The practice of Dhamma begins with facing oneself. We don’t practice the Buddha’s teaching by learning about the theory of the philosophy, nor by concentration, nor by a discussion on Dhamma, or by reading about it – these are certainly things that may complement one’s practice and can be useful to develop understanding, but they do not constitute the practice in themselves.
To practice Dhamma implies before all else the decision to face ourselves, to investigate ourselves, and in particular to find out our faults: in thought, in speech and in action. This is a practice that goes very deep, beyond the superficial idea of ‘’self-improvement’’ in order to get along better with friends and family or to simply feel better. One of the first things we have to realise, as we begin to practice, is that all the sources of wrongdoing, cruelty and selfishness; all that is wrong and that causes suffering in ourselves and anywhere in the world, is to be found within our own mind, and can be removed at the source only in ourselves. This is why we must practice by searching for our weaknesses, and for a way to correct ourselves, with the aim of understanding our nature and correcting ourselves in the deepest way possible.
However, when we decide to start working to undo all our weaknesses and our faults, it is easy to fall into the trap of disappointment with ourselves. We can easily end up feeling guilty, hating ourselves, feeling disgusted and desperate with ourselves, and in general becoming very unhappy. This is, to put it mildly, not the right way to work in Dhamma! In fact, learning to see clearly one’s errors and faults should be a source of joy.
How can that be? How is it possible that the realisation that, for example, I am hypocritical with myself or with others, or that I am jealous of the benefits received by others – could be a source of joy? It’s hard to understand, as we will never normally see it as a joy and usually do everything we can to hide from seeing such things in ourselves – for the simple reason that, if I am hypocritical, then – that is it – I am a hypocrite. If I see jealousy in myself, then I am jealous. We “are” this fault and it is inseparable from us. Of course then we become depressed.
When we think we are the problem, automatically it makes the fault into something fixed, which we cannot change. You will probably have heard it said more than once that “we have to accept ourselves just the way we are.” This sentence implies exactly this, that we cannot change and we have to just accept the way we are.
However, the Buddha’s teaching suggests the exact opposite of this. Somebody who correctly understands the nature of the mind as well as their reason for practicing Dhamma, understands that the faults that we take as our character are not fixed in our nature at all, neither do we need to accept them as they are. In fact, they are nothing but bad habits!
With time, the more the mind repeats the same patterns, the more it continues to follow the same patterns, and the more we end up thinking of this habitual pattern of thought or behaviour as being an inalienable part of our character and to identify ourselves with it. Yet in reality, this fault is not something that we carry around with us like luggage, it’s simply a habit of repeating the same thing, whether in thought, speech or physical action, and it can absolutely be changed.
This is why it is a joy to see one’s faults as they are; it is the key to being able to correct them.If we don’t know that we have a problem, it will be impossible to solve it, but when we realise the wrongs we have committed, our eyes are opened, our ignorance in regard to our own nature begins to dissipate and we can do something about it.
Thus, seeing one’s own faults can only lead to happiness for the person who truly understands the aim for which he is practicing – removing ignorance and thus removing all impurities in their entirety.
Sometimes, as it is said in several suttas, “It is through an analogy that an intelligent person understands the meaning.” Here is a little anecdote about what happened here several years ago, which serves well to illustrate the point that is being made.
One day about ten years ago, we began to sense a bad smell in the house. The next day, it became worse. Seeing that the smell only became worse from day to day, we did what had to be done: went in search of the search of this stench. By following the smell, we were able to identify one particular wall from which the smell seemed to emenate.
There is nobody who will accept to live with a nauseating odour in their house, and everyone will take steps to get rid of it. And so, as any reasonable person will do, we opened that wall, and were able to exclaim, with joy, ‘We found it!’ On the inside of the wall, reposed the putrifying corpse of a dead mouse. And just as we should, we immediately removed it from its unsuitable grave, brought it outside, cleaned the inside of the wall, filled in the holes that had permitted it to enter inside, and re-closed the wall.
Thus was the ending of this banal story, in which nobody will find anything surprising. Nobody would argue against the actions that were taken, here, since it is obvious enough that there was a problem in our house and this was the right way of going about solving it. However, if we transpose this story into the immaterial world of actions, faults and qualities, all seems suddenly not so simple.
When we see something repugnant in ourselves – jealousy or selfishness, for example – tend to react to it by simply becoming discusted and discouraged. And if we were to do the same with material things, such as with the story of the mouse? Would it have been appropriate in that situation for us, after having searched for and found the source of the stench in our house, ‘Oh my God! It’s disgusting! Such a horror! I can’t believe I have this in my wall!’ and to fall into a depression, looking at the dead mouse behind the wall, crying and declaring that we Detest this House with its Dead Mouse.
Obviously, this would make absolutely no sense at all! Nobody would leave a putrifying mouse in their wall let alone leave it there and fall into a depression over it. So why is it so easy to see like this when it is a physical, material problem, but so complicated and painful when it is concerns us and what happens inside our mind?
It is certainly easier to take a mouse out of a wall than it is to take selfishness or carelessness out of our mind, and it is for this very reason that all work on oneself demands effort and perseverence, but nonetheless, it is absolutely essential to be able to look one’s mistakes and faults in the face. Just as when we find the source of a stench within the wall, despite the fact that it is something disgusting to look at, finding it is a source of joy, as it means that we can finally put an end to the stench.
Another anecdote that illustrates this well is the time when Ajahn’s doctor announced to him that he was diabetic. He was extremely happy to hear this news, while the doctor for himself was rather astonished by the joyful face of his patient. ‘I’ve never before had a patient who was happy to hear this news!’ he told Ajahn, rather perplexed.
In fact, Ajahn was happy because prior to hearing this, he knew that something was wrong with his health, but he did not know what it was. When he heard the diagnosis, he knew that now he would be able to do something about it, he could take medicine and make changes to his diet that would improve his condition.
The important thing to retain from this teaching is that it is entirely counter productive to become depressed on realising one’s mistakes or faults. What this really merits is to be joyful, as our mind is not fixed and unchangeable – it’s nothing but an accumulation of habits and repeated ways of thinking which, with effort and determination, we have with no doubt the power to change.