‘If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people’s thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way.’ George Monbiot
This piece was written to fill a void. One that I see as being the denial of the more ambitious aims of Buddhism amongst many contemporary practitioners in the West, including those who self-define as secular and who share many of my own views and concerns. In this piece, I explore enlightenment, prominent terminology and a model for mapping it into four stages to demystify what is most likely the core abstract feature of contemporary spiritual discourse. I take a post-traditional approach and use Buddhist materials as sign posts rather than definitive truths so although this work is indebted to traditional Buddhism it will not be limited by it, or play by its rules.
Buddhism has failed to live up to its original promise to show the world a foolproof way out of the sorts of ignorance, confusion and suffering that it specialises in, becoming too often a means for developing a shared Buddhist identity or a basis for the pursuit of the ever ephemeral goal of happiness. As rich historical phenomena, it provides a wealth of valuable material that can aid our understanding of the human condition, including techniques and practices that lead to insight into our shared human condition and a moral framework to guide an individual to be less destructive. At the same time, Buddhism has stagnated in its traditional expressions whilst failing to evolve into a truly radical western form able to bring about individual and collective liberation to any meaningful scale. In undergoing cosmetic changes and evolving into user friendly packages, it has grown into what we might define as ‘Buddhism-Light’.
This text attempts to push the phenomenological value of Buddhist enlightenment into the shared human landscape, unhindered by cumbersome institutional politics and traditional ideological ties, in order to construct an imagining of spiritual enlightenment that is rooted in our embodied, finite nature, and that has little concern for super powers and eternal salvation in Buddha-fields.
The approach taken is post-traditional which means engaging critically with Buddhism and leaving all forms of traditional allegiance behind whilst utilizing other sources of knowledge to explore it as human phenomena. On a personal level, post-traditional involves risking personal investments made in specific Buddhist narratives to come to an honest, authentic reading and engagement with Buddhism and its central tenets: an ongoing process that requires dedication to examining the explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. It is often forgotten that identity is in great part the problem that is being got at through Buddhism’s methods.
A post-traditional approach refuses special claims or categories for Buddhism and its insights, and expects Buddhist materials to stand alone, without need of faith or a privileged status to validate their veracity. Because it is post-traditional, this piece is an exploration unhindered by the social mores of any specific Buddhist community, where discussing enlightenment and claims to such are taboo, and where norms regarding Buddhism’s end goal are established and often act to limit creative and critical engagement regarding its obtainment or lack thereof. Leaving aside such baggage, this piece hopefully builds a case for a reconfiguration of enlightenment in which its thoroughly human potential is made explicit and doable.
The Wording of the Thing
Buddhism is full of abstractions, terms that lend themselves to multiple translations, conceptual reformulations and biases. Ridding ourselves of the temptation to indulge in intangibles and absolutes is essential for an honest revaluation of Buddhism in the West and this is especially so when considering enlightenment. The way we talk about it must be examined carefully if we are to make sense of what it alludes to and the first step involves examining the terminology commonly used to define the thing. If the act of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment is a genuine worthwhile human attainment, then it must be definable outside of a religious or spiritual tradition’s idiom. The type of language that is used to describe spiritual enlightenment is too often bombastic, supernatural, and out of touch with people’s experience within the traditions. What’s more, enlightenment is often described as ineffable which opens it up to all manner of interpretation, and basically implies that such a possibility is beyond examination, leading back to the dead end of trust in wiser authorities and a division between those who know and those that don’t. Rather than blind faith, I would suggest that we need a clearer way of talking about the thing. Rather than dismissive assertions that it is something beyond words, we can start by looking at some of the key terms within Buddhism used to define enlightenment and see what they are actually pointing to.
Language and experience are almost always inseparable with language giving shape and form to experience after the fact and conditioning our experience whilst we are having it and providing the relational dynamics that govern our relationship with familiar and unfamiliar forms. The structure of the language and the terminology we use daily, as well as in our attempts to explain uncommon experience, are shaped by the linguistic habits we have digested and habituated through the common discourse we have with others, with our descriptions and ways of talking about the inanimate world and with ourselves through our inner-dialogue, what Mitchell Green, professor of philosophy at Virginia University, defines as ‘the chatter of consciousness’ . The same is true at the collective level. Groups however small or large develop their own internal dialects that shape, condition, open and limit the scope of discourse. As Edward Sapir the linguist observed:
‘We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.’
Enlightenment was not actually coined as a noun in English until the 1660s. In spite of there being much better translations, enlightenment persists as the most widespread term used to translate both bodhi (Sanskrit and Pali) and nirvana (Sanskrit), nibbana (Pali). It is worth beginning with an exploration of the term enlightenment to see whether it has any coinage simply because of its omnipresent status in Buddhists circles and beyond.
Spiritual Enlightenment is a term that is primarily considered in its function as an abstract noun, that is to say, an intangible with no grounding in mundane daily experience, which points to why it is open to all manner of interpretation. Enlightenment does exist as a verb (to enlighten), as well as an adjective (enlightening), and therefore can be related to both action and the defining of experience. Dictionary.com provides us with the following definitions:
1. the act or means of enlightening or the state of being enlightened
2. Buddhism the awakening to ultimate truth by which man is freed from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations to which all men are otherwise subject
3. Hinduism a state of transcendent divine experience represented by Vishnu: regarded as a goal of all religion
The initial problem with the second definition is its reference to ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘reincarnation’. The former, like enlightenment, is defined in a variety of ways by Buddhist traditions and is open to as much speculation, the latter is a topic of debate and incredulence in ongoing secular western discourse and is impossible to prove, so remains an ideological proposition. However you take it, resting at this level of interpretation, we are left with vague pointers to insider knowledge and a phenomenon that is beyond validation. Apart from the issues that arise philosophically in building accurate descriptions of what it is that transmigrates, the whole notion of reincarnation risks a sort of romantic idealism that permits us to believe that secretly we will live on after death and somehow remain immortal. Letting go of reincarnation as a necessary marker for defining enlightenment allows us to have a more sober discussion of the immediate significance of achieving Buddhism’s goal as a human affair, and not as some eventual reward for our hardworking attempts to become perfect or an extremely nice person with impeccable ethical credentials, which sounds suspiciously like a disguised form of parental adoration a la Christianity and God’s reward of paradise. Needless to say, reincarnation will be set aside as a possible factor in determining the nature, function and result of the thing.
The third definition is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it actually captures a commonly held perception amongst many Buddhists. Secondly, it manages to capture the sort of definition that pushes enlightenment off into the ‘light’ recesses of the unattainable; an abstract elsewhere phenomenon that makes discussing the human experience of it impossible. Switching to the verb, we get the following from the paper edition of the Collins Concise Dictionary:
1. to give information or understanding to; instruct; edify
2. to free from ignorance, prejudice, or superstition
3. to give spiritual or religious revelation to
4. Poetic to shed light on
To enlighten is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object. There is an interaction between a doer and a receiver of the act of doing, which implies relationship and potentially, transmission. Points two and three could conceivably play a part in an eventual description of the thing, but they would need to be qualified. Point three is problematic because of the liberal interpretive possibilities regarding the word spiritual. Whereas religious can be clearly defined as in relation to the phenomenon of religion, spiritual leaves us with little to grapple with. What emerges is a shift from the abstract to the more tangible but multiplicity of interpretation remains.
As far as Buddhism is concerned, it was likely DT Suzuki that first made this English word more widely known as a translation for bodhi or nirvana in the 1930s, although at the time he was translating his own Zen tradition’s term for the thing, satori. This is important for two reasons; firstly, Suzuki was drawing on scholarly texts on Buddhism written by Westerners that had already adopted the term in the previous century. Secondly, it planted the idea of enlightenment as an instantaneous, radical, almost miraculous thing, in the minds of those Westerners hearing about this religion from the romantic East for the first time from a native. The idea stuck in the western imagination and the word has been ever present since.
Translation is problematic. Anyone who speaks another language will know all too well how difficult it can be to capture exact meanings when communicating complex or nuanced ideas and how idioms often don’t match up across languages, and therefore cultures. Verbs that are common place in one language may find no true equivalent in a second language, or exist only as a noun. The original terms utilized within the earliest records of Buddhism for enlightenment are bodhi and nirvana and in both cases enlightenment is a poor, even odd translation. Bodhi has its root meaning in the verbs to awaken or to know. Interestingly, as it was translated into other Asian languages when Buddhism migrated, differences in meaning emerged so that in Japanese we have kak, which means to be aware, and in Tibetan byang chub, which means purified and perfected. This leaves us with two glaring observations; the thing has adopted different meanings in different Buddhist cultures, and each one has a translation other than enlightenment. In linguistics, we would take the word bodhi to be the signifier, but what is its referent exactly? That is to say, what is it pointing to if even Buddhist cultures are not in agreement?
The two options available involve mixing the range of meanings together into a pot of concepts from which to draw a number of conceptual mixtures or choose a single translation as more faithful to the likely intended meaning of the earliest proponents of Buddhism. Both options may prove fruitful. The different regional translations of bodhi may have served to highlight an element of bodhi that was more pertinent to the time and social circumstances in which Buddhism was seeded there. Each term may highlight insight gained from those cultures in their own development of their unique expressions of Buddhism and its goal. This would suggest that in the West we do the same and be very clear as to what we are pointing. At present we are still in a phase of being enamoured with exotic descriptions of the thing.
Initially, I will take the second option and use awakened as a replacement for enlightenment as it is more tangible and faithful to bodhi’s root meaning. It is also a term that is increasingly being used by the alternative dharma movement and can therefore link the work in this text back to those who are unabashed in claiming they have achieved the thing. Such folks include Kenneth Folk, Daniel Ingram, and Shinzen Young.
To awaken exists as a verb and a noun, and relates to everyday experience as well as being a straightforward metaphor of movement from being asleep to awake – we can wake up literally from physical sleep, we can wake up metaphorically from a state of ignorance. If ignorance is sleep, then to be awake is to cease to be ignorant. You can become awake to confusion and patterned habits and behaviour at a subjective level and to the interconnected networks of relationships in society that lead and encourage people to be asleep to the conditions in which they live and exist. The same applies to knowing. You can come to know how things are. You can explore different fields of knowledge and gain knowledge firsthand. In both cases there are tangible, replicable processes taking place that can be understood by the individual and spoken of, elaborated and shared.
Awakening then could be the first half of a two-part phenomenon and as such describe the process of becoming or of awakening into the nature of nirvana. From this there is an initial sense of process rather than a fixed goal, even if, personally, I find the term too abstract.
With its association through popular usage with pleasure and heavenly domains, nirvana is likely to mislead curious individuals into believing there is a reward of happy-ever-after at the end of a life of meditative practice. Although nirvana may be associated with the idea of a perfect, blissful existence, it is not attributed such renderings in early Buddhist texts, implying instead the end or completion of practise through extinguishing the self. This appears to imply the annihilation of the self as the hub of human existence, but which self is eradicated? The loss of an atomised-self does not mean total annihilation of the person after all, otherwise the possibility of an awakened individual communicating with the world would never have been possible.
Nirvana means the shedding of that which causes suffering but this sets up a conflict with the body and material existence. The traditional notion of non-existence taken to its logical end means the body is the final piece to dissolve and decay before the evaporation of the embodied self. Meanwhile, the body, made of flesh and bone, is subject to the processes of erosion and decay that afflict all physical matter existing in between the dichotomy of pleasure and pain. Physical suffering is an inevitable aspect of physical existence, so the suffering that can feasibly be eliminated during embodied existence is emotional and psychological. To awaken from the suffering-self in practical terms should be concerned with the psychological and emotional dimensions of being and their liberation from the characteristics of the suffering-self.
Death is revered in Buddhism and typically signifies the completion of the path of awakening and an opportunity to embrace liberation, or final release, but is it a release into non-existence? Turning off the light seems to mean just that when nirvana’s original meaning is explored. Although an honest reading of nirvana’s significance may lend itself to eventual nihilism, agnosticism may be a more honest position to take and one that reflects later Mahayana emphasis on buddhahood and the returning of the awakened individual in order to free other beings from the cycles of the suffering-self and collective ignorance that sustains it. We still have no idea what consciousness really is, so to assume it evaporates at the moment of death is to display an act of faith.
The issue for those who take Buddhism’s claims seriously is to avoid holding out hope. An investment in the notion of buddhahood as supernatural being acts as a sort of cushion from the fear of being ultimately inconsequential and of the figurative and literal turning to dust which awaits our physical form and constructed self. Aside from being an act of faith, belief in nihilism seems to lead too often to hopelessness. We are not truly isolated, we are not truly atomised, and as consciousness inhabits an organic form in an organic environment, all of our acts are participatory and it is in participation that something meaningful may occur with the brief life we have. Motivation is distorted by the belief in continuation of the self and the nihilistic sense of meaninglessness, the result being that we should commit more fully to this life in its finitude.
To remain incarnate is to do so as a creature that experiences itself as part of an ongoing collective existence or movement. To awaken may function to free a person from the networks of the suffering-self as they exist within the collective but not isolate the person from those networks. Since the individual continues to exist as a human being, which is to say be embodied and finite, it necessitates a capacity to function in relationship to the world and the living animate and inanimate objects that inhabit it. Extinguishing the flame may thus lead to a reconfiguration of know thyself, one that involves birthing the individual into an open space of consciousness in which the atomised self no longer operates as a distinct operational force concerned with self-preservation, but rather a convention which allows engagement in the human realm to occur. Taking this line of thought is problematic. I acknowledge this. It highlights how notions such as buddhanature evolved and how such a concept seems to imply some greater intelligence which we merge with and act from. The alternative is to take the notion of extinguishing to be literal, but that would imply that bodhi is only possible at the point of death. These two lines of thought are problematic and rather than take Buddhist doctrine literally, I would take a small leap of contained faith and consider that it is possible to awaken to the human condition, to reduce all self-referential suffering that concerns an atomised self and that such a project does have value and should be made more accessible. The ontological issues emerging in this section are part of the motivation for exploring this topic phenomenologically.
In practical terms, if nirvana implies the extinguishing of the sense of ‘I’ or what I like to call the ‘phantom-I’, it would require a deconstruction of the self in its multiplicity of forms. This implies an enormous undertaking: a dismantling of the absorbed self-making process received from family, education, society, ethnocentric concerns and their accompanying distortion of emotional and sexual expression and the moulding of the senses along ideological lines. To remove the conditioning that we receive from external sources is to gain increasing clarity on aspects of the phantom-I that are embedded in identification with the inter-personal and relational aspects of being and experiencing. These are handed down through the collective me-making process. Nirvana could then signify ending the influence of these insipid forces, gaining clear insight into their structure, functionality and attraction. By revealing such forms and seeing clearly and fully into their mechanisms they begin to falter and their vacuousness becomes evident. At that moment, a new symbolic order becomes possible: one in which suffering or dukkha, is reduced and ultimately ended.
Dukkha is intimately related with bodhi and is probably best understood as an umbrella term for a variety of negative human experiences, most commonly translated as suffering. Some attempts have been made to find an alternative single worded translation with ‘dissatisfaction’ being perhaps the most well-known. Another alternative provided by the well-known Secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor is anguish, which he elaborates in his Buddhism without Beliefs. Any attempt at simplification though leaves out important elements of the concept of dukkha and although it is cumbersome to do so, indicating the range of afflictions that are encompassed within the term is vitally important. This is especially so as such a concept is the starting place of most forms of Buddhism through the teaching of the Four Truths. Furthermore, having a more complete sense of the meaning and significance of dukkha is vital to understanding the nature of meditative practice.
As an umbrella term Dukkha might include the following: emotional and psychological pain and discomfort, confusion, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, the feeling or sensation of being incomplete, of being separate from experience, from the world and from others, the loss of what you have, separation from what you desire, frustration, depression, anxiety and existential loss. Further nuances could be added but this brief list develops the concept of dukkha beyond suffering and pain to include existential suffering, deep confusion about what and how we exist and relate to the world, and that perennial sense of things not being quite right, or complete.
As these forms of subjective suffering centre on a false self, I shall use the following phrase ‘the suffering-self’ to encompass all of the above forms of dukkha, but please do not consider this self to be only the individual’s affliction. It is helpful to consider these faces of suffering as shared realities that are a feature of our embeddedness in lines of interbeing, rather than referents to an isolated self.
Removing the exotic: English alternatives
The terms explored so far have been foreign to the English language and even when such words gain coinage in English, they cannot help but carry added flavour and nuances that obstruct a neutral reading. I also expressed my dissatisfaction with awakening and have proposed two categorical labels to replace dukkha and atta/attman:
• The suffering self
• The phantom I
Although awakening may serve as a categorical label for the thing, there are two straightforward English words that could replace nirvana and bodhi. They are freedom and liberation; each made more useful in this context when the preposition from is added. To gain freedom from or liberation from helps us to define more effectively what the thing is and perhaps remains faithful to an alternative translation for nirvana suggested by Thanissaro Bhikku: unbinding . If we gain freedom from then we can be understood to have unbinded from a thing, or a network of things, and from forms of quite specific entrapment, which can be identified and their absence tested. To liberate from points to practical steps that can be taught, understood and carried out.
Waking up: initial revision
Legend tells us Gautama said he taught only one thing: dukkha and the end of dukkha. Drawing on the new terminology explored above, a simplified overview of awakening could entail the following:
1. Gaining firsthand experiential knowledge of freedom from the suffering-self.
2. End identification with the suffering-self.
3. Loosen and release the personal and collective lines which sustain the suffering-self.
We can understand these as the progressive and accumulative acts of awakening rather than a moment of achieving some final breakthrough. We can come to know directly the internal causes of mental and emotional discomfort, dissatisfaction and pain. We can come to understand the structure and form of each of these experiences. We can come to liberate ourselves from these patterns of experience, and we can be free from our confusion about our existence and our relationship with the material world. Phenomenologically, awakening in this framework is understood as a developmental process marked by an ongoing confrontation with the boundaries established to avoid experiencing what is unknown.
The Nikaya scheme of the Four Stages of Enlightenment
Why chose to bring out this traditional Buddhist system for categorising a phenomenon that many continue to believe to be the lofty heights of the elite few? This model is laid out in the Visudhimaga but the four stages or paths that it refers to appear in the Sutta Pitaka, one of the main teaching groups or baskets of the earliest Buddhist teachings that we know of, so it has a clear doctrinal foundation and it continues to be used by Theravada Buddhists worldwide today, secondly, it has gained usage amongst figures in the alternative dharma scene, including the godfather of secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor. It therefore represents a connection between traditional and contemporary expressions of Buddhism. It is also the model of choice for the more adventurous of contemporary dharma teachers, including Kenneth Folk, Daniel Ingram, Vince Horn and Shinzen Young. These teachers and practitioners are mostly associated with Theravda Buddhism and in particular Mahasi style noting practice. What’s more, the model has four clear stages consisting of clear tasks to achieve so lends itself to a pragmatic approach. The stages are accumulative and the tasks can be read as human achievements if we are willing to liberally translate the role of reincarnation assigned to each. Finally, there is simplicity, which is often missing from Buddhist lists and maps used to describe the thing. Though Theravada Buddhism can contrast with the non-dual approach my own practice is informed by, there are meeting points to be found and the model is sufficiently straightforward as to be open to re-interpretation.
The Four Stages of Awakening
The model’s four stages are each qualified in two distinct ways. The name for each stage either directly indicates a shift with regards to reincarnation or defines the beginning and end of the path, so that we have the traditional four stages of:
1. Stream Entry
4. Arahat, awakened one
The Four Stages of Awakening is likely the most straightforward model of the thing to be found in Buddhism. Its stages are accumulative and have clearly articulated changes that occur and that could be phenomenologically validated over time. Each stage involves the dissolution of a number of fetters, which are discussed below. Each stage traditionally signals a reduction in the length of the cycle of rebirth. Since we cannot actually prove that reincarnation occurs, it would make sense to take the degrees of rebirth, or lack thereof, as metaphorical. It doesn’t change much if we do so if the goal is to understand the relevance and actuality of the thing in a lived life in a shared ideological landscape. So, setting aside the reincarnation principle, we have a map for the sequencing of fetters that are broken through in stages as we gain ground in dismantling the relationship we have with the phantom I.
Although this model emerges from a tradition with a keen eye to moral restraint, I will be exploring it from a different perspective, namely that of non-duality. Non-duality in this context is merely the recognition that the basis for suffering is the phantom-self’s assumption that it is separate from the world around it, from experience and from what is emerging, or taking place, so in the sense used here, it simply means we are not isolated, atomistic individuals.
When we take death to be an impending end and that it can occur at any moment, then we really are forced to recognise the fact that life is always imminent and that we need to be emergent in what is taking place right here, rather than project onto desired futures, or be obsessed with sustaining a dead past through a seemingly consistent narrative. The idea of the long path to awakening is abandoned in this perspective and a sober acceptance of immediacy and participation in the moving present is understood to be the only choice left open to us. The questions that then emerge are:
• How capable am I of engaging with what is taking place?
• How much do I manipulate what occurs in the sense fields?
• How much do I avoid certain uncomfortable or painful aspects of life?
• Where do I intentionally choose to look away, close my eyes or ignore?
These questions acknowledge that participation in experience is always limited by what is expected or feared. Another way to say it is that we are generally incapable of and are habitually lazy in accepting immediate events as an invitation to engage fully and open to what is taking place.
The four stage model is a means for coming to understand the key obstacles that prevent us from being full participants in this life. We co-arise with the phenomena that are immediate and a substantial visible self is missing from that equation. In a way, what we exist as afterwards is a symbolic self, a mirror of the time we live in, expressed through our own genetic makeup, proclivities and character leanings. How liberating it is to realise that we are all co-participants in the themes of our time and that the atomised distortion of being that we drag around is really not needed. How important it is also to realise that attempting to fabricate an alternative self or a re-enactment of an historical awakening is futile and really a refusal to honour the time we currently inhabit. If awakening is to have value, it must be an awakening in this time and place, within this symbolic reality and through its symbolic forms of which language is primary.
1. A device, usually one of a pair of rings connected to a chain that is attached to the ankles or feet to restrict movement.
2. Something that serves to restrict; a restraint: the fetters of tyranny.
tr.v. fet·tered, fet·ter·ing, fet·ters
1. To put fetters on; shackle.
2. To restrict or restrain: thinking that is fettered by prejudice
Within Buddhism fetters are primarily discussed in the earlier schools of Buddhism and the term is typically translated from the Pali term samyojana into English as chain or bond. There are a number of ways of conceiving of them. Firstly, as intrapsychic phenomena: intra- indicates internal, psychic refers to psychological processes. Secondly, fetters could be understood as structures embedded within the mental and emotional faculties of an individual that bind us to a sense of atomistic self. Thirdly, fetters could be understood as collective psychological and emotional planes which we are submerged in. Another angle is to think of them as binding elements that tie us to the cyclical nature of habitual states of being and experiencing.
Phenomenologically, it might be better to define them as psycho-emotional patterns centred on the phantom I that are maintained through interwoven fictional narratives that are personal and historical, collective and ideological. In any of the descriptions above, they are expressed or lived through habitual behaviour, thought patterns, feelings, belief patterns and assumptions visible and implicit, all entwined in conditioned sensory habits of perception. In the Pali canon ten fetters are identified ;
1. belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
2. doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā)
3. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)[
4. sensual desire (kāmacchando)
5. ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo)
6. lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo)
7. lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūparāgo)
8. conceit (māna)
9. restlessness (uddhacca)
10. ignorance (avijjā)
These fetters will be discussed in conjunction with the wakening stage they are part of below. It is interesting that fetters were originally considered not only very difficult to remove but to span lifetimes. This brings up a question regarding the ontological nature of emotion, considering how many of the fetters are connected to feeling. Primary emotions are shared amongst all humans and animals alike and since we are not in possession of them, it would seem that they represent spectrums of energy in movement that we cycle through skilfully or unskilfully, wildly or hesitantly, getting trapped, or not in feeding their cyclic return. Either way, emotions are shared. Traditional Buddhism favours the suppression of desires, whereas later schools either harness them or prioritise certain pro-positive emotional expressions such as love and compassion. From a non-dual perspective emotions do not exist as independent objects to be afflicted with, or forces that we control to accumulate bad karma. The collective nature of fetter formation must be highlighted as it is very often downplayed in Buddhist teachings. There is a blindingly clear relationship between our inner me-making process and the social formation that channels to a great deal the direction that the me-making process takes, whilst affirming, through our collective beliefs, myths and history, the ‘I’ as the core of a self-existing subject.
Our whole social reality is based on creating subjects, consistent persons that interact through reliable identities that are shaped from birth to adulthood and that adhere to social norms to reproduce and sustain the dominant ideology, which is not a single fixed form out there somewhere, but more akin to a map that we are situated in and which we confuse for reality and the way things simply are. Due to Buddhism’s limits towards the collective dimension of me-making, it is unable to provide sufficient means for breaking through our embeddedness in the collective me-making of our society, culture, generation, historical phase, etc. Because it inadequately performs in the collective me-making field, it can only watch passively, or offer a Buddhist identity as an alternative means for navigating such terrain. Both are insufficient.
Finally, since we do not have a single conclusive definition of what mind is and considering that Buddhist definitions are contradictory, we cannot objectively posit the fetters as truly existing within the structure of the brain or within consciousness. At this point, recourse to a phenomenological exploration of the fetters and how they are typically experienced by an average individual is the logical option if we want to take this model into consideration. A map is a map after all; it is not the geographical features it attempts to record. Taking a phenomenological approach, the question that arises is how are these phenomena experienced by people and how do we define those experiences in strictly human terms?