Disillusionment Dharma (Part II)

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…

Tags: , , , , , ,
#1 · Seinbeetre

14 August 2006

There is a problem with most people’s view points and this relates to many of the postings here. People classify and judge everything. They classify Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, all religions as different and separate entities. If a person is part of one of these, a follower or a believer, one can by the rules of most of these religions not possibly accept any other belief. Buddhism in this circumstance is far more open and accepting which is a positive aspect but similarly to the other religions there are flaws in Buddhism which lead to blind belief. And these flaws which are found in any religion destroy its own aims. The easing of suffering; enlightenment or disillusionment.
Most clearly one can see this if one compares the “founders” of these religions. The similarities between these people are unmistakable. Each one has been clearly enlightened thus naturally creating followers. These followers are the problem in the concept of religion. As not enlightened beings they have tried and mostly failed to understand the complete message by the “founders” and of course along the way added in their own thoughts. In this fashion the holy scriptures arise. The “founders” themselves never wrote these. It was their loyal followers who were convinced of the true way they did not understand. Through these basic misunderstandings and different influences the various religions were born.
Compare the bases of most religions and one can find a clear similarity in the patterns of thought. However as almost none of the followers today understand this meaning they will never be able to find the enlightenment and will only be caught up in the prejudices and misunderstandings created by their religions. Thus if one is in search of true enlightenment, as buddha, as Jesus and as Mohammed were, the relinquishing of a religious philosophy is crucial. It is not the scriptures, the ceremonies, the gods or the people glorified by religion which are important. It is the concept, the thoughts and the understanding beneath these facades that are of importance. The “founders” understood this but sadly their followers were often too blind to see the truth and thus they literally enslaved billions of people mentally. To find enlightenment one must search in one’s self. Teachings might spark the fire, however without the freedom of the mind a full blaze is not attainable.

Thus returning to one of your posts, the thought of Buddhism without Buddhism is a good step. Reaching enlightenment through Buddhism is far easier than through the domineering other religions however a certain unbinding of any belief is necessary. Naturally the amount of unbinding is to be identified personally for anybody truly interested.

#2 · Shizen

10 September 2006

Thanks for sharing. Your thoughts on the subject have helped me, and I hope they help others in search of meaning.

Comments are turned off for this article.