“Don’t Look Down On The Defilements, They Will Laugh At You”

Tricycle has a wonderful interview with Burmese monastic Sayadaw U Tejaniya, who authored a book with a fabulous title (see above). When asked about its name, he responds,

We picked the title because it is important not to underestimate the power of the defilements. When I teach meditation I emphasize the importance of watching the mind. While doing this you will see a lot of defilements. In their grosser manifestations, the defilements are anger, greed, and delusion. And they have plenty of friends and relatives, who often show up as the five hindrances: desire, aversion, torpor, restlessness, and doubt. I advise yogis to get to know and investigate the defilements, because only through understanding them can we learn to handle them and eventually become free of them. If we ignore them, the joke’s on us: they’ll always get the better of us.

If they cause us so much grief, why do we ignore them? People often become attached to what they’re good at, to what they’ve achieved; they only want to see their good sides. Therefore they often don’t acknowledge their weaknesses. They become proud and conceited because they don’t see their negative sides. But if you cannot see both sides, the good and the bad, you can’t say the picture is complete. If you do not observe the defilements wisdom cannot grow.

Is wisdom an absence of defilements?
Yes, when there is right understanding there won’t be any defilements. They are opposites; non-delusion is wisdom. Wisdom inclines toward the good but is not attached to it. It shies away from what is not good, but has no aversion to it. Wisdom recognizes the difference between skillful and unskillful, and it sees the undesirability of the unskillful.

The whole interview is well worth a read — he gets into a range of topics, from learning more and more effective ways of overcoming his own depression, to the folly of mistaking the sitting posture for the meditation itself — but I just wanted to flag a resonance between the danger of condescension in spiritual work, and parallel problems in political efforts.

The progression, over time, from a facile attempt at class unity in political struggle (“Black and White Unite and Fight!”) toward honest, serious reckonings with some of the “defilements” that cripple radical movements (i.e. intra-class racism, sexism, heteropatriarchy, unacknowledged trauma, interpersonal domination, belligerent sectarianism, authoritarianism, etc.) echos U Tejaniya’s advice to squarely investigate, rather than gloss over, deep-seated dysfunctions.

I might add (and I was just talking about this with a friend the other day, in a context of self-development and healing) that it’s not only narcissism that blinds us to our defilements — on an individual or organizational level. Equally obfuscating is the kind of sloppy, slippery self-flagellation that paints our negative behaviors in vague but crystallized terms, so that we never really have to confront them. “I am the kind of person who loses their temper easily. I am the kind of person who needs constant attention, positive or negative. I am the kind of person who is terrified of conflict. I’m a terrible daughter/son/partner/parent. I always fail.”

Studying and articulating our own unskillful patterns is obviously part of the deal. But in order for it to be useful, and not just a comforting cloak of self-analysis, it has to be accurate: which means, in part, dynamic, specific, and also compassionate.

As we investigate our own defilements, or the defilements of our organizations, we must be brave enough to remain curious about our own patterns without falling into fascination — the kind of self-absorption that actually avoids examining the effects our actions have on others, and how we might improve.

Pretending to be above defilements and despairing that we are nothing but defilements are two sides of the same coin. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I really do smile at the ways this dualism gets reflected in the political tendencies I’m learning about. (And trying to figure out where I fit in.)

Grim militants of more orthodox Marxist persuasions value the class fight above all, and are wary (for good reason) of emphases on (inter)personal development or cultural work that devolves into lifestyle politics — a radicalism of the individual or subculture, susceptible to reformism and divorced from the kind of substantive, confrontational struggle that can actually build itself into greater class power. But without meaningful strategies for addressing heteropatriarchy, hierarchical tendencies, intimate violence, healing, addictions, conflict resolution, and the holistic health of individuals, the good ideological development and organizing work of such groups gets periodically blasted by hidden landmines of defilements. Ignoring them does not make them go away.

Meanwhile, practitioners of pre-figurative politics (roughly: “be the change you wish to see”) sometimes seem to think that the landmines themselves are the problem — not the war.

Of course, these two aren’t the only Lefty-type styles out there: cultural separatism, insurrectionism, and liberalism also deal or don’t-deal with social and institutional defilements in different ways. The best groups I’ve seen manage to find a — you guessed it — middle way: integrating skillful investigation and transformation of social oppression with nuts-and-bolts ideas about how to win direct power and control of everyday people over the economy, so that, in the words of the Black Workers Congress manifesto of 1971,

[Workers] control . . . their places of work — the factories, mines, fields, offices, transportation services and communication facilities — so that the exploitation of labor will cease and no person or corporation will get rich off the labor of another person, but all people will work for the collective benefit of humanity.

Okay, time to wrap this up, friends: I feel like it’s getting a little too head-y, and I don’t want to get in the habit of co-opting dhamma to illustrate my political musings, as though the path isn’t valuable for its own sake. To practice “mindfulness in everyday life,” as U Tejaniya advises (and the Buddha before him), is the way of being that I strive to bring with me everywhere: from a hard picket line to a few slow minutes gazing at the steam swirling up from my mug of tea.

But even though all objects are equally worthy of mindful awareness, not all projects are equally deserving of energy and investment. So I hope you’ll forgive my spiritual borrowings and social applications.

Happy Wednesday,


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