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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
spring 2006| 46 |buddhadharma Buddhism has plenty of words for what human beings do wrong – defilements, neurotic behavior, obstructions, evil deeds, kleshas, and so on. The beauty of Buddhism, though, is that it doesn’t focus on blame. The focus of Buddhism is samsara, which is not a sin but simply a mistake, a mistake that starts out small and gets very, very big. When you begin with the view that a mistake has been made, you can stop trying to ap- prehend the wrongdoer and put your effort into finding out how the mistake occurred in the first place. In the beginning, the real nature of the mistake can elude us, and we may think that there is “something wrong with us.” It takes the patience and diligence of mindfulness to see our “defilements” for what they really are – and to see how they differ from who we really are. Klesha, a Sanskrit term that predates Buddhism, refers to an obstruc- tion or impurity, something that gets in the way or clogs things up. In the center of the wheel of life, the pictorial depiction of samsara, three animals are shown that represent the three “poisons,” the root kleshas at the rotten core of samsara: a pig representing ignorance, a rooster rep- resenting attachment, and a snake representing aggression. The Buddhist catechism, the abhidharma, provides a much more detailed catalogue of our infirmities, outlining six root kleshas and twenty subsidiary kleshas (or upakleshas). Disruptive as they are, kleshas are temporary; they come and they go. But because they team up with karma, they become tendencies. Like a pair of very clever and highly skilled con artists playing off each other, karma and klesha conspire to make life miserable. Karma, the sum total of past actions, habituates us to seeing things in a certain way and imparts a momentum to all our activity. Klesha exploits that momentum by giving us a prepackaged set of responses – ignoring, embracing, rejecting, and countless variations on those themes – that ensures we will never have to experience a fresh moment of openness. If our klesha activity is somehow interrupted, we can experience open- ness and freedom. When that openness and freedom expands, we call that realization. And yet, even those who are realized exhibit something that looks an awful lot like what we call kleshas. They get angry. They are pas- sionate. They seem to be oblivious to things at times. For practitioners, who seek to emulate their teachers, questions arise: Am I being asked to get rid of the kleshas, to simply manage them better, or to somehow transform them? The kleshas would generally be called “emotions” in Western psycho- logical language. And when we think of flesh-and-blood human beings, we tend to think of them as beings with emotion, sentient in the fullest sense of the term. For example, the great allure of Renaissance painting was the Guy ArmstronG is A GuidinG teAchinG of the insiGht meditAtion society And A member of the spirit rock teAchers council. rinGu tulku rinpoche is A lAmA in the kAGyü order of tibetAn buddhism. he is the Author of dArinG steps towArd feArlessness (snow lion) And the rimé philosophy of JAmGön konGtrul the GreAt (forthcominG from shAmbhAlA publicAtions). Zenkei blAnche hArtmAn is A senior teAcher At the sAn frAncisco Zen center. she wAs co-Abbess of the center from 1996 to 2003. Forum: Are Kleshas Obstacles or Opportunities for Enlightenment? Photos:(left)sallyClough;(right):barbarawenger