[Buddha-l] Laughing at enlightenment

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Thu May 5 21:04:47 MDT 2005

On Thu, 2005-05-05 at 19:38 -0400, Richard Nance wrote:

> The above raised some questions for me. You note that one can choose
> to see oneself as in a certain sort of condition (say, a condition of
> lacking disease), but not in another sort of condition (say, a
> condition of having disease).

You bring up some excellent points, Richard, and as usual I end up
looking a complete fool. But I don't mind. Allow me to press on, no
doubt making things even worse.

I'm not sure how free one is to choose such things. I probably
overstated the case somewhat. But in general I have found that I can
alter my feelings about things by an act of willfully looking at it in a
different light. It has worked for me for just about everything but
George W. Bush. But I digress. It seems to me that about 95% of Buddhist
practice consists in willing oneself to look at things from a different
perspective. The other 5% is going with the perspective that gives one
the most inner peace and makes one the most harmonious with other
sentient beings. (Of course, the question of who gets to decide whether
one is in harmony with others remains unaddressed. Is it up to me to
decide whether I am living in harmony with the world, or does the world
have some say in how it thinks I am treating it?)

> You also note that one can see one's own beliefs in certain ways as well. 

Reflective people can do this, I am told. Indeed, a good deal of
philosophy is built on the supposition that one can willfully alter
one's beliefs as a result of seeing them as false or counterproductive. 

> If seeing is believing, then what you've said is that one can adopt a
> belief (or, if anyone's a fan of turgid jargon, a meta-belief) about
> the beliefs one has about the world: one can believe that one isn't
> delusional in believing that one's condition is, in fact, other than
> the way that some people would like to claim that it is (i.e.,
> diseased, in need of a cure, and so on).

Right. I think if one can choose what one believes, then one can choose
what one believes about one's beliefs.

> Both these moves seem to require that we -- at least some of us -- can
> go wrong (at least some of the time) in our assessments of the world:
> it's possible to think things to be a certain way that things simply
> are not.

Right, but I would want to add that the criterion in deciding whether
one is wrong is whether or not one experiences discontent. If one
experiences more du.hkha when entertaining hypothesis A than when one
entertains hypothesis B, then A is the wrong hypothesis for one to
entertain (provided, of course, that one's goal is not to have du.hkha).

The principle I have just stated is one that leads to a sort of
relativism that would drive some of our fellow citizens to holy war.
Implicit in what I have said is that deciding what is right and wrong in
one's beliefs is essentially subjective rather than objective. The test
of rightness is not correspondence to facts but an assessment of how one
feels internally.

I can think of at least four people who have said, in various ways, that
most people can handle only a certain amount of reality before they
resort to comforting fantasies. Nietzsche famously said something along
those lines. Charles S. Peirce speculated that being able to avoid
accepting reality may actually be a survival mechanism, since reality is
sufficiently unpleasant that overdosing on it leads quickly to suicidal
despair. Williams James said similar things. And so did Carl Jung. Of
course all of these people felt that the noblest thing to do is to force
oneself, to whatever extent one can, to question whether the most
comforting beliefs are also the most true objectively. I would also
recommend that course if I could, but I am really not very good at
finding reliable ways to know what is true in an objective way. The more
I strive to believe in objectivity, the more obvious it seems to me that
what we call truth is nothing more than what we feel least uncomfortable

> So: why does shifting the way that one assesses one's own beliefs free
> one from delusion? 

If delusion is seen not as seeing the world in some way other than it in
fact is, but rather as seeing the world in a way that makes one suffer
needlessly, then choosing a system of beliefs that does not make one
more unhappy than one has to be is to free oneself, to some extent at
least, from delusion. That was my main point in general. The specific
application is that if one choose to believe that enlightenment is both
possible and desirable, then one suffers if one also believes that one
has not attained it. 

There are two ways to avoid this unhappy coincidence of beliefs. First,
one can abandon the belief that enlightenment is possible. Second, one
can abandon the belief that one is not enlightened. I have known people
in both camps. In my experience, it gets pretty ugly when people think
they are enlightened (or saved in some other way). Not only are such
people prone to ugly behavior, but they are prone to behavior that
endangers the lives and safety of others. My aesthetic tastes therefore
incline me to abandoning the belief that enlightenment is possible.
Doing so does not make me or anyone else suffer in the least.

> If one is deluded, then denying that one is deluded doesn't serve to
> make one less deluded. Or am I deluded?

If delusion is seen as a relationship between subjective beliefs and
external realities, then you are quite right. I choose not to think of
delusion in quite that way. But then my way invites charges of

> Curt's view isn't that of any school of Indian Buddhism I know.

No, I think he is not even trying to be true to Indian Buddhism. He
seems to prefer that stuff they did when Buddhism leaked out into
barbarian lands, such as China.

> The view I've encountered most often is that one needn't be a Buddha to
> speak as a Buddha does.

My favorite analogy on this topic is of the kinds of farmers. It occurs
somewhere in the Pali canon. Some farmers cultivate both their own
fields and the fields of others, and some cultivate only the fields of
others. Some cultivate only their own fields, and some cultivate no
fields at all. Similarly, some teachers practice what they preach, and
others do not. Some people do not preach what they practice, and some
people neither preach nor practice. But even those who do not follow
their own teachings give perfectly good teachings to others that may
bring them great benefit. This would seem to imply that a teacher could
bring another to nirvana but fail to attain nirvana himself. My guess is
that this sort of teacher is rather common...or would be, if nirvana
were indeed possible.

> >It is tragic to think that ordinary
> > people like Curt and me are incapable of doing something so worthwhile
> > as to help ourselves get beyond the delusion that the way we now think
> > is delusional.
> Perhaps you don't have reason to worry: if the Indian tradition is
> right, Curt's delusional on this point.

Even if Curt is only a one-man tragedy, it's still a tragedy. Let's hope
a nice bodhisattva comes to his rescue someday.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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