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A Technique of Living

Leonard A. Bullen

The twelfth month


IN developing an efficient approach to the problems of life, one of the first essentials is to reach a clear comprehension of what you really want from life. You could simplify – or over-simplify – the answer to this question by saying that all you want from life is happiness. On the other hand you could enumerate a multitude of hopes and ambitions which might become so complicated and so mutually contradictory that you would need to undertake a lengthy process of self-analysis before you could sort it all out.

Some sort of answer half-way between the too-simple and the too-complex is what is really wanted. Without a well-defined understanding of what your central aim in life is – that is to say, without a clear comprehension of motive, as it is called in Buddhist psychology – there is a tendency to sink into the unthinking drift of life; and once caught up in the unthinking drift your whole life lacks focus.

To know what you want is very important. To know why you want it is also very important, and it will help you to do this if you understand in theory the nature of your desires, their origins in the instincts, and the emotions associated with them.

To understand your emotions and desires, you must first understand your instincts. These instincts are inherent tendencies to act in specific ways in specific circumstances. The instincts themselves exist below the level of the intellect – that is to say, below the level of your conscious reasoning processes – and being so much older than the intellect (in an evolutionary sense) they are so much stronger.

While your instincts are subconscious, your emotions and desires are conscious – sometimes too much so. In fact your emotions and desires are upthrusts into consciousness from your instincts. An instinct is like a volcano; it exists largely below ground level, but when it becomes active it throws lava and smoke upwards. In the same way, an instinct exists below consciousness, but when it becomes active it throws emotions and desires upwards into consciousness.

You can see, then, that the emotions and desires are upthrusts into consciousness from the instincts; but an emotion is not the same as a desire. An emotion is a comparatively vague and diffuse form of awareness at the level of bodily sensation, while a desire is a form of awareness at a higher level, at the level of ideas.

Your desires are, in fact, ideas of a sort; they are ideas of activities you want to carry out or else ideas of sensations you want to experience.

Thus if you are angry you have the idea of striking out at something; this can be called a motor idea, an idea of muscular activity, and it is aroused by the instinct of aggressiveness.

Again, if you are hungry, the sensory idea of food arises in your mind, energized or aroused by the inherent tendency to eat when the body requires food.

Perhaps the classification into motor desires and sensory desires – into desires to act and desires to experience – is an over-simplification; perhaps all desires include both motor ideas and sensory ideas; but the main point in the present context is that a desire exists at the ideational level of the mind while an emotion exists at the level of diffuse bodily awareness.

Let’s look at it in this way; when one of your instincts becomes active your body automatically prepares itself for the appropriate activity by various changes. You become aware of the bodily changes, and the diffuse awareness of them constitutes an emotion.

At the same time, some specific idea of undertaking some action or undergoing an experience may arise in your mind; this also is a result of the instinct which has been aroused. This idea is emotionally charged – that is to say, it is energised by the energy of the instinct – and thus it becomes a desire.

In sub-human life all activity is primarily instinctive, and whatever intellect does exist is directed towards finding ways to satisfy the instinctive promptings.

In human life the situation is not basically different from the situation in sub-human life, but it is vastly more complex. Most activity is primarily motivated in the first place by the instincts, represented in consciousness by the emotions and desires. The intellect functions mainly by seeking ways – most often very devious ways – to gratify the desires and to produce pleasant emotions. This means that the intellect functions mainly by seeking ways to satisfy the instincts. The instincts are like the engines of a ship while the intellect is like the rudder.

Very little activity, if any, is motivated primarily by the intellect, and intellectual motivation is secondary to instinctive motivation.

Thus your thoughts, your beliefs, your opinions, and your plans – these are all largely conditioned by the way you feel, by what you like and dislike, by what you want to do, and by what you want to avoid.


So you see that most of your thinking is emotional thinking, and very little of it is objective or dispassionate thinking.

In emotional thinking, facts and observations are falsified or wrongly coloured by desires and biases and prejudices. On the other hand, in dispassionate thinking – what little of it there is – the same facts are seen clearly and the same observations are unbiased and free from desires and prejudices, with no false colouring.

In emotional thinking, you tend to believe a thing because it pleases you to believe it or to reject an idea because it displeases you. In objective thinking you accept an idea if it is reasonable, whether it pleases you or repels you, and you reject an idea, however much you like it, if it fails to measure up to reason; or at least you accept it only tentatively and in an experimental spirit.


It is true that one of the main factors that gave primitive man his supremacy over his sub-human rivals and enemies was his intellect, his ability to use ideas as tools with which to reason, and to use simple words as shorthand symbols, so to speak, for complex ideas.

At the same time it is important to realize that when opposed to emotions and desires, the intellect shows up as a relatively feeble and sometimes ineffective force. Emotions and desires are upthrusts into consciousness from the tremendous instinctive forces, and even the most powerful intellect may find itself powerless in the face of such opposition.

To control a desire by simple will-effort, then, is often very difficult, sometimes impossible, and at times perhaps harmful.

It is difficult when the desire is anything more than a superficial one. It is impossible when the desire serves as an outlet for a powerful instinct. And it may be harmful when the desire serves as an outlet for an instinct which has been denied other outlets. This is especially so when there is a guilt sense or a feeling of shame acting as a repressing force.

It is then that extensive and deep-reaching self-understanding becomes necessary in order to understand and control your desires; but you cannot deal adequately with strong desires unless you train yourself to handle the small desires that crop up from time to time in your every day life.

While some forms of Buddhist mind-training can be best undertaken in a quiet and secluded environment, others can be woven into the fabric of everyday concerns and thus can be made an integral part of these concerns.

The practice of clear comprehension is one of the latter kind, for it has considerable scope for application in the busy workaday routine.

While the term clear comprehension is fairly self-explanatory, it would be well to discuss, for a short time, what it means in terms of Buddhist mental culture. In the first application of the term, clear comprehension means the clear comprehension of the motive or purpose of an activity.

In other words, whatever you are doing, you should clearly comprehend why you are doing it. Instead of having a vague or fuzzy idea of what you expect to achieve by it you should try to get a clear-cut idea of its purpose, which is to say a clear-cut idea of the desires that prompt you to carry out the activity.

Secondly, having clarified your mind as to the motive of an activity, you should get an equally clear-cut idea of whether or not it is really suitable for its purpose. Thus the Buddha-doctrine shows the need not only for a clear comprehension of the motive of an action but also for a clear comprehension of the suitability of the action for its purpose.

Thirdly, there is the need for absorbing the element of clear comprehension into every activity. In other words, the whole of one’s life, embracing every activity and every experience, is the domain of mindfulness, and thus, by extending the domain of mindfulness into every activity and every experience, the whole of life becomes the basis for mental culture.

Finally there is a form of mindfulness called the clear comprehension of non-delusion. The full implication of this clear comprehension of non-delusion involves the fundamental Buddhist teaching that the separate self is a delusion; thus the clear comprehension of non-delusion is a sharpened awareness that breaks through self-deceit and penetrates right through the delusion of selfhood to the reality of one’s own being.

Let us now return to the first kind of clear comprehension, the clear comprehension of motive. When you apply this to the whole of your life, to your hopes and desires, and to all your planning and striving, it presupposes that you have some fundamental purpose in life. You may not have an overall motive in your life, however; you may be caught in the unthinking drift, and if this is so the first thing to do is to become aware of this fact, and if possible to define some kind of overall motive.

Assuming however, that you have such a motive or purpose in life, it’s desirable, in the interest of efficient living, that you give thought to your activities as a whole to see if they line up with the focus of your life or whether they take you into all sorts of unprofitable side-issues.

This is not to say, of course, that you cannot have side-issues; these are unavoidable in ordinary life. There are many things you have to do, quite contrary to your central purpose, which left to yourself you would never even think of doing; yet because of your need to earn a living or your responsibilities and duties towards others, you must do those things.

Now if you allow the need to do these things to build up resentment and annoyance, they certainly will take you aside from your central purpose, whereas if you use them as opportunities to develop patience and tolerance you then bring them into line with your central purpose.

Thus by the clear comprehension that every experience is the domain of mindfulness you can make the best use of activities that otherwise would be unprofitable.

While it may not be easy to define your ultimate objective in life, you can generally define the immediate purposes of your everyday activities. You know why you always catch a certain train every working morning; you know why you go to work; and you know why you must earn money. You know also why you buy the necessities of life, and perhaps you know why you also buy some of the luxuries of life.

Do your luxuries really make life more enjoyable? Some of them do; others make life more difficult. These are the luxuries you must buy for their prestige-value, because your neighbours have them, perhaps, or because in your social set you are expected to have them. But these luxuries may become burdensome necessities, and because they must be paid for and maintained they cost more than they yield.

This is where the clear comprehension of non-delusion comes into the picture. To what extent are you motivated by self-assertion, for the desire for prestige and approval?

Perhaps having found the answers to these questions, and having found them to be not very flattering, you find you must continue to do things of no ultimate value. Because of family obligations, or responsibilities to others, or business necessities, you must continue to do things that cut across your fundamental purpose in life. You have applied the principle of clear comprehension of suitability and found certain activities quite unsuitable for their ultimate purpose; but such situations are often unavoidable.

But at least you are not deceiving yourself. It is when you unmindfully take on unnecessary activities – activities that cut across your central purpose – that you sink into the unthinking drift. The important thing, then, is freedom from the unthinking drift, and the key to this freedom is clear comprehension – the clear comprehension of the purpose of an activity and of its suitability, the clear comprehension that every activity is the domain of mindfulness, and the clear comprehension of that non-delusion.

This is the Buddhist practice of clear comprehension in its various forms.

Practical Work


In the path to self-understanding you will find that it is of great importance to gain a clear comprehension of the true motives of your various activities. It is in the sphere of motivation that the human mind finds perhaps the greatest scope for self-deceit, and in consequence self-centred anxiety, resentment, and self-assertion are often at the basis of activities which on the surface seem to have nobler and less self-centred motives.

Your practical work for this period then, consists of constant endeavour to become critically aware of the fundamental motives behind your everyday activities. An activity which appears to you yourself and to others to be generous, full of goodwill, and devoid of self-interest, may on self-examination prove to be motivated by self-centred anxiety, resentment, or self-assertion in some form; and the recognition of your true motives is an essential part of self understanding.

The exercise of a constant endeavour to become critically aware of these motives is, as you can see, essential; but this constant endeavour may tend to become swamped by the pressure of everyday concerns. This is where the self-contract method of self-discipline will prove most useful. To apply it, every day throughout the period of a month you will look back at the day’s main activities and critically examine your various motives. When you fail to do this, impose on yourself some small penalty.


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last updated: 03-04-2005