Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (2)

Buddha_001

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. (more…)

Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (1)

Buddha_001

This piece was originally written in 2010 and older readers may be familiar with it already. The original piece was badly edited and needed serious rewriting in sections and I have now completed doing so. It is shorter, less repetitive and I have added more in stage three and four, which were a little light on material.

Being such an important topic and still controversial in many Buddhist and non-Buddhist circles, there are many directions that this project could take. In applying what Glenn Wallis defines as the ‘devitalisation of charism’, which is to say removing an exalted and special category for Buddhist enlightenment, the thing becomes clearer, more visible and thoroughly devoid of mystical charm. It is grounded to a human life, rather than suspended between indefinite rebirths. It is robbed of specialness and superhuman gifts. In doing so, it becomes a human endeavour, which returns to it a value that has been lost in the talk of enlightened father figures and guru worship. It become tangible and dare I say doable. The piece is in two parts with this post providing an overview of the project, an examination of the key terminology to be used and an introduction to the four stages of awakening.  

‘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.

(more…)

Critical thinking, creativity & the problem with beliefs: The NKT, Rigpa and SGI

norbulingkashop_1132_manjushri_resize_800x1040_5f011772f1f655b0d91950f1e7b2fd43(Manjushri, the archetypal manifestation of wisdom)

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ Albert Einstein
The NKT is a pure tradition free from politics.Kelsang Jangdom

Belief
n.
1. An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
1.1. Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion: we’re prepared to fight for our beliefs
1.2. A religious conviction

We are all ignorant: every single one of us. Some of us don’t like to acknowledge this fact, but that doesn’t change it from being one. Even the brightest among us is blind to most of what takes place in the world. Ignorance may be obligatory; an indiscriminate factor of the human condition, but persistent refusal to engage with reality is not, especially when institutionalised. I think of certain forms of entrenched belief as voluntary ignorance. A person or group chooses to ignore facts, refuses to engage with reality, and sticks to their beliefs in spite of all the evidence. This is a problem we see primarily emerging from religious and political organisations and it will be no surprise that when these two come together, the situation worsens.

Religion is the hotbed of voluntary ignorance and Buddhism makes its own contribution with three organisations standing out; the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa and Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Each of these organisations has received ongoing condemnation, accusations of abuse, as well as ex-members speaking out in similar tones over repressive behaviour, groupthink and cult-like behaviours. The NKT is the only one of the three to have a large number of dedicated websites from ex-members countering the organisation’s public image and to be involved in political activity targeting and defaming the Dalai Lama, in spite of their claims to be apolitical and ‘pure’ as the tweet from Jangdom above shows. I shall link to websites critiquing all three organisations at the end.

Rather than write a piece pulling apart the ideological structure and network of beliefs of the NKT or SGI, this piece was conceived of so that it might provide some resources for people who are unable to contextualise the collective forms of delusion that these organisations engage in. When speaking to NKT members, some of whom are old friends of mine, I have become aware of the sharp distinction between belief and reality visible in their claims, especially when discussing their political agenda. This is coupled with a lack of critical thinking. The sort of dialogue that NKT followers use is fairly consistent and as I wrote in my piece on Buddhist Bullshit last year, after leaving the organisation almost 20 years ago, I was genuinely surprised to find that the way members talk about their organisation and themselves has not evolved much at all; it is still infused with the same sort of self-referential groupspeak, blind faith and ignorance that motivated me to leave in the first place. Interestingly, the way they self-define resonates very strongly with the language used by members of the SGI I have had dealings with as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who I was once foolish enough to debate with when they came knocking at my door.

It is possible that a good deal of alternative religious movements both within and outside mainstream religion are expressing anti-modernist sentiments of the like discussed in the works of David McMahan and Andrei Znamenski and certainly some of the forms of ignorance I talk about in this article are not exclusive to these three organisations. What troubles me is how these sorts of ignorance translate into abuse and aggressive self-promotion based on deception. Combine this with the evangelical nature of the NKT and SGI and the insular problems of an organisation and their behaviour becomes a public concern. The second reason for writing this piece is to illustrate the sort of distorted thinking that goes on in all of these organisations and the fascinating capacity of the mind to delude itself. My hope would be to better explain the mechanisms by which an individual succumbs to and then supports the action of an organisation which promulgates ignorance in the name of religion.

‘Religious belief by its very nature is problematic and presents many logical problems…which do not withstand rational thought.’
Margaret Placentra Johnston

(more…)

Post-Traditional Buddhism Redux

01iht-rartasia01A-popup

Post = after in time or sequence; following; subsequent
Traditional = 1. of or pertaining to tradition. 2. handed down by tradition. 3. in accordance with tradition.
Buddhism = 1. a religion represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha. 2. a religion that originally comes from South Asia, and teaches that personal spiritual improvement will lead to escape from human suffering.

What is a Post-Traditional approach to Buddhism?
I first came across the notion of post-traditional Buddhism in a blog post by Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been involved with the Buddhist Geeks since its inception, whilst exploring the intersection of Vajrayana Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching. He wrote in 2011:

“…While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly.” Hokai Sobol

As he indicates, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition, or at least its forms. This implies freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. The extent of departure from tradition will vary according to the extent of disillusionment with tradition that a person has experienced and the personal connection they have to that tradition. Hokai continues with Shingon for his own reasons whilst others leave all forms of Buddhism behind.
A post-traditional approach entails a particular form of freedom when examining Buddhist materials, including teachings, beliefs, symbols, moral behavioural guidelines, key claims and ultimate truth, without having to adopt a Buddhist identity, internalize Buddhist beliefs, and/or be blinded by a tradition’s particular formulation of Buddhism at a personal, social, and cultural level.
A post-traditional approach signifies a desire to unpack, deconstruct and evaluate elements of Buddhism as phenomena rather than as formulations of revealed and ultimate truths. It means being critical and placing Buddhism alongside other sources of human history, human knowing, human understanding and praxis, to test claims and experiment. In this sense, the way I conceive of post-traditional Buddhism has much in common with non-Buddhism which further moves away from Buddhism as a fountain of truth:

“Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to–and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to–the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.” Glenn Wallis (more…)

Free Speech and Buddhism

Voltaire on a Je suis Charlie poster

The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.

I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:

1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?

(more…)

Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The following is my first attempt to define, describe and put together a view of the world from a non-dual perspective. It’s an experiment, so don’t expect too much. The language may be complicated for those readers with little background in Buddhist meditation, for others it may be inspirational or resonant with pre-existing intuitions. The language I use is increasingly coming from other sources than Buddhism and this is due in part to my desire to cease to replicate Buddhism in its frozen forms. Buddhism as I see it is not ‘Buddhism’ as that thing from the East, but rather a signifier of human potential, both individual and shared. The way I see it, we need to get on with waking up (see a past post for what I mean by this) and translating that into a modern vernacular that breaks from tradition whilst renovating it and making it relevant for this time and place.

Be aware, I write in spurts, squeezed in between family life, work demands and the pleasures of life. I could do with an editor on hand to highlight missing commas, repetition, inappropriate verbs, typos and the rest. If you spot such slips, make a comment and I’ll trim and snip. 

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by Capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming: modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, which act as lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality, there are two sources that tend to dominate contemporary discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum, and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion, but there are other ways to proceed in practice and conceive of the emptiness of being. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality, or emptiness, in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound up with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argument.

It seems necessary to me that once we work out what we are not, once we deconstruct, delete and deform the narrative self we are expected to mistake as ‘me’, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, what we are, and consider how our view of what remains determines how we build community, establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed and pursued. (more…)

Buddhist Bullshit

I generally avoid getting political on this blog. Not because I am apolitical, or think it too messy a subject to broach, but because I have used this blog primarily as an exercise in exploring ideas and experiences I personally find curious and interesting so it’s been a primarily personal affair.
Although I have been attempting to write a blog post on non-duality this December, I have failed three times and the pleasure in the task has evaporated, which is never a good sign. In wondering what to write next, I was surfing the net on Boxing Day and came across a couple of videos by ex-members of a Western Buddhist organisation of which I was a solid member for a number of years, even once considering ordination (yikes!). The organisation is called the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) and is to be found on many cult-watch websites.
I was involved with the NKT back in the early 90s and I moved out of their failed South-western Buddhist college project after realising how similar they were to Scientology and how incompatible I was with their group think approach. There is much that can be said about them and their nefarious activities, but I will leave that up to others: links can be found below if you are curious. The content of the Youtube videos reminded me of the issue of ignorance so many Westerners have regarding the history of Buddhism and the general lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism as a political and cultural phenomenon.
The videos lead to a website with an article making the same comparison with Scientology and in doing so highlights much of what is suspect about the organisation. As an entity, it is a fascinating case study for it seems to demonstrate all of what is wrong with Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in a hyper-real fashion. One tactic regularly carried out by the organisation is to white-wash criticism and they have worked their Wikipedia entry countless times. For anyone who reads anti-China, or anti-Russia articles on the Independent or Guardian, their behaviour will be familiar. NKT followers troll sites that criticise any aspect of their tradition and shout as loudly as possible whilst posting links to their own highly politicised website, spookily named ‘NKT Truth’: George Orwell must be shivering in his grave.

(more…)