We are what we think, having become what we
Like the wheel that follows the cart-pulling ox,
sorrow follows an evil thought.
We are what we think, having become what we thought.
Like the shadow that never leaves one,
happiness follows a pure thought.
(The first two verses of the Dhammapada, a canonical collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha)
In Buddhism, Dharma is the path and the way to achieve awakening and enlightenment. It is also the guide for understanding the nature of human suffering and how to overcome it. And it is the Universe and lessons learned in honoring the principles of unity, balance, interconnectedness and interdependence that hold together the fabric of the Universe. While there are many writings and teachings concerning Dharma, essentially it is never static or moralistic. Rather than being a moralistic religion, which is built on a collection of judgments concerning good and evil, right and wrong, Buddhism emphasizes the development of insight, discernment and virtuous attitude and behavior so as to ascertain that which is supportive of Dharma and that which violates it.
“Good,” “right,” and “pure” are that which is in accord with Dharma, which is not always the same as how we would want things to be, for, of course, Dharma includes sickness and death, earthquakes and hurricanes, periods of regression and uncertainty, all necessary for there to be birth and rejuvenation, and even the awakening of consciousness, for there can be no awakening that does not arise from being lost in unconscious delusion. Evil is that which violates this harmony, balance and flow – attempting to make Life conform to ego’s wishes to make more of itself without concern for the cost to others, creating a tear in the fabric of Life-in-balance, and evil can only exist through unconsciousness. To be conscious is to be in Dharma, for to be conscious is to see that we are Dharma and its violation is a violation of ourselves.
Buddhism is a religion, yes, but it is more a philosophy of life and cosmology and perhaps primarily, a psychology of both the individual and collective human condition. Its great value is that unlike Western psychology which focuses on the categorization and treatment of mental illness with practically nothing to say about the actualization of mental health, Buddhism images for us and guides us to what can be understood as optimal mental health, the highest realization of human potential. This could be called “enlightenment,” but since this word carries so much inflated meaning, perhaps it is better to simply say “right mind” or “awakened mind,” for the translation of the word Buddhism is “the practice of awakening,” and this “awakening” concerns seeing ourselves, others, the world and the cosmos in its “true nature,” to realize Dharma, and this in Buddhism is called “right view.”
What is “healthy” is that which is manifesting and supporting our and the world’s true nature, and what is ill is that which is the diminishment, imbalance, or violation of what is true nature. The issue of mental health and mental illness can then be addressed in this manner. Mental illness is how a human being falls out of harmony and alignment with the nature of what is true concerning human nature and potential, and we can best address this imbalance and contortedness by becoming mentally healthy – by finding our ‘true nature,” by finding our way to alignment with Dharma. This is true for individuals and it is true for the collectives of human society, for if mental illness is rampant among individuals in our society, it is so precisely because the collective mindset of our society is most certainly out of Dharma and profoundly ill, a society increasingly unable to see, admit and address the challenges before it – much like a mentally ill person.
There is little need to go into the minutia, detail and history of how this imbalance occurred for a given individual or our society. The fact that it occurred is found in our conflicted view and behavior in the present; the causation or categorization of which is mostly irrelevant. In any case, the overriding causation is all we need to know, and in its many variations and manifestations always comes back to non-alignment with Dharma. It always comes back to investing identity in one’s particular dysfunctional and delusional egoic view, that contorted projection that is the jumble of confusing ideas and doctrines that go unexamined, assumed to be true, yet profoundly in error. If we understand Dharma as the underlying fabric of existence, there is a tear in the fabric, and in order for health to be restored it must be mended.
Buddha identified the cause of the tearing 2500 years ago when he identified a completely unique kind of suffering that human beings alone experience in all of Nature in attachment to ego for sense of self, and to conditions in the external world for our well-being. Humans identify themselves and all the elements of the world as caught in separateness because of the evolutionary adaptation unique to humans, an abstracting capacity of mind which brings with it the capacity to think, to symbolize the world and live in the symbol and not Reality, and we can think all kinds of completely crazy – that is, out of Dharma, things.
Instead of living in direct embedding within Dharma as the entire non-human world does, the very fact that human beings have to create philosophies that point to Dharma, tells us just how great the tear is. We do not live in the world as it is; we live in a world that we think it to be. As the Dhammapadainstructs – as we think in contorted ways, we contort our experience, and evil, that is, the suffering that comes with being out of alignment with Dharma and Life results. And as the Dhammapada instructs – with pure thoughts, that is, thoughts in alignment with Dharma, there will result increasing harmony, clarity, and skill – that which can be understood as mental health.
In Buddhist practice – which is more accurately called Awakening practice (to take the religious connotation out of our discussion), it is taught that ego, both individual and collective, creates a story of who we are that is filled with contradictions and conflicts, and therefore, insecurities. And where there are insecurities there is the need to compensate for these insecurities through defense mechanisms of the mind and behavior, and these defense mechanisms operate in ways to maximize a sense of self-importance at the expense of truth, of “pure thought.”
Self-absorption, a fixation on how to make the most of “me,” takes over with an obsession on the story of “me” in the past and of “me” in the future, filled with anxiety that the future will not support “me,” and for the purpose of gaining clarity and sanity, this is best seen as a black hole of confusion that is best not to enter – rather – to understand its existence and escape its pull. What is needed is the capacity to be profoundly present in what-is so as to experience the present moment clearly and to build a future based in truth and necessity, in Dharma. This is why Buddhist meditation and Dharmic instruction is meant to provide the energy and guidance to make this escape into the vast clarity of The-Moment-As-It-Is, the clarity that can be understood as mental health, in which mental illness simply has no place to attach and energize itself – and so its pull and control diminishes.
To accomplish this, meditation, the training of the mind in deeper levels of quiet, calm, and precise self and world examination, is necessary because it is only in quieting the mind’s endless repetition of social and personal conditioning that we can discover Dharma happening through us, as us. Buddhism, more than any other religion, probably because Buddhism is more a philosophy of life and cosmology than a religion, stresses the path it teaches is a personal one, the teachings only meant as guides – as is often stated, fingers pointing the way. To deepen our understanding of who we are and what is the true nature of reality, we must accept the challenge to find our own way back to where we begin, for it is only in the beginnings and origins that we can be certain of the purity of what is uncovered. Everything added on is obscuration. And so the Zen teacher challenges: “Show me your original face.”
A great Zen teacher, Shodo Harada tells us: “We think we see, but it is just superficial. We think we hear, but it is just superficial. Our awareness is more complex. Crowded with preconceived notions, we confuse ourselves. We have to clear all of that away. In that fresh clarity of no preconceived notions and not being caught on any thought whatsoever, we have opened our eyes to the sight of Buddha’s knowledge.”
The evil thought, the thought that pulls us to distorted projection of preconceived notions originating in social/cultural/psychological conditioning into ego-centeredness will inevitably lead to an insensitivity to how we bring harm and disharmony into our personal world and the world around us. While surely, the pure thought, the thought free of this self-absorption, that focuses on the Dharma truths of interconnectedness, interdependence, the good of compassion and empathy, will lead to peace and harmony within us and with the world around us. This IS the fabric of Dharma, and it is the guide that can lead individual humans to health and sanity, and very importantly in these challenging times, is the necessary template for the collective of our society and species to find its way to health and sanity.
Connection, unity, compassion, selflessness, virtuous honesty and empathy lead to what is healthy and harmonious, to happiness, for they are the fabric of Dharma. And as the world parades division, manipulation, selfishness, dishonesty and callous disregard, remember we cannot be happy, prosperous or peaceful when we tear the fabric of Dharma. Let us commit to healing in wholeness, to heal the tear, to heal ourselves and the world. Let us think and be “pure,” which is not impeccable in all things, but intending to be so, and doing the best we can with impeccable intention to goodness and honesty.