fetters

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.

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Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (5)

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Stage Two: once returner

These stages are positional anchors, representing markers on an evolutionary line: they are not fixed in stone. The second and third stages could be considered as a single stage as new fetters are not dissolved but weakened before being thoroughly abandoned at the end of stage three. At the second stage, there is a significant reconfiguration in the relationship with desire and ill will, the next two fetters on the list. It should come as no surprise that both desire and ill will – to be defined below – might require considerable effort to address as they are representative of the underlying forces of attraction and repulsion which drive all reactive behaviour, which is impulsive by its very nature.

The name of this stage indicates that an individual will be born just once more on completing it. Leaving aside reincarnation as continuity of consciousness, we must locate this title within a single lifetime. The way I understand this notion of returning once is that it refers to the recycling of habits and of cyclical existence within this lifetime. In disrupting the relationship with a phantom atomised self in stage one, the cyclical nature of habitual behaviour is weakened but not thoroughly abandoned. This stage may be likened to the increasing ability to shake off patterns of cyclical re-enactment of the interwoven narratives of self. If this stage is a line along which we move, then it would make sense to think of it as pointing to a progressive ability to step out of the cyclical re-enacting of the patterns of selfing that we did not entirely abandon at stage one. The completion of the stage would actually be the completion of the third stage with an end to reactivity. This would explain why stages two and three are partners in a long process of ridding ourselves of our blind impulsiveness and reactive patterns.

The consequence of achieving this stage is to be immersed more fully and openly, without constraint, into the stream of emergent being with an intensity of engagement with experience that is not self-referential. The result is that psychological and emotional suffering is greatly reduced. In fact, compared to what the average person takes as normal, the reduction in suffering is truly immense.

I think it would be useful to take a segue into locating this experience in a socially engaged environment at this point. Many of those who claim enlightenment or to find themselves in one of the stages of this model isolate themselves from the world or follow institutional lines which recreate the tradition they are part of. There is no reason to assume that people that are immersed in these lines have the practical know-how or intellectual background to engage effectively in addressing the world’s problems. This is another problem with the hyperbolic definitions of enlightenment and the rather frustrating claims of omniscience. In fact, the individual may no longer be reactive, no longer suffer emotionally and psychologically, but this does not automatically equate to intelligent engagement with the geopolitical and economic situations that are responsible for much of the injustice in this world. This may explain why for many of those who progress along these lines end up teaching the tradition they are part of because their mailing seem to be no intelligent alternative from where they are positioned, especially as so few people make genuine progress with this work and when they do there is little in the way of correspondence and peer interaction and critique. It is quite possible that a good number of semi-awakened and awakened people are actually quite dumb.

Desire

  1. (used with object), desired, desiring.
  2. to wish or long for; crave; want.
  3. to express a wish to obtain; ask for; request

n.

  1. a longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment: a desire for fame.
  2. an expressed wish; request.
  3. something desired.
  4. sexual appetite or a sexual urge.

What a paradoxical force desire is. Aristotle called it the ‘appetite for pleasure’ and Schopenhauer spoke of sexual desire as ‘the most violent of all desires’ while Bertrand Russell concluded that ‘all human activity is driven by desire’ which is accordance with Hume who recognised that ‘it is desire, along with belief, that motivates action.’ It may seem at first glance obvious that desire is problematic and religion and philosophy have spent pages and pages on the need to suspend desire in order to reach higher goals. There is good reason to be suspicious though of a general notion of desire as uncontrolled need or insatiable want, especially when it is conceptualised as some sort of disease or all consuming force. In exploring the fetter of desire in second and third paths, it is important to consider it phenomenologically rather than morally, and make a distinction between imposed ethical standards and the visceral experience of desire in its multiplicity. As desire is multifaceted, it would be wise to understand how it functions subjectively: How does it arise? What lifespan does a particular desire have? What function does positive desire have? Are desires static beliefs or a form of movement? What happens when you engage or disengage from a wave of desire? The most important question in the project of awakening might be articulated as: What does the role of desire have in sustaining, undermining or amplifying experience of an atomistic self?

A standard three-part categorisation of desire is made in Buddhism:

  1. sense craving; wanting sensory pleasure
  2. craving to be; wanting to exist, to be someone, to have experiences
  3. craving not to be; wanting to avoid existence, avoid pain, cease

The desire to control desire is paradoxical[i]. Historically, institutions have tended to control it, perhaps because of a fear of hedonism, hysteria and chaos. The highly moralistic view of desire betrays a profound absence of trust in the ability of individuals and groups to experience individual and collective desire in sane ways. It is no surprise that power and control have always gone hand in hand and that desire has long been seen as subversive and destabilising. Like all religions, Buddhism has a problematic relationship with it and all too often its language of desire is the language of suppression. The worst of all desires of course is sexual, as Schopenhauer claimed. The attempts to control it institutionally and at the state level continues to dog contemporary Western society and be a major factor in conservative religious societies worldwide. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so abhorrent and violent, especially towards women.

Perhaps though, the general consensus among conservative religion regarding sexuality is of little interest to our discussion here. Many of the holier than thou are the ones with the sexual hang ups and monastic orders are full of histories of abusive behaviour, so assigning sexual repression the label of holy or spiritual is at best deluded. If we set aside moral arguments and as adults agree that religion has no place entering our sex lives, when desire emerges as a fetter to be removed, the question arises – to what it is actually referring.

If a person has moved through the first stage of stream entry, desire is unlikely to be concerned with addiction or impulsive dependency, sexual, or otherwise. It is more likely concerned with the first fetter of self-identity and progression in the process of dissolution of the atomised self, coupled with an emergent need to locate ourselves within expanses of increasing boundarylessness onset by an initial destabilisation of the consistent experiential narrative of self. The list below reflects some of the existential desires that are woven through atomistic narratives becoming more apparent in stage two and resonate with the 2nd and 3rd forms of desire from the triad above:

  1. The desire to exist
  2. The desire to continue
  3. The desire to remain the same
  4. The desire to change as we would like, on the terms we set out
  5. The desire to be seen as we would like
  6. The desire to be loved and accepted
  7. All the other faces of the self seeking its own recognition, validation, and ultimately, survival

Phenomenologically, desire might be understood as a form of energy in motion. Within the form of being, a movement occurs including; pulling towards, moving towards, encompassing, merging, saturating, being saturated, splitting, holding, solidifying, and so on. As a form of energy, it has a lifespan which typically exhausts itself, as any hedonist well knows, and is by its nature relational. At its most basic level, freedom from desire could be understood not as the elimination of these movements and relationships but as freedom from identification with them, and freedom from the compulsion to drive or be driven by movements of human desiring. This allows for the possibility of being present within the whole range of human emotional/feeling movements without any form of entrapment within those fluxes. This is a saner route than the paths of avoidance or suppression, themselves a form of energetic play, which imply setting up artificial boundaries and in my view are rarely other than a self-imposed form of isolation.

Much of our desire is rooted in the urge to avoid experiencing a multitude of sensations that upset the delicate balance we seek to maintain over our limited range self. The immensity of the still moving present, which contrary to popular belief can be uncomfortable and destabilising, involves a particular loss of boundaries that occurs when the fictitious self is dropped for a period. It can be blissful, we know about this through contemporary Buddhist claims, but the unnerving aspects concerning lack of certainty is not, connecting us instead to the fear of annihilation, which is one of the rawest faces of the fear of the unknown both individually and collectively.

There is also the theme of raising boundaries between experience and sensation. As we engage in attempts at controlling or fabricating specific sets of experience and their accompanying sensations, so we attempt to control environmental possibilities in order to force or restrict what occurs. This happens primarily through the establishment of patterns that ensure consistency in the range of feelings and sensation we open ourselves to. The habitual behaviour of seeking to fabricate, control and avoid, limits our ability to experience an open relationship with potential experience so that we are overly selective. We are afraid of what is unknown and resistant to what is new.

Groups and societies function in the same way, with fear of the unknown being a powerful binding element for communities. Identity is not only informed by our particular narrative but is also bound up in group and societal identities and their narratives so that there are multiple core narratives that make up our identity. These might be best envisioned as narrational grooves; lines along which we are repeatedly driven. The deeper and more consistently tread the line, the more easily we slip into it.

The weakening of the fetter of desire is in a way a surrender of habitual conditioned responses to stimuli so that we are in a constant process of rediscovering experience anew and opening to what is unknown. This is in reality the naked face of impermanence, as things are never truly the same twice. Because we relate to people, places and experiences as if they were, we become lazy participants, hooking our attention onto habitual responses and to what is known, shutting out a great deal of what is happening around us in favour of reigniting familiar feelings, thoughts and reactions. How willing are we to experience the loss of solidity and certainty that this moving presents?

If movement is the nature of desire, then it is at heart a movement away from full participation in the moving present and the random and multiple experiences of life. It takes time to loosen, weaken and drop this fetter because the layers of impulses, aversions and fabricating tendencies towards what is taking place outside and inside are so well established, and further, mirror the same collective forces that we are embedded in.

Ill will (Byapada)

  1. a strong feeling that you dislike someone and wish them harm
  2. an unfriendly feeling : a feeling of hatred or dislike

A second translation for the original Pali term is malevolence:

  1. having or showing a desire to cause harm to another person
  2. having, showing, or arising from intense often vicious ill will,spite, or hatred

Ill will points to intentionality and aggression and encapsulates a variety of meanness. In its gross manifestation, it implies intending suffering towards others and therefore refers to an absence of care in our actions, choices, and thoughts. Ill will signifies malice, rather than simply reactive anger, rage or frustration.

In contextualising this fetter in the second stage of awakening, we need to understand its role in maintaining and sustaining the experience of an atomistic self. The majority of information concerning ill will in Buddhist literature addresses its immoral function and generally prescribes methods and techniques for managing it as an aspect of behaviour. As a fetter instead, we might ask a number of questions; how does it maintain the experience of separation between a sense of self and experience? How does it lead to a solidification of the atomised self? What is the result of weakening this fetter?

Ill will is sometimes understood as aversion, though this may be a somewhat limited understanding. When it emerges as a pushing against the external in order to assert the separate self, it does become a form of aversion. As aggression however, it is more closely linked to control and the desire to dominate an experiential space or relationship. In both cases, the underlying drive is to maintain the boundaries that hold together an experience of solidity.

Ill will is another face of desire in some respects, whether expressed as the desire to do harm, have harm be done, or act on aggression towards others. Ill will often accompanies the need to assert ourselves, our position and solidify. On another level, ill will is linked to an inability to cope with our sense of self being challenged, usurped, undermined, pushed, tested, hurt, which is to say, destabilised.

To weaken the fetter of ill will does not involve suppression but the release of the self-serving survival mechanism that has to do with maintaining dualistic divisions. If ill will is a form of aversion or domination, then to weaken this fetter is to increasingly allow the world into the inner subjective landscape, so that the atomistic boundaries of self and other begin to weaken.

There is often a sense that passivity is preferable to angry outbursts. The problem with this is that anger is, if stripped of its defensiveness and aggression, a form of fuel. Such fuel is required to produce certain forms of change. Fighting against injustice, defence from attack, breaking through apathy and passivity requires a healthy degree of force. Fierce passion produces action and cuts through complacency. As a form of energetic impulse, it can evolve and become harnessed more effectively as a richer active participation in what is taking place in the moving present.

Because these two fetters are weakened at this second stage, but not dismantled, the sense is that there is further work to do. Whereas stream entry implies breakthroughs, dismantling and loss, the second stage of the model points to continued opening to the insights from stage one and their practical application and the need to actively penetrate and dissolve the obfuscating networks of identification with self-affirming patterns of desire and ill will phenomenologically.

We co-arise with phenomena that are immediate. A substantial visible self is missing from that equation. In a way, what we exist as after completing these stages, is a symbolic self, a mirror of the time we live in, expressed through our own genetic makeup, proclivities and character leanings. How liberating to realise that we are all co-participants in the themes of our time and that the atomised distortion of being that we drag around is really not needed. How important it is also to realise that attempting to fabricate an alternative self or a re-enactment of an historical awakening is futile and in truth a refusal to engage with the time we currently inhabit. If awakening is to have value, it must be an awakening in this time and place, within this symbolic reality and through its symbolic forms, of which language is primary.

[i]   A Solution to the Paradox of Desire in Buddhism A. L. Herman Philosophy East and West
Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1979), pp. 91-94