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On Being a Deluded Buddhist

On Being a Deluded Buddhist

Let’s admit—dhamma practice is not exactly easy. But if it was easy, our world would be very different.

One of the greatest gifts of dhamma is the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence (anicca), and through practice, its realization in our individual lives. The essential fulcrum of this practice is to learn how to accept all situations as they are. As someone who has learned mostly from Theravadan teachers, my most basic practice is mindfulness meditation as well as the brahmaviharas (the divine abodes). They are actual practices, exercises you can repeat over and over in order to strengthen the necessary muscles and overcome delusion.

These are dangerous practices. Dangerous not in a personal safety sense, but in this way—in the US, our dominant social and economic system depends on mass delusion by cultivating greed, hatred, and desire. For the most part, the system separates us from the real value of our labor, from the outcomes of our labor, from the natural flow of time, replaces our needs with wants, and teaches us that all of this is necessary, even natural. It sublimates our bodies and minds in service of delusion. Any practice that undermines the foothold of these qualities also undermines the system’s ability to function adequately, or at least profit from us.

Of course, eroding these qualities in our personal lives is not enough. In our hyper-individualistic society, which rewards individual selfishness, it is possible to be caught in an endless loop of self-improvement and personal development. In general, it is easier to be an isolated individual than to do the hard work of being part of and accountable to a community. Without this turn of attention, our social, economic, and political systems—the institutionalized results of all of our combined delusions—will roll on.

A story in the life of the Buddha illustrates this point with a perhaps unorthodox interpretation. The Buddha actually refused women the opportunity to ordain as nuns (bhikkhunis), and it took his beloved disciple Ananda several attempts before the Buddha aquiesced, with conditions including the implementation of extra rules for bhikkhunis. Though there are conjectures as to why the Buddha refused, I offer this one—that perhaps the Buddha, though a fully liberated being, was also a product of his times, gendered biases included. Which implies that one can be personally free from suffering but still be part of a larger system of inequality without even realizing it. Since I assume most of us are not fully liberated, this applies even more when we think of how many different kinds of inequality we are all enmeshed in, just by existing. There are delusions beyond delusions.

The path of awakening is full of pitfalls. The teachings can be misunderstood and misused. For example, if all things are impermanent, are changing, why should anyone bother to fight an injustice? Very equanimous, but this is an imbalanced view—to use a common dhamma metaphor, it is like a bird with only one wing. It is a cold view, one that separates the observer from a world of suffering without a hint of compassion. You need both equanimity and compassion to fly. This gives you perspective and brings you closer with an open heart at the same time.

On the other end, there can be plenty of compassion but not enough of the larger perspective that equanimity provides. One can be endlessly torn by all the suffering in the world, thrown about from one injustice to another, overwhelmed and despairing about the enormity of it all. Equanimity helps maintain some sense of stability.

I like to think of equanimity as inclusive of critical thinking. Otherwise, how can we discern which injustice to fight, or whether what someone tells us is true? For example, during World War II, many Buddhist monks backed Japan’s imperialist invasions of Asian countries under the rubric of compassion. They even went to war, fighting and killing in the name of compassion, which was in reality harnessed to nationalism.

So every teaching requires thinking. What helps at one moment, hinders in another. At what point does a teaching help someone achieve some measure of liberation from suffering, and when does it become clinging or aversion, effectively enabling the continuation of a larger system of injustice? I imagine this is why it is called practice.

But as some dhamma teachers might say, the moment we see our own delusion, that moment is an amazing opportunity. It is a chance to wake up. It is a chance to see something for what it is, and not freak out. Whether it is a simple aversion to a sound or feeling, or an insight into how we participate in systems of injustice, delusion is a good thing. We should welcome its arising, observe all its ragged edges, recognize it for what it is, take a breath, and then, if necessary—take appropriate action.

Comments (2)

  • Tom Pepper

    Great post! I’d love to hear more on this. I am convinced that there are Buddhist practices that can work to break through our delusions, but they are troubling and too many people avoid them. Also, there is the danger you mention of falling into complete apathy and retreating into a focus on personal comfort. Once our core delusions are shattered, there is a great risk of dropping into the “death of the Bodhisattva” and a state of political quietism and complete relativism. We need to break through all of our delusions to reach the point at which we can see that our cultural practices are not “necessary” or “natural” and this is exactly why we should always work for justice—because we can, and injustice is neither necessary nor natural. If everything is impermanent, there is no point in just passively waiting for a better state of existence; this is the only one we will ever have, and it will only get better if we make it better.

    I would argue (and have argued) that anything that breaks through our delusions is a Buddhist practice, whether or not it has any traditional warrant. I’d love to hear examples of how practices like the Theravadan practices you mention work to undermine the reification of specific culturally produced beliefs. Can anyone offer an account of how the brahmaviharas helped break through the belief that greed is “human nature,” or how true mindfulness practice helped dissolve the belief in a core, unconditioned, permanent self? I think these practices can work, but most people don’t even know what they are supposed to be working to do—and so they use them to guard against truth and cling to exactly these delusions.

    I also enjoyed your interpretation of the story about allowing women in the sangha. There is always an new delusion waiting to take the place of each one we get rid of. The Buddha saw through the fundamental reifications of his age, but seeing through all of them is a never ending process.

  • Kenji

    Thanks for your response, Tom.

    In my experience, traditionally offered practices such as those I’ve mentioned are not necessarily enough to recognize these larger institutional/systemic delusions we participate in. I think there also needs to be a certain amount of personal experience, intellectual knowledge, and understanding of the history and dynamics of these systems—capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc—and how they rear their heads in our everyday, mundane lives.

    For example, understanding the concept of “microaggression” goes a long way to realizing that these “-isms” can happen in subtle and quiet ways—which, if one can recognize that one’s mind is enacting a microaggression, we can use that as a point of mindfulness or other practice. In a traditional practice setting, these would not be recognized microaggressions, since that is not part of the usual Buddhist framework, and we are taught to simply observe thoughts, feelings, and other phenomena without investigating the content.

    But I think, much in the way one might simply label a thought a thought, we might label a microaggression a microaggression. It’s not a judgement, just a recognition, and a letting be. In this way, over time we recognize our own socialization into the “-isms” without feeling bad about it—nobody born into our society can escape internalizing these in some way. And, this means we are less likely to enact microaggressions against others, consciously or unconsciously.

    This is one example of how Theravadan mindfulness practice has combined with my personal experiences and existing studies to help me recognize when an “-ism” is bubbling up in my mind.

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