Delusion and the Road to Suffering

Robert Hodge
November 20, 2019

The Buddha described the mind states of greed, aversion (ill-will) and delusion as the three poisons that lead to unskillful behavior and thus cause suffering.  “And what are the roots of what is unskillful? Greed is a root of what is unskillful, aversion is a root of what is unskillful, delusion is a root of what is unskillful. These are called the roots of what is unskillful.”[i] In this talk, we will explore delusion, ignorance of the three characteristics.

Our objectives will be to:

  • Understand delusion and how it arises.
  • Experience the bodily sensations of delusion.
  • Understand how to deal with delusion once it arises.

How do we experience and react to delusion?
We experience life through what the Buddha called the Five Aggregates of Clinging or what can be called the Five Elements of Experience.:  form, consciousness, feeling, perception and mental formations.  Delusion is triggered in the mind by a sense object such as a thought or sensation being detected by one of your sense organs creating form that we become aware of when detected by our consciousness.  The mind then compares this form with the stored memories and beliefs and a feeling arises, a bodily sensation that is either pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant nor unpleasant.  This leads to a perception (mental impression) which causes mental formations (emotions) to arise.  Our subsequent reaction (what we say or do) is based that delusion which arose from our feeling, perception, and mental formations.

For example, let’s say that we hear that a loved one has passed away.   When we are conscious of hearing this, our mind compares this experience (form) to the stored memories of similar losses and an unpleasant feeling arises.  Our perception is that this loss should not have happened.   This causes negative mental formations such sadness to arise.  In this example, our reaction is a craving to wish that this didn’t happen.   We are ignorant that life is impermanent.   Note that, the mind created the delusion.  Hearing what the other person said was just the trigger, not the cause.  When we fail to realize that nothing in permanent, these mental formations keep arising.    In this case, the craving has turned into clinging.

Delusion is “an idiosyncratic (individual) belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.”  The idiosyncratic belief is that all things are permanent, can give lasting happiness, and are part of our self.  This belief is not consistent with reality when we really look at what is.

What is true reality?  All things ae impermanent, unable to give lasting satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and there is no permanent self.  According to the Visuddhimagga, realization of the truth and reality of the three marks constitutes enlightenment, which eradicates belief in the existence of a perduring self [ii]

To truly experience the nature of reality, reflect on these three questions:

  1. Can you name anything that is permanent?
  2. Can you name anything that can provide lasting (permanent) satisfaction?
  3. Can you find a permanent self?

Loss is one of the experiences that can cause delusion to arise as noted in the example above.  The mental formation sadness arises and can persist as clinging to cause persistent suffering.

“The Dalai Lama imagined “a map of our emotions to develop a calm mind.” He asked his longtime friend and renowned emotion scientist Dr. Paul Ekman to realize his idea. Ekman took on the creation of the Atlas alongside his daughter, Eve Ekman, a second-generation emotion researcher and trainer. The Atlas represents what researchers have learned from the psychological study of emotion.”[iii]

Below is a diagram from the Atlas showing the range of emotions of sadness which frequently arises as a result of delusion.  The more intense the emotion, the more likelihood of a more unskillful reaction (what you may so or do).:

The Delusion of sadness has many dimensions:

Experience the bodily sensations of delusion
Exercise:  Close your eyes and reflect on a recent experience of loss.  What do you feel in your body?  Where do you feel it?  Is it a pleasant or unpleasant feeling?

Exercise:  Close your eyes and reflect on an experience of recurrent sadness.  What do you feel in your body?  Where do you feel it?  Is it a pleasant or unpleasant feeling?

How do we keep our delusion from transforming into craving, clinging and suffering?
The most important step is to be mindful (paying appropriate attention) so as to be aware of the delusion at the earliest possible stage such as the unpleasant bodily feeling and then to pause and reflect on the true nature of reality.

The Buddha:  “‘Friends, there are these three qualities. Which three? Passion, aversion, & delusion. These are the three qualities. Now what is the difference, what the distinction, what the distinguishing factor among these three qualities?’”

“‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen delusion arises, or arisen delusion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘Inappropriate attention,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately, unarisen delusion arises and arisen delusion tends to growth & abundance.…

“‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen delusion does not arise, or arisen delusion is abandoned?’ ‘Appropriate attention,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends appropriately, unarisen delusion does not arise and arisen delusion is abandoned. This is the reason, this the cause, why unarisen delusion does not arise and arisen delusion is abandoned.’”’[iv]

Appropriate attention is being mindful (paying attention moment to what is).  If we feel sad at a loss, just try to be with it and realize that it too will pass as this is the nature of reality.  This does not mean that we that we should detach ourselves.  Instead we practice non-attachment, living from a place of presence, where we honor each experience (including our desires and aversions), without grasping or resisting what is occurring. It has the quality of spaciousness and it reflects the ability to live in the present moment.

Ajahn Sucitto notes:  “This acknowledgment (that suffering exists) doesn’t require that everyone should feel wretched; rather, it’s a matter of learning to know and accept that this earthly realm is one of limitation. When we wake up to how human life on this planet actually is, and stop running away or building walls in our heart, then we develop a wiser motivation for our life. And we keep waking up as the natural dukkha [suffering] touches us. This means that we sharpen our attention to catch our instinctive reactions of blaming ourselves, blaming our parents, or blaming society; we meditate and access our suffering at its root; and consequently, we learn to open and be still in our heart. And even on a small scale in daily life situations, such as when we feel bored or ill at ease, instead of trying to avoid these feelings by staying busy or buying another fancy gadget, we learn to look more clearly at our impulses, attitudes, and defenses. In this way dukkha guides and deepens our motivation to the point where we’ll say, “Enough running, enough walls, I’ll grow through handling my blocks and lost places.””[v]

Mark Matousek notes, Grief may be the greatest healing experience of a lifetime. It’s certainly one of the hottest fires we will encounter. It penetrates the hard layers of our self-protection, plunges us into the sadness, fear, and despair we have tried so hard to avoid. Grief is unpredictable, uncontrollable. There are no shortcuts around grief. The only way is right through the middle. Some say time heals, but that’s a half-truth. Time alone doesn’t heal. Time and attention heal.

In grief we access parts of ourselves that were somehow unavailable to us in the past. With awareness, the journey through grief becomes a path to wholeness. Grief can lead us to a profound understanding that reaches beyond our individual loss. It opens us to the most essential truth of our lives: the truth of impermanence, the causes of suffering, and the illusion of separateness. When we meet these experiences with mercy and awareness, we begin to appreciate that we are more than the grief. We are what the grief is moving through. In the end, we may still fear death, but we don’t fear living nearly as much. In surrendering to our grief, we have learned to give ourselves more fully to life.”[vi]

[i] Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta  (MN 9) Thanissaro Bhikkhu
[ii] Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism
[iv] Titthiya Sutta  Sectarians (AN 3:69)
[v] From Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teaching Ajahn Sucitto
[vi] A Splinter of Love Are grief and mourning the most precious proofs of love? Mark Matousek