Delusions are our Teachers

People ask—what should I do when thoughts arise during my meditation?

The question suggests the meditator is doing something wrong. Thinking is not allowed while meditating. In a dualistic way of seeing things, if I am thinking I must not be meditating. If I am meditating, I should not have thoughts.

In the Winter 2017 edition of Buddhadharma, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel digs into the teachings of Dogen Zenji to explore just how our deluded “thoughtful” minds can be the very path to enlightenment we are seeking.

Earthlyn explains that the interplay of delusion and enlightenment must be “ever-intimate”.  That is to say, the two are one. Thoughts may arise as distractions redirecting us to focus on our breath. Or those thoughts may open us to this present moment, here and now.

Earthlyn puts it more poetically, and more succinctly. “When we become intimate with our own thinking, delusions become the earth on which the moon of enlightenment shines.” This is the intimacy, or codependence of thought and enlightenment.

Simple enough. Enlightenment arises from our own experiences. But many of these experiences can be a kind of a zombie walk of inattention to the moment in which we live. We spend our lives focused on where we are going and where we’ve been. A story we tell ourselves over and over again, so we don’t forget it.

In meditation we free ourselves from telling the “me” story. We open to new thoughts. These can be challenging, and very often break from the “me” story into seeing much rawer. What we see are glimpses of enlightenment in thoughts arising from intimacy.

We are just searchers really, treading through the confusion of no-expectation. We abandon our story for newer and more original thoughts.

Earthlyn reminds of the second line of the bodhisattva prayer:

Delusions are inexhaustible,

I vow to end them.

But how does anyone end the inexhaustible? Becoming intimate with our delusions, Earthlyn tells us, makes them the seeds from which enlightenment arises.

Review of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s article What if Our Delusions are not a Barrier to our Enlightenment, Buddhadharma, Winter 2017