KLESHAS

The following excerpt is from Mark Epstein's excellent book, Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, a Positive Psychology for the West. The suggested writing exercises are by Kimbeley Snow.


Psychological Emptiness

In the Buddhist view the major obscurations to freedom are called kleshas. A difficult word to translate, kleshas have been called everything from passions to afflictions to conflicting emotions to disturbing conceptions. No one has been able to find quite the right word, for they are not solely emotion nor are they exclusively thought. Joseph Goldstein refers to them as afflictive emotions, while Stephen Batchelor has taken to calling them compulsions. The basic idea is that certain powerful reactions have the capacity to take hold of us and drive our behavior. We believe in these reactions more than we believe in anything else, and they become the means by which we both hide from ourselves and attempt to cope with a world of ceaseless change and unpredictability. The three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance are the classic Buddhist examples, but others include conceit, skeptical doubt, and so-called "speculative" views, nothing of self that bind and restrict us.

The kleshas work by grabbing hold of consciousness and taking it over. When I am enraged, I do not stop to question my reality; I am completely caught up in my anger. There is no space in my mind; I am identified one hundred percent with my feelings. The reason that kleshas is so difficult to translate is that it connotes something that underlies both state of mind and emotion.

Simultaneously thought and feeling, but more basic than either, kleshas are so intense that they propel us mindlessly into actions that cause suffering. When angry, I am gripped by my anger, and I don't care, for the moment, what the consequences of my words or actions will be. I feel totally justified. Just as the ancient languages of the Buddha have only one word for head and heart, so they also recognize the power of these primitive states to monopolize the mind, body, and behavior.

When Freud talked of instincts or drives he was trying to explain a similar concept, that there are energies that permeate us, which can grab our entire being and shape who we become. But in Buddhism these energies are not seen as essential, the way they are in conventional psychoanalysis; they are seen as self-created, springing from a fundamental fear or confusion, a reaction to things being out of our control. The great eighth-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva compared the kleshas to bands of thieves lying in wait to steal the jewels inside the house of mind. His comparison is apt but suffers a little from self-estrangement. The bands of thieves are not separate from us. We steal from ourselves, having somehow learned how to rain on our own parades, and we are not passive victims in the matter. The trick, in Buddhist practice, is to uproot the kleshas through the insidious and invisible power of awareness. To become alert to how we restrict ourselves is to begin the process of liberation.

- Mark Epstein, Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, a Positive Psychology for the West.


Ways to understand kleshas through writing
by Kimberley Snow

Identify your own kleshas & use your writing to bring them up into awareness by using one or more of the following methods:

1. Remember a period in your life that seemed to be dominated by a klesha. Write about it in detail, including the after effects.
2. At the end of the day, write about the way or ways a klesha took over your day, even briefly. Examine how it operated, what set it off, what allowed you to escape.
3. Describe your kleshas in specific detail. Make one into a fanciful monster, an ill-wind, an atmosphere. Draw it using colored pens. Go inside the room of the klesha and turn on the light.
4. Write a short story about someone who is under the sway of kleshas ( for inspiration, see such books as Obsession, Lolita, Anna Karenina.)
5. Write a science fiction story in which a tribe called the Kleshas invade the country of Sem (Tib: ordinary mind). Describe how the Sems try to combat this invasion using their top operatives, the Sheraps (Tib. wisdom-mind). Depict the power struggle that ensues.
6. Begin to watch other people as they struggle with or try to overcome their own kleshas. Write brief sketches of them, sending out feelings of loving kindness.
7. Start an imaginary advice column called "Dear Buddha." Write answers to people who have written in concerning kleshas.
8. Join an e-mail list and engage in a discussion on kleshas. E-mail writing is still writing. When you Google "kleshas" (1,710 hits) you'll find a number of references as well as excerpts from discussions in progress, including the following thread: [Bohm_Dialogue] FW: [BUDDHA-L] Seeing the Kleshas as Bodhi http://lists.cometsite.com/pipermail/bohm_dialogue/2002-November/003094.html
lizoh dialogue@david-bohm.net
Fri, 01 Nov 2002 18:38:06 +0000
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"That by which fools are bound,
By that same thing are the wise liberated."
--Saraha

The essence of Vajrayana systems is transformation; the basis, the upadaana-skandhas, are not abandoned, as in paths of renunciation [i.e. common Mahaayaana, etc.], but rather, transformed.
In general, the tantric theory holds that in this day and age defilements/afflictions are so strong that they cannot be renounced, but rather, in order to achieve liberation, one must work within their context and transform them into their corresponding wisdoms-- it is not the case that anger is mirrorlike wisdom, but rather, the energy underlying both anger and mirrorlike wisdom are the same; when one sees one's mind as it is, one remains in mirrorlike wisdom, when one's mind is not seen as it is, and one projects tension and agression onto others, one experiences anger. Both anger and mirrorlike wisdom have no intrinsic nature per se, just as samsara and nirvana also have no intrinsic nature.

As the Hevajra Tantra also points out:
"This "samsara",
this is nirvana;
having abandoned samsara for something else,
nirvana will not be realized.
Samsara is form and sound, etc.,
samsara is feeling, etc.,
samsara is the faculties,
samsara is anger, etc.;
these things are nirvana.
Because of delusion, samsara has form
without delusion, having purified samsara,
samsara became nirvana."
M

> It's not a case of whether I 'like' it or not. This is, in a sense, what the issue is here. In a way, I don't 'like' the path I'm following, but the results come. It's habitual for me to follow the kleshas - I 'like' them - but they also have their result. The habitual does not equate to the natural. I feel one could go dreadfully wrong if one panders to the kleshas. Because of their nature, there's a pressure to go with them. It could be a greater pressure than Bodhicitta. So, as I would have concern for myself in this respect, I also have concern for others.

Dharma Writing Workshop