My Dear Reader,
I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.
You’ve been scammed. This is it, right here. You’re stuck, fucked, and out of luck, and there’s nowhere for you to go short of complete and utter annihilation. The thing you’ve been seeking — the “Truth”, “enlightenment”, “awakening”, “freedom”, your “True Self” — is not the thing that you think you want. There is no liberation—not one that you can attain, anyway.
What are you gonna do now?
Take the above as a thought experiment, in case it seems like a harsh reality to swallow.
Consider: what if enlightenment actually meant being permanently swallowed by a harsh reality? This reality? Would you still want it?
Just for a moment, forget everything you know from scripture, or your teacher, or any profound mystical insight you may have stored in memory. If those are truly timeless, they won’t run away if you set them aside for the duration of a blog post. I want you to take a moment to consider an alternate possibility, and ideally, to pay attention to what it feels like while you do.
The Cosmic Joke Is Not Politically Correct, And Buddhists Are Its Punchline
As good Buddhists (or spiritualists more generally) we supposedly understand something that other, “worldly” people, don’t. What we understand is that the ordinary mode of being in the world — that of endlessly pursuing this pleasure and that, thinking that this one will finally bring a fundamental and permanent satisfaction to my experience — is a flawed one. Nay, it isn’t merely flawed; it’s delusional. How can such a strategy possibly be effective in a world marked by impermanence and subject to causes and conditions beyond our control?
Silly lay people! Come onto the Noble Path! Abandon these hopeless delusions and seek enlightenment, for that is the only thing that can truly bring an end to all suffering, and make this experience permanently satisfactory and this mind free of defilements!
For a system that completely undermines its own premise, Buddhism is an incredibly attractive one.
Or maybe, Buddhism is not really about transforming your life into whatever you imagine “freedom from suffering” means. Maybe there is no method by which to escape this ordinary existence of birth, old age, sickness, and death—other than through the finality of death itself. Maybe the First Noble Truth is actually a truth, after all, one without a convenient loophole. Maybe you’ve been scammed.
Maybe, just maybe, an enlightenment would be nothing more than a violent shattering of all of your projections of what enlightenment is, a harrowing realization that the promise of freedom is nothing but a mirage, because true freedom would have to mean freedom from everything, without some subtle, special consciousness there to enjoy it. An en-darken-ment! Heh. There’s that cosmic humor they talk about.
I wouldn’t ask you to accept that what I’m saying here is true. That would be depressing, and my intention is not to depress—despite the fact that what I’m saying might seem like the most depressing thing ever written on a blog about Buddhism. (It’s not, I promise.)
I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to abandon their spiritual practice because of something I write here (though I’m not quite aggrandizing enough to imagine myself that articulate and impactful a writer).
My intention is simply to provoke the reader into thinking about this whole enterprise in a different way. To try to consider, for a moment, the perspective of complete and utter disappointment, rather than the hopefulness that’s usually conducive to good practice. What would be the implications of accepting that this is it, rather than “this is it, but ‘wink wink’, there is a permanent enlightened state that you can get to that’s other than this, even though we’re gonna be all confusing and still say that it’s nothing other than this”?
I think those implications are important. I think they are important even if one still believes that there is a permanent state of bliss and freedom called enlightenment. Why? Because if you’re trying to get enlightened, then you’re not there yet, so this really is it, at least for now.
Stop Trying To Become A Buddha; Be An Anti-Buddha
The last several years of television have seen an increasing shift from the typical easy-to-root-for hero protagonist to the anti-hero—the protagonist who is characteristically flawed, sometimes evil, and often kind of a dick. From Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Walter White, we seem to be obsessed with likable bad guys. What makes such protagonists so attractive?
According to (pop) psychology, we’ve gotten bored of conventional heroes. Conventional heroes don’t exist in real life (though conventional villains may seem to). In real life, people are complex, even people we care about. They have issues, make terrible decisions, and feel the full range of the human emotional experience. We all recognize that these things are just a part of being a human being. We want our heroes to reflect that.
Why then, when it comes to Buddhism, do we accept the fantasy of the conventional hero? I am speaking, of course, of the spiritual seeker, the Noble One who walks the Path of the Buddha and eventually arrives at the destination of a happy ending, leaving behind all the unpleasant parts of their experience forever. We “meditate”, and try to “accept the present moment”, so that one day our experience will turn into something other than it, something that will finally give us the real answer to addressing the actuality of suffering.
The anti-Buddha says “fuck that”.
The anti-Buddha works on the assumption that this human form will never get what it wants, because nothing that it has will ever be good enough—not even enlightenment itself.
The anti-Buddha assumes that the conditions we have are the conditions we’re stuck with, and learns how to work within those conditions to reduce suffering, rather than appealing to some Nirvana that is anything other than this.
The anti-Buddha accepts that Nirvana, clearly defined as the end of re-birth of any kind, could only mean total annihilation. And of what use is annihilation to the self, who just wants to eat good food, drink good beer, make genuine connections to its fellow human beings, and learn how to navigate the beautiful disaster of human life in all its glory and horror?
Be an anti-Buddha. You don’t have to give up on your goal of getting the final answer; that will happen eventually on its own, when you find that that is the final answer. But, at least until you reach the fantasy of Buddhahood, abide in anti-Buddhahood. You might find that this world of samsara has the potential to be everything you imagine Nirvana to be. That your compassion functions just as well, if you choose to use it rather than imagining a better version of it elsewhere. Your mind still has the capacity to be trained, if you choose to train it rather than imagining a mind that never needs training. Your conditions can serve as constraints and opportunities, if you train yourself to understand them and master them, rather than spending your time wishing to escape them.
Try it for just one moment. Instead of accepting things as they are in order to change them, try to see what it would be like to accept things as they are as if this is the only way they could possibly be. Feel the disappointment and recognize the potential. Hold both of those feelings at once.