The term paravritti often gets translated by something that sounds rather grand such as a turning around in the seat of consciousness. This kind of translation is not wrong and I have used it myself, but I have to admit that it probably gives a false impression to most people. DT Sukuki translates the word as “revulsion”. This has a rather different feel, doesn’t it?
So what is the revulsion that is close to or synonymous with enlightenment? It is revulsion at the thought of killing, at the thought of stealing, at the thought of wilful deception, at the thought of sexual misconduct, at the thought of consuming intoxicating substances. It is a revulsion toward anything that is not right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right way of life, right effort, right recollection, right samadhi.
Revulsion is physical. It is a feeling of nausea. It is a spontaneous up-welling of “No, no, I don’t want to do that, it’s too horrible!” This is, therefore, closely associated with genuinely and personally seeing the disadvantage of something. Generally, even though we give lip service, we are still fascinated by many of the things that we acknowledge to be sins. Our realisation of the disadvantage has not completed. It has not become real for us in a personal way.
This gap between what we are taught to think and say on the one hand and what we crave and really think on the other presents a big problem in spiritual life. It is a pervasive feature of life in society. When something awful happens and gets reported in the newspapers, public figures are apt to say such things as “All our thoughts are with the victims,” which is probably untrue, or “Such mindless violence must not go unpunished,” which, if you think about it, is a self-contradictory statement. Violence is not mindless, it is for a reason. If it were mindless, punishment would be inappropriate. We do not punish the sea for making a tsunami nor the mountain for a volcanic eruption, no matter how many people are killed, because these things genuinely are mindless. The statement by the politician itself has a better claim to mindlessness, because these things get said more to make the right impression than to express a felt truth that has been thought through. Yet don’t we all sometimes do the same kind of thing?
The mind, which is not easy to tame, is involved. We pretend that this is not so at our peril. The very same public figure, on another occasion, in other circumstances, might him or herself be the author of other horrible actions and do so intentionally. The mind is rather unreliable in this way. Although we have the idea that certain things are bad, this does not always prevent us from doing them. This is because we do not have the feeling of revulsion.
Our minds are the originators of good and bad actions. The person who does some evil action does so mindfully, unless it has become so commonplace to him or her that they do it all the time without thinking about it. It is possible to get so accustomed to stealing, or killing, or lying, that one hardly notices that one is at it any more. The person in this condition is as far away from paravritti as one can get. Yet even this person might, one day, suddenly realise what they are doing and a shock may run through them.
I remember reading an account by a serviceman who had worked on the American drone programme. This is a strategy whereby people believed to be enemies of the USA living in far away countries are killed by drone strikes. This man had worked on many of these and thus been involved in killing a thousand or more people. It was just a job. Then one day as he was assisting a pilot to line up a target house he saw a child run into the building. “What was that?” he said to the pilot. “Oh, nothing to worry about - just a human being,” said the pilot. At this point the person woke up to what he was actually doing and felt a great revulsion.
Not many of us work on drone programmes, but many people eat meat without a thought for the suffering of the animal that has been slaughtered, and we are all, in various ways, contributing to the destruction of life on Earth by our unsustainable lifestyle. Almost everybody has what we might call minor obsessions and addictions that they feel they cannot do without and some have ones that are not so minor. Generally, in relation to these things, we operate a double standard. We are like the drone operator who spends his work life killing families in far away countries then goes home to nurture his own wife and children. The two aspects have not connected and the paravritti has, therefore, not arisen.
ASOKA & UPAGUPTA
One of the most famous incidents in the history of Buddhism that illustrates well this principle of revulsion is the conversion of King Asoka. Asoka was a great warrior king. Opinions differ about his exact dates, but he lived a century or so after the death of Buddha and he inherited a small kingdom which, through successful generalship, he extended until it covered much of India. Then, one day, he had a great victory over the Kallinga people. At the end of the day, he surveyed the battlefield and saw thousands of dead bodies. Instead of his usual feeling of victorious elation, he felt a terrible sadness. This inspired him to convert to Buddhism and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the Dharma and doing his best to serve the welfare of his subjects.
Asoka was particularly influenced by the Buddhist teacher Upagupta (who is possibly the same person as the one referred to as Moggaliputta Tissa in other works), who lived, in his later life, in a monastery on a holy mountain in the upper reaches of the Ganges. There are many stories about him, especially of his descent from the mountain to go by boat down the Ganges to teach Asoka in the capital at Pataliputta.The fame of this story is said to be the origin of the tradition of making paper boats with lights upon in Buddhist festivals in many parts of the world.
From another story from earlier in Upagupta's life we can learn something important about how the feeling of revulsion changes with spiritual awakening. One day, Upagupta is sleeping under a tree when a courtesan called Vasavdatta comes walking by and trips over his foot. He wakes up and she sees what a handsome man he is. She invites him to go back to her house with her. He tells her it is not the right time. He will come to her one day. A year later, Upagupta comes back to the same area. There is a festival going on in the town. Rather than get caught up in the frivolities, he goes for a walk. This time it is he who comes along and finds Vasavdatta lying on the ground. She is covered in sores and boils. She has contracted a disease that has destroyed her beauty and the town people have cast her out. She is no longer any use to them as a prostitute. Upargupta nurses the sick woman. The time for him to come to her has arrived.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY VERSUS INSPIRATION
Revulsion does not arise simply from conscious decision. It is a result of really perceiving the consequence and we often do not do so until something happens to us that drives the lesson home. We learn the hard way. Much of Buddhism could be considered to be a collection of recipes for learning in softer ways, so that we do not have to loose an arm and a leg before we have a realisation, but often we just go through the motions, give lip service, perhaps take in the information in an intellectual way, but never let it actually touch our guts. One of the "softer" ways is that one is inspired by a good friend.
The term "good friend" (kalyana mitra) has this meaning in Buddhism, of one who transmits paravritti. One might think that by associating with a good friend one is going to receive the transmission of a turning around in the seat of consciousness and so become an enlightened being, and one might think that this is glorious and wonderful, and one would be right and it is, but one may not realise, or even suspect, that what is actually transmitted is an experience of revulsion.