Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (3)


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 more neutral reading. I also expressed my dissatisfaction with awakening and have proposed two categorical labels to replace dukkha and atta/atman:

  • 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 of nirvana suggested by Thanissaro Bhikku: unbinding[i]. 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

If legend tells us Gautama taught only one thing: dukkha and the end of dukkha, then we can honour at least the idea by drawing on the new terminology explored above to produce a simplified overview of awakening entailing the following:

  1. Gaining firsthand experiential knowledge of freedom from the suffering-self
  2. Ending identification with the suffering-self
  3. Recognising, unknotting and releasing the individual and collective lines which run through the suffering-self

We can understand these as progressive and accumulative acts of awakening rather than a single moment of a final breakthrough.

We can come to know directly the triggers of mental and emotional discomfort, dis-ease, dissatisfaction and pain.

We can come to know the structure and form of each of these experiences.

We can liberate ourselves from these patterns of experience, and we can become free of confusion about our existence and our relationship with the material world in which we are situated.

Phenomenologically, awakening in this framework is understood as a process marked by an ongoing experiential confrontation with the boundaries and lines of self.

Nikaya scheme of the Four Stages of Enlightenment

This map is elaborated 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. It also continues to be used by Theravada Buddhists worldwide today, which at least implies that it has staying power. It has gained usage amongst figures in the alternative dharma scene too, 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, who are the champions of accessible enlightenment. Daniel Ingram is a key figure in breaking the Buddhist taboo through his book Mastering the Core teachings of the Buddha, which will likely become a classic one day for breaking ground. Each of these teachers is associated with Theravda Buddhism and in particular the Mahasi style noting practice.

As the model has four stages consisting of clear tasks to achieve, it lends itself to a pragmatic approach which explains why it is popular. 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.

The Four Stages of Awakening

The model’s four stages are each qualified in two distinct ways and the name for each 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
  2. Once-returner
  3. Non-returner
  4. Awakened

These stages are accumulative and have clearly articulated changes that occur, which can be phenomenologically validated over time. Each stage involves the dissolution of a number of fetters, which are discussed below. Each traditionally signals a reduction in the length of the cycle of rebirth and it would make sense to take the degrees of rebirth, or lack thereof, as metaphorical. It does not change much if we do so if the goal is to understand the relevance and actuality of the thing in a lived, shared landscape of interbeing. We are left with a map for the sequence of fetters that are broken through in stages as we gain ground in dismantling the patterns that sustain the illusion of the phantom I.

As mentioned above, although this model emerges from a tradition with a keen eye to moral restraint, I will be exploring it from a perspective of non-duality without the accompanying denial or repression of emotions and sexuality. Non-duality in this context is initially the recognition that the basis for suffering is the phantom-self’s assumption that it is separate from the world it is experiencing.

When we take death to be an impending end that can occur at any moment, we are forced to recognise that life is always imminent and that we need to be in right relationship with what is taking place, now, rather than project onto desired futures, or be obsessed with sustaining a dead past. The idea of the long path to awakening is abandoned in this perspective so that a sober acceptance of immediacy and participation in the moving present can occur.

Participation in experience is limited by what is expected or feared. Another way to say it is that we are habitually lazy in accepting immediate events as an invitation to participate. By participate, I am not referring to conventional, socially sanctioned way necessarily, but rather to the experiential quality of engagement. Initially, participation means bringing all of our attention and sensory perception to the nowness of experience. The four stage model is a means for coming to understand the key obstacles that prevent us from doing this.

[i]                 A Verb for Nirvana by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

The Eightfold Path: Concentration and Closing

Concentration is the last element of the Eightfold Path. Practising all of the eight factors of the path pretty much guarantees us a powerful and transformative journey of discovery, growth and change. If we go far enough down this path, it ought to lead to some sort of liberation from suffering and confusion and awakening to authentic being. This is what the label on the packet suggests, you will have to make your own way and sample the goods to find out whether the claims are true, or not. 
The Eightfold Path does not exist out there somewhere and I hope I have made that clear to some degree in these blog posts. It cannot be perfected in any absolute sense and there is no committee to measure your progress, and, most likely, no one will pat you on the back and say well done if you make notable progress on it, and, well, what is ‘it’ anyway?  Many followers of Buddhism mistake the external forms, teachings and practises as ‘the’ path. This is a mistake. The Eightfold Path is simply an effective model to inspire, guide and prompt us to action that has been reliable enough to warrant its survival and continued propagation for a couple of thousand years. The path though is ‘our’ actual-personal-experience of putting these practices and concepts into action. We need to start and gain some first-hand experience before we can relate experientially to what is alluded to in the many books out there. The path then is created through the raw elements of our own actions, choices and intent. As we gain first-hand experience we can start to relate to what teachers and teachings are hinting at and decide for ourselves what works and what doesn’t, whether a given teacher or form of Buddhism has its head in a dark place, or if it/they might be worth investing time and energy into. There are many Buddhisms out there and most of them believe they have the final say on what Buddhism is. Outside of institutions and organisations, authoritative figures, leaders and followers is the simple matter of an individual, or a group exploring the consequences of dedicated practise on this human life, in this time and place. 

The Eightfold Path: Right Effort


Getting started

Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.  
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.

The Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood (2)

Looking at our working lives
As most of us do not work in the aforementioned unethical trades, the question of right livelihood will primarily concern the way we work. It can be useful to start by looking at whether our relationship to our job, workplace and colleagues contributes to the creation or maintenance of forms of gross and subtle suffering for ourselves and for others. This may be as simple as recognising that a poor attitude affects not only the approach we take to the events of a working day, but contributes to the establishment of an unpleasant working environment and perhaps even a culture of bad attitude that permeates the working establishment. An ethical approach to work is to honour our agreements (contractually, verbally and interpersonally) and be as impeccable as possible. We dedicate ourselves to excellence as a commitment to ongoing development and we align our use of energy with practice. We use the working environment as a sphere of activity in which we firstly learn to recognise patterns of reactivity, or aversion, and how our preferences, attraction, play out. We let go of frenetic reactivity to stressful circumstances and seek to align with the movements of our working day in a way that allows us to maintain internal balance and presence. It is an ongoing art to do so. It is likely not possible in all working environments and this is the point when a change of circumstances may become necessary. If our working environment demands too many hours, too much stress inducing work, excessive aggressivity, or the giving away of our autonomy and individuality, we may need to consider a different career path if we are dedicated to long-term meditation practice.
As we are all too aware, work takes up a considerable amount of our waking life. That may be good news for some, but for many it is not. Work is a must for a great number of people: an obligation that would be preferably avoided. Even though this attitude is being tested by the global economic crisis we are currently going through, once you step outside of job anxiety, the same dissatisfaction that so many have in relationship to work remains. 
So, what can be done about this? A dichotomy seems to emerge between two basic approaches to an unsatisfactory working life. The first is to accept your lot, view experience as experience and let go of any particular preference. In the light, this is taking a sort of Zen approach of accepting what arises, which is easier said than done, but certainly possible. In the dark it’s resigning yourself to circumstances, because to change would either be impossible, or simply not worth it. These two excuses arise as pretence voices with lots of baggage in tow.
The second approach recognises a genuine necessity for change and engages in the search for more meaningful work, and more rewarding circumstances. Both are important to recognise and develop familiarity with and are certainly not mutually exclusive. The basis for working effectively with either is having a sense of the genuine priority in a given period and a sensitivity to timing.
There have been many books written about finding the job of your dreams. Many of them are very good and have certainly helped many people change their lives and find more rewarding work. For many people this is certainly something to look at, even in challenging economic times like the one we are living in. There is no doubt that when we are enthusiastic about the activity we are investing our energy and time into, we work better and we feel better doing it and it is easier usually to remain present and open to experience. In an ideal world we would all have the job of our dreams and dedicate ourselves to doing the best we can whilst at work. 

The Eightfold Path: Right livelihood (1)


In this blog post I explore right livelihood in its typical Buddhist format, and then I look at the relationship between affecting change on our lives and dealing with life circumstances as they are, and in particular how this plays out in the world of work. The first part then will cover the Buddhist issues of right livelihood concerning job selection and our contribution to the world through how we make a living. For those of you who’ve found my take on the world of Buddhism stimulating to some degree, the second part of this blog post will explore the relationship between the self-development field and Buddhist deconstruction of the self.

Let’s get started then
Right livelihood is an extension of right action and right speech. It therefore concerns the way we interact with the world and in this case how we interact with work. In a way this step on the eightfold Path is relatively straightforward. There are two questions that we need to ask ourselves in relationship to the work we do;
Does the way I earn money and make a living contribute to suffering in this world?
Does my work support my practise and provide conditions in which I can actually practise as I need to?
If the answer is yes to the first, your work may fit into one of the following categories. There are the classical definitions found in most traditions for determining wrong livelihood.
1.      Selling arms, or dealing in weapons and instruments of death and torture
2.      Dealing in slavery including prostitution (I would add slave labour too)
3.      Dealing in meat including raising cattle for meat, slaughtering & butchering
4.      Selling alcohol, drugs, or poison (does this include tobacco?)
In looking at these definitions of wrong livelihood, it seems that we can make a clear distinction between the first and the last two. Yet, even in exploring the first two there is ambiguity and I can’t help but feel that a decisive split from associating ourselves with these two potential forms of livelihood seems to be an expression of both excessive idealism and naivete. As general guidelines, they are on point, but as is almost always the case, there will be exceptions to the rule.