The historical Buddha Shakyamuni made a big deal of the distinction between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. Most religious and philosophical traditions probably share this point of view to some extent, but the Buddha was unique in offering a detailed way of understanding how and why the mind manifests as it does in any given moment. There are patterns of cause and effect that can be seen in experience and traced over time to explain the dynamics at work shaping each moment of consciousness. The word for this is karma, and it does not mean “fate.”

Moreover, the Buddha offered a simple and universal method for transforming mind states from unwholesome to wholesome. This is important because, as the very first verse of the Dhamma- pada says, we become what we think. Every thought, emotion, intention, attitude, and aspiration shapes how ensuing experience will unfold. This means that every single moment of consciousness is a moment of practice, whether we like it or not. We are practicing to become ourselves. The critical question, really, is just how much we want to participate in the process.

As I understand his teachings, the Buddha was expounding what we might call a post-Copernican revolution. The world really does revolve around us, insofar as our mind is the instrument for the local construction of meaning. Left unattended, the mind will tend to organize around greed, hatred, and delusion, and will create unwholesome states that “obstruct wisdom and lead away from awaken- ing” (Majjhima Nikaya 19). The solution to the problem, at least according to the earliest strata of Buddhist tradition, is to learn the healthy skill of transforming such mind states. A simple method of doing so is laid out in the Anumana Sutta (MN 15) of the Middle-Length Discourses.

Step One 

Notice: “A person [with unwholesome qualities] is displeasing and disagreeable to me.” This is a generic way of stating it. The text actually offers a long list of specific qualities, such as anger, hate, contempt, deceit, and arrogance, within the square brackets. I’m sure we can all come up with our own unique list of unwholesome qualities we find displeasing in others. Notice that the emphasis here is not upon the other person (“He has such unwholesome qualities!”), but upon one’s own response in the moment (“I am experiencing displeasure in the face of this behavior”).

Step Two

Infer: “If I were to have unwholesome qualities, I would be displeasing and disagreeable to others.” This is the pivotal moment of the process, for it turns attention toward oneself rather than placing it upon the other. It is almost automatic in our culture to impugn others for their behavior, and this would normally result in blaming or trying to rectify the other: “If only she would not be like that, I’d be okay.” Here it is rather “If only I would not be like that, she would be okay.” The subtlety of the Buddha’s insight here is not only that transforming one’s own inner states is the most direct path to happiness, but that because of the laws of karmic interdependence, such a change will have the additional effect of transforming others.

Step Three

A person who knows this should arouse his mind thus: “I shall not have unwholesome qualities.” This step involves undertaking the resolve to change the qualities of one’s own mind. What a radical idea in an era that so often takes for granted that the world should be modified to meet our desires long before we should change ourselves. Opening to things just as they are is a more popular aspect of Buddhist practice than the subsequent step of understanding the nature of what is arising and, if it is unwholesome, letting go of it. Yet this is precisely where, in treading the Buddha’s path to awakening, right view, right intention, right mindfulness, and right effort converge.

Step Four

A person should review himself thus: “Do I have unwholesome qualities?” Mindfulness meditation provides access to the landscape of inner experience. Like fondling the beads on a necklace as it slowly slips through the fingers, one learns to savor each moment of consciousness and look closely at its texture and nuance. As insight grows and wisdom deepens, the sense of what is wholesome and unwholesome emerges gradually and intuitively. This is not a discursive or judgmental process, but it does require rigorous honesty.

Step Five

When he reviews himself, if he knows: “I have unwholesome qualities,” then he should make an effort to abandon those unwholesome states. It is inevitable that one will discern unwholesome qualities of mind when one looks openly on what is actually occurring in experience. As many people remark, meditation can be a most humbling experience. But there is never any blame for simply noticing what is there. When something unwholesome is seen in oneself, the determination to change it will arise in proportion to one’s understanding. How one goes about changing it, however, is a matter of great importance. Accepting what is unwholesome out of attachment, or acting it out in an attempt to purge it, will just strengthen that quality of mind. Similarly, trying to overlook or suppress it will simply postpone and fortify the problem. Abandoning involves seeing it for what it is, recognizing the conditions that contribute to clinging to it, and gently releasing one’s hold on the unwholesome quality, one moment at a time.

Step Six

When he reviews himself, if he knows: “I have no unwholesome qualities,” then he can abide happy and glad, training day and night in wholesome states. There will also be times when a review of consciousness reveals no unwholesome qualities of mind. This is good. It is entirely appropriate in such cases to experience happiness and gladness. 


The discourse ends with an image suggesting a process of mental purification: “Just as when a woman—or a man—young, youthful, fond of ornaments, on viewing the image of her own face in a clear bright mirror or in a basin of clear water, sees a smudge or a blemish on it, she makes an effort to remove it, but if she sees no smudge or blemish on it, she becomes glad.” I suspect both our personal lives and our collective world would be far better off if we cared for our inner states as fastidiously as we do the outer form.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .