The definition of awakening (or enlightenment) is ending greed, aversion and delusion — The Three Poisons.
It’s pretty easy to recognize greed: ‘If I just had fill in the blank I would be happy.’
It’s even easier to recognize aversion, finding fault and making an enemy of people, things, situations and aspects of ourselves.
But, at least for me and maybe for you, delusion is more challenging to see because if it’s a delusion, how can we recognize it as such? Probably because of the difficulty of being able to see it and truly understand it, I have over the past decade of teaching barely mentioned the subject of delusion. Hmmm. What have I been avoiding?
When I shared with students in class a chart titled A Wheel of Buddhist Terms, how all the topics interconnect, we noticed how the hub of the wheel, the core of the teachings — understanding the nature of impermanence, no separate self and suffering — is encircled with what we might call a ‘noose’ of greed, aversion and delusion. These are what gets in the way of deep wisdom. Obviously they are crucial to recognize, understand and release if we are to awaken.
So, how interesting then that I have not explored the subject of delusion for myself or with the class to any real degree. What I was taught early on about delusion was that it’s a bit like walking around in a fog, a state of clueless distractedness, and that’s pretty much what I share when the topic comes up. But not surprisingly there’s much more to it than that.
We were looking at that Buddhist chart because, as we come to the end of our exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, I wanted to show how it fit into the panoply of Buddhist teachings, and also to ask my students if there was any other topic on the chart that resonated, anything they would particularly like to delve into next.
One student asked if it wouldn’t be logical to start at the center and work out. Maybe. But every aspect on the Wheel is a door to all of the teachings. That’s why you can walk into any Buddhist meditation group at any time, go on any retreat, listen or read any teacher, and receive immediate insight and connection to all the rest of the teachings. So when someone asks ‘Where should I begin?’ the answer is ‘Begin where you are.’
That’s why I like to teach in response to where my students are in their lives, what challenges they are facing, and what aspect of the teachings would be of most benefit in this moment. Like most dharma teachers in this tradition, I also teach from where I am in my own life. Otherwise the dharma is just dogma instead of a rich living exploration.
After I rolled up the chart, I ‘wrapped up’ my months-long exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening with a brief talk about delusion, almost a nod to its existence, before pressing on to the next big thing.
Not so fast. Haha! It turns out delusion is exactly what the students want to explore. So that’s what we will do. High time, it looks like! But since seeing delusion within ourselves is so challenging to recognize, I suggest we begin by seeing if we can identify it in others. We do this with as much compassion as we can muster, and we certainly don’t call people out on it. But for our own edification we begin to notice delusion as it arises in the news, in characters in novels and in those around us. In this way we might get a clearer idea of what delusion is, and begin to recognize its patterns.
In a recent article on denial, Jack Kornfield tells a story about a man who is driving down the highway when he hears a safety alert on the radio: “Anyone driving north on Interstate 187 should use great caution! There is a car driving on the wrong side of the divided highway.”
The man glares through his windshield and mutters, “There’s not just one car driving the wrong way. There are hundreds of them.”
Obviously, it’s much easier to see someone else’s state of delusion than it is to see our own, isn’t it? So let’s start with what is easy as an entry point to the subject. Again, it’s super important to remember that this is not to point a finger at anyone but to see how universal delusion is, and then to open to the likelihood that we are not uniquely exempt.
Unless you feel ready to explore your own delusions with infinite lovingkindness but not indulgence, let’s stay with other people for awhile. As we begin to see the nature of delusion in others, we can practice the kind of compassion that will enable us to then recognize our own delusions without freaking out and making an enemy of them.
I am excited about taking on this challenge my students have presented to me. I hope you will join us in this rich exploration that we’ll begin in January. Until then I have a couple of traditional Winter Solstice and New Year’s things I like to do with my class and with you. So stay tuned for those deep and inspirational annual offerings.
But meanwhile, look around using your lens focused to notice delusion. At this particular moment in history, we have an abundance of delusional behavior you might notice. But try to go beyond the obvious. Jot down examples and make a real investigation. Report back!