Arahat

Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (2)

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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)

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‘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…)

Phenomenology of Awakening (Buddhist Geeks 2014?)

This is a video submission that I made for the Buddhist Geeks conference, 2014. The transcript is below with a couple of modifications. if you like this blog, or the ideas contained within the video, perhaps you would consider voting for my submission over at the BGs website, which will contribute to my talk being accepted. Thanks.

www.buddhistgeeks.com conference & submissions

“With all this talk of technology and science, with all the attention being given to Mindfulness, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Buddhism has sort of gone main-stream, and found its place in the world as simply an aid for modern, stressful lives.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not so interested in uniting my consciousness with my Twitter feed or becoming a more efficient worker: I actually got into Buddhism years back because of something much more radical: enlightenment, or awakening!
Kenneth Folk said at last year’s conference, how about “enlightenment for everyone”, or, at least how about enlightenment for more …folks. For that to happen, our conception of enlightenment: the what, the how, must be reconfigured and that’s what I would like to talk about at this year’s Buddhist Geeks conference, using a Post-traditional framework with elements of Non-Buddhism.
What happens for example if we bring Buddhism’s goal of a final end to suffering fully into the human sphere; to flesh and to bone, and to relationship with other.
What if we were to leave aside mystification, superhuman traits, and take a careful look at what enlightenment might mean if it were stripped of its specialness, no longer the magical pot of gold at the end of the concentration rainbow, but instead something quite tangible, human and real.
What if we were to leave aside insider terminology, so that it can be understood outside of Buddhism, using the local idiom, in our case, English?
It feels to me as if we started something with the “coming out” of Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram and others; but then got stuck. I think it’s time to apply a creative re-imagining of enlightenment as human phenomena, using innovative conceptual frames.
If such ideas might interest you, then maybe it’s worth having me over at the conference… at least for a bit of variety amongst the brain scans, tech talk and familiar Dharma VIPS.”

Compassionate action: documentary on the how

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Often a question arises, what does it actually look like, to enact compassion, to express and live Buddhist principles in a human life? Stories come down to us from historical sources, tales repeated and retold that illustrate miraculous events in a far off land in even further time periods. These stories were most likely put together to inspire followers, but for some of us modern day folks, they may fail to do just that, in fact, they may more likely do the opposite and leave us cold. Stories are simply stories after all.

Finding inspirational stories these days, we might choose to look to other sources. Charity workers, teachers, that rare political figure whose ideals produce real change, a scientist perhaps that invents a cure for something? Others are inspired by current Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Danniel Dennet, Michael Foucault  and other great thinkers might be someone else’s hero with their challenges to thought, belief and shared illusion.

I just got done watching an immensely moving documentary that impressed me very much and the story told is a true one. The events you see in the film are still taking place today with the quiet dedication of two remarkable people. It tells the tale of Phra Khru, an ex-policeman, ex-Thai Boxing champ, and current abbot in Thailand who takes in orphaned and abandoned children and raises them along with a nun, Khun Mae Ead. Both of these characters are exceptional examples of compassionate action: the real one, not the pretend super Buddha type. They gift life skills to kids and teach them how to live, take care of themselves and each other. It is a spectacular thing to see.

Tough love is how the two define their approach to these kids and one can only remain impressed and touched by the lack of grandeur, self adulation and reference to Buddhism that the two display as they quietly get on with changing these kids’ lives for the better. Buddhism is there in prayers in Thai, some meditation, but it is expressed in its most meaningful form in the genuine heartfelt prayers Phra Khru expresses towards these kids and it seems that they act, rather than as Buddhist prayers per se, as form for the depth of care and sincere wishes this man has for these lost kids.

I am often challenged by the question of how to care, how to do something that might be meaningful and helpful in this world beyond being a decent father, teacher and husband. Phra Khru manages to provide an example not through abstract holiness, but down to Earth realness and I cannot help but feel deep gratitude for this man and woman making a difference out there.

Highly recommended. Follow the link if you want to know more.

http://www.buddhaslostchildren.com/home

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (End)

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Closing Thoughts 

To be awakened is to participate in creative acts of engagement with the world in which we exist, including its historical and symbolic structures. If anything, that is the game we are called to engage with, if we awaken as human-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. After freedom is gained from the me-making self obsessions and their rootedness in layers of conditioned illusion, to communicate with other human beings may be understood as a recognition of that same potential in the individual, but it may simply be the earned ability to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once and speak successfully to both. For genuine communication to take place we can either baffle and amaze our interlocutor with our new bangles and jewellery, as some do in a sort of weak narcissistic act of parenting, or we can communicate to the individual as a resident of the world they inhabit and to the roles that they are embedded in. It seems to me that the image of the Buddha that has been passed down to us is of the latter model, even if it is a mock image. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may be quite awake, believe that the best means for them to continue the latter tradition is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. But, for others, and I think this is where a creative act emerges that is of greater value, a pushing through, or delivery of a blindingly sharp observation of alternatives that speak to the time we are in is the most powerful options available to a person who is actually able to see and who feels that drive to disrupt the norms of the status quo. Those are the voices that echo through history in a sense, that are more likely to produce actual change outside of a small circle of followers, or a shift in consciousness within a collective. This type of act, or dedication to pushing through the status quo is what is needed for any real change to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value.

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (6)

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Stage three: non-returner

The third stage of this model points to the elimination of desire and ill will, although frankly the idea that a human can exist without desire in some form appears deluded. If a human-animal had an absolute absence of desire, wouldn’t they be reduced to functioning as a human automaton? Isn’t desire also the wish to be free of physical pain and discomfort and to want the same for others? Desire is clearly a multifaceted concept. Expressing the want to end pain, to care for another, to learn, to understand, reach out, connect and so forth, are all positive manifestations of desire as human participation in the world. If, as has been proposed in the exploration of the first two stages above, awakening to freedom from suffering is about our ability to be full participants in the moving present and be devoid of the foundations for emotional and mental suffering, then desire and ill will necessarily concern the degree to which we participate in an open ended landscape of forms of feeling and thought, and human activity. Our ability to emerge into this open yet finite world is dependent on the degree to which the phantom-I has been destabilised and uprooted.

Stage three may then be envisioned in its foundational result as the destruction of two drives; impulsive grasping onto what is present or what we desire to be present, and pushing away or manipulation of what is present. This would make it the completion of the second stage. If there is a complete absence of these two tendencies, then we are basically left with a quality of sober, direct engagement with whatever is taking place. At this point, intent arises as a fundamental decision making apparatus and intelligent choices based on a measured response would ideally become the standard for engaging with the world. This re-emergence into the world is without the solipsistic impulse that defines those who are identified with the phantom-I. The question of how to help remains. If participation is in part to experience fully an unpredictable and un-cordoned range of sensations, then our experience as beings is immersed in those around us and their poignant plight: others who, like us, are human animals, all too familiar with suffering, confusion and the rest.

The third stage of this model may then imply the culmination of a sufficient amount of work on unknotting the layers of impulsive reactivity to stimuli that we might define in terms of attraction and aversion. As we release these knots we become increasingly cognisant of how those knots are formed and how they are linked to a need to sustain the phantom-I. These layers are individual, and increasingly collective. In peeling away the individual layers of self we find the collective, historical layers of self that are woven through our being. As we are rebirthed out of this knotty self, we release the basis for habitual repulsion and pushing away of sensations that do not fit our previously held list of what was and wasn’t acceptable, becoming less and less concerned about attempting, or for that matter, needing to maintain any particular state of being that might be dependent on external circumstances, and allow greater and greater freedom to be a natural expression of ever fuller participation in the moving and shifting moments and events of the days of our lives. As we open into that freedom we come to understand that to participate is genuinely to care and that to respond to the situation of the world is not really a choice. We have a duty to make this precious human life a meaningful one: one that reduces ignorance and suffering in the world. Non-returner could be thus understood as leaving the confines of the patterned, atomistic self behind which is reaffirmed through unconscious cyclical identification with patterns. It could mean that expressions of being are increasingly spontaneous and unbound. Before such ideas become new-age fantasy, it is important to remember that we are all bound and confined. Incarnate beings are by their very nature finite, conditioned, limited. Remember, there is no absolute freedom. Existence is conditioned and these paths, despite bringing a paradigm shift in the experience of being a human animal, do not lead to anything else.

Stage four: awake (arahat)

So, this is the final stage and the goal of sorts: to be awakened and live free within the confines of this world, this life and this body. It does not seem such a big deal after all and I cannot help but wonder whether the superlative descriptions, increasingly complex cosmologies, elaborate descriptions and subsequent social and political trappings emerge over time in Buddhism as a response to the question of why bother to go through all this. Dismantling the narratives onto which our sense of self is grafted is hard work. It places us into conflict with the roles and identity that are bequeathed to us by the society we are born into. It takes great effort to see through the claustrophobic walls of the phantom-I, and courage to attempt to consistently break them down. When we are birthed into a world where the suffering self is a collectively agreed upon modality of existence, albeit an unwitting one, the project of freeing ourselves from the matrix of interwoven webs of deceit, inauthenticity, entrapment, frustration, inequality, confusion, denial and the rest becomes an immense task: A dedication to shedding the false, and of deconditioning the emotional and mental patterns of being. Outside of monasteries, such a task runs to social norms and rules, against family allegiances and the education and economic systems.

I think that the reification of the awakened state has damaged what is a perfectly human and perfectly achievable phenomenon. In many ways, it is incredible how we as a human species have needed to elaborate a relatively simple conclusion into an immensely elaborate fiction. It is stunningly unfortunate how the machine of awakening that is Buddhism has become so incapable of actually freeing people and how in some cases it is even implicit in the act of entrapment. To be free of suffering is possible, to be awakened out of the illusion of separation from this world is possible and hardly such a big deal in the end. What is left is how to proceed afterwards. Can you make your life worth a damn? Can you contribute to reducing suffering and ignorance in the world? In a sense to be awakened is to be liberated into a full participation in the zeitgeist without you as an atomised self being the locus.

There are five final fetters to be removed. They are concerned with desiring specific realities to exist. The first two sound grand if we defer to the traditional terminology and the last must be contextualised:

  • Desire for existence in the fine-material sphere
  • Desire for existence in the immaterial spheres
  • Conceit
  • Restlessness
  • Ignorance

The knots of the self are fully undone at this stage and we no longer experience emotional or psychological suffering emerging from a locus of self. The suffering of the world is endless, however, and we are wedded to it. We no longer wish to fabricate experience as there is no longer a need to satisfy the phantom-I by affirming its existence through the maintenance of any sort of norm. Experience and its basis within sensations is allowed to exist on its own terms. These are the first two fetters of desire for a particular form of existence gone. Restlessness is addressed because it refers to needing to be elsewhere, or to force anything in particular to occur. Ignorance about the nature of suffering, impermanence and the nature of human existence is no longer an issue, but ignorance about so much else continues: how could it be otherwise? Or does any remaining reader believe in omniscience? Conceit concerning itself as it does with exaggerated claims and a high opinion of oneself seems misplaced here as a fetter, but perhaps it simply points further to the very human nature of this accomplishment and the fact that if there is any residue of self-importance emerging in response to perceived gains then that delusion continues to be a bedfellow and we are still fostering some special mini-me. This is worth remembering when meeting self-claimed enlightened folks out there.

The fourth stage results in centrelessness with ‘me’ losing its importance.

Closing Thoughts

To be awakened is to participate in creative acts of engagement with the world in which we exist, including its historical and symbolic structures. If anything, that is the game we are called to engage with, if we awaken as humans-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. After freedom is gained from the me-making self obsessions and its rootedness in layers of conditioned illusion, to communicate with other human beings may be understood as a recognition of that same potential in the individual, but it may simply be the earned ability to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once and speak successfully to both. For genuine communication to take place we can either baffle and amaze our interlocutor with our new bangles and jewellery, as some do in a sort of weak narcissistic act of parenting, or we can communicate to the individual as a resident of the world they inhabit and to the roles that they are embedded in. It seems to me that the image of the Buddha that has been passed down to us is of the latter model. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may actually be pretty much awake, believe that the best means for them to continue the latter tradition is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. But, for others, and I think this is where a creative act emerges that is of greater value, a pushing through, or delivery of a blindingly sharp observation of alternatives that speak to the time we are in are the most powerful options available to a person who is actually able to see and who feels that drive to disrupt the norms of the status quo. Those are the voices that echo through history in a sense, that are more likely to produce actual change outside of a small circle of followers, or a shift in consciousness within a collective. This type of act, or dedication to pushing through the status quo is what is needed for any real shift to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value to wider society.

Within Buddhism there are socially sanctioned means and avenues for expressing the compassionate drive to help others, and alleviate suffering in the world. The establishment of norms regarding the type of behaviour exhibited by a semi-awake, or awakened individual may be laid out for him or her. This gives social recognition and a meaningful role to the individual, as well as a clear direction and avenue for expressing the compassionate act. But what of those who do not exist within such solid social constructs? And what comes next? Two key terms reoccur again and again within Buddhism: compassion and wisdom. Compassion seems to provide a usable metaphor for proceeding after the dissolution of the phantom-I. Compassion can be understood as to be with another and able to comprehend their experience and their suffering and desire to help it end. Empathy is a natural sign of boundaries weakening between one individual and another and their experience and compassion appear to imply that we are able to connect well enough to another to know their experience. If the false self structure is dissolved, then the natural ability to be with others certainly must increase as a result. We may cease to suffer, but there is no reason to believe that we stop feeling the suffering in others. I would be highly suspicious of anyone who makes such claims. Wisdom may be in part not the ability to validate Buddhist themes, but an increasing perception of what is unfolding and what is important within a given circumstance through more complete and unhindered participation, and hopefully the ability to communicate to that.

Bibliography

Online Materials

“Alagaddupama Sutta: The Snake Simile” (MN 22), translated from the Pali by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight, 1 December 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.nypo.html  Retrieved January, 2013

“The Progress of Insight: (Visuddhiñana-katha)”, by Mahasi Sayadaw, translated from the Pali with Notes by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/mahasi/progress.html  Retrieved on Feb  2013.

Sharf, Robert. Sudden/Gradual and the State of the Field . http://buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/sharf/documents/Sharf2009.On%20Gomez%20Sudden-Gradual.pdf  (Retrieved, January, 2013)

Brahmagunabhorn, Ven. Phra. “Factors of Stream Entry” in Buddhadharma (Retrieved, January, 2013) http://www.buddhistteachings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Factors-of-Stream-Entry.pdf  (Retrieved: January, 2013)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_enlightenment#CITEREFWarder2000  (Retrieved: January, 2013)

Chung, Ilkwaen. Deconstructing the Buddhist Philosophy of Nothingness: René Girard and Violent Origins of Buddhist Culture. (2012) http://www.academia.edu/1593233/BuddhismGirardChung  (Retrieved: January, 2013)

Sapir, Edward. The Status of Linguistics as a Science (1928) http://www.bible-researcher.com/sapir1.html (Retrieved December, 2012)

O’Connell, Matthew. Post Traditional Buddhism: the quiet revolution? Part.2. Elephant Journal. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/11/post-traditional-buddhism-the-quiet-revolution-part-two-matthew-oconnell/

Print Books

Buswell, Jr, Robert E. (Editor). Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Macmillian Reference USA (2004).

McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press (2008)

Ingram, Daniel M. Mastering the Core Teachings of Buddhism. Aeon (2008)

Loy, David. Nonduality. Humanity Books (1988)

Brahm, Ajahn. Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. Wisdom Publications  (2006)

Wallis, Glenn. Basic Teachings of the Buddha. The Modern Library (2007)

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage (1996)

Journals

Pepper, Tom. “Taking Anatman Full Strength.” In Non + X Issue 8 (2013) http://www.nonplusx.com/issue-8/

Pepper, Tom. “Naturalizing Buddhism without Being Reductive.” In Non + X Issue 4 (2012) http://www.nonplusx.com/issues-1-4/

Bodhiketu, Dharmacari. “Stages of the Path: Stream Entry and Beyond.” In western Buddhist review volume 5 (October, 2010) http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vol5/

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (4)

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Fetters

n.

  1. A device, usually one of a pair of rings connected to a chain that is attached to the ankles or feet to restrict movement.
  2. Something that serves to restrict; a restraint: the fetters of tyranny.

tr.v. fet·tered, fet·ter·ing, fet·ters

  1. To put fetters on; shackle.
  2. To restrict or restrain: thinking that is fettered by prejudice

Within Buddhism, fetters are primarily discussed in the earlier schools of Buddhism and the term is typically translated from the Pali term samyojana into English as chain or bond. There are a number of ways of conceiving of them;

  1. Intrapsychic phenomena that tie us to cyclical, habitual states of being and experiencing
  2. Structures embedded within the mental and emotional layers of an individual bound to a cyclical, atomistic self
  3. Collective psychological and emotional planes which we are submerged in from birth

Phenomenologically, it might be better to define them as psycho-emotional patterns centred on the phantom I that are maintained through interwoven fictional narratives that are personal and historical, collective and ideological.

In any of the descriptions above, they are expressed or lived through habitual behaviour, thought patterns, feelings, belief patterns and assumptions visible and implicit, all entwined in conditioned sensory habits of perception. In the Pali canon ten fetters are identified[i];

  1. Belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-diṭṭhi)
  2. Doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā)
  3. Attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)[
  4. Sensual desire (kāmacchando)
  5. Ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo)
  6. Lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo)
  7. Lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūparāgo)
  8. Conceit (māna)
  9. Restlessness (uddhacca)
  10. Ignorance (avijjā)

These fetters will be discussed in conjunction with the awakening stage they are part of below.

It is interesting that fetters were originally considered not only very difficult to remove but to span lifetimes. This brings up a question regarding the ontological nature of emotion as many of the fetters are connected to feeling. What are emotions exactly? At a very basic level they are a form of energy that moves through the body. The primary emotions are shared amongst all humans and animals alike and since we are not in possession of them, it would seem that they represent a shared spectrum of energy movement.  From a non-dual perspective, emotions do not exist as independent objects to be afflicted with or as forces to be controlled: they are simply part of the fluctuation of human experience. The collective nature of fetter formation needs to be highlighted as it is very often downplayed in Buddhist teachings.

Our social reality is based on creating subjects, consistent persons that interact through reliable identities shaped from birth to adulthood. Identities that adhere to social norms in order to reproduce and sustain the dominant ideology, which is not a single fixed form out there somewhere, but more akin to a map that we are situated in and which we confuse for reality.

Due to Buddhism’s limited elaboration of the collective dimension of me-making, it is unable to provide sufficient means for breaking through our embeddedness in the collective me-making of our society, culture, generation, historical phase, etc. Because it cannot provide sufficient tools for addressing our collective self, it can only watch passively, or offer a Buddhist identity as an alternative means for navigating such terrain.

Finally, since we do not have a single conclusive definition of what mind is and considering that Buddhist definitions can be contradictory, we cannot objectively posit the fetters as truly existing within the structure of the brain or within consciousness. At this point, recourse to a phenomenological exploration of the fetters and how they are typically experienced by an average individual is the logical option if we want to take this model into consideration. A map is a map after all; it is not the geographical features it attempts to record. Taking a phenomenological approach, the question that arises is how are these phenomena experienced by people and how do we define those experiences in strictly human terms?

Stage one: stream entry

Taking nirvana as freedom from, the four stages can be defined in terms of what we progressively free ourselves of. In each case, the four stages signify a break from identification with a number of fetters. I will stray further from traditional descriptions in an attempt to establish a phenomenological reading.

The three fetters dismantled during the first stage are;

  1. Identity view/self-identity (personal, direct perceiving of the emptiness at the root of the phantom I and experiencing a profound destabilising shift as a result)
  2. Sceptical doubt (specifically regarding the truth of non-self, impermanence and its implications and the root causes of the suffering-self)
  3. Clinging to rites and rituals (recognising the role of the symbolic, disidentification from dominant symbols, losing enamoredness for solely symbolic forms, or the stabilisers of identity; usually accompanied by an appreciation for the role of direct experience over theory)

Identity view/self-identity

The first fetter is concerned with how we actively view the self. At a more instinctive or primitive level it is simply how we state ‘I’ and how that resonates with an assembly of interwoven narratives which solidify a sense of uniqueness that is special, separate from the world somehow and very much ‘me’. This illusion of a fixed, permanent self that exists apart from the world is connected but somehow separate.

This is the most important fetter to break with as it forms the foundation for all the other fetters. Gaining freedom from it requires that we free ourselves of this illusion and see clearly how the self as we thought it to exist is empty of any solid, fixed features, it is hollow and beset by spaciousness. The first fetter is an intrapsychic phenomenon and a form of psycho-emotional entrapment, as such gaining freedom from it would imply a major 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. Phenomenologically speaking it is to be experienced in the body through sensations, through the senses as clear perception, and piercing clarity of mind.

This fetter is the most important of all and represents the foundational break from an illusory I. Not only does it represent 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. Typically this is worded as sceptical doubt regarding Buddhist teachings. Shorn of Buddhism as a social construct, how does such a thing exist and dissolve for a person who 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? If sceptical doubt traditionally refers to the Buddha’s teachings, 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 Buddhism. Sceptical doubt then ought only to refer to phenomena that are directly visible and knowable in the world we inhabit. Direct insight into impermanence, the absence of atomistic selves, the nature of the suffering-self and the need for some form of ethical behaviour if we are to avoid creating unnecessary suffering are the best candidates and none are the property, real of otherwise, of Buddhism.

The opposite of doubt is faith. Scepticism on the other hand points to critical engagement. We must keep in mind that the fetters are psycho-emotional phenomena and are not restricted to intelligence and the rational mind. There are different forms of faith. Blind faith is a form of ignorance based on grasping at certainties and immaturity. I usually think of it as needing mummy or daddy to take care of you. Faith in its most basic meaning implies confidence and trust. Faith in the foundational truths of Buddhism can emerge through witnessing them at play within and without. This naturally flows from direct, experiential perception of the vacuous nature of our own form.

Clinging to rites and rituals

The third fetter is the most unusual, that is to say it clearly relates to forms of behaviour and belief and in its wording appears to imply religious or spiritual activity. I have always found this an odd occurrence to take place at the initial stage of awakening. Buddhism is abound with both rites and rituals so my initial thought was why would this be the case. In attempting to tease this model from the hands of Buddhism, I began to think about it differently. If the self is a narrative that is sustained by habits, in feelings, actions, thoughts and relationships, then what we have immediately is a sense of how to proceed. We are by nature ritualistic creatures, and rites might be redefined, not as exclusively religious or spiritual, but as the acts that we carry out to affirm and solidify the feelings, conclusions, sensations, thoughts and beliefs that make up the scaffolding that surrounds the phantom I. We engage in rituals collectively that have the same function of maintaining agreed upon ideas regarding identity and the range of experiences we can have, emotions we can feel, thoughts we can explore. We might not define them in such terms but any decent sociologist will tell you that society and relationships are ritualistic by nature. Seeing through such forms may lend itself to a radical liberation from the ideological prisons that make up our self-structure, absorbed and adopted from the society, familial circumstances and education that we were moulded by. This begins to sound a lot more radical than talk of how many lifetimes are left before the samsaric prison break. This view may explain why retreat is the preferred method for inciting the movement into stream entry, considering that such an environment requires a solid break from our everyday lives and isolation not just from distractions, but also the networks of interbeing that sustain our particular form of self.

Stream entry as metaphor may be understood thus. The stream may be thought of as the continuous and uninterrupted flow or emergence of being with the loss of these fetters leading to three distinct changes in self-identification:

  1. Self-referential conditioned & habitual being relaxes, and increasingly dissolves into an open sensorial merging with what is immediate.
  2. Confidence in this openness, in groundlessness and ongoing emergent being builds and undermines the returning echoes of the self structure that was previously inhabited.
  3. We lose faith in the ritualistic formalities of our existence, relationships and habits of self and can no longer maintain the status quo. Ideological allegiance becomes forced, difficult to sustain. Ideas of ideological purity fall apart and an open expanse becomes visible, filled with the projects of man.

What takes place within all this is an emerging and ongoing meeting between the infinite (emptiness, space, meaninglessness if you prefer) and the remains of our limited conventional-self. Phenomenologically, in achieving stream entry, we experience a flow of ever widening perception into the illusion of the self and selves, and are met with, for want of a better term, the remarkableness and open-endedness of being and inter-being. What emerges is increasing room to respond creatively to ongoing circumstances. This becomes possible once we have discarded the suffocating nature of self-referentialness and the obsessions and compulsions of the atomistic self. Along with all this, there is an immense reduction in the types of suffering categorised under the term dukkha and this brings us into line with the main promise of Buddhism.

[i]               https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fetter_%28Buddhism%29