Letters from Nina
The Hague, March, '77
Dear Mr. Walter,
Thank you for your letter. First of all, I will repeat your remarks on Buddhism, and then comment on them.
'I am rooted in the Christian culture and tradition and therefore I find the world of Buddhism a world which is strange to me. I have only an academic interest in Buddhism, but I believe that Buddhism may help me to know myself better. What I do not like is the idea of self-redemption in Buddhism.'
Yes, of course we are rooted in the tradition and culture in which we have been brought up. It is natural that we feel at home with what is familiar to us. The Buddha's teachings do not require one to give up his tradition and culture, his likes and dislikes. Through the Buddhist teachings there will be more understanding of the conditions for our actions, speech and thoughts, more understanding of the causes of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We do not have to try to change our life, but, through the Buddhist teachings there can be more understanding of it.
I understand that you do not like the idea of 'self-redemption'. We cannot be redeemed by anyone. We cannot be redeemed by a 'self' either, but it is right understanding which can make us more free, less enslaved to our many defilements. The Buddha showed us the Path leading to the end of defilements. We follow this Path in developing right understanding of all phenomena in and around ourselves.
When you see that the Buddha's teachings can help us to know ourselves, you may no longer think of these teachings as belonging to a particular culture which you find strange. You may think it worth while to find out whether these teachings can help you directly, now, in your daily life.
Many religions teach that one should love one's fellowmen, but do we know how to develop this kind of love? Do we know what unselfish love is and when it occurs? I think that it is important to know more clearly what unselfish love is. Don't we often mistake attachment for unselfish love? We can delude ourselves when we do not know what unselfish love is. When it seems that we perform a deed of pure generosity there may also be many selfish thoughts.
Through the Buddha's teachings we learn to distinguish between different mental qualities. When there is pure generosity we think of the wellbeing of others and there is no selfishness. Whereas, when there is attachment we wish for our own wellbeing and gain. Unselfish love is wholesome and attachment is not wholesome. At one moment there may be unselfish love, but shortly afterwards there may be moments of selfishness. There is not one consciousness which stays, but there are many different moments of consciousness, arising one at a time and succeeding one another.
We do not possess something like unselfish love. It may arise and then it falls away immediately, to be followed by the next moment of consciousness which is different again. Moments of consciousness change so quickly that we do not notice it if we have not developed right understanding of the present moment. It seems that unselfish love can stay, but in reality it falls away immediately as soon as it has arisen.
When we have affection towards other people there may be moments that we genuinely think of their wellbeing, but such moments do not stay, they fall away and then selfish attachment may arise. There are many forms and degrees of attachment: it may be coarse such as greed or covetousness, but it can also be more subtle clinging which we do not notice.
Parents may think that they have nothing but unselfish love for their children, but is this true? They may have a selfish attitude towards their children and consider them as 'mine'. They may be attached to their own pleasant feeling they derive from being in the company of their children. It may be difficult to understand that attachment is not wholesome, because many forms of attachment are generally in society considered as good, provided one does not harm other people. When attachment is as intense as greed or covetousness and it motivates bad deeds, people will agree that it is harmful. But when we are attached to people, to beautiful things or to agreeable surroundings, it may be difficult to see that also such kinds of attachment are not wholesome. However, one may understand that attachment, be it coarse or more subtle, is in any case different from a moment of genuine generosity, when there is no selfish thought.
Attachment is deeply rooted in us, it arises time and again. It is useful to know also the moments of more subtle attachment. When we see a pleasant sight or hear a beautiful sound, attachment to what we see or hear is bound to arise immediately. It is beyond control, because it has its appropriate conditions for its arising. We are attached to pleasant objects today, because we were attached in the past. Our attachment today conditions the arising of attachment in the future.
Attachment brings sorrow. We like particular events in our life to take place, we want to be with people we like, we want to see and hear pleasant things. However, when things do not turn out the way we want them to be and we have to be separated from people or things we like, there is displeasure or aversion, there may even be anger. This is conditioned by attachment.
Wholesome qualities do not harm us, they do not make us sad or disturbed.
What is unwholesome brings sorrow.
The moments of consciousness which are wholesome and those which are unwholesome arise at different moments, but these moments can arise closely one after the other. I find it very helpful to know these different moments so that I will not delude myself. When I, for instance, help others for a whole morning, it is good to know that there was not generosity all the time, that there were also attachment and aversion. We may approve of our own good deeds and we may find ourselves important. We want to be popular, we do not want to be overlooked by others. We may expect something in return for our good deeds, such as words of praise. At those moments there is no generosity, we think of ourselves. Also aversion may arise while we are helping others. There are many forms and degrees of aversion: it may be coarse such as anger or hate, or it may be more subtle such as a slight displeasure or uneasiness which we may hardly notice. We are bound to have aversion when something does not go as smoothly as we want to, and does this not happen time and again? Aversion may arise when we feel a little tired while we exert ourselves, even while we are helping others. The Buddha's teachings help us to know also the more subtle degrees of unwholesomeness.
We may find Buddhism too intellectual. It may seem that we have to force ourselves to follow all our different moments of consciousness and that we could not live in a natural way. This is not so. We do not try to change anything which occurs, we could not anyway, since all phenomena arise because of their appropriate conditions. We need not try not to feel close to other people, not to have affection for them, but we can develop a clearer understanding of the different phenomena of our life. It is better to know that one is not wholesome all the time than not to know, to delude oneself.
The Buddha taught what is wholesome and what is not wholesome.
Non-attachment or generosity is wholesome. Non-hate or kindness is wholesome. Wisdom is wholesome. These are the three 'roots' of wholesomeness. There are three 'roots' of evil: attachment or clinging, aversion or anger and ignorance. We may be used to thinking in terms of sin.
However, unwholesomeness is not exactly what in society is meant by 'sin'.
Even when one does not do an evil deed there can still be unwholesome consciousness. Also attachment or aversion which is more subtle is unwholesome, it is not beneficial. As we have seen, there are different degrees of unwholesomeness.
We are so ignorant about ourselves that we do not know whether this very moment is wholesome or not wholesome. Is there attachment now? Do we like what we see? Or is there aversion? If there is a slight feeling of uneasiness or tiredness there is bound to be aversion. Gradually we can develop more knowledge of the present moment. This is the only way to
Our life consists of ever-changing phenomena which are beyond control. One may find it difficult to understand what the Buddha meant, when he taught that there is no self. Our clinging to the self is so deeply rooted. We would like to be master of our body, we would like to be master of our moments of consciousness, our feelings, all our experiences. However, one
can see that the body consists of changing phenomena. We cannot control the body, we cannot prevent its decay. What we call mind changes all the time.
We would like to be kind and wise all the time but instead we are often attached, unkind and ignorant of realities. We would like to hear kind words from other people, but instead we may hear harsh words, or people may treat us badly. We would like to have only pleasant experiences but this is impossible. Consequently we tend to feel frustrated and even bitter. The seeing of pleasant and unpleasant objects, the hearing of pleasant or unpleasant sounds, all our experiences are phenomena which arise because of their appropriate conditions, we are not master of them. Instead of blaming other people when life is not as we want it to be, instead of giving way to feelings of frustration, there could be development of right understanding of the phenomena of our life.
The Buddha taught us to be aware of the phenomena which occur at the present moment, no matter they are wholesome or unwholesome, pleasant or unpleasant.
This is the only way to have less clinging to an idea of 'self' which tries to control life, to have less clinging to 'my feelings', 'my thoughts', 'my body', and is this not a gain?
Kind regards from
Nina van Gorkom