Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind. By Richard P. Boyle. Columbia University Press, 2015.
(This piece was originally posted over at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site run by Mr Glenn Wallis. No doubt it will eventually receive a fair few comments there, so go on over and join the scrap.)
In Realizing Awakened Consciousness (RAC), Richard P. Boyle, a retired sociology professor involved with western Buddhism for several decades, interviews 11 western Buddhist teachers and attempts to develop a theory of awakening with a straightforward model for understanding its core characteristics that leaves Buddhist terminology behind. Divided into 17 chapters with the first 11 dedicated to individual interviews with teachers, Boyle draws on his own sociology background and the work of a range of popular academics. The second section, by far the more interesting, develops a theoretical model of awakening, heavily informed by sociological theory, a first as far as I am aware, along with insight and theoretical support from a number of prominent academics including; the neurologist Antonio Damasio, psychologists Alison Gopnik and Daniel Kahneman, the linguist Derek Bickerton, and sociologists Peter Burger, Thomas Luckmann and Anthony Giddens. The book ends with Boyle making suggestions for further research and an acknowledgement of the limitations of his model. What makes Boyle’s work stand out from the usual x-Buddhist fare is his understanding and elaboration of social reality and the social self, which moves discussion away from an overtly individualised model of the self and the usual droll discourse of the ego as the source of all evil. In this regard, there is a potential link to the work of Mr Tom Pepper at Speculative Non-Buddhism (SNB) and his own now retired site The Faithful Buddhist, whose ongoing and laboured critique of ideology and ideological blindness amongst Buddhists (and pretty much everybody else) has proven so enlightening. Secondly, Boyle eschews a model of awakening based on the superman and constructs his model in alignment with theories proposed by the academics above. Will it be yet another celebration of the sufficiency of Buddhism? Will it talk of the ineffable, perfect goal of perfect awakening? Let’s find out.
Boyle states that his goal in this book is to “take awakening out of the obscure and somewhat opaque world of Buddhist teaching and cast it in a form that could be communicated to anyone” (P.216). This seems like a positive aim. Boyle claims to have had an awakening experience himself whilst interviewing the teachers so we can assume that it is contagious! The list of teachers interviewed includes a number of prominent figures from western Buddhism; Joseph Goldstein, Stephen Batchelor, Ken McLeod, Gil Fronsdal, Shinzen Young, to name a few. I have to confess to being utterly disinterested in hearing or reading further personal confessionals regarding Buddhist awakening or enlightenment, especially when they fail to go beyond the limits of current discourse, so my comments on the first section of the book will be brief. Some of the interviewees are happy to describe themselves as awakened, others are not. The point of interest is uncovering patterns within the narratives provided by the teachers and then stripping them of any super-natural or superlative qualities. Boyle does this by picking out three common features in their awakening experiences. The interviews are fairly uncritical, though Boyle does admit this himself in his conclusions. In a way, the interviews reveal how much nothingness is present in these people’s experiences, which is to say, in using a Buddhist trope, how empty their experiences are, but also how little value such experiences likely hold, at least initially, for the wider public. They are certainly filled with positive changes for the individuals involved leading to a very high degree of well-being, which I do not think should be discounted, although the conditions for achieving such an uncommon state of being do seem rare and inevitably limited to those who can afford the time and resources to reproduce some of the conditions seemingly necessary for your average Joe to achieve similar outcomes. Boyle generally avoids the political implications of his project, although some pages are dedicated to a reflection of the social implications of awakening and a critique of American conservatives.