Month: June 2015

Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (2)


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)



‘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.