This is part two of a two-part series on reconfiguring enlightenment. You can find part 1 here.
Stage one: stream entry
Taking nirvana as implying freedom from, the four stages can be defined in terms of what we progressively become free of. In each case, the four stages signify a break from identification with a number of fetters. I will stray from traditional descriptions in an attempt to clarify their phenomenological reading.
The three fetters dismantled during the first stage are;
1. Identity view/self-identity (seeing through the self-making compulsion)
2. Sceptical doubt (specifically regarding the truth of non-self, impermanence and its implications, the root causes of the suffering-self)
3. Clinging to rites and rituals (gaining sobriety on the nature of external form & its relationship to actual, direct experience/addressing dissonance) + (losing enamoredness for solely symbolic forms, or the stabilisers of identity)
The first fetter is concerned with how we actively view the self: the illusion of a fixed, permanent self-existing I that is apart from the world. It is the most important fetter to deconstruct as it forms the basis of all the others. Gaining freedom from this fetter requires that we break this illusion and see clearly how the self, as we thought it to exist, is empty of any solid, fixed features and how it is hollow and beset by spaciousness. As an intrapsychic phenomenon and form of psycho-emotional entrapment, gaining freedom from it involves a fundamental break from the nucleus of self-identity.
We recognise ourselves as selves that are embodied through the habitual flavours, moods and acts of our senses, thoughts, physical sensations and relational habits to events, spaces, objects and people. We play out stilted roles that are infused with gaps. Seeing through the first fetter must occur holistically for an uncoupling from all this to occur.
Not only does dismantling this fetter signify the recognition of the key Buddhist insight of emptiness, but it opens up the ability to view others, experience and phenomena as also being devoid of a permanent, fixed self nature.
It is funny really, because this in itself is not such a big deal. We know objectively through the sciences, but also through western philosophy dating back to Hume that nothing is fixed and eternal. To know it firsthand and to experience an override of the delusion of an atomistic ‘I’ pushes against so much of what constitutes our sense of self that it is easier said than done. That does not mean it is not possible, however, or a task that needs to be relegated to future lifetimes or decades from now.
The second fetter is sceptical doubt which typically relates to Buddhist teachings. Shorn of Buddhism as a social construct, what form does such doubt take if the person is not a Buddhist? That is to say, if a non-Buddhist gains freedom from this fetter, how does he or she experience it and know it to be so? Which teachings should we assume are confirmed by this process? Do we include moral injunctions to avoid oral sex for example? A crude example I admit, but the point should be clear; doubt in this case has to be towards phenomena that are not restricted to or by Buddhism. Buddhism articulates well a number of core insights that relate to the nature of the self. These form the basis of a matrix of insights that are fed by destabilising identification with a phantom core self. To lose doubt towards the veracity of these insights would imply that they begin to form the basis of the world view held by the person;
• The absence of independent selves
• The nature of the suffering-self
• The impermanence of everything
• The need for some form of ethical behaviour if we are to avoid creating additional suffering
To lose doubt means to find some other approach. The opposite of doubt is faith but it can take many forms, one of which is highly problematic. Blind faith can be found in Buddhism too, especially in the more devotional forms. It is a form of ignorance based on grasping at certainties and is typically a reaction to the uncertainty that underlies our existence. Faith in the foundational truths so important to Buddhism can emerge through witnessing them at play and naturally flows from direct, experiential perception of the vacuous nature of our own form and the loss of the first fetter.
A reading of faith in this context would also imply confidence and trust in experience and the practices that have led to the fetters being broken. It can also be understood as opening to life and to experience and trusting in our ability to gain and cultivate insight and build a path through direct experience. Such experience involves loosening the patterns of self and the ties to habits that reaffirm the self which results in the unknown becoming the way. Confidence here can be understood as a capacity to withstand what the unknown reveals. Confidence also means seeing the path through.
Clinging to rites and rituals
The third fetter is perhaps the most unusual of the three fetters. It clearly relates to forms of behaviour and belief and in its wording appears to imply the loss of strong attachment to religious or spiritual activity. I have always found this an odd occurrence to take place at the initial stage of awakening. Buddhism is abound with both rites and rituals. In attempting to tease this model from the hands of Buddhism, I began to think about it differently. If the self is a narrative that is sustained by habits; in feelings, actions, thoughts and relationships, then what we have immediately is a sense of how to proceed. We are by nature ritualistic crePlvs Vltraatures and rites might be redefined not as exclusively religious or spiritual, but as the acts that we carry out to affirm and solidify the feelings, conclusions, sensations, thoughts and beliefs that form the scaffolding that surrounds the phantom I.
We engage in rituals collectively that function to maintain agreed upon ideas regarding identity and the range of experiences we can have, emotions we can feel, and thoughts we can explore. We might not define them in such terms but any decent sociologist will tell you that societies and relationships are by their very nature ritualistic. We are ritualised mirrors of the human world we inhabit. Seeing through such conventional, social, ritual forms can lead to liberation from the ideological prisons that we are embedded in and from another layer of our self-structure, which we might redefine as the ‘we-structure’.
This begins to sound a lot more radical than talk of how many lifetimes are left before the samsaric prison break. This view may explain why retreat is the preferred method for inciting the movement into stream entry, considering that such an environment requires a solid break from our everyday lives and isolation not just from distractions, but also the networks of interbeing that sustain our particular form of self and its compulsion to exist.
Stream entry as metaphor may be understood thus. The stream may be thought of as the continuous and uninterrupted flow or emergence of being with the loss of these fetters leading to three distinct changes in self-identification:
1. Self-referential conditioned & habitual being relaxes, and increasingly dissolves into an open sensorial merging with what is immediate.
2. Confidence in this openness, in groundlessness and ongoing emergent being builds and undermines the returning echoes of the self structure that was previously inhabited.
3. We lose faith in the ritualistic formalities of our existence, relationships and habits of self and can no longer maintain the status quo. Ideological allegiance becomes forced, difficult to sustain. Ideas of ideological purity fall apart and an open expanse becomes the basis of being, filled as it with the projects of man.
What takes place within all this is an emerging and ongoing meeting between the infinite (emptiness, space, meaninglessness if you prefer) and the remains of our limited conventional-self. Phenomenologically, in achieving stream entry, we experience a flow of ever widening perception into the illusion of the self and selves, and are met with, for want of a better term, the remarkableness and open-endedness of being and inter-being. What emerges is increasing room to respond creatively to ongoing circumstances. This becomes possible once we have discarded the suffocating nature of self-referentialness and the ritualistic obsessions and compulsions of the atomistic self: its rites and rituals. Along with all this, there is an immense reduction in the types of suffering categorised under the term dukkha and this brings us into line with the main promise of Buddhism: to end the suffering-self.
Stage Two: once returner
These stages might be thought of as positional anchors on an evolutionary line: they are not fixed in stone. The second and third stages are best considered as a single stage as new fetters are not dissolved in stage two but become weakened before being thoroughly abandoned at the end of stage three. At the second stage, there is a significant reconfiguration in the relationship with desire and ill will, the next two fetters on the list. It should come as no surprise that both desire and ill will – to be defined below – might require considerable effort to address as they are representative of the underlying forces of attraction and repulsion which drive all reactive behaviour. Impulsive by its very nature, it creates the friction within which the phantom I is suspended.
The name of this stage indicates that an individual will be born just once more on completing it. Leaving aside reincarnation as a continuity of consciousness, we must locate this stage description within a single lifetime. The way I understand this notion of ‘returning once’ is that it refers to the recycling of habits and of cyclical existence within this lifetime. In disrupting the relationship with a phantom atomised self in stage one, the cyclical nature of habitual behaviour is weakened but not thoroughly abandoned. This stage may be likened to the increasing ability to shake off our personal patterns of cyclical re-enactment of the interwoven narratives of self. If this stage is a line along which we move, then it would make sense to think of it as pointing to a progressive ability to step out of the cyclical re-enacting of the patterns of selfing that were not entirely abandon at stage one. The completion of the stage would actually be the completion of the third stage with an end to reactivity. This would explain why stages two and three are partners in a long process of ridding ourselves of our blind impulsiveness and reactive patterns. It seems to imply dynamism in adapting and changing. Would this indicate that awakening is part and parcel of the human evolutionary curve?
The consequence of achieving this stage is to be immersed more fully and openly, without constraint, into the stream of emergent being with an intensity of engagement with experience that is no longer self-referential. The result is that psychological and emotional suffering is greatly reduced. In fact, compared to what the average person considers as normal, the reduction in suffering is truly immense.
Is waking up useful?
I think it would be useful to take a segue into locating this line of development in a socially engaged environment at this point. Many of those who claim enlightenment or find themselves in one of the stages of this model isolate themselves from the world or follow institutional lines which recreate the tradition they are part of. There is no reason to assume that people that are immersed in these lines have the practical know-how or intellectual background to engage effectively in addressing the world’s problems. Should awakened individuals have a moral impulse to better the world they live in? Often there is the assumption that this is the case. Buddhism is a world religion after all and proselytizes. Compassion is promoted along with loving kindness and one would assume that witnessing the nature of suffering and the way out of it would inspire those who begin to awaken to become active in shaping the world to be a better place.
This represents yet another problem with the hyperbolic definitions of enlightenment and the rather silly claims of omniscience that are bandied about in far too many Buddhist circles. The individual may no longer be reactive after awakening, may no longer suffer emotionally and psychologically, but this does not automatically equate to intelligent engagement with the geopolitical and economic situations that are responsible for much of the injustice and suffering in this world. This may explain why many of those who progress along these lines end up teaching the tradition they are part of because there can seem to be no alternative in addressing the question of how to help. This is amplified as so few people make genuine progress with this work and when they do there is little in the way of correspondence and peer interaction and critique.
It is quite possible that a good number of semi-awakened and awakened people are actually rather ignorant about the world in a way that would surprise the average university graduate in the West. This is not to say that their actions cannot contribute in some small way to the world. Most readers will be familiar with stories and legends from Buddhism that tell the tale of simple fishermen, farmers or beggars who turn out to be fully awakened and end up influencing a key figure who goes on to set up a lineage. These figures are often cast as super enlightened Buddhas, but their actions in the story, outside of influencing the key figure, would likely appear mundane to everyone else at that time and contribute little outside of the role that the individual inhabits.
One purpose of this text is to dismantle some of the myths surrounding awakening and at this point it seems appropriate to say that awakened folk are human; no more, no less. Some will choose to make use of their insights, some will be happy getting on with life as ‘normal’, some will feel a need to spread the good word, some will hopefully engage in activism or make the world a better place. There is no guarantee that awakened men and women contribute anymore to the world in their short lives than anyone else. This might lead some politically conscious readers to make an obvious statement; why bother then? It may also bolster the claim that Buddhism can end up being a solipsistic affair. Each individual that journeys along this line will need to address the question of how to help at some point, in a world that generally could not care less if they are awakened or not.
v. (used with object), desired, desiring.
1. to wish or long for; crave; want.
2. to express a wish to obtain; ask for; request
3. a longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment: a desire for fame.
4. an expressed wish; request.
5. something desired.
6. sexual appetite or a sexual urge.
What a paradoxical force desire is. Aristotle called it the ‘appetite for pleasure’ and Schopenhauer spoke of sexual desire as ‘the most violent of all desires’. Bertrand Russell concluded that ‘all human activity is driven by desire’ which resonates with Hume who stated ‘it is desire, along with belief, that motivates action.’
It may seem at first glance that desire is fundamentally problematic when religion has spent pages and pages discussing the need to suspend desire in order to reach higher goals. However, there is good reason to be suspicious of conceptions of desire as uncontrolled need or insatiable want, especially when it is conceptualised as some sort of disease or all consuming force. When an individual is not in a state of abject poverty or slavery, there is space for desire to become other than blind compulsion.
In exploring the fetter of desire in second and third paths, it is important to consider it phenomenologically, rather than morally, and make a distinction between imposed ethical standards and the visceral experience of desire in its multiplicity. As desire is multifaceted, it would be wise to understand how it functions subjectively: How does it arise? What lifespan does a particular desire have? What function does positive desire have? Are desires static beliefs or a form of energetic movement? What happens when you engage or disengage from a wave of desire? The most important question in the project of awakening might be articulated as: What does the role of desire have in sustaining, undermining or amplifying experience of an atomistic self?
A standard three-part categorisation of desire is made in Buddhism:
1. Sense craving; wanting sensory pleasure
2. Craving to be; wanting to exist, to be someone, to have experiences
3. Craving not to be; wanting to avoid existence, avoid pain, cease
The desire to control desire is paradoxical . Historically, institutions have tended to seek to control it, perhaps because of a fear of hedonism, hysteria and chaos, and the need to impose what they perceive as a higher order on the world. This highly moralistic view of desire betrays a profound absence of trust in the ability of individuals and groups to experience individual and collective desire in sane ways. It is no surprise that power and control have always gone hand in hand and that desire has long been seen as subversive and destabilising. Like all religions, Buddhism has a problematic relationship with it and all too often its language of desire is the language of suppression. The worst of all desires of course is sexual, as Schopenhauer claimed. The attempts to control it institutionally and at the state level continues to dog contemporary Western society and be a major factor in conservative religious societies worldwide. It would be laughable that medieval and pre-medieval ideas still permeate modern culture if it wasn’t so abhorrent and violent, especially towards women and homosexuals.
Perhaps though, the general consensus among conservative religion regarding sexuality is of little interest to our discussion here. Many of the holier than thou are the ones with the sexual hang ups and monastic orders are full of histories of abusive behaviour, so assigning sexual repression the label of holy or spiritual is at best extremely naïve. If we set aside moral arguments and as adults agree that religion has no place entering our sex lives, when desire emerges as a fetter to be removed, the question arises; to what is it actually referring?
If a person has moved through the first stage of stream entry, desire is unlikely to be concerned with addiction or impulsive dependency, sexual, or otherwise. It is more likely concerned with the first fetter of self-identity and ongoing progression in the process of the dissolution of the atomised self, coupled with an emergent need to locate ourselves within expanses of increasing boundarylessness onset by the initial destabilisation of the consistent experiential narrative of self at stage one. The list below reflects some of the existential desires that are woven through atomistic narratives, becoming more apparent in stage two. They also resonate with the 2nd and 3rd forms of desire from the Buddhist triad above:
1. The desire to exist
2. The desire to continue
3. The desire to remain the same
4. The desire to change as we would like, on the terms we set out
5. The desire to be seen and judged as we would like
6. The desire to be loved and accepted
7. All the other facets of the self seeking its own recognition, validation, and ultimately, survival
Phenomenologically, desire might be understood as a form of energy. Within the form of being, energetic movement occurs, including; pulling towards, moving towards, encompassing, merging, saturating, being saturated, splitting, holding, solidifying, and so on. As a form of energy, it has a lifespan which typically exhausts itself, as any hedonist well knows, and is by its nature relational.
At its most basic level, freedom from desire could be understood not as the elimination of these movements and relationships but as freedom from identification with them, along with freedom from (as opposed to resistance to) the compulsion to drive or be driven by movements of human desiring. This allows for the possibility of being present within the whole range of human emotional/feeling movements without entrapment occurring within those fluxes. This is a saner route than the paths of avoidance or suppression, themselves a form of energetic play that involves setting up artificial boundaries between the experiential sense of self and other.
Much of our desire is rooted in the urge to avoid experiencing a multitude of sensations that upset the delicate balance used to maintain our limited range self. The immensity of the still moving present, which contrary to popular belief can be uncomfortable and destabilising, involves a particular loss of boundaries that occurs when the fictitious self is dropped for a period. It can be blissful, we know about this through contemporary Buddhist claims, but the unnerving aspects concerning lack of certainty may not be, connecting us instead to the fear of annihilation, which is one of the rawest faces of the fear of the unknown both individually and collectively.
As we engage in attempts to control or fabricate specific sets of experience and their accompanying sensations, so we attempt to control environmental possibilities in order to force or restrict what occurs. This happens primarily through the establishment of patterns that ensure consistency in the range of feelings and sensations we open ourselves to. The habitual behaviour of seeking to fabricate, control and avoid, limits our ability to experience an open relationship with the flow of continuously new experience with the result that we are overly selective. We can end up afraid of what is unknown and resistant to what is new.
Groups and societies function in the same way, with fear of the unknown being a powerful binding element for communities. Identity is not only informed by our own particular narrative but is also bound up in group and societal identities and their narratives so that there are multiple core narratives that construct our identity. These might be best envisioned as narrational grooves; lines along which we repeatedly move. The deeper and more consistently we tread the line, the more easily we slip into it automatically in reacting to circumstances and stimulus.
The weakening of the fetter of desire is in a way a surrender of habitual conditioned responses to stimuli so that we are in a constant process of rediscovering experience anew and opening to what is unknown. This is in reality the naked face of impermanence, as things are never truly the same twice. Because we relate to people, places and experiences as if they were, we become lazy participants, hooking our attention onto habitual responses and to what is known, shutting out a great deal of what is happening around us in favour of reigniting familiar feelings, thoughts and reactions. A question arises at this stage: how willing are we to experience the loss of solidity and certainty that this habitual movement presents?
If movement is the nature of desire, then it is at heart a movement away from full participation in the moving present and the random and multiple experiences of life. It takes time to loosen, weaken and drop this fetter because the layers of impulses, aversions and fabricating tendencies towards what is taking place outside and inside are so well established and mirror the same collective forces that we are embedded in.
Ill will (Byapada)
1. a strong feeling that you dislike someone and wish them harm
2. an unfriendly feeling : a feeling of hatred or dislike
A second translation for the original Pali term is malevolence:
1. having or showing a desire to cause harm to another person
2. having, showing, or arising from intense often vicious ill will, spite, or hatred
Ill will points to intentionality and aggression encapsulating a variety of forms of meanness. In its gross manifestation, it implies intending suffering towards others and therefore refers to an absence of care in our actions, choices, and thoughts. Ill will signifies malice, rather than simply reactive anger, rage or frustration.
In contextualising this fetter in the second stage of awakening, we once again need to understand its role in maintaining and sustaining the experience of an atomistic self. The majority of information concerning ill will in Buddhist literature addresses its immoral function and generally prescribes methods and techniques for managing it as an aspect of behaviour. As a fetter, instead, we might ask a number of questions;
• How does it maintain the experience of separation between a sense of self and experience?
• How does it lead to a solidification of the atomised self?
• What is the result of weakening this fetter?
Ill will is sometimes understood as aversion, though this may be a somewhat limited understanding. When we push against the external world to solidify the separate self, it becomes a form of aversion. As aggression however, it is more closely linked to control and the desire to dominate an experiential space or relationship. In both cases, the underlying drive is to maintain the boundaries that hold together an experience of solidity.
Ill will is another face of desire in some respects, whether expressed as the desire to do harm, have harm be done, or act on aggression towards others. Ill will is also linked to an inability to cope with our sense of self being challenged, usurped, undermined, pushed, tested, hurt; all forms of destabilisation.
Weakening the fetter of ill will does not involve suppression but rather the release of the self-serving survival mechanism concerned with maintaining dualistic divisions. If ill will is a form of aversion or domination, then to weaken this fetter is to increasingly allow the world into the inner subjective landscape, so that the atomistic boundaries of self and other begin to weaken.
There is often a sense that passivity is preferable to angry outbursts in Buddhist circles. The mistake here is to believe that anger is always negative when in truth it is a form of fuel when stripped of its aggression. Such fuel is required to produce certain forms of change. Fighting against injustice, defence from attack, breaking through apathy and passivity, each requires a healthy degree of force. Fierce passion produces action and cuts through complacency. As an energetic impulse, it can evolve and become harnessed more effectively leading to a richer, active participation in what is taking place in the moving present.
Because these two fetters are weakened at this second stage, but not dismantled, there is further work to do. Whereas stream entry implies breakthroughs, dismantling and loss, the second stage of the model points to continued opening to the insights from stage one and their practical application along with the need to actively and phenomenologically penetrate and dissolve the obfuscating networks of identification with self-affirming patterns of desire and ill will.
Stage three: non-returner
The third stage in this model results from further unknotting of the layers of impulsive reactivity to stimuli in the form of attraction and aversion. As we release these knots we become increasingly cognisant of how they are formed and linked to maintaining the phantom-I. These layers are both individual, and increasingly collective. As we rebirth out of this knotty self, we release habitual repulsion and become less and less concerned with attempting, or for that matter, needing to maintain any particular state of being, allowing greater and greater flexibility and fluidity to be a natural expression of ever fuller participation.
If participation is to experience an unpredictable and uncordoned range of sensations and life experiences, then we are without restraint, more connected to those around us and their poignant plight: others who, like us, are human animals, all too familiar with their own suffering and confusion. Feeling into the world, seeing into the nature of things, of others’ shared confusion regarding their place and role in the world, can but give rise to compassion. To care then becomes the basis for engagement with the world. We come to understand that we are all integrated participants in a world of interwoven enmeshment. To respond to the situations of the world compassionately, which initially was a choice, increasingly becomes a natural expression of our basic shared humanity.
The work is not done, however. In loosening identification with a falseness of self, perception become increasingly sharp, lucid, and open. Instead of the constant internal dialogue that narrates existence and our existential concerns, mind becomes increasingly spacious. Thoughts and ideas emerge, as the mind works that way, but they are infused with space. To see them is to see the mind’s natural movement. It becomes possible to choose what is of use and to follow certain lines of thought or spend long periods with a mind that merges with space and characterised by an absence of thought. Such a space renews the mind and can be highly creative, though it is not holiday mind that many folks experience on retreat, but a new base line that is vibrant and unflustered by daily life.
The line of emotional content one experiences stretches and contracts and emotions and feelings arise and fade as energetic play. Such energy is infused by space and can revitalise the body, clean out the heart and allow for tenderness and intimacy to occur. The experience of emotion as power, vitality and renewal becomes apparent. Rather than confirm our sense of uniqueness, emotions become a co-arising with phenomena.
Within these mental and emotional movements spaciousness is synonymous with freedom. It can bring about prolonged and frequent moments of sensorial bliss. Because this freedom of spaciousness is so tangible, it can become enticing, or naturally attractive. It clearly produces no suffering, yet it can still become a form of stickiness. Addressing the remaining subtle attraction to such states becomes the work of this stage and making progress with this leads to stage four.
Stage four: arahat, awakened person
The final stage and the goal of sorts: to live emotionally and mentally free within the confines of this life, body and world.
Dismantling the narratives onto which our sense of self is grafted is hard work. It places us in conflict with the roles and identity that are bequeathed to us by the society we are born into. It takes great effort to see through the multiple confining walls of the phantom-I, and courage to patiently break them down and remove them over the years. When we are birthed into a world where the suffering self is a collectively agreed upon modality of existence, albeit an unwitting one, the project of freeing ourselves from the matrix of interwoven webs of deceit, inauthenticity, entrapment, frustration, confusion, denial, and the rest, becomes an immense task.
There are five fetters that are lost at this stage;
• Desire for existence in the fine-material sphere
• Desire for existence in the immaterial spheres
In completing this stage, we no longer wish to fabricate experience as there is no longer a need to satisfy the phantom-I by affirming its existence through the maintenance of any sort of norm. Experience and its basis within sensations are allowed to exist on their own terms. This concerns the first two fetters of desire for a particular form of existence. A separate self viewing itself in the reflections of the world is lost. The individual arises as an integrated element of the world. Desiring continuity, desiring to fix experience ends.
Restlessness is gone because it refers to needing to be elsewhere, or to force anything in particular to occur.
Ignorance about the nature of suffering, impermanence and the nature of human existence is no longer an issue, but ignorance about so much else continues of course as there is no true omniscience: how could it be otherwise?
Conceit, concerning itself as it does with exaggerated claims and a high opinion of oneself seems misplaced here as a fetter, but perhaps it simply points further to the very human nature of this accomplishment and the fact that if there is any residue of self-importance emerging in response to perceived gains then there is still fostering of some special mini-me and the stage has not been completed. This is a nice reminder of why so many gurus are less than they believe with their grandiose claims. No humility, no stage four.
What is of importance is how individuals proceed afterwards. Can a person make their life worth a damn? Can they contribute to reducing suffering and ignorance in the world?
Being of service
If being awakened is to be in full participation in the world we inhabit without subjectively experiencing an atomised self as the locus of consciousness, we might begin to envision the life of a modern day Bodhisattva. We might imagine that upon entering fourth path, a person becomes a conscious element of the collective conscious, pushing along the evolutionary wheel within the zeitgeist of our time, investing conscious acts into reducing ignorance and suffering, and their causes, to the best of their ability, within the limits that are real. Many people are struggling with this task of course; from aid agencies, to doctors, to teachers and countless other. In doing good though, many folks unconsciously end up causing more harm or re-enacting existing ideological forms that form the basis of much ignorance and suffering. I would suggest that in liberating themselves from the suffering self, their work could become much more effective. What’s more, the process of dismantling fetters plays its own part in shifting the particular strains of ignorance dominant in our time.
Within Buddhism, there are socially sanctioned means and avenues for expressing the compassionate drive to help others and alleviate suffering. The establishment of norms regarding the type of behaviour exhibited by a semi-awake or awakened individual may be laid out for him or her. This gives social recognition and a meaningful role to individuals, as well as a clear direction and avenue for expressing the compassionate act. But what of those who do not exist within such solid social constructs?
Two key terms reoccur again and again within Buddhism: compassion and wisdom. Compassion means to be with another; able to comprehend their experience and suffering. Compassion emerges from empathy, which is a result of boundary loss. If the false self-structure is dissolved, then the ability to be with others increases as a result. We may cease to suffer, but there is no reason to believe that we stop feeling the suffering in others. Wisdom may be in part not the ability to validate all Buddhist teachings, but an increasing perception of what is unfolding and what is important within a given circumstance through more complete and unhindered participation and an ability to communicate to that.
To be awakened is to participate in creative acts of engagement with the world in which we exist, including its historical and symbolic structures. If anything, that is the game we are called to engage with if we awaken as humans-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. To communicate with other human beings includes recognition of that same potential in others; to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once, and speak successfully to both.
It seems to me that some traditional Buddhist teachers, who may actually be pretty much awake, believe that what’s best is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. What might be of greater value is to create alternatives that speak to the time we are in and to disrupt the status quo that cements identities and maintains suffering.
Those that experiment and find success doing so in radical new ways are often the ones whose actions echo through history and that are more likely to produce significant change outside of a small circle of followers. This type of act is what is needed for greater change in the world to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of lasting value.
In many ways, it is incredible how a relatively straightforward path has been transformed into an immensely elaborate fiction in many Buddhist traditions. It is unfortunate how the machine of awakening, which should be Buddhism, has become incapable of freeing people, being at times implicit in creating and sustaining new forms of religious entrapment. Buddhism holds a gold mine of resources for the task, but so much of it is wrapped up in mythological language. Although secularists have sought to find the original Buddhism, free of all the later mysticism and contradictory elements, later Buddhisms were always a response to the inadequacies of earlier forms. The Mahayana and Tantrayana shifts in the history of Buddhism signal radical and experimental projects of reconfiguring Buddhism in a way that was relevant to the time and culture. The same shift needs to occur now. The West is not Asia and Asia is increasingly Western. Rather than go back to the pure past, Buddhism as a means for awakening must reform, and be reformulated, in order to become relevant to wider society beyond the mindfulness craze.
To be free of emotional and psychological suffering is possible; to be awakened out of the illusion of separation from this world and each other is possible. Making such a possibility more accessible begins with experimental projects like this, that leave behind the solely therapeutic aims of more wide spread Buddhist practice such as mindfulness and re-establish Buddhism’s original aim of freeing individuals and groups from suffering.