According to the Buddha, revulsion about oneself can be valuable.
This teaching comes from the Samyutta Nikaya, “The Connected Discourses of the Buddha,” which is the third major collection in the “basket of Discourses” that make up the Pali Canon. [All otherwise unattributed direct quotations in this post are from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation that is referenced below. If you are interested in what the Buddha himself taught (as opposed to what his later followers taught), the Pali Canon is the best source because it’s the most reliable and complete record of his teachings. It’s called “the Pali Canon” simply because it was preserved in middle-Indian language of Pali, which is closely related to Sanskrit (although it was not the language the Buddha actually spoke).]
How could revulsion about oneself be valuable? The main idea is that it is possible to cultivate an attitude of revulsion about oneself and use it to live better.
As the Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama, apparently said many times, “I make known just suffering and the cessation of suffering.” Ignorant people simply get stuck on the suffering part; they foolishly think that the Buddha taught that life is inevitably dissatisfaction (dukkha).
It is important to understand the context of what the Buddha says about the attitude toward your physical and other characteristics.
It’s critical to distinguish physical pain from psychological dissatisfaction. Physical pains from illnesses, injuries, or aging are impossible to eradicate; to some extent or other, all human beings experience at least occasional pain.
Let’s here consider psychological sufferings, dissatisfaction, or imbalances. These can range from intense emotional states such as grief and anger to mild, barely noticeable annoyances. All such dissatisfactions can be minimized and even eliminated.
By overcoming ignorance. Ignorance may be overcome by understanding and directly experiencing the four fundamental truths. The Buddha said, “I will teach you suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”
So the Buddha’s teachings are all about teaching how to live without dissatisfaction or suffering.
Some people mistakenly think that the Buddha was not a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, because he was not addicted to speculative ontological or metaphysical views, and, so, insufficiently in love with ideas. This is not the case. He was the most successful philosopher in the history of the world.
It is nevertheless true that he did not teach speculative views about the nature of reality. This does seem surprising because, as I just stated, he thought that overcoming ignorance was the way to living without dissatisfaction. Why, then, didn’t he teach speculative views about the nature of reality like so many other philosophers?
(Speculative views are views such as “the world is eternal” or “the world is not eternal”, “the world is finite” or “the world is infinite,” “the soul is the same as the body” or “the soul is one thing and the body another”, or “after death a Tathagata [lord of the Dhamma] exists” or “after death a Tathagata does not exist.”)
There are two reasons. The first is just a pragmatic one, but the second is a fundamental one.
The pragmatic reason is well understood: the Buddha did not think that ontological tenets are of any use in the noble quest for deliverance from dissatisfaction. Why has he left such issues unresolved? “Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana” [from The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Kikaya, Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, trs. (Boston: Wisdom, 1995), p. 536. Also see the famous parable of the arrow on the previous two pages.].
The second reason is that such speculative views rest upon faulty assumptions concerning the nature of a self. [See the Abyakatasamyutta in The Connected Discourses of The Buddha, p. 1380ff.] It would be like a man who never beat his wife answering the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Either answer would rest upon a faulty assumption.
Notice the goal-oriented direction of his thinking: everything he says is oriented toward helping others to enlightenment and Nibbana (or, from Sanskrit rather than Pali, Nirvana). What does revulsion have to do with this goal?
Quite a bit, actually.
In the Buddha’s day, as now, many people were either incapable of thinking well or too impatient or lazy to think well for themselves. They wanted shortcuts. Many asked him, in effect, “Tell me the shortcut to enlightenment” or “Summarize your teaching in a few words.” He would oblige them by trying to say something brief yet helpful that they could understand.
The Venerable Radha was an elderly Brahmin who had become a monk in his old age. He understood the Buddha’s view that the self isn’t a separate substance but only an aggregate of form [body], feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.
Radha asks the Buddha about evil, personified as the killer Mara. The Buddha wants him to experience revulsion towards the five aggregates that make up himself. Consider each of the aggregates in turn, he tells Radha, and see it rightly “as a disease, as a tumour, as a dart, as misery, as real misery.” Radha then asks him the purpose of seeing rightly? Here’s the heart of the exchange:
“The purpose of seeing rightly, Radha, is revulsion.”
“And what, venerable sir, is the purpose of revulsion?”
“The purpose of revulsion is dispassion.”
“And what, venerable sir, is the purpose of dispassion?”
“The purpose of dispassion is liberation.”
“And what, venerable sir, is the purpose of liberation?”
“The purpose of liberation is Nibbana.” [p. 984]
Why look at our characteristics this way? It’s really to let go of “lust, desire, affection, thirst, passion, and craving.” [p. 985]. Revulsion enables us to distance our true self from our false self. This distancing or dispassion leads to liberation and Nibbana, which is freedom from dissatisfaction.
The purpose of experiencing revulsion with respect to oneself is to weaken and break one’s attachment to oneself (as opposed, say, to fostering low self-esteem). When detached, one takes everything with, as the 3rd Zen Patriarch put it, “equal mind,” which is the opposite of taking everything personally.
This brief passage on revulsion is one way to summarize the Buddha’s teachings and it’s authorized by the Buddha himself.
Takeaway teaching about revulsion: nothing is personal – not even what you ordinarily think of as your body, your feelings, your perceptions, your volitional formations, or your consciousness.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended readings: The Connected Discourses of The Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi, tr. (Boston: Wisdom, 2000); The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha, Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, trs.,; and Early Buddhist Discourses, John J. Holder, ed. & tr. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006).