The Passions are the Buddha nature
From a talk given at the Buddhist Society Summer School 2002
by Martin Goodson
(volume 77:3 p. 131) November 2002

Buddhist practice cultivates awareness, and it comes through giving myself wholeheartedly into whatever is being done now. The key word is 'wholehearted'. We discover quite early on in Buddhist meditation practice that although we concentrate on the count of the out breath, our inner conversation breaks through, and we can have quite a conversation with ourselves underneath as we count. That is half-hearted giving myself into the count. If it is wholehearted, there is a going with the count, a sense of at oneness. The sense of 'I' disappears; the split, the dissociation of consciousness is gone, if only for a short time. 'I' has nothing to do with awareness, nothing to do with meditation. The 'esoteric secret' is that when 'I' am out of the way, suddenly vitality, awareness and openness arise of themselves.
We find that we spend most of our time not given in to the moment but in the split state of thinking one thing while doing another. If when we are wholeheartedly given in to this moment we are more alive, aware and responsive and we flow with the situation, why do we spend so much time in the split state? It is because the state of oneness has nothing to do with 'I' and 'I' do not like that. 'I' am the supreme judge, owing to vedana, the second skandha, which divides experience into that which is pleasant and that which is unpleasant and want to get away from. Anything that diminishes 'me' provokes fear; it actually frightens me. I try to get away from such situations even though, perversely, it is only by facing them that the heart is fulfilled. 'I' yearn for it when 'I' don't have it; but when an opportunity presents itself, 'I' am afraid of it. It requires the 'ultimate sacrifice', the sacrifice of 'I'. The 'I' has to be given away. This refusal returns time and again.
The 'I' gets distracted easily, and as anything that diminishes me frightens me, I keep away from it. But underneath it there is something even stronger, because in certain situations 'I' have no choice but to give myself completely into what at this moment is being done. If we suddenly find that there is a bull in the field we are crossing and that he is looking directly at us, we do not know what the bull will do. He may completely ignore us, or he may not. But then seeing the bull's head go down and his hoof scraping the ground is all we need to become totally and exclusively 'given in.' Even if we felt very tired a moment ago, that disappears in the need of this moment to run for the fence and spring over it with the agility of a teenager. The energy is there because we are wholehearted.
Another example of having no other choice is when we need to pass an exam in a subject in which we are not interested. I had to study British and European history 1870-1914 for 'O' level, and hated it. Every time I opened one of the books and started to read, a tiredness overcame me and my eyes would not keep open. Each year, I would put off revising history to the last possible moment. With the exam only four or five days away, I would then have no other option than to begin revision. The first day was hell; everything in me would said 'No!' But you have to persevere, and by the second day my resistance would begin to tire. Suddenly, a little bit of interest would arise. Now a momentum would develop, so that by the end of the fifth day I would realized just how interesting British and European history 1870 - 1914 could be, and I would go into the exam and do my best. I would resolve to keep up my studies and not to fall into that trap again. But the following year my usual habit of leaving history revision until July would click into gear. The reason we don't learn from experience or from our mistakes is because underneath is that 'I won't', 'I won't'. My own teacher tells a similar story. When I first heard it I remember thinking how familiar it sounded!
When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, Mara tempted him, first ,by congratulating him on his ascetic effort and reasoning that he had done enough, suggesting that as his father's heir he should return to his family and take up that life again. Then, having tried and failed with reason, he tested the Buddha's wanting and desire by sending his daughters to seduce him. When that failed, suddenly Mara tested him with his sons and their armies of demons - fear.
When we are tested in our lives, we first try to fool ourselves by specious, plausible reasoning. If that fails there is an emotional response.
We pride ourselves on being civilized, restrained and considerate in opening doors and passing the salt, but this is just a veneer. Lurking underneath is something quite other. It all goes back to the primeval forest long ago. Two huge creatures lumbering through the dark forest suddenly bump into each other. Even if you have fangs, claws or talons, the law of the jungle says that rather than fight you should run away. However, if you are too close you cannot run away. The law of the jungle is that the one who strikes first is the one who will probably survive. We are the descendants of the creatures which survived, and have this law in our genetic make-up. It is innate in all of us. It allowed our forbears to survive and evolve out of the jungle and create civilization. There is an immense energy, a wild energy and it is not human.
However, we humans are also social creatures. We have learnt that the best way to survive is to act cooperatively, but only when we have to. This veneer of civilization is sufficient to allow us to work together. But at times of stress and strain that other, side comes up. If someone accidentally lets the door swing and hit me on the head, there suddenly erupts the primeval energy that wants to hit out. Hopefully I have been in the practice long enough to restrain not only that primitive reaction but also the first verbal reaction as well; and when he says, 'I am so sorry', I can say, 'It's OK!'
This inheritance from our primitive ancestors has been very useful to us. It shouldn't be thought of as evil, as none of us would be here but for it. Sometimes, however, we misuse this energy, reacting when it is better not to. The problem is that humans have developed a strong self-consciousness. But there is something more, something that turns those instinctual urges into emotions and the passions (klesas, primarily wanting, raga; aversion dvesa; and delusion, moha), which figure so prominently in Buddhist practice. That something is the delusion of 'I', 'me' and 'mine'.
It is a curious thing, and you may have noticed it. If you know someone who is very opinionated and have seen them defending that opinion against a really challenging adversary, they get more and more wound up, and behave as if they are being physically threatened. Anger and fear of losing make them feel that someone is holding a pistol to their head and is going to shoot them. When my cherished opinion is denied, denigrated or diminished in some way, suddenly up it comes, the defensive posture that signals my life is at stake. 'I' misappropriate those instinctual drives for my own purposes. 'I' may be a phantom, a mirage and a dream, as we read in the sutras, but the 'I' delusion believes it is real and reacts as if it physically is being attacked. Whenever 'I' feel myself diminished, denigrated, made smaller, in danger of vanishing or disappearing, up comes that primitive creature which wants to strike first.
Developing awareness is not an end in itself. Developing awareness is just a tool with which to investigate our reactions, opinions, likes and dislikes. Bit by bit we get to know what makes us tick and exactly who or, more importantly, what we are. In adults this is quite difficult. The Buddha was very straightforward: he said that suffering physically is caused by birth, sickness and old age. But he also said it is caused by me not getting what I want and me getting lumbered with what I don't want. In babies this is easy to see because they are straightforward. When a baby is hungry, it cries, When a baby wants its nappy changed, it cries. When it wants a hug, it cries. When it wants attention, it cries. As it gets older, it can ask for things such as 'drink' or 'mummy', who comes along and does what is required. Later on, when 'drink' is called for, mummy says, 'What do we say as well as "drink?" And they will say, 'Please, mummy, a drink.' Later on still, the voice has to sound right, and it helps if you smile. Then the day comes when the lovely glittering butcher's knife is laying on the kitchen table and they will say, 'Mummy, mummy, please can I have it?' And mummy says, 'No, you may not have it.' And the child thinks, what's wrong? I said please, I smiled but mummy won't give it to me. As the newly learnt 'manners' hasn't worked, the child immediately reverts to the last method that brought success: 'May I have it?' 'No, you may not. It is dangerous.' That hasn't worked, so the 'please' is dropped: 'I want it!' 'No. It's dangerous. Now go aand play somewhere else please!' 'Whaaaaoooooooh!' So we revert back to the primitive response. Of course, as adults we are quite different? We like to talk about Buddhism, but when it comes to working with the Three Fires (wanting, aversion and delusion), we don't like it much, particularly when it means giving up something. We can see it in other people, and we can see it in ourselves too.
Indra, the king of the gods of the Hindu pantheon, is the god of this particular manifestation of the universe. Indra lived in a very large palace. He was away on business, leaving his courtiers, who were semi-divine beings, ad his assistants and servants to go about their usual activities. No one saw a scrawny little demon slip into the palace through a side door. He walked unchallenged through all the great reception rooms until he came to the great throne room. Indra's throne, as it belonged to a great god, was huge, but the little demon was able to shin up one of the legs unseen and sit himself down. So the little demon was sitting on the throne of Indra swinging his legs to and fro' and observing all the courtiers going about their business. Eventually one of the courtiers looked up and saw this little demon sitting on the throne. He nudged his companion and said, 'Do you see what I see? There is a little demon sitting on Indra's throne. Who does that puny little demon think he is.'
Before long, everyone in the throne room was looking at the little demon on Indra's throne. And the more he was taken notice of, the bigger he became. He got larger and larger. Having been small, he was now a middling-size demon, and began to fill the throne. The courtiers said, 'He is not only sitting on Indra's throne, he is puffing himself up as well.' The courtiers were full of righteous indignation, and the demon grew larger and larger. He was now almost as large as Indra himself. The courtiers became afraid, and asked, 'Can Indra get rid of him? If he can't, what will become of us?' Now the demon grew even larger, filling the throne completely.
Just as the courtiers were ready to take flight, Indra returned. As soon as he entered the throne room and saw the demon sitting on his throne, he walked up to the throne without hesitation, put his hands together and said, 'I, Indra, King of the Gods, greet you' and bowed deeply. The huge demon shrank to a middling size. He said again, 'I, Indra, King of the Gods, greet you' and the middling-size demon shrank to a small size. And as he said again, 'I, Indra, King of the Gods, greet you', the scrawny little demon shuffled off the throne and sidled out the side door. That is how an anger-eating demon is dealt with.
This story is an example of how to deal with the passions. With awareness we get to know the symtoms of the passions, because we have opened ourselves to them directly. As a Buddhist, it is disastrous to say to oneself, 'Now that I am a Buddhist I must no longer be greedy; I must never be angry or sad' because this is only pushing greed, anger and sadness further away. The more we push them away, the more they have power over us.
It is only the things we don't see that can fool us. The nature of the passions is to reproduce and increase, like all living things, and their vehicle is our thinking processes, which obscure the way things really are. Our thoughts are thus obstacles in the Buddhist practice. The passions actually invade us; in fact, they possess us. Thinking is sometimes voluntary, but also sometimes involuntary. When we are worried or concerned about something and cannot get it off our mind, we have no choice but to let that thought-stream run its course. Passion always seeks to propagate itself. In the past, obsessive behaviour would have been attributed to a spirit or even a demon. If we know how to look carefully, we can gain many clues about how to deal with obsession from folklore. Its basic characteristics are wilfulness, stubbornness, blindness, an inability to see things directly in front of oneself, and seeing things that are not there. It is harmful both to oneself and to others; it is incredibly powerful and strong, and it literally invades us. But most important of all, it is very, very stupid.
A story from the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights about a Djinn illustrates this:
One day a fisherman was walking beside the sea. Something glimmered, reflecting the sunlight. Washed up on the pebbles was a brass vessel whose stopper was covered in magical symbols. He wondered what on earth it could be. It looked old and appeared to be made of brass, so it could be precious and worth something at the bazaar. After a bit of a struggle, he managed to pull the stopper out. A loud rush of air came from the bottle and swirled around him, and a huge Djinn appeared in front of him.
The fisherman was terrified and fell on to his knees before this enormous apparition. The Djinn said, 'Aaaaaaaah! For 300 years I have been trapped in that bottle, and now I have been released I shall kill you.' The fisherman said, 'But that isn't fair. I thought you were supposed to grant me three wishes.' The Djinn said, 'For a hundred years inside that bottle , I lamented my sorry state. I resolved that to whoever released me I would grant whatever he desired. After another hundred years passed, I resolved that whoever released me I would kill in the most cruel, violent way. But now, because another hundred years have passed, I shall let you choose the manner of your death.' Now choose how you would like to die!'
The fisherman realized there was no way of escape from this all-powerful spirit. He said, 'This is a difficult decision to make; give me a moment to think of something suitable. I was going to suggest that you lift that mountain over there and drop it on top of me, but I don't think you are strong enough to do that.' 'What!' said the Djinn. The fisherman said, 'I know you are strong, but I don't think you are that powerful.' The Djinn said, 'What do you mean I am not that powerful? Of course I could do it.' The fisherman said, 'I don't think you are that powerful. I don't think you could even fit yourself into that bottle.' The Djinn said, 'It was King Solomon himself who put me in that bottle three hundred years ago. Of course I could put myself into the bottle if I chose.' 'Oh, no you couldn't', said the fisherman. 'I bet you couldn't of your own volition.' The Djinn said, 'Of course I could.' 'Then go on and prove it', said the fisherman. The Djinn turned into vapour and disappeared into the bottle, and the fisherman quickly replaced the stopper in the neck of the bottle.
This story shows that if you keep your wits about you, it is quite possible to outwit those invading obsessive passions, as they are really quite stupid. And that is because they are blind. They often are associated with the best of intentions, and often take us by surprise because at first they are so small and their potential is unrecognized.
I attended my first weekend retreat at Throssel Hole Priory. At that time, I knew nothing of Buddhism or retreats. I wanted to do my best and was on my best behaviour. The first day went well, and at about nine o'clock we had a break. A nun brought in a tray with the tea pot, teacups, milk and sugar on it and set it down on a table and said, 'Help yourself.' As I was at the head of the queue. I turned to the next in line and said, 'Tea? Milk? Sugar?' and then on to the next person, 'Tea? Milk? Sugar?' The nun returned and said, 'No, no.' 'You help yourself and let the others help themselves. It will be much simpler.' Suddenly I felt rebuffed. I was miffed, and I thought, But I was only trying to be helpful. Then the true nature of it became clear. What appeared to be, on the surface, helpful and kind was in fact more to do with me looking good in front of others. When my role was taken away by the nun, that primordial beast came up for a moment. Then it was covered up again. These are the kind of events that we should be aware of. If there is awareness in the body, then at the first stirrings we can actually open up to it and see it for what it really is. Do not judge it. It is just energy, after all.
In the Mahayana tradition, the energy has a dual nature. It is said that the passions are the Buddha nature and the Buddha nature is the passions. However, they are not interchangeable, because the passions need to be humanized. This is the essential message of the Wheel of Life.
The Wheel of Life is divided into six realms: the realm of the gods (devas), the fighting demons (asuras), the animal realm (tirak), the hell realms (naraka), the hungry ghosts (pretas) and finally the human realm (manusya). These six realms are a psychological map of all possible states of consciousness. When life is going well and we are getting what we want, we are wafted up into the heavenly realms. Suddenly, after a blissful meditation when I am happy, a door slams in my face and the bull in me snorts. I want to hit out, and I am reborn into the realm of the fighting demons. If this happens at a Buddhist retreat, I can only suppress the reaction. And I think, they are supposed to be watching what they are doing, but they're not. This always happens to me, and they didn't even leave me any porridge this morning. I bet there won't be any for me tomorrow either and I will be left with only cornflakes. With this I am in the realm of the animals, where there is no redress and where whatever is meted out must be accepted. And when tomorrow comes and there really isn't any porridge left for me, I am thrust into a deep depression in one of the hell realms. I can barely speak I am so depressed. For a whole year I have looked forward to the chef's especially prepared porridge and also to his homemade bread. But after four days of missing out on the porridge, and then in the evening the homemade bread is all gone, leaving only the spongy rubbish you can get from any supermarket. I could have had that if I had stayed at home (why didn't I?). And I am reborn as a hungry ghost with a distended belly and a thin throat that can barely allow anything to pass. These are all the passions that in their different forms have to be humanized. The passions are one expression of that primal energy in us that produces delusions so beautifully, and we fall for them every time. We have to learn to live fully in the human state because only from the human state is liberation from delusion possible.
Despite our outward human physical form, we are not fully human on the inside. Helping us to become fully human on the inside is the purpose of Buddhist practice. Thus it is said that Buddhas are teachers of both gods and men. They are also the teachers of fighting demons, miserable beings and hungry ghosts as well as gods and men, all of whom have to be made human. When we become fully human on the inside as well as the outside, our walking of the spiritual path can begin. Until then, we are nowhere near the spiritual path.
A maths professor was looking after his very young daughter for the afternoon in his study, and he gave her three spent matches to play with. She took them to a corner of his study and played happily with them for some time. But suddenly she screamed, 'Daddy, Daddy, take the witch away! Take the witch away!' She had been telling herself the story of Hansel, Gretel and the witch. One match was Hansel, one was Gretel and the other was the witch, and we know how they go into the forest and find the sugarcake house. They eat from the house, and the witch captures them. As she became more and more engrossed in the story, suddenly the energy invested in the fantasy reached critical mass. It became real, causing her to scream.
Fantasizing does not stop as we get older: it changes into the constant narrative going on in our head. That narrative, our thoughts, is fed by the energy of the passions, and produces the world we actually live in.
So I walk into breakfast and sit next to a friend. I am feeling miffed and have a long face. I wait for him to notice that I am unhappy. I think, come along, you are a Buddhist. You should be aware that I have a long face; notice I am unhappy, please. I say, 'You know there was no porridge left this morning. He says, 'I know, I got the last bowlful!' I think, that is just typical of him. It is just me, me, me. He knows I like porridge. He could at least have saved some for me. He knows that Dana is one of the most important practices; it's the first of the Paramitas; but with him it is all me, me me!'
When that passion, that thought, that little bit of resentment comes up, suddenly the narrative begins to play inside. Throughout the day, every time I see him, I say inwardly, 'Look at him . . . He's talking to Nancy now . . . I knew it. They're in this together! They're laughing at me . . . He calls himself a Buddhist. I knew he was playing at liking me . . . I always knew it.'
Does this sound familiar? Suddenly, everything is oriented around the stories we create for ourselves. We believe that they are supported by cold, hard scientific fact; and in no time at all, mere possibilities become suspicions, then absolute certainties. The more passionate we feel, the stronger our conviction becomes. If we believe we do not have this kind of problem, we can ask a friend who knows us well to test us by 'pressing our buttons'. When we are not expecting it, they can introduce a subject on which we have strong opinions and record our response. We shall find that suddenly, our voice changes; it becomes a voice of power and total conviction that will not be contradicted.
If we truly become aware of our passion driven thoughts, they can become humanized into wisdom and compassion, the two great pillars of Buddhism. However, wisdom and compassion are required equally. Wisdom, clear seeing, is on its own not enough because it is cold, clinical and unmoved by human suffering. Compassion without wisdom degenerates into sentimentality. Energy as passion is blind, and results in going to war to fight for 'the true cause.' But the energy of the passions transformed has all the wisdom, warmth and compassion of the Buddha nature.
The Middle Way November 2002 p. 131 (volume 77:3)