Monday September 5, 2005
In my previous post I made the suggestion that perhaps my disillusionment with Buddhism was a sign that my Buddhist practice was working. It seems that I can’t really get away without justifying this rather cryptic claim. My dictionary has the following for ‘disillusionment’, which might get things started:
Disillusion noun the state of being disillusioned or disabused; loss of a cherished idea or belief.
Disillusion verb trans. to reveal the unpleasant truth about somebody or something admired, to disenchant.
We live, I think, in disillusioned times. It is possible to trace through the last few hundred years the falling away of one after another of the cherished beliefs of the past. It was Immanuel Kant who stripped reason down to size, and brought us the uncomfortable realisation of the limitations of human understanding. Darwin put us firmly back where we belong, as a part of the animal kingdom – curious animals, to be sure, but animals nevertheless. Then Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and of all higher ideals. Looking back, this seems prescient: in the 20^th^ century and into the 21^st^, the endless procession of wars and atrocities has made any belief in the historical progress of humankind, and any claims to the nobility of humankind, seem shaky indeed.
It is perhaps partly true that the staggering success of science has played a central, perhaps the central role in this process of disillusionment. Has science disenchanted the world? Perhaps. But as far as I see it, the scientific picture of ourselves and our place in the universe is simply the best game in town. Nothing else even comes close. There is no other world picture that accords so closely with how things seem to be. There is no other picture that has been so consistently successful. There is no other picture that is so persuasive. Unlike religion, science demands that any idea should be tested, or at the very least testable. It makes predictions, and then it follows up these predictions by finding out if this is truly the case (See, for example, Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine p. 203). Religion doesn’t do this. As an explanatory tool, it simply cannot compete.
In the fact of this disillusionment there are several possibilities. It is easy for disillusionment to seem like a problem in need of a solution. The first response to disillusionment is a kind of weary cynicism, the cynicism of the doomed: we know that there is a problem, but we are so disillusioned that we don’t believe there is a solution. The second response is to engage in a process of what might be called reillusionment. It is my suspicion that this is what is often going on in the practice of Buddhism in the West. Alarmed by the picture we now seem to have of our place in the world, frightened (and justifiably so) of cynicism, the cultural forms of traditional Buddhism can offer a rich resource of reillusioning the world. Instead of God we can have Enlightenment; instead of the saints, Bodhisattvas. This second response accepts the idea that there is a problem, and then solves it with more of the same: different beliefs, different gods, different kinds of redemption come to fill the gap. But the third – and perhaps the most difficult – response is to fully embrace this process of disillusionment.
Buddhism has always set itself against our illusions: our illusions of permanence, our illusions of having a fixed and enduring ‘self’ buried somewhere within us; and our illusion that it is possible to live in a world where we can avoid the necessity of suffering, that we can bend the world to our will so much that we will no longer find ourselves frustrated, miserable and afraid. What if we follow this disillusionment to the end, allow it to gnaw away not only at our cherished beliefs about ourselves, but also at our cherished beliefs about Buddhism? Buddhism, like us, is neither fixed, nor does it have an enduring essence, nor is it satisfactory. Perhaps we need to look into the heart of this flux, this lack of essence, this unsatisfactoriness, in Buddhism as much as in ourselves.
The Kimattha Sutta has the following to say on the subject of disenchantment.
“And what is the purpose of knowledge & vision of things as they actually are? What is its reward?”
“Knowledge & vision of things as they actually are has disenchantment as its purpose, disenchantment as its reward.”
Disenchantment as a reward for knowledge of how things are! How can disenchantment be a reward? Because the world continues, with or without our illusions. It is all we have. It is the only thing that there is, the only thing that is real. And returning from our illusions, giving up on our illusions, returns us to the world: not ideas about the thing, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, but the thing itself. How could any illusion that my poor mind could concoct equal – in its staggering richness – the world that it masks? I am beginning to wonder if Buddhism is about disillusionment, and nothing else.
I do not know think it could be possible to be entirely disillusioned, to be without illusions altogether; but it does begin to seem as if the perhaps unending process of disillusionment is something not to be feared, but to be celebrated. This loss of cherished beliefs – about ourselves, perhaps about Buddhism also – returns us to the world, in its unarguable richness. This third response is disillusioned with the very idea that disillusionment is a problem. And, as such, it manages to escape the need of any solution whatsoever…
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