Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (2)

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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)

Identity view/self-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.

Sceptical doubt
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. Continue reading “Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (2)”

Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (1)

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‘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

Introduction
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.

Continue reading “Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (1)”

Phenomenology of Awakening (Buddhist Geeks 2014?)

This is a video submission that I made for the Buddhist Geeks conference, 2014. The transcript is below with a couple of modifications. if you like this blog, or the ideas contained within the video, perhaps you would consider voting for my submission over at the BGs website, which will contribute to my talk being accepted. Thanks.

www.buddhistgeeks.com conference & submissions

“With all this talk of technology and science, with all the attention being given to Mindfulness, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Buddhism has sort of gone main-stream, and found its place in the world as simply an aid for modern, stressful lives.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not so interested in uniting my consciousness with my Twitter feed or becoming a more efficient worker: I actually got into Buddhism years back because of something much more radical: enlightenment, or awakening!
Kenneth Folk said at last year’s conference, how about “enlightenment for everyone”, or, at least how about enlightenment for more …folks. For that to happen, our conception of enlightenment: the what, the how, must be reconfigured and that’s what I would like to talk about at this year’s Buddhist Geeks conference, using a Post-traditional framework with elements of Non-Buddhism.
What happens for example if we bring Buddhism’s goal of a final end to suffering fully into the human sphere; to flesh and to bone, and to relationship with other.
What if we were to leave aside mystification, superhuman traits, and take a careful look at what enlightenment might mean if it were stripped of its specialness, no longer the magical pot of gold at the end of the concentration rainbow, but instead something quite tangible, human and real.
What if we were to leave aside insider terminology, so that it can be understood outside of Buddhism, using the local idiom, in our case, English?
It feels to me as if we started something with the “coming out” of Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram and others; but then got stuck. I think it’s time to apply a creative re-imagining of enlightenment as human phenomena, using innovative conceptual frames.
If such ideas might interest you, then maybe it’s worth having me over at the conference… at least for a bit of variety amongst the brain scans, tech talk and familiar Dharma VIPS.”

Compassionate action: documentary on the how

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Often a question arises, what does it actually look like, to enact compassion, to express and live Buddhist principles in a human life? Stories come down to us from historical sources, tales repeated and retold that illustrate miraculous events in a far off land in even further time periods. These stories were most likely put together to inspire followers, but for some of us modern day folks, they may fail to do just that, in fact, they may more likely do the opposite and leave us cold. Stories are simply stories after all.

Finding inspirational stories these days, we might choose to look to other sources. Charity workers, teachers, that rare political figure whose ideals produce real change, a scientist perhaps that invents a cure for something? Others are inspired by current Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Danniel Dennet, Michael Foucault  and other great thinkers might be someone else’s hero with their challenges to thought, belief and shared illusion.

I just got done watching an immensely moving documentary that impressed me very much and the story told is a true one. The events you see in the film are still taking place today with the quiet dedication of two remarkable people. It tells the tale of Phra Khru, an ex-policeman, ex-Thai Boxing champ, and current abbot in Thailand who takes in orphaned and abandoned children and raises them along with a nun, Khun Mae Ead. Both of these characters are exceptional examples of compassionate action: the real one, not the pretend super Buddha type. They gift life skills to kids and teach them how to live, take care of themselves and each other. It is a spectacular thing to see.

Tough love is how the two define their approach to these kids and one can only remain impressed and touched by the lack of grandeur, self adulation and reference to Buddhism that the two display as they quietly get on with changing these kids’ lives for the better. Buddhism is there in prayers in Thai, some meditation, but it is expressed in its most meaningful form in the genuine heartfelt prayers Phra Khru expresses towards these kids and it seems that they act, rather than as Buddhist prayers per se, as form for the depth of care and sincere wishes this man has for these lost kids.

I am often challenged by the question of how to care, how to do something that might be meaningful and helpful in this world beyond being a decent father, teacher and husband. Phra Khru manages to provide an example not through abstract holiness, but down to Earth realness and I cannot help but feel deep gratitude for this man and woman making a difference out there.

Highly recommended. Follow the link if you want to know more.

http://www.buddhaslostchildren.com/home

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (End)

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Closing Thoughts 

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 human-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. After freedom is gained from the me-making self obsessions and their rootedness in layers of conditioned illusion, to communicate with other human beings may be understood as a recognition of that same potential in the individual, but it may simply be the earned ability to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once and speak successfully to both. For genuine communication to take place we can either baffle and amaze our interlocutor with our new bangles and jewellery, as some do in a sort of weak narcissistic act of parenting, or we can communicate to the individual as a resident of the world they inhabit and to the roles that they are embedded in. It seems to me that the image of the Buddha that has been passed down to us is of the latter model, even if it is a mock image. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may be quite awake, believe that the best means for them to continue the latter tradition is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. But, for others, and I think this is where a creative act emerges that is of greater value, a pushing through, or delivery of a blindingly sharp observation of alternatives that speak to the time we are in is the most powerful options available to a person who is actually able to see and who feels that drive to disrupt the norms of the status quo. Those are the voices that echo through history in a sense, that are more likely to produce actual change outside of a small circle of followers, or a shift in consciousness within a collective. This type of act, or dedication to pushing through the status quo is what is needed for any real change to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value.