touch a tangible object, taste a flavour, or think in the manner of an ignorant person. In other words, there is the reception of the germ —those things surrounding us that are infected and cause the disease — every time there is sense contact.
We must recognise that the germ is clinging (upadana), and that it is of two kinds: clinging to ‘I’ and clinging to ‘mine’. Clinging to ‘I’ is the feeling that ‘I’ is an entity, that ‘I am like this or like that’, that ‘I am the equal of anyone’. Anything of this sort is called ‘I’. ‘Mine’ is taking ‘that’ as belonging to ‘me’: ‘that which I love’, ‘that which I like’. Even that which we hate we consider to be ‘my’ enemy. This is called ‘mine’.
In Pali, ‘I’ is ‘atta’ and ‘mine’ is ‘attaniya’. Or, if one uses the terms in general use in Indian philosophy, ‘ahamkara’ means to have the feeling of ‘I’ (stemming from the word ‘aham’, ‘I’), and ‘mamamkara’, means to have the feeling of ‘mine’ (stemming from the word ‘mam’, which means ‘mine’).
The feelings of ahamkara and mamamkara are so dangerous that they are called ‘the spiritual disease’, and every branch of philosophy or dhamma in the Buddha’s time wanted to wipe them out. Even followers of other teachings had the same aim of wiping out ahamkara and mamamkara. The difference lay in that when they eradicated those feelings, they called what remained the True Self, the Pure Atman, the Desired, whereas our Buddhist teaching refused to use those names because it did not want to give rise to any new clinging to a self or things belonging to a self. It was just left as a perfect emptiness which was called ‘Nibbana’, as in the phrase: ‘Nibbanam paramam sunnam’ (‘Nibbana is supreme emptiness’), that is to say, absolutely empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ in every respect, without remainder. That is Nibbana, the end of spiritual disease.
An Extract from Heartwood from the Bo Tree by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. © 1985 suanmokkh.org
With thanks to Wisdom Publications
Read more teachings from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu here.