Some Westerners misinterpret Theravada Buddhism as advocating aversion to the world and daily life. People often believe that nonattachment is born out of indifference or aversion. This misconception occurs because of a basic misunderstanding of the teachings of the Buddha.
With his penetrating awareness, the Buddha understood that, because of the impermanent nature of worldly pleasures, any pursuit of these pleasures will inevitably lead to suffering. He did not teach aversion to worldly pleasures; rather, he pointed out their shortcomings and showed that it is possible to experience a peace and happiness that far exceeds the limited pleasures of the world.
People commonly “go after” worldly pleasures, and worldly pleasures also “go after” people. When the mind is not sufficiently developed and trained, it lacks true mindfulness. Without a strong degree of mindfulness, one becomes easily ensnared in a continual cycle of dissatisfaction, always wanting and seeking pleasant feelings and continuously trying to avoid unpleasant feelings.
No matter what experiences the Buddha encountered, pleasant or unpleasant, there was absolutely no trace of greed or anger in his mind but only unshakable peace and equanimity (balance of mind). No matter how beautiful or ugly the experience, the Buddha remained calm and collected with complete clarity and presence of mind.
The Buddha taught people how to see things in a clear and balanced way with no distortion. A mind trained in this manner, having gained deep insight into ultimate reality, does not become emotionally reactive. Those mental states that result in pain and suffering simply do not arise. If you wish to really understand this profound level of equanimity, you must go beyond theoretical explanations. You must have a direct experience of equanimity, which results from deep insight into the impermanent and selfless nature of mind and body.
Theravada Buddhism teaches that the worldly pleasures that you may now be enjoying are similar to an open jar of honey, whose scent attracts hungry ants. In time the ants become entrapped by the sticky honey; unable to free themselves, they eventually suffer and drown.
But, according to the Buddha, it is possible to have a mind completely free from craving and grasping. His gift was to offer us a map and the method leading to true happiness: freedom from greed, anger, fear and confusion. It is through the ardent practice of Satipatthana vipassana meditation that one is able to comprehend by direct experience the true nature of all conditioned phenomena. The result of this profound level of insight is freedom from all forms of suffering.
When a physician points out to someone addicted to smoking that smoking could result in a painful lung disease, the physician does not want to harm or deprive that person of pleasure or happiness. Likewise, when the Buddha taught about the unsatisfactory nature of the world, he did so not to take away worldly happiness from people but to give them the opportunity to experience a more pure and lasting happiness. He gave instruction to help others find relief from their torments of mind (kilesas). The Buddha’s commitment to forty-five years of teaching for the welfare of others expressed his deep compassion for their pain and suffering.
If someone misunderstands the Buddha’s motives and teachings, he or she will inevitably criticize the Buddha for teaching that it is not possible to gain true happiness through worldly pleasures. He or she will question whether the Buddha is correct in proclaiming that freedom from all types of suffering is actually possible. This is what now appears to be happening among many Western students and teachers.
So the use of the term “aversion” to express Theravada Buddhism’s view of the world is not correct. This becomes clear when we look at the sequence of the classical progressive Dhamma talks the Buddha frequently gave. The Buddha would begin his talk on generosity (dana) and its benefits. Next he would talk about morality (sila) and its benefits, such as the pleasures of rebirth in the deva-realm. Finally, the Buddha would point out the dangers inherent even in these pleasures and urge his disciples to earnestly strive to be free from greed, anger and delusion, which are the causes of suffering in the endless rounds of rebirth (samsara).
When all of this becomes directly observed by the yogi in his or her own meditation practice—not as mere theory or imagining—clear understanding arises in the form of insight knowledge. At this point the reality of the burdensome aspect of existence (dukkha) becomes exceedingly obvious. This is not the same experience as aversion because there also arises at this stage a strong desire for liberation and the genuine peace of mind that the Buddha talked about. In fact, this is actually an uplifting and energizing experience rather than a depressing or contracted one.
The Buddha said that only one person in a hundred thousand appreciates these true teachings of liberation. This is true in Burma and throughout the world. So the difficulties Westerners have in understanding Theravada Buddhism are not unusual. Many people do not have a mature enough state of mind to hear the teachings of the Buddha. Their spiritual stamina is weak, and they react with aversion when they are faced with teachings they do not want to hear. It is because their minds are not properly cultivated that they cannot understand the Buddha’s teachings.
A person who exercises physically develops strong stamina so that he or she will be able to withstand any kind of weather. However, one who has not exercised properly or is physically weak will easily get a cold and a runny nose, falling victim to the changing weather. In the same way, the person who has not properly developed his or her mind will react in an oversensitive manner to the teachings that he or she does not like. Yet the Buddha never gave teachings merely to cater to the demands of the audience. He always gave a talk appropriate for the cultivation of wisdom, which was not always the talk the audience wanted to hear.
As a student of Buddhism, you need to ask yourself whether you want to experience the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Do you truly want to understand the laws of cause and effect, or are you approaching the teachings with a desire to reinforce the views that you already have?
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the importance of practicing Satipatthana vipassana meditation to sufficient depth. If you approach Buddhism from an intellectual point of view, without actually practicing, you will only arrive at more thinking, more intellectualizations and more imaginings. In this way you will never get to the truth, and you will never experience true happiness.
Please show your appreciation of these teachings through your ardent practice.
This article is based on an interview conducted by vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdal, Barbara Gates and Nancy Van House. Many people contributed to the editing. The final version was edited and condensed by Kenneth Morris, Barbara Janus and Andrew Scheffer. For more information, please visit the Saddhamma Foundation (www.saddhamma.org).