Returning to Delusion

Whenever I hear the word “delusion” used in Buddhism, I gulp.   This misunderstood or simplified teaching – that life is a delusion – leaves me exasperated.  Who named the manifest part of life – Delusion?  I am imagining some Jesuit Monk in Europe in the 13th century using that word in Buddhist translations because he actually didn’t understand Buddhism.  It goes down a nihilistic view of what Buddhism is and prioritizes emptiness above form.  And yet, our dearest teaching in the Prajna Paramita Sutra declares that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

It is imperative to me that I have a deeper and broader understanding of the use of the word “delusion.”  I do not want to increase my karmically-produced alienation from myself, my loved ones and human life by calling it a “delusion”.  This is the seed of spiritual by-passing, which means we use transcendence and emptiness as a way to avoid dealing with our historic life, and avoid changing our harmful behavior towards ourselves and others.   Sometimes the Buddhist principle of detachment or the admonition to become non-identified with our stories and emotions move me into a cold, removed and life-denying stance. Someone once described coming back from the Zen monastery as feeling like she was floating above the world, peaceful, but not in her life or communing with people.  My understanding of practice is very life-affirming – so what is the disconnect here?

Hee-Jin Kim in “Dogen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on his view of Zen” writes:

The ultimate paradox of Zen liberation is said to lie in the fact that one attains enlightenment only in and through delusion itself, never apart from it.  Strange as this may sound, enlightenment has no exit from delusion any more than delusion has an exit from enlightenment.  The two notions need, are bound by, and interact with one another.

The “delusion” is our upside-down view of what is happening in life. But the dynamic of life itself is not a delusion. What arrives in the present moment is not a delusion.  Manifest reality is part of the whole vital configuration of form and potential (or emptiness or unbounded openness or beyond time and space) working together.  Our misunderstanding is that we believe in and make solid our self-centered view.  We develop this view through our thought process, through our desire system, through culture, and through our intellectual separation of self and other.  This conceptually manufactured “idea” is not in alignment with reality, so, we may call it a delusion. The truth is interdependent, as the late Thich Nhat Hanh so beautiful put it – “we inter-be.” 

  • We are not an isolated unit that needs to be “out for ourselves” in order to survive.
  •  Time is not simply linear
  •  and death is not to be feared. 

I hope we don’t think of Buddhism as an escape from our one precious life and that death is an annihilation of life.  All the dualities, emptiness and delusion, life and death, circle around each other.  As Hee-Jin Kim says, “The two notions need, are bound by, and interact with one another.”  Emptiness is a dynamic part of life but it is not “better than” the life that is appearing in this moment.  The life of the moment is completely manifest and vital but it is not constructed by thought.  We can feel the felt-sense of our life and the universal energy as one body.

Dogen encouraged us to practice dropping into the unbounded, unconstructed, empty, infinite consciousness but he also emphasized that enlightenment actually does include returning to delusion.  We bring our insights back into manifest reality and practice, practice, practice in each moment. We use each moment as a pivot of conduct and understanding, so that our behavior and speech are in alignment with what we know to be the truth.  We employ or “use oneness” as Dogen has said, in our manifest life. Any insight into the truth of interdependence that we have experienced, we express in our behavior, speech and thought.

Okumura Roshi writes in his book on the “Genjo Koan”:

“In our zazen practice and in our daily activity of bodhisattva practice, it is not a matter of individual actions based on individual willpower and effort.  It is rather the myriad dharmas, or all beings, that carry out practice through our individual bodies and minds.”

Wow!  Now that is living!  Carrying out practice and the infinite connection with life itself, through our individual bodies and minds.  This is not an easy aspiration.  Our minds need to be clear and settled.  Our hearts need to have digested and released the many stories of life that have left us wounded.  It is our higher consciousness, beyond our desire systems, that have the ability to see and accept dukkha and to forgive. We need to “forgive the world for being the world” as Roshi Joan Sutherland so beautifully puts it. 

The deep truth of life always appears in our consciousness as paradox because our frontal lobes are binary. An empty mind helps us hold these paradoxes. A contented mind is not fighting the paradoxes. Interdependence is completely responsive.  As I touch you, you touch me.  Emptiness and form resonate.  Resonate in the dictionary means – to reinforce oscillations, we understand that the natural frequency of the device (our body, heart and mind) is the same as the frequency of the source.