It’s easy to forget that the Buddha didn’t teach Buddhism. Buddhism came after. Rather, he taught dhamma, a way of aligning one’s outlook with the way things are. The implication is that by default, we’re out of alignment. In other words, “Everything’s an illusion.” So said the Buddha. Well, people say he said so anyway. It all depends on what you mean by ‘illusion;’ and, uh, ‘everything.’
Which is where Buddhism is at these days. To scholars and academics, Buddhism is scientific, consistent and historical. To the growing number of casual Buddhists, and especially to those who are ‘spiritual but not religious,‘ it’s what they want it to be. The Buddha lived a full life and said lots of things. Nothing’s simpler than to take them out of context and put your own spin on them. Believers have been doing that with holy books for ages.
We’re the one species that can rearrange reality
Still, he promised freedom from suffering. Well from dukkha, actually — which is not just about the unpleasant bits but our relationship with life itself. But why restrain your faith? Go for it. Enlightenment should be wonderful, shouldn’t it?
Or is that just another illusion?
When life has us down on our knees we’re susceptible to wishful thinking. As children we lie to others to get what we want. As adults we lie to ourselves to avoid what we don’t want. That’s denial. We’re the one species that can rearrange reality. At least, we act as if we can.
This is the gap where the light gets in: the opportunity to wake up to self-deception. In between our instinctive avoidance and the thing we’re trying to avoid we can glimpse the mechanism of projection, and interrupt it. To waylay denial in action is to know that it’s a choice, and that it makes things worse, not better. That is enlightenment.
Doesn’t sound particularly blissful, does it? But the equation is profoundly uncomplicated: if the problem is illusion, the solution is disillusion.
When you believe you can control life,
you’re lost in the maze of your own mind
This is tricky, but I’m not complaining. We’re talking about the problem of language. What the Buddha said is one thing. How you interpret it is another.
“But,” you might say, “I’m not interpreting. That’s what he said.”
Quite apart from the fact that his words have been translated through at least three languages, he also said that the arbiter of what’s real is not his words anyway, but our experience. To see what he’s pointing at, you have to turn away from him. Even then, your point of view is yours alone. The thought that anything knowable stands ‘out there,’ irrespective of where you stand, is what makes projections seem real. Then, everything really is an illusion. Projections are a knee-jerk attempt to call the shots. Instead of helping us ride life’s ups and downs, they bind us to cyclic thinking. When you believe you can control life, you’re lost in the maze of your own mind.
Buddhism is not magic. It’s as susceptible to wishful thinking as anything else. In fact, it’s even more so. It’s especially blinding when it becomes the screen for your projections. You’re better off honestly lost than foolishly believing you’ve found the key to permanent happiness. At least then you’d know to keep looking.
The idea that everything’s an illusion may make you look twice and see through your own projections, or it may be an excuse to do absolutely nothing. Hence the blandest of all new-age expressions: “It’s all good.”
The great task is not to describe reality
but to see through our attempts to avoid it
Words are mere designations, always somewhat blurred, but they still mean something. To say “everything’s an illusion” doesn’t mean that language is meaningless, that reason is unreasonable and that anything goes. It’s convenient for those seeking a painless ‘spiritual’ path, but it’s half-assed.
Denial is not an illusion. It’s real, and so are its consequences. However, all this is just semantics. The great task is not to describe reality but to see through our attempts to avoid it.
As our ancestors became self-conscious, death was no longer an intermittent threat but something pondered at length over the camp fire. Religions emerged as a way to accept the unacceptable. We’ve never discarded our religions more nonchalantly than we do today, ostensibly because they’re ‘unscientific,’ but really because they make us squirm. Along with the bathwater, we throw out the human frailty that religions were meant to address in the first place.
In the end, little has changed; we’re still trying to avoid the inevitable. We’re bound not just by our mortality but by our DNA, our genes, our consumer cravings and our habits of comfort. There is wiggle room, but no escape. We’re right to distrust the promises of religion, for nothing binds us more tightly than our belief in ultimate freedom.
However, that’s no reason to discard its questions. Freedom must be constantly renewed.
12 thoughts on “Bound by the Promise of Freedom”
I really don’t get this stuff.
Some examples form this article –
*freedom from our “relationship with life” ? Huh?
*children lie for one reason; adults for a different one?
*you and everyone else really ought to stop making blanket statements about what other animals think until we get that universal translator working and we can verify them.
*the point of mindful reflection is to discern and interrupt denial? you’re sure that’s the thing that is making EVERYONE unhappy? Is that the core of Buddha’s teaching? (Is this why the focus on the breath and then the body, i.e. mindfulness? To lead us to the realization that what we think is “only” our interpretation of sensory input and therefor delusional?)
*OK, I agree that we all see the world/reality through our own filter. but you seem to be saying that there isn’t an objective reality. seriously?
*having a framework for interpreting what we encounter is believing that you can control life and being lost in the maze of your mind? should we all stop brain development in the womb? regress back to single celled organisms?
*do you think anyone is happy? or are we all doomed to either unhappy delusion or an unhappy never-ending search?
*your comments on our ancestors and the origins of religion are pure speculation
*you’re positive you know why I discarded the religion I was raised with? everyone who did this did it for the same reason?
*I don’t believe in “ultimate freedom”. I don’t think the phrase even means anything.
As you can see, I am lost. Or in the wrong place.
Hi Ann: Looks like the wrong place, but you keep coming back. Why’s that?
I have this idea that there is something in Buddhism/mindfulness/meditation/whatever that I would find ??? useful ???
But I don’t know enough about it and I don’t understand what everyone is talking about or if they’re talking about the same thing or if it really is something for me.
So – I’m exploring.
But if you think this is the wrong place for me, I’ll go look somewhere else.
But I think the real point of your answer is “Why do I keep coming back?” That, I find an interesting question. Actually two different but connected questions. Why do I keep looking? and Why does everyone else? I’m more focused on myself right now. I just don’t have the time to delve into humanity’s propensity for religion at the moment.
To start in the middle of your questions — and at the very core of the Buddha’s philosophy — no, there is no objective reality. Relatively speaking, there is a difference between objective and subjective reality, but neither is ultimately true. This is what the Buddha called anattā (not-self) and the later Buddhists called śūnyatā (emptiness).
Because this is so hard to swallow, we thrash around trying to deny it, inventing reality, denying difficulties, trying desperately to make things work out the way we want, and basically messing things up.
The answer is acceptance, but not a passive one. Rather, proactive. It takes some working out, and you can’t do it in your head. It happens on the mat or, if you’re so inclined, in forest glades and quiet corners.
Ann- Mindfulness helps you understand yourself. You look at your ways of seeing and feeling and doing with sharper and kinder attention. And your way of judging, rationalizing, avoiding… It enables you to change simply by being aware in a particular way.
Thanks Caroline. That seems worthwhile and do-able.
Great post Stephen, It’s always more exhausting to protect myself than to just be honest. What a waste of energy to be someone other than I am. To me honesty is freedom. Who cares what anyone else thinks?
To me freedom is being more responsive and less reactive – By that i mean that I am (more) free when i am able to make decisions (i.e. respond) based on my deepest intentions rather than on my moment to moment stimulus -response reactions/reactivity. I also find it “freeing” to feel deeply the impermanence of it all – So what i think and do both really matters and also does not matter that much at all….
Peace my seeking friends…….
You got it Stephen! Succinct, beautiful.
Loved your blog today… So very pertinent.
…”The great task is not to describe reality
but to see through our attempts to avoid it”…
See, I am a believer in CONCEPTUAL Cartesienism as the major source of human DISCONTENT such as;
Body and Mind ARE not made up of two different substances, they simply Have different needs. (take Ann as a primal example, obviously she has extrapolated her sense of righteousness from her previous Religious system into Buddhism, regrettably it’s Xanax that she needs, not Buddhism).
Hi Ralph: That statement was an eye-opener for me too. I write to discover. I don’t think Ann is being righteous, just baffled. More people should be so honest…
As for mind-body, we perceive them as different, and that’s that. Whether they are or not doesn’t seem to change much.
Excellent article Stephen. As you say in your first sentence that Gautam Buddha didn’t teach Buddhism, he taught Dharma and that is one word which most of us don’t understand. Dharma is not “religion” or “spirituality” or whatever that is practiced in monasteries.
Now as an ontological argument what Buddha said comes pretty close to Absurdism or Nihilism except the “magical” component of “afterlife” for which even Buddha doesn’t forward any proof, he just claims it so. I admit there can’t be any empirical “proof”. In that case why not live happily in illusions of imaginary friends aka God or Santa Clause. After all there IS not reality, it is all “maya” anyway.
And the whole premise of Buddhism is to avoid “dukkha”, so what’s wrong with little flight of fancy if that keeps your sanity intact ?