Counterintuitive Methods in Buddhist Practice

The act of generating desire to engage in the four types of right effort can sometimes involve using counterintuitive methods, employing pride, craving, conceit, and even spite whenever necessary to accomplish its aims. – Thanissaro Bhikkhu

All Dharma should act as a remedy to the delusions. – A Tibetan Buddhist teaching


We may have this image of a Buddha, or of someone on the path as being always peaceful, kind, patient, and joyful. Less often would we think of someone with any spiritual maturity as feeling fear, or revulsion, or anger, or jealousy, or despair. We may have held this kind of an idea for a long time, but Buddhist practice can include every human emotion to accomplish its aims.

This is borne out in the sutras and commentaries, and in actual practice, although I don’t think we usually see Dharma practice this way. It’s counterintuitive to think of a person on the path as using fear, or aggression, for example, but these and other emotions, when used skillfully, can be means to a positive end.

We can make our own list of what are considered afflictive emotions, such as shame, grief, anger, pride, lust, depression, and fear, and see for ourselves how each of these can be turned into a powerful force for our own and others’ liberation.

If we are not able to hold these difficult human emotions, and instead idealize what someone on the path should be like, we will surely deprive ourselves of resources rooted deep in our experience, and our humanity.

The Karma Kagyud Lineage Prayer has one line that I’ve seen translated as

Revulsion is the foot of the path.

– and this means turning away, powerfully, from samsaric suffering and its causes. This disengagement then leads to some opening, a possibility for an entirely different kind of life.

One Sutta from the Pali Canon has a passage that reads:

Just as a man or a woman, young, youthful, and fond of ornaments, would be horrified, humiliated, and disgusted if the carcass of a snake, or a dog, or a human being were suddenly flung onto his or her lap, so too … when a bhikkhu sees the danger in harmful thoughts, he immediately withdraws from then … and his or her mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated…

Caution is certainly needed in this approach, of using counterintuitive methods, so that we don’t just increase agitation, or our negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or disgust.

I recall Ajahn Pasanno speaking about a fellow monk who was a depressed and aversive type, taking up reflections meant to his lessen attachment. He said the result was that this person became even more morose, and then aggressive. So we need to be skillful, and watch for ourselves the result of different ways of thought. It also always helps if we have good council.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his teachings on Right Effort said,

Your ability to talk yourself into doing skillful things that you don’t like to do, and to talk yourself out of doing unskillful things that you like to do, is a measure of your wisdom…

We use reflection all the time, and whether it leads to freedom or to further suffering depends on how well we use this faculty, of thought. This is especially true when it comes to handling the difficult to face aspects of life in this world, and our own emotions.

Using counterintuitive methods can be thought of as Dharma that is made of non-dharma elements. The Dharma, as a method that brings freedom and peace arises, precisely because we are able to hold what is not the Dharma, and turn it to our advantage.

Even something like fear becomes purposive, when it motivates us. Lama Zopa calls this apprehension wholesome fear.

Geshe Sopa taught:

We usually think fear is a bad thing and do not want to have any worries, but certain types of fear are positive because they prevent us from doing something stupid. Such fears should be produced. Seeing the relationship between nonvirtuous actions and unpleasant consequences will make us afraid of what will happen in the future, and makes us determined to regulate our behavior now. It also makes us try to remedy the negative things that we have already done. Such fear, therefore, is the antidote to many faults.

If we avoid certain activities because we are afraid of their consequences, then eventually we will reach the permanently fearless state.

This is like when Milarepa said:

Fearing death, I took to the mountains.
There I meditated again and again on the uncertainty of the time of death,
and captured the stronghold of the deathless, unchanging nature.
Now I am completely beyond the fear of dying.

The Historical Buddha himself used what is common and within reach to us all as his means to escape suffering, and then teach the path.

When the Buddha-to-be saw and was deeply moved by the miseries human beings go through, it became the cornerstone of his seeking liberation. It was not just a passing glance at suffering, but a deep and consistent force impelling him onward, to his liberation, and to his compassionate teaching. There must have been sadness in it along the way, and yearning, and an adamant, stubborn refusal to ever give up. Through his engagement with the truth, eventually all these turned into something other than just suffering, and resulted in his realization and freedom.

See how it is: what doesn’t look like Dharma can become Dharma, if we use it to a good purpose.

It’s said that one of the Buddha’s main direct disciples, Moggalana, was skilled in perceiving other realms, and in order to show a person the danger of their wrong actions, took them with his psychic ability to view the miseries of the lower realms. This works in its own way on the mind.

The horror at the vision of what others have become as a result of causing harm can inspire a person to give up deluded actions, and practice in accord with the teachings.

A couple more examples of counterintuitive means

The traditional meditations on the stages of decomposition of a corpse can be thought of as aiming to generate disgust, but that is only swinging in the far opposite direction of the common passionate attachment people have to forms. As mentioned earlier, this has to be approached with care.

The term asubha meditations, usually translated as the reflecting on unattractive, or on what we may think of as revolting, is actually aiming at being dispassionately not attracted, which is a neutral state, one we feel towards to so many things, quite common and familiar. This is a far different result. Then the meditation has done its job, freeing us for a time from attachment;

Even the power of anger can be used as a skillful means, when it’s guided by clear wisdom and by compassion. Protector practices are based on this. What is usually seen as an afflictive emotion, and something to be abandoned, is used as fuel;

Another example: when we view scenes of devastation caused by war, we may cry out, and feel a profound grief at it all; we may even be overwhelmed; we may want to bury it, or leave it behind, but when we’re feeling broken open like this, knowing the result of violence in this world can become a powerful force in our lives and in the world that can bring peace. It is surely far from where we are when bombs are falling, but when there is at last an end to conflict, down to the roots, that has comes about because we know deeply the importance of creating and maintaining a world free of the madness of militarism.

Do you grieve all that is left undone in our world in a single day? This weight is essential, if our vows are to have any strength;

Dissatisfaction can lead to satisfaction, at last, if we are skillful. I sometimes call this divine discontent. Note that this is dissatisfaction with intelligence and wisdom in it, mind you, and not the neurotic, dull, perpetually unsettled mind that does not know any contentment. We should make this distinction.

In truth, our desires are too small for us. We all seek satisfaction innately, and are frustrated, by nature, when we don’t find rest after pursuing small aims. Why settle for lesser goals? Why not generate the desire for profound fulfillment? Why not turn all we have available to accomplishing great, meaningful work? Nothing else truly satisfies in life, except having this aim, no matter how far we may go with it.

The only all-by-themselves negative qualities I can think of that cannot work as a counterintuitive power we can harness for liberation are: laziness, callous indifference, and closed minded doubt – all of which are expressions of ignorance. Our experience needs to be distilled, and learned from. Without being aware, we can’t expect any useful result in our lives, or in this world we share.

We need to we awake, alive, engaged, at times outraged, at times grieving, at times raging, and yearning, and making great vows, feeling pride, and even something like arrogance when it comes to viewing delusions, feeling superior (which we are), and competitive with our own petty egos and harmful emotions;

It’s right to be moved at times, even horrified, as when our own intrinsic goodness recoils from base, selfish thoughts, or giving harm;

It’s completely natural to want to correct injustice, and to protect the young, and the vulnerable, future generations and this earth, and then to become fierce and do whatever it takes to achieve this;

It’s also entirely natural to feel despair at times, and then practical and liberating to use that as a motive force to seek wisdom;

Our efforts here are upheld by the clear awareness of suffering, and the lower realms, and the real urgency to avoid them, and to do whatever we can to keep our loved ones and all others back from them.

All our human emotions, and all this knowledge can then work to create the life and the world we deeply yearn for, aligned with truth, and all our noble ideals.