The world we find ourselves in today seems morally complex to an unprecedented degree. There are so many options, and so very many ways of doing harm, that a sensitive person might well despair at engaging in any action at all. And yet there is no escape from taking action—it is a requirement of the human condition. The world is swirling all around us, and even refraining from action is an (often more harmful) form of action.
So how do we decide what to do and what not to do? The precepts are very helpful as general guidelines for action. But to put the precepts into practice requires a tool of greater subtlety and discrimination than a simple list of dos and don’ts. That tool is insight meditation (vipassana).
Insight meditation, as most of you probably know well, is a mirror for the mind. It consists mostly of just paying close attention to mental states, and observing their arising and their passing away. But why? What do we gain by developing the ability to notice the very texture of our experience?
For one thing, we become even more capable of seeing things as they really are—our assumptions, our motivations, our illusions. This clarity is crucial for making practical ethical choices. When we look with awareness into the mirror of the mind, we discover both healthy and unhealthy thoughts, wholesome and unwholesome complexes, benevolent and harmful inclinations.
In the realm of practical ethics, the discrimination of these distinctions is essential. The pernicious view of the ancient Indian philosopher Purana Kassapa, that there is no difference between meritorious and cruel actions, is soundly refuted by Gotama in the Samannaphala Sutta.
Once we gain the ability to perceive the qualities of our thoughts, and once we accept that some of them are beneficial to ourselves and others while some of them are detrimental, then ethical action becomes a kind of mental hygiene. The Buddha is suggesting that in order to both secure our personal happiness and contribute to universal welfare, we simply give the care and attention to our minds that we are used to giving to our bodies. In fact this is the very analogy he gives in the Anumana Sutta:
It is just as when a man or a woman, who is young, in the prime of life, and perhaps a bit vain, would look at their reflection in a mirror. If they see a blemish or a speck of dirt upon their faces, they would strive to get rid of it. But if they do not see any dirt upon their faces, they feel quite pleased at this and think to themselves, “This is good for me—indeed I am quite clean.”
What one gains from the practice of insight meditation is the ability to look at the reflection of one’s mind—to notice the arising and the ceasing of its innumerable sensations and thoughts. But once you have seen the reflection of your mind in the mirror of vipassana practice, you have to live with what you see. The dirt on all of our faces can no longer be blithely ignored. For every clean spot—thoughts of kindness, friendship, love, generosity, compassion and concern—there may be a number of unhealthy, unskillful or unwholesome thoughts. Such is human nature. Desires and attachments to the pleasures of the senses, aversion to pain, delusions of exaggerated self-importance—all these are so deeply rooted in our minds that they tarnish to some degree almost every one of our thoughts.
In fact a wide swathe of our subjective experience is categorized by the Buddhist psychologists as unhealthy or unwholesome thoughts. In ancient India, these were sometimes characterized by Mara, the demon, the Lord of Death, the personification and embodiment of the mind’s pollution.
The most insidious thing about these unhealthy thoughts, about Mara and his host of attendants, is that they are invisible. All of us are influenced, in our moment to moment decision-making process that constitutes our personality in action, by greed and hatred and ignorance of the way things really are—and we never even know it. Silently and unnoticed, our minds are poisoned by the three harmful roots, and our actions are ruled by our unconscious conditioning.
But Siddhattha Gotama Buddha, sage of the Sakya clan, was called Chakkhumant, possessor of vision, because he had the ability to see Mara. “You have been seen, Mara!” said Buddha at the moment of his insight. “No more shall you have undisputed dominion over my mind!”
The Buddha’s technique for seeing the invisible unhealthy thoughts is called vipassana, and is no more than looking to see what is there. He has bequeathed upon later generations a method of so training the mind that it may look within and see itself defiled or pure as one might gaze upon one’s reflection in a mirror. Once we see, then we can act to transform our minds.
The Anumana Sutta makes it sound so easy:
A person, reflecting on the arising and passing of their thoughts, notices both healthy and unhealthy thoughts. They think to themselves:
Whatever person is [angry and abusive], that person is displeasing and disagreeable to me. Similarly, if I were [angry and abusive], I would be displeasing and disagreeable to others.
When a person knows this, they should make up their mind that: “I will not be [angry and abusive].”
A person should then reflect upon themselves in this way: “Now, am I [angry and abusive]?”
If, while the person is reflecting, they know that: “I am indeed [angry and abusive],” then, that person should strive to get rid of those unhealthy thoughts.
But if, when a person reflects upon themselves, they know that: “I am not [angry and abusive],” then, with joy and happiness, that person should forsake all [angry and abusive] thoughts, training day and night in healthy thoughts.
[Dozens of alternative unwholesome states of mind can be substituted for the words in brackets.]
So if ever you wonder how to apply insight meditation to the ethical dilemmas surrounding you in the practical world, I suggest that you use the mirror of vipassana to observe your own mind—day and night!—and see it for what it really is. See the blemishes upon your own face, before you despair of the purity of others. See how easily some of the dirt can be wiped away, with a bit of effort and a willingness to improve. See how deeply rooted and immune to the scrubbing are other splotches upon your mind. See the bad along with the good, the unwholesome thoughts along with the wholesome; see the world for what it is—an inconceivably complex swirl of mental states. But whatever you do, continue to see! This, after all, is the essential meaning of the word vipassana: to see! In this case, seeing into the mirror that reflects our minds as they truly are.
But the vision is a tool, and a tool is meant to do work. And what is a worthy task for this most excellent tool? The Buddha’s charge was that the vipassana tool be used—day and night!—to bite into the coarse material of ignorance and cravings that make up our sensual world and carve something worthwhile: a noble character, a compassionate heart, a pure mind!