Throughout Buddhist traditions there’s a pervasive use of the metaphor of delusion to describe something about our usual state. It goes along with metaphors of waking up or coming to see reality directly as an alternative to this picture of delusion. When we think of delusion, what it typically means is a psychotic kind of total misjudgment about the nature of reality, one that is often accompanied by a great sense of certitude. If you’ve ever really spent any time talking with someone in the grip of a paranoid delusion, they have a view of the world that they’re absolutely convinced of in terms of a conspiracy, what’s going on, how they’re being watched, how they’re being controlled. They’ve seen it and they know it. They may keep quiet about it because they know people don’t agree with them and are part of the conspiracy, but their inner certitude is pretty solid when they’re in the grip of a delusion.
So that’s the metaphor we’re given for our ordinary state of mind. We’re really in the grip of something that crazy, that we’re absolutely sure of. So we have to think about the nature of that delusion and what the alternative would be. What would it be like to wake up from that or be cured of that?
Now if somebody tells you you’re crazy, you’re not particularly inclined to listen to them, and most people who are crazy won’t listen to you if you try to tell them that, but eventually something happens where they see that holding this view isn’t working so well for them. Even though they feel certain, it means they’re in a constant adversarial position with life and they’re suffering a great deal and everyone is their enemy. Even if they’re right, this is pretty unpleasant. Buddhism says that we’re pretty much in that position and most people come to practice with some awareness that something about what they’re doing isn’t working for them, that there’s something about this life that is causing suffering and we don’t quite know what to do about it. We don’t know where the problem is exactly, but it’s gone on long enough and it’s bad enough that we’re willing to consider the possibility that we’re nuts and that’s the source of the problem.
Now everybody starts out wanting to think that the source of problems of their life are on the outside rather than the inside and everybody in a way will try first a solution of mastery: If I just get enough control over the people and things in my life, then things will go well. I have confidence in my natural common-sense and I can see things clearly, but a lot of those other people out there don’t see it. If I could just convince them, just get control or just run things myself, it will be all right. We all do this as long as we feel like we can get away with it, but we all inevitably bump up against some limit. We can’t control the world or other people the way we think we should be able to to make things right and inevitably, even if we’re Alexander the Great or a hedge-fund manager, we bump into limits like old age, death, sickness, accidents that are just intrinsically out of our control, and a big part of the pain in our life turns out not to be amenable to mastery.
So when we realize to one degree or another that we’re not going to bend the world to our will to make it turn out okay for ourselves, the next typical move is to turn inward and to say, well, if I can’t control other people, the way life is going, I should at least be able to control myself. I ought to be able to get control of my own inner world, my own thoughts or feelings, moods, and I may go about trying to do that in a lot of different ways. The first thing we try is to stay drunk all the time. This is a basic good adolescent strategy and most of us have to give it a try for a while, see how that works, but it’s a move that says If I’m really unhappy with how my life is going maybe I can do something to make myself feel better. There are lots of little bottles out there that say Drink Me, and we try them.
The dilemma with that at first is it usually looks like a technical problem of titration and dosing, but it turns out that it’s very hard to ever manage using substances to create equanimity in a way that doesn’t lead us into a great deal of conflict with other people in the rest of life even if they’re trying the same thing. So we wise up and we decide not to be so literal about it, and we think, well, maybe we can control or regulate our inner life some other less destructive way and we may end up in a place like a zendo, but again with the same basic strategy: If I can’t control the outer world maybe I can get a grip on this inner world and stay in a certain state where I can feel good most of the time.
That also works up to a point but the dilemma is that we still find ourselves in a world that is out of our control. If our strategy is one of inner equanimity, we have to decide what our relationship is to other people because by and large when we’re trying to hold on to an inner state all the time, other people become a great nuisance. They’re just a constant buzz kill, and they’re just always intruding and demanding something, like love and attention. Now it really ruins it for us, so the whole dilemma is, even if we have this inner state, it’s very hard to get to a place where we’re impervious to the demands and needs of other people, and at some point it occurs to us that it might not be wonderful to make ourselves impervious to the life, death and suffering of everyone around us. Is that really something that we want to aspire to?
So mastery, either inner or outer, really bumps up against limits, and it may take us a long time to give up one or the other of those strategies. But we still come back to this picture of delusion, or being asleep and need to awaken, and we want to try to say, all right, maybe if not mastery, seeing things correctly, seeing things from the right point of view, might make the difference even if it doesn’t lead to control. But what is that going to mean? What does it mean to see life directly or awake? One of the ways we’re said to be misled is through concepts or narratives or all the conceptual machinery of the mind that gets between us and that reality out there, so that we never see anything except in terms of what we already know, what we already believe, what we already expect.
We hear this commonly when anybody tries to study things like eyewitness accounts of crime: Get ten witnesses and everybody’s standing right there and you get ten different stories. There’s even this famous experiment where, in one of these eyewitness things -- I don’t remember so I’m making some of this up -- people are asked to do something like count how many times a basketball is being passed back and forth between people on a court, and they’re told to pay attention to that counting. So they’re shown this picture of it, and then in the middle of the game a guy in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the game and at the end the people are asked what they saw and they all say how many passes they counted and they’re asked, Did you see anything unusual? And they say, No, we’re just watching a basketball game. They’re so focused on their task that they don’t remember the guy in the gorilla suit who walked through their field. Something like that. It demonstrates how what we see is subject to where our attention is, how we are focused and what we expect to see.
Now there’s a lot of talk in Buddhist literature about cutting through that level of conceptual consciousness and seeing things directly. It’s a very powerful metaphor of the old story, the TV show, Just the Facts, Ma’m. Don’t tell me your interpretation. Just what did you see? There’s a notion that we can somehow get back to that -- when we can really see things, it will be like drinking water for the first time. Nobody has to tell you whether it’s cold or hot. We want to have this kind of foundational level of certainty grounded in sense experience. The eyewitness experiments tells us that sense experience is a very unreliable foundation.
The Heart Sutra has this line: No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.
The negation of each one of those things is a negation of their claim to foundational status, where we want to go back and say, At least I can trust my senses. The problem is that we can’t, no matter what we do in this practice or anything else, free our senses from our conceptual framework. That notion itself is a concept. It’s an extremely pernicious concept. We can say one of the most entangling concepts is the fantasy of being free of concepts. It creates an illusion that there’s a curtain we’re going to pull back one day and then really see what it’s like behind the curtain. We spend a lot of time in the grip of that kind of imagery, which itself is just an image. But we think we’re going to use images to deconstruct images.
The fact is, when we see or hear something out of the ordinary, if we suddenly woke up, whatever that meant, and saw life differently, the first thing we would probably do is turn to the person next to us and say, Did you see that? Immediately we need that kind of corroboration of our reality to really believe it, because one of the reasons we got into this whole mess is that we learned that we can be misled or deluded by our thoughts, that what we think we see is not always out there, so even if we think we’ve seen something different, how do we know? How do we know we’re not like that paranoid schizophrenic who’s sure he’s seen the truth? There’s no way to be sure of that. We can’t check on anything inside to be sure, and we look at all the people around us who are certain of things.
We learn that being certain is no guarantee of being right; those two things exist in completely different dimensions, unfortunately. There’s a very low correlation between being positive and being right. The dilemma is really whether we can believe that about ourselves. See, a lot of people walk around feeling like, Well, I can see all those other people think they’re right, but I see through it because I’m the embodiment of common sense. Somebody has to be this natural common sense person who doesn’t get stuck in a lot of hifalutin ideas. I just see things the way they are. We can do that at the level of the common man or we can do it at the level of the enlightened master. Both of them can be in the grip of, Well, I just see things the way they are and everybody else is deluded. This gives us a certain smug self-confidence about our place in the world, but it also means we inhabit a world of fools, which after a while is a tad alienating. It’s not really fun in the long run to say I’ve got it and you don’t, to everybody else.
When people have odd experiences that they think are special, they are now able to go to the computer and look up Zen Master Upper West Side and find their way to my door and tell me I’ve had this incredible experience. What does it mean? People are able to do that now. You don’t have to walk a thousand miles across China to some mountaintop to do it. Just go to 74th Street. It’s easy. It’s interesting that there are two kinds of experiences that people typically have. For one, they’ll come in and say, I had this incredible moment where I felt one with everyone. I’ll say, Wow! That sounds great! And I say, And now? What difference does that make in your life? Then they say, Well now I feel different from everybody. And I say, Let me get this straight. You had an experience where you’re one with all of life and now you feel different from everybody. And they’ll say, Yeah. And I’ll say, Is there something wrong with that? So there’s an internal contradiction there, and that can be a good place to start to practice, to figure out how that works.
With the other experience they’ll say, I had this incredible moment where everything seemed perfect just as it was. I say, That’s great! That’s really wonderful! And then what? And they’ll say, Then it went away. Then after it went away? Well, things were just terrible. I want to get that experience back. That experience where everything was fine just as it is, went away and now nothing is right the way it is. Yeah, uh-huh. This is how people get started in this business. The whole dilemma of these things, these experiences which have a great deal of certitude about them almost inevitably have this inner contradiction. The very thing that feels like it’s connecting me to everybody else, the thing that’s making everything fine as it is, immediately generates itself. Immediately! Not in a few hours or a few days. It’s almost an immediate built-in contradiction that we have to come to terms with. So all these things are aspects of this problem of What does it mean to be certain about your own experience? If you can’t be certain about it, if there’s nothing foundational, either in sense perception or in this kind of transcendental realization, if neither of those are in some sense foundational, what are you left with? What else is there? Long pause . . . .
One of the things we find out is that as much as we want to set some once-and-for-all ground of our own experience, whatever we try eludes our grasp, whether it’s mastery of the outside world, mastery of the inner world, a foundation in immediate sense experience, a foundation in a kind of transcendental realization, every one of those things we sort of cycle through and find out there’s no bottom there. It’s not grounded the way we think it is.
Now when we chant: Each moment life as it is the only teacher, this is very true, but not really in the way we would wish. Life as a teacher does what? It’s very good at teaching the lessons of impermanence and, if you pay attention, to the lessons of karma and interconnection, right? What it’s not so good at, what it doesn’t give us what we want, is tell us what to do about that. When we think of a teacher, like me sitting up here, we say, Yeah, what are we supposed to do about that? So life is the only teacher and it teaches you everything is impermanent, everything is interconnected, and then it stops. We want the end then and it doesn’t happen.
Now, what we do here in a certain way is sit and try to arrive honestly at that point and then stay there and sit with that in our experience, where we don’t fill in that blank, because in some sense it can’t be filled, although our whole life, our whole practice is about trying to fill it in. We stay with that reality. What we’re waking up to, what the delusion is about, is that there’s an answer to this kind of question. The delusion isn’t that there’s a curtain to pull away, that there’s a ground to stand on, that there’s an answer to the And then what? When we say waking to a dream within a dream, we wake up to another dream, something that is insubstantial, can’t be grasped, is hard to validate outside of itself. It’s not what we want to wake up to, when we have this metaphor of waking up. But that’s really what this practice is about: Being honest about all the solutions that we try and where we’re left when they run out.
I’ll let you just sit with that.