The Distortion of Perception — the Vipallasas

The vipallasas are the distortion of views, perceptions and thoughts affected by either defilements or by the words of another. So my thoughts, perceptions and especially my views about what I am now writing is an example of how these vipallasas work, because a question I was asked influenced them.

These four …  are distortions of perception, distortions of thought distortions of view…

Sensing no change in the changing,

Sensing pleasure in suffering,

Assuming “self” where there’s no self,

Sensing the un-lovely as lovely —

Gone astray with wrong views, beings

Misperceive with distorted minds.

Bound in the bondage of Mara,

Those people are far from safety.

They’re beings that go on flowing:

Going again from death to birth.

But when in the world of darkness

Buddhas arise to make things bright,

They present this profound teaching

Which brings suffering to an end.

When those with wisdom have heard this,

They recuperate their right mind:

They see change in what is changing,

Suffering where there’s suffering,

“Non-self” in what is without self,

They see the un-lovely as such.

By this acceptance of right view,

They overcome all suffering.

— Vipallasa Sutta: Distortions of the Mind (Anguttara Nikaya 4.49)

The vipallasas, the perversion or distortion of the collective faculties of views, perceptions and thoughts either form or are the Buddha’s exquisitely exhaustive explanation of a faculty which Pali calls avijja or avidyā in the Sanskrit. It is usually translated as ‘ignorance,’ ‘delusion’ or ‘illusion.’ I tend toward the meaning of delusion as ‘that there is something real which one is experiencing’ but we give it a meaning unique to us, giving it a quality that it really doesn’t possess. This is called avijja, delusion. It is because of delusion that we go on craving for happiness in things that will only create suffering for us. We search for some kind of security in things outside ourselves that are of their nature subject to change and disintegration. This includes the perfect girl or man, the perfect job, the perfect place to live and the perfect whatever. It is the mentality that says, ‘if only…I’d be happy.’ We have an experience, a momentary event, a feeling, or an idea of a certain kind of a self, when there is nothing there at all. All that is really there is an empty illusion or mirage.Based on that mirage we build up this whole idea of a ‘me’, a ‘mine’ and from that and we repeatedly create our world of world of old age, sickness, death and rebirth — samsara.

The Buddha understood that avijja is the cause of this entire episode of suffering. Whether it’s in the three root defilements — called the mulakilesa — it’s first of the twelve steps of ‘Dependent Origination.’ It’s the ‘Four Noble Truths in a nutshell. This avijja, delusion, is the main root. The ‘Four Noble Truths’ explain the cause of suffering as craving. Craving itself has a cause: avijja, delusion, not seeing clearly. It’s through the overcoming delusion and seeing things in a different way that we become enlightened. In seeing things as they are we can avoid the trap of believing in our own fantasies.

When we see things for the first time, in the way of the Buddha, the Arahants and the Ariyas saw things, then we become a ‘Stream Winner.’ That’s the first tear in the veil of avijja. Now we have got a peep, a glimpse, a clear sight at the reality of things. In nurturing that insight and the causes and conditions of that insight. When we open up that crack more until our mental abilities will only see things in terms of the Dhamma — ‘not me’, ‘not mine’, ‘not a self’. There is nothing that belongs to me and nothing is worth clinging to, not really. When an Arahant is born that is what he sees, what he knows. He or she knows that the causes for samsara and totally overcome these causes. They know that this will be their last life.

It is in the uprooting of avijja, seeing through the delusion, which is at the core of the experience of the Buddha’s path. The Buddha called his experience Enlightenment because it was a ‘breaking through’ of delusion, a splintering of delusion and saw the truth. The Buddha said that the truth he saw was difficult to see. It’s not an easy thing to cut through delusion.

In his teaching of the vipallasas the Buddha explained the mechanism behind these perversions of the faculties, why there is delusion in the world, within oneself — after all, we are the world we experience. First we ought to dissect delusion. By dissecting avijja and understanding just what it is we can understand what delusion is and what its causes are, and why it is that people aren’t now enlightened and others never will be, in this life at any rate, maybe never — who knows for sure? What we have to do to develop insights that are true wisdom. In understanding the vipallasas we have a secure direction and a way to focus our efforts and energies to experience the same insights as those of the Buddha. It was at the three levels of cognition that the Buddha described the vipallasas: views, perceptions and thoughts. These levels of cognition are not layered one atop the other. They turn around in a circle, each one supporting the other, then spiral upward, expanding outward. Thought is what makes our view, then we perceive that view in a uniquely individual way because of our previously experienced thoughts and views. These three perpetually spin around each other. We think in a certain way because of our views and perceptions creating more thoughts leading to more views and perceptions. Our world view, our understanding of worldview and our religion  are what select the perceptions that we come to face our own consciousness

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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