(Special thanks to Doc Neeson and the Angels of Angel City for, totally inadvertently, giving me the idea for the title of this post.)
"Mortal belief must lose all satisfaction in error and sin in order to part with them….Whether mortals will learn this sooner or later, and how long they will suffer the pangs of destruction, depends upon the tenacity of error." (—Mary Baker Eddy)
Set a beggar on horseback and he'll ride to the Devil. (—old proverb)
In Ledi Sayadaw's book The Manuals of Buddhism, which is always informative, occasionally fascinating, and occasionally stark surreal, the venerable author mentions that, after periods of many, many gajillions of years, the material universe undergoes an inevitable, cyclical collapse, usually being destroyed by fire. At times like this all the sentient beings in that particular universe (including "spirit beings" like ghosts) necessarily are reborn in a very high heaven realm, which is above the physical plane of existence destroyed by the cosmic cataclysm. There are meditators and yogis in this world, India especially, who spend their lives trying to purify themselves sufficiently to be reborn in this realm, and most of them fail; yet now even fleas, mosquitoes, manta rays, goblins, robbers, prostitutes, sword fighters, and sociopathic politicians are necessarily reborn there—even though under ordinary circumstances they wouldn't come anywhere near to meriting such a rebirth.
The thing is, though, that even though those swamis very much want to get there and can't, the fleas, mosquitoes, politicians, etc. get there and don't like it there. They don't fit in. It's too peaceful and boring there, or too subtle, or something. So shortly after the world system cyclically, inevitably re-evolves, all these refugee beings abandon that heaven realm and plunge eagerly back into the lower realms of devas, humans, animals, and even denizens of hell and the ghost realm. Strangely, they actually prefer it there. They fit in there.
For those of you who find such a vast, cosmic scale to be too hard to imagine and therefore too hard to believe…here is a much smaller-scale example, taken from ordinary human events, which exemplifies the same general phenomenon. Long ago I read an article about a woman in America who lived in the streets of a large city and spent her days shouting obscenities at passers-by. A group of good people felt compassion for this woman, and tried to help her: They found her a place to live, got her some presentable clothes, and even found her a job working in an office. I don't remember if they also got for her some psychological treatment; maybe they did that too. I saw a picture of her wearing a kind of business dress and sitting behind a desk in her office…and she did not look happy. Anyway, one fine day she didn't show up for work. She didn't show up the next day either, and simply stopped coming to the office. So somebody went out in search of her, and eventually found her standing in the street shouting obscenities at people. She obviously preferred this lifestyle, despite the fact that it was less physically comfortable, and probably less lucrative besides.
Or here's another example, which probably all of you have encountered in one form or another. A friend is very upset about something, possibly something purely imaginary, like worrying that something terrible might happen, or still clinging to some misfortune that happened many years previously. So you (or I) try to calm this person by pointing out that their unhappiness is unnecessary. The friend then becomes more vehemently, angrily upset, essentially insisting on his/her right to be miserable. If we are trying to comfort them by merely spouting lame philosophy that we ourselves don't follow, then their heated, contemptuous dismissal of the advice is understandable; but even if we see with crystal clarity that the other person is fretting needlessly, and could easily let it go if he or she chose, she or he often disregards the advice, and often becomes even more passionately unhappy in reaction to it. Thus it is generally better to be very careful when giving advice of this nature; a simple hug usually is conducive to less negative results. This case, which manifests in this world every day, also resembles, on a smaller scale, those hell-dwellers kicked upstairs to heaven while the universe is being renovated, and then abandoning that heaven like rats abandoning a sinking ship as soon as their new hell is ready.
Or here is yet another example. A woman was hypnotized by a person I know, and found herself in a kind of hell realm, accompanied by a benevolent guide, rather like Dante being guided by Vergil through the Inferno. She saw people crowded into a jail cell or cage with iron-looking bars, and the people inside were crying and shouting, apparently wanting very much to be out of there. Then the spirit guide waved his hand through the bars, showing them to be ephemeral. Then he took the woman's hand and waved her hand through the bars. The people inside were trapped in a mental prison of their own creation.
Or here's still another one. A Buddhist or a Christian or a Hindu is told that if they want to attain the highest state, the highest happiness, they should love everybody (for instance the Mettā Sutta says a wise person loves all beings just as a mother loves her only child). But we don't want to do that.
Pretty much all of us are like this. If we found ourselves in that high heaven world Ledi Sayadaw mentioned, we also probably wouldn't like it there, and would leave as soon as convenient. There are no coffee shops in extremely high heaven realms. No sex. No action movies. No pasta. No sex. We also would prefer the world we are in now, probably. We fit in better here. This, apparently, is the place for us.
And essentially this very same principle explains why we are not enlightened right now. We prefer being a flea or screaming obscenities in the street, so to speak. It is a myth that we are not enlightened because we don't try hard enough or practice hard enough to become enlightened; we are not enlightened for the simple reason that, deep down, we just don't want to be enlightened. We don't feel ready for it yet, for whatever reason, or are simply clueless. We are essentially addicted to samsaric existence; and if we want to Wake Up, we want it halfheartedly, or even tenth-heartedly. If we really wanted to Wake Up, totally, then we would practically be there already. Not being able to become enlightened and not being able to want to become enlightened amount to practically the same thing, maybe even precisely the same thing. If we think we want to Wake Up, but still haven't woken up, then we are kidding ourselves. We may want it a little, but we're not completely convinced yet that we want it. We're like the alcoholic with a bad hangover after his wife has had a crying fit and his boss has threatened to fire him if he doesn't sober up—he may feel like he should stop drinking then; but after the hangover has disappeared, and the wife and boss are relatively calm, he wants to get drunk again. He wants to sober up sometimes, kind of, but not always. He wants to sober up mostly, or partly, but not enough actually to stay on the wagon. He's not 100% sure. Again, being able to let go of Samsara and being able to want to let go of Samsara are virtually identical.
So, assuming that this assessment of the case is accurate, the purpose of Dharma practice is at least as much to help us to want enlightenment as to help us to attain enlightenment. It humors our self-deception. It says, "All right, that's very good; you want to practice, so practice; here's how to do it," and then we halfheartedly, or for short bursts maybe three-fourths-heartedly, practice meditation and other dharmic practices…which clear our muddy mind sufficiently that we see more clearly why we should actually prefer enlightenment to standing in the street shouting at people. We want Dharma a little, so we practice a little; then our vision becomes clearer so that we want it a little more, so we practice a little more intensively…and thus Dharma slowly, gradually lures us out of our hole, like a kid at a campground patiently luring a small animal with a peanut. Even though enlightenment is ultimately effortless, and could be instantaneous, like right NOW.
Though actually, the peanut analogy is the success story. Many people who practice some Dharma do so in order to maintain the self-deception—they practice superficially, not deeply enough to alter their perceptions significantly, as a way of persuading themselves that they do indeed want to Wake Up. They may stay in the same rut of "Waking Up" for the rest of their lives, with little progress. Or else, especially in the West, they are trying to reduce stress and to feel better about their samsaric autobiographies while calling it Dharma. Or else, especially in the East, they are simply conforming to a cultural tradition, with no intention of deriving any more benefit from it than to avoid hell, and maybe, hopefully, to be reborn in a better body, with a better economic situation. Ultimately though, there's nothing wrong with any of this. We shouldn't be pointing accusatory fingers at each other, because the fact that we're here is pretty strong evidence that none of us really wants to be enlightened, not wholeheartedly enough to manage it anyway. I'm not OK, and you're not OK, and that's OK. We're all in the same boat.
So bless you, and don't forget that it really is a good thing to Wake Up. It's ultimately effortless too. And it's the only way to be totally free of suffering—although the trouble is that we like suffering. We pretty much insist upon it.
This is not found in immaterial heaven realms