Threefold training and emotions

The Threefold Training can be looked at from the emotion management perspective.

Recognizing general uncertainty of human existence, the Buddha defined the starting point of his Teachings with an emotion and that one was suffering, sorrow or grief. The path of liberation from suffering, caused by ignorance, leads through eliminating that basic emotion and also the host of others, like greed, hatred and delusion . This process is paralleled with another one, of cultivating emotions which directly contribute to the peace of mind. Therefore, the whole Noble Eightfold Path could be described as essentially a path of skillful emotion management.

Minute psychological analysis expounded in the Pali Canon showed that all this negative aspects of mind are active at three levels. The first is the latent one, when they lay dormant in the form of latent tendencies. They are, so to speak, under the radar, as long as due to some external or internal stimulus they are not provoked and their transition to the phase of strengthening, outburst triggered. This second phase we subjectively experience as disturbance of mind, intense body feelings and negative emotions. Often, this is just a preliminary for the most intensive phase, manifestation, when we act upon those emotions by speech or body.

Obviously, our wrong actions – various violent acts, lying, scolding or gossiping – done in this last phase are very destructive both for us and the people around us. But at the same time, they are easiest to suppress, since besides our internal moral compass (hiri and ottappa), their inhibition is regulated by various social conventions and customs. As a very practical man, the Buddha realized that and started his path of moral purification with the easiest step, which is exactly this level of external manifestation of the mind impurities. For this purpose, as an antidote, he prescribed the moral discipline, the first phase of the threefold training. In the schema of the Noble Eightfold Path, this phase is covered by three steps of right speech, right action and right livelihood.

As we all know from personal experience, far more difficult task than controlling the body is to control our mind, to register and eliminate various impurities as they start flowing out of the mind at the second level. Part of this task is done by successful practicing sīla, which means by not repeating wrong actions by speech and body. But even greater help comes from concentration, the second step in the threefold schema of moral training. By striving to compose our usually most of the time fragmented mind and bringing it under our control, we create right conditions for careful self-observation. Although thus concentrated mind is still not able to remove three unwholesome roots, it is well-equipped to notice, as soon as possible, their outbursts at the second level. Among the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, this phase is covered by another three factors: right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Finally, the task of eradicating latent tendencies of our mind at the deepest level the Buddha delegated to the only real antidote to delusion or ignorance and that is wisdom or knowledge, covered by the first two factors of the Path: right understanding and right intention. As a forerunner of the whole path, right understanding gives us a general direction, providing that we stay in the framework of the four noble truths. Thus, we start more and more clearly to see all constituents of our experience as they really are (yathābhūta-ñāṇa): as unstable, unsatisfactory, and not-self. Only this insight into the true nature of reality is able to eradicate all three unwholesome roots and thus liberate of all attachments. At that highest point of the Buddhist mental training our emotions are purified and fully contribute to our happiness.

Once we see the goal more or less clear, this inspires the movement towards it. This triggers the right intention, a conative aspect of our mental activity, which will be later manifested through the triad of moral factors of the Path. This activity is reflected in the three areas: 1. intention of renunciation, 2. intention of good-will and 3. intention of harmlessness. Avoiding the method of repression in dealing with mental impurities, Buddha advocates renunciation, a moderate life, based on the gradual insight that desire is invariably bound up with dukkha. Thus, we change the angle of looking at the things that blinded us so far. Another antidote, this time to ill-will, to anger and hatred, is developing intention on good-will, through metta meditation. Kind of emotion of love implied by mettā doesn’t have anything common with sensual love or personal affection. It is not rooted in the illusion of a permanent ego and thus is limitless. Finally, the third aspect of right intention is harmlessness guided by compassion. Similar to mettā, here too we try to “enter into someone else’s shoes” and see as clear as possible that, like us, all beings long for happiness and wish to be free from suffering. This emotional identification with the others through three kinds of intention directly counteract the three harming emotions of craving, hostility and harmfulness.

Speaking about emotions, it is interesting to compare Western and Buddhist view of an emotion. Unfortunately, there is no consensus in the West about what counts as an emotion. The English word “emotion” is a very general term, coming from Latin root emovere, to move, which might be interpreted that emotion is something that sets the mind in motion, toward harmful, neutral or positive action. When discussed by philosophers or psychologists, an emotion is often contrasted with cognitive and volitional states of consciousness, in line with the tripartite division of the mind, which became so deeply ingrained in the Western thought ever since St. Augustine draw it more than 1600 years ago.

On the other hand, there is no separate term for generic category of “emotion” in the technical Buddhist vocabulary. The closest we get would be saṇkhāra or mental formation, but this is wider term than the Western notion of “emotion”. This is due to the fact that an emotion is a complex state of mind, interwoven with thoughts, beliefs, conative impulses and various kinds of feelings. Speaking in jargon of Buddhist Abhidhamma, which was concerned with dissecting phenomena to bare, further irreducible entities, emotions are made up of several “mental factors” (cetasika).

The main tool for working with the mind in Buddhism is meditation. When doing that work, less experienced meditators are very often quite concerned, almost obsessed with negative emotions, as they cause the most of the disturbance and suffering. They often overlook real treasure of positive emotions which Buddhist tradition values the most, like four divine abodes. Loving-kindness refers to a feeling of friendliness towards oneself and all other beings, wishing that each and every of them enjoy unshadowed happiness. Compassion is great sensitivity to all beings’ suffering and wish for them to alleviate that suffering as soon as possible. Here, again, it is interesting question if compassion applies only to other beings or to oneself too. In the Western culture, compassion is seemingly concerned only with others. This might be reflection of the Christian heritage of self-denial, while in the Ancient Greek tradition Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics says that self-love is not always egoistical. It involves respecting oneself. On the other hand, karuna encompasses oneself and the other beings.

Sympathetic joy is most distinctively Buddhist category, since in the West it is unknown in such concrete and pure form. It means delight in the good fortune of others and is directly opposed to jealousy, trying to undermine it even before it arises. Finally, there is equanimity, impartiality, as an emotion completely opposite to attachment and aversion.

If we try to unpack the threefold training and map the whole Noble Eightfold Path as a way of    development of an emotional intelligence, the first two steps are directly working towards that goal. Right understanding clears the way towards eliminating delusion regarding the right nature of our experience. That delusion is not a part of our intrinsic nature, we are not born with it, but is caused by two basic emotions: greed and hatred. They are counteracted by right intention, the second factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. The next three factors of the Path: right speech, right action and right livelihood are designed to translate this right intention in the right way of conduct, putting our verbal and bodily actions in line with the high ethical standard which the Buddha considered inseparable from the happy life and eventually reaching the final goal of nibbāna. Finally, the last three steps on the Path: right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration are more directed to establishing positive emotions of peace, serenity and clarity of mind.

Thus, we see that emotions, their recognizing, developing and purifying, are like a golden tread that goes through and connect all the steps of the Buddhist practice, making it thus a logical, thoughtful and well-structured system, whose factors support each other and work together toward the same goal.

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