Mind

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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Critical thinking, creativity & the problem with beliefs: The NKT, Rigpa and SGI

norbulingkashop_1132_manjushri_resize_800x1040_5f011772f1f655b0d91950f1e7b2fd43(Manjushri, the archetypal manifestation of wisdom)

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ Albert Einstein
The NKT is a pure tradition free from politics.Kelsang Jangdom

Belief
n.
1. An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
1.1. Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion: we’re prepared to fight for our beliefs
1.2. A religious conviction

We are all ignorant: every single one of us. Some of us don’t like to acknowledge this fact, but that doesn’t change it from being one. Even the brightest among us is blind to most of what takes place in the world. Ignorance may be obligatory; an indiscriminate factor of the human condition, but persistent refusal to engage with reality is not, especially when institutionalised. I think of certain forms of entrenched belief as voluntary ignorance. A person or group chooses to ignore facts, refuses to engage with reality, and sticks to their beliefs in spite of all the evidence. This is a problem we see primarily emerging from religious and political organisations and it will be no surprise that when these two come together, the situation worsens.

Religion is the hotbed of voluntary ignorance and Buddhism makes its own contribution with three organisations standing out; the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa and Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Each of these organisations has received ongoing condemnation, accusations of abuse, as well as ex-members speaking out in similar tones over repressive behaviour, groupthink and cult-like behaviours. The NKT is the only one of the three to have a large number of dedicated websites from ex-members countering the organisation’s public image and to be involved in political activity targeting and defaming the Dalai Lama, in spite of their claims to be apolitical and ‘pure’ as the tweet from Jangdom above shows. I shall link to websites critiquing all three organisations at the end.

Rather than write a piece pulling apart the ideological structure and network of beliefs of the NKT or SGI, this piece was conceived of so that it might provide some resources for people who are unable to contextualise the collective forms of delusion that these organisations engage in. When speaking to NKT members, some of whom are old friends of mine, I have become aware of the sharp distinction between belief and reality visible in their claims, especially when discussing their political agenda. This is coupled with a lack of critical thinking. The sort of dialogue that NKT followers use is fairly consistent and as I wrote in my piece on Buddhist Bullshit last year, after leaving the organisation almost 20 years ago, I was genuinely surprised to find that the way members talk about their organisation and themselves has not evolved much at all; it is still infused with the same sort of self-referential groupspeak, blind faith and ignorance that motivated me to leave in the first place. Interestingly, the way they self-define resonates very strongly with the language used by members of the SGI I have had dealings with as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who I was once foolish enough to debate with when they came knocking at my door.

It is possible that a good deal of alternative religious movements both within and outside mainstream religion are expressing anti-modernist sentiments of the like discussed in the works of David McMahan and Andrei Znamenski and certainly some of the forms of ignorance I talk about in this article are not exclusive to these three organisations. What troubles me is how these sorts of ignorance translate into abuse and aggressive self-promotion based on deception. Combine this with the evangelical nature of the NKT and SGI and the insular problems of an organisation and their behaviour becomes a public concern. The second reason for writing this piece is to illustrate the sort of distorted thinking that goes on in all of these organisations and the fascinating capacity of the mind to delude itself. My hope would be to better explain the mechanisms by which an individual succumbs to and then supports the action of an organisation which promulgates ignorance in the name of religion.

‘Religious belief by its very nature is problematic and presents many logical problems…which do not withstand rational thought.’
Margaret Placentra Johnston

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Collapse and Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Final)

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This is the last part of the Dark Mountain piece, which as I read it again after so long, appears rather forced. It reminds me of how much further I need to go in developing my writing skills and I am afraid to say that I am guilty of letting enthusiasm get the better of me at times, with this piece being one of those occasions. It is different from what came before in that it offers a couple of suggestions on experimental practices, so, read on at your own peril. As always, the link to Dark Mountain can be found here and click here for part one and here for part two.

A Possible Response

A clear theme that runs through to this point is the great gap. At the heart of our environmental crisis is the great divide. We are not able to feel our way across boundaries into primal modes of feeling the great other, and feeling with each other, and therefore we are constantly disconnected and alienated from our shared depths. We are confused on how to mate, not through sexual encounters, but through hiving at a level that bridges humans collectively to their environment as equals. The core principles in combating apathy and disengagement are empathic merging, compassion and care. I like to sum these up as a robust intimacy. Intimacy can be anchored onto externals, but it is best found in co-emergence. To be intimate with a process based lifeworld is to move within and through the spaces we inhabit with feeling and perceptual openness and receptivity. It does not imply being lovey-dovey, cosy and cushti, cute and nice. Intimacy is a feature of combat too. Ask any regular aficionado of boxing or MMA and most will speak of how fighting breaks through masks, strips away pretence, connects you at a raw level and sparks bonds.
The alienation spoken of here is painful. Some are born seemingly more sensitive to others and suffer it more, but there is no denying that our enforced detachment from each other into unfulfilling ritualised social practices harms. The wounds are collective and born by all those who switch off to their fellow species’ suffering, or who never come to touch wounds, or the wounded, with care. It is no wonder that we are so unable to feel. To switch onto the immensity of pain and suffering across all the animal and insect species is too much to bear. We must start somewhere though, because the stifling cocoon of self-preservation is really just a dead end. I see this work in very simple terms. It is a matter of maturity. Do we wish to remain infantilised or eternal teens, and avoid responsibility, or do we wish to accept that it is up to us to find relevant social practices in a changing world? As many of the first nation peoples ask, are we capable of being responsible for what happens to the next seven generations? Our governments and leaders certainly are not. Such a question does open a vast terrain of thought regarding duty, commitment and choice.

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Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Pt.2)

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This continues a three part post of a submission for the Dark Mountain. Part one can be found by clicking here. You can find out more about the Dark Mountain project by clicking here. On with it we go.

Radical Human Freeing into the World

The views that follow will run contrary to both traditional Buddhism’s general conception of itself, and the academic interpretation of Buddhist orthodoxies, for Buddhism like Christianity has many strands and families, each claiming its own superiority. This contrariness is deliberate. I will be taking a post-traditional view of Buddhism that situates the phenomena of Buddhist practice and ideas outside of enclosed Buddhist ideologies and into the shared human realm of experience, as much as such a project is possible. I will follow with a view into Animism, or better, new-Animism, as an alternative conceptual base for relating to the environment, then, finally, lay out two simple practices, one from each sphere, as invitations to readers to embrace a rawer relationship with what is immediate both in one’s physical and one’s sensory environments. Let’s jump in at the deep end of the pool.

Have you heard of spiritual enlightenment? Enlightenment in Buddhism has many faces, interpretations and tricks. It is simultaneously lauded and ignored. It is typically invoked as an illuminated carrot to be chased round samsara by believing bees, but, so few get a sniff of it, let alone a bite. Why is that? Enlightenment in Buddhism has long been a political tool. Over time, since Buddhism’s inception as human activity and history, it went from being a relatively straightforward affair, albeit one based on renunciation of much of what makes us human, to increasingly emerging as a shape shifting power held by the elite few. Such a delusional interpretation was adopted by Westerners seeking out new religious and spiritual experience, and even new father figures to save them, and it is only recently that the hegemony of the elites has begun to wane. Frankly, the idea of renunciation from the world is absurd, going against the facticity of our situated embodied condition. As was noted by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, we can never be detached from the world. We can only refuse its immediacy and push it away, but there it remains, hovering around us with its weight bearing down, pressuring us back into the flesh.

A new generation of seekers, strivers and sand treading folk have realised that outside of the ideology of the ruling classes in Buddhist circles and the myth of renunciation, enlightenment, or better, awakening, is a thoroughly human affair obtainable when not based on foolish attempts to escape the world. But if you are unfamiliar with such business, perhaps you will ask, awakening to or from what exactly? And you should ask. I am going to present some possibilities in order to open horizons of discourse and sharing. I shall from now on stick to the term awakening and not enlightenment for the latter refers to little that is tangible and that can emerge from the word itself.

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Collapse & Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain

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This was a piece I wrote for the Dark Mountain Project about a year or so back. It’s been hanging around gathering computer dust amongst other lost projects, so as it’s been a while since I’ve written anything for the site, I decided to post it here. The piece is long. I know this is unfashionable these days, but it is what it is. As it’s long, it will be posted in stages.

It is ultimately  a semi-creative piece as much inspired by Shamanic and Animist  thought and practices as it is by Buddhist thought that seeks to honour some of the ideas and themes over at the Dark Mountain Project set up by the author and ex-journalist Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine. If you want to know more about them, click here.

Here’s part one.

 

In the future, we may all end up being wannabe shamans and buddhas, striving to re-invoke the sacred after so much meaning and identity is lost during the slow dissipation of the elaborate human made world we once knew. We will remember scraps of practices and rituals, pasting them together in scrapbook form in an attempt to re-invoke our feeling-selves that have been severed from the brush, seasons and landscapes that our parents spoke of as the once normal. In our attempts, we will merge with rivers & streams, swimming amongst plastic wrappers and murky twists and turns, searching for some sense of purity amongst the lost innocence, our species no longer capable of dreaming itself in and out of the Earth’s breast, our gifted past tossed away by short-sightedness, solipsism, and species-centric arrogance. Some will stare breathless & frozen, whilst others will get on with the business of adjusting to what is immediate; some of these folk will be awake.

In Animism, empathy is king, whilst in Buddhism, compassion rules. Is it possible to embrace the depths of our collective darker ways and merge with their results without breaking in two? That is, are we able to tenderly immerse ourselves in the damaged landscapes that surround us and breathe with them as they are, and not as we imagine them to be? This is the spiritual and emotional challenge that twirls around the Dark Mountain. Environmentalists know the pain of opening to the seemingly bottomless sadness that faces anyone willing to sober up and look into the heart of our impact on the myriad animate and inanimate species that surround us. Delicate selves are usually not sturdy enough to withstand the dark sobering wind that rips through the heart and at innocence cocooned within idealistic cotton. What then is to be done? For surely the Dark Mountain is at heart a wake-up call, a sobering invitation to see the world as it is, and choose a response, rather than simply react. This type of call is not unfamiliar to certain forms of Buddhism, which has the recognition of suffering, often redefined as dissatisfaction or angst, at its heart.
We might consider that much of what has caused the Capitalist Consumerist destruction of the natural environment and its living breathing participants has not only been the objectification of literally everything, but such a system furnishing us with endless ways to avoid our own suffering, dissatisfaction and angst, particularly with regards to the unknown that surrounds us, that moves backwards and away into the past, and that flows open-endedly into the future. Much of the consumerist drive is an attempt to stuff a metaphorical hole within us with gadgets and trinkets and ideologies of infinitude or the old myth of father-figure salvation. The castration of meaning and of such concepts as sacred has left us with new questions that a materialist belief system cannot meet. The most apt philosophy for the brave new world is nihilism it seems. Perhaps though there is something worth exploring in the relationship between a spiritual tradition or two and the stark environmental reality in front of us? I want to suggest that Buddhism and Animism each have some central elements of knowing that can aid a sobering-up and a reconfiguration of our distorted ways of perceiving and inhabiting the environmental horizons in which we are situated.
There are sobering voices within the global Buddhist landscape calling for radical change in our relationships with the economy and the environment. David Loy, a prominent American scholar and Zen Buddhist teacher, has written numerous works identifying the madness of modern day Capitalism. His sharpest critique finds voice in a vision of the three roots of evil manifest collectively as ‘institutionalised greed, institutionalised ill will, and institutionalised delusion’ and he calls for a ‘social awakening’ in order to respond to them . There is eco-Buddhism, and the behaviour of Southeast Asian Buddhists that wait days for ants to pass instead of crushing them underfoot when cleaning and building, reflecting traditional monastic morality. Although admirable and worthy, the majority of environmentally conscious Buddhists stand in the same landscape as the environmentalists who hope that humans will eventually stop being so short sighted through choice alone and relinquish their own self-obsessions, and our blind collective trudge along familiar paths furnished by the reigning ideology of progress. Of course, this idea is confirmed as folly each year as politicians and citizens worldwide are all too happy to pretend the threat is way off in the future and that it is best to carry on as usual for as long as possible in the odd hope that nothing will ever change. It is funny how often our own creeds are lost on us.
When sobering reality arrives, it is rarely pleasant. A reminder that we have been sleepwalking and have literally wasted days, months, years of our existence living poorly and living submerged in warped delusional social practices. For some the reaction is hatred, anger, rage, for others it is internalised, leading to self-destruction or loss of anchors that might permit some degree of well-being. Both reactions can result in self-harm, yet if we are really extensions of the Earth herself, then what good does it do to cause further pain to the elegant forgotten lady we have taken for granted?
We like to think we are special somehow, distinct, both as individual selves and as a species. Yet we are not. Most of our existence is entirely unoriginal, probably all of it. Certainly the range of thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations that make up ‘me’ or ‘you’ are recycled and reflective of mass-feeling, mass-emoting and mass-sensing. We humans are in many ways a collective hive, or ant like, and in the grand scheme of things, equally fragile. We are incapable of existing apart from each other: a web of selves that build into localised story bound colonies. Even in physical separation our thoughts mirror a shared linguistic landscape and ideological allegiances, which means that true isolation and aloneness are impossible in any real sense. Images of such interrelatedness and inseparability between the many members of a species tribe often inspire bland claims of oneness and togetherness with resultant apathy or smugness. Although tribal cultures have been romanticised for far too long by those with spiritual inklings of the earthy persuasion, rather than do so, we might simply recognise that a good number of them do live within a vision of the world in which they are indistinct from the insect colonies with which they co-exist unilaterally, rather than hierarchically. That it is our failing to do the same has rendered us so dangerous and so forgetful of our place within an organic world order of co-dependency.

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The Eightfold Path: Right Effort

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Getting started

Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.  
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.