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:

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