Nirvana

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 (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.

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

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (3)

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Removing the exotic: English alternatives

The terms explored so far have been foreign to the English language and even when such words gain coinage in English, they cannot help but carry added flavour and nuances that obstruct a more neutral reading. I also expressed my dissatisfaction with awakening and have proposed two categorical labels to replace dukkha and atta/atman:

  • The suffering self
  • The phantom I

Although awakening may serve as a categorical label for the thing, there are two straightforward English words that could replace nirvana and bodhi. They are freedom and liberation; each made more useful in this context when the preposition from is added. To gain freedom from or liberation from helps us to define more effectively what the thing is and perhaps remains faithful to an alternative translation of nirvana suggested by Thanissaro Bhikku: unbinding[i]. If we gain freedom from then we can be understood to have unbinded from a thing, or a network of things, and from forms of quite specific entrapment, which can be identified and their absence tested. To ‘liberate from’ points to practical steps that can be taught, understood and carried out.

Waking up: initial revision

If legend tells us Gautama taught only one thing: dukkha and the end of dukkha, then we can honour at least the idea by drawing on the new terminology explored above to produce a simplified overview of awakening entailing the following:

  1. Gaining firsthand experiential knowledge of freedom from the suffering-self
  2. Ending identification with the suffering-self
  3. Recognising, unknotting and releasing the individual and collective lines which run through the suffering-self

We can understand these as progressive and accumulative acts of awakening rather than a single moment of a final breakthrough.

We can come to know directly the triggers of mental and emotional discomfort, dis-ease, dissatisfaction and pain.

We can come to know the structure and form of each of these experiences.

We can liberate ourselves from these patterns of experience, and we can become free of confusion about our existence and our relationship with the material world in which we are situated.

Phenomenologically, awakening in this framework is understood as a process marked by an ongoing experiential confrontation with the boundaries and lines of self.

Nikaya scheme of the Four Stages of Enlightenment

This map is elaborated in the Visudhimaga but the four stages or paths that it refers to appear in the Sutta Pitaka, one of the main teaching groups or baskets of the earliest Buddhist teachings that we know of, so it has a clear doctrinal foundation. It also continues to be used by Theravada Buddhists worldwide today, which at least implies that it has staying power. It has gained usage amongst figures in the alternative dharma scene too, including the godfather of Secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor. It therefore represents a connection between traditional and contemporary expressions of Buddhism. It is also the model of choice for the more adventurous of contemporary dharma teachers including Kenneth Folk, Daniel Ingram, Vince Horn and Shinzen Young, who are the champions of accessible enlightenment. Daniel Ingram is a key figure in breaking the Buddhist taboo through his book Mastering the Core teachings of the Buddha, which will likely become a classic one day for breaking ground. Each of these teachers is associated with Theravda Buddhism and in particular the Mahasi style noting practice.

As the model has four stages consisting of clear tasks to achieve, it lends itself to a pragmatic approach which explains why it is popular. The stages are accumulative and the tasks can be read as human achievements if we are willing to liberally translate the role of reincarnation assigned to each.

The Four Stages of Awakening

The model’s four stages are each qualified in two distinct ways and the name for each indicates a shift with regards to reincarnation, or defines the beginning and end of the path, so that we have the traditional four stages of:

  1. Stream Entry
  2. Once-returner
  3. Non-returner
  4. Awakened

These stages are accumulative and have clearly articulated changes that occur, which can be phenomenologically validated over time. Each stage involves the dissolution of a number of fetters, which are discussed below. Each traditionally signals a reduction in the length of the cycle of rebirth and it would make sense to take the degrees of rebirth, or lack thereof, as metaphorical. It does not change much if we do so if the goal is to understand the relevance and actuality of the thing in a lived, shared landscape of interbeing. We are left with a map for the sequence of fetters that are broken through in stages as we gain ground in dismantling the patterns that sustain the illusion of the phantom I.

As mentioned above, although this model emerges from a tradition with a keen eye to moral restraint, I will be exploring it from a perspective of non-duality without the accompanying denial or repression of emotions and sexuality. Non-duality in this context is initially the recognition that the basis for suffering is the phantom-self’s assumption that it is separate from the world it is experiencing.

When we take death to be an impending end that can occur at any moment, we are forced to recognise that life is always imminent and that we need to be in right relationship with what is taking place, now, rather than project onto desired futures, or be obsessed with sustaining a dead past. The idea of the long path to awakening is abandoned in this perspective so that a sober acceptance of immediacy and participation in the moving present can occur.

Participation in experience is limited by what is expected or feared. Another way to say it is that we are habitually lazy in accepting immediate events as an invitation to participate. By participate, I am not referring to conventional, socially sanctioned way necessarily, but rather to the experiential quality of engagement. Initially, participation means bringing all of our attention and sensory perception to the nowness of experience. The four stage model is a means for coming to understand the key obstacles that prevent us from doing this.

[i]                 A Verb for Nirvana by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/nirvanaverb.html

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (2)

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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 and 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 their spiritual capital, leading to a hierarchical 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.

The language and terminology we use daily, as well as in our attempts to explain uncommon experience, are shaped by the linguistic habits we have digested and habituated through the common discourse we have with others, with our descriptions and ways of talking about the inanimate world and with ourselves through our inner-dialogue as the chatter of consciousness. The same is true at the collective level. Groups however small or large develop their own internal dialects that shape, condition, open and limit the scope of discourse. As Edward Sapir the linguist observed:

‘We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.’[i]

Enlightenment

As far as Buddhism is concerned, it was likely DT Suzuki that first made this English word more widely known as a translation for bodhi or nirvana in the 1930s, although at the time he was translating his own Zen tradition’s term for the thing, satori.  This is important for two reasons; firstly, Suzuki was drawing on scholarly texts on Buddhism written by Westerners that had already adopted the term in the previous century. Secondly, it planted the idea of enlightenment as an instantaneous, radical, almost miraculous thing, in the minds of those Westerners hearing about this religion, from the romanticised East, for the first time from a native. The idea stuck in the western imagination and the word has been ever present since.

Enlightenment was not actually coined as a noun in English until the 1660s. In spite of there being much better translations, enlightenment persists as the most widespread term used to translate both bodhi (Sanskrit and Pali) and nirvana (Sanskrit), nibbana (Pali). It is worth beginning with an exploration of the term enlightenment to see whether it has any coinage, simply because of its omnipresent status in Buddhists circles and beyond.

Spiritual Enlightenment is a term that is primarily considered in its function as an abstract noun, that is to say, an intangible with no grounding in mundane daily experience, which points to why it is open to all manner of interpretation. Enlightenment does exist as a verb (to enlighten), as well as an adjective (enlightening), and therefore can be related to both action and the defining of experience. Dictionary.com provides us with the following definitions:

  1. the act or means of enlightening or the state of being enlightened
  2. Buddhism the awakening to ultimate truth by which man is freed from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations to which all men are otherwise subject
  3. Hinduism a state of transcendent divine experience represented by Vishnu: regarded as a goal of all religion

The initial problem with the Buddhism definition is its reference to ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘reincarnation’. The former, like enlightenment, is defined in a variety of ways by Buddhist traditions and is open to as much speculation, the latter is a topic of debate and incredulence in ongoing secular western discourse and is impossible to prove, so remains an ideological proposition. However you take it, resting at this level of interpretation, we are left with vague pointers to insider knowledge and a phenomenon that is beyond validation.

Apart from the issues that arise philosophically in building accurate descriptions of what it is that transmigrates, the whole notion of reincarnation risks a sort of romantic idealism that permits us to believe that secretly we will live on after death and somehow remain immortal. Letting go of reincarnation as a necessary marker for defining enlightenment allows us to have a more sober discussion of the immediate significance of achieving Buddhism’s goal as a human affair so reincarnation will be set aside as a possible factor in determining the nature, function and result of the thing.

The third definition is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it actually captures a commonly held perception amongst many Buddhists. Secondly, it manages to capture the sort of definition that pushes enlightenment off into the ‘light’ recesses of the unattainable; an abstract elsewhere phenomenon that makes discussing the human experience of it impossible. Switching to the verb, we get the following from Collins Concise Dictionary:

  1. to give information or understanding to; instruct; edify
  2. to free from ignorance, prejudice, or superstition
  3. to give spiritual or religious revelation to
  4. Poetic to shed light on

To enlighten is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object. There is an interaction between a doer and a receiver of the act of doing, which implies relationship and potentially, transmission. Points two and three could conceivably play a part in an eventual description of the thing, but they would need to be qualified. Point three is problematic because of the liberal interpretive possibilities regarding the word spiritual. Whereas religious can be clearly defined as in relation to the phenomenon of religion, spiritual leaves us with little to grapple with. What emerges is a shift from the abstract to the more tangible but a multiplicity of interpretation remains. Translation is problematic. Anyone who speaks another language will know all too well how difficult it can be to capture exact meanings when communicating complex or nuanced ideas and how idioms often don’t match up across languages, and therefore cultures. Verbs that are common place in one language may find no true equivalent in a second language, or exist only as a noun.

Bodhi has its root meaning in the verbs to awaken or to know. Interestingly, as it was translated into other Asian languages when Buddhism migrated, differences in meaning emerged so that in Japanese we have kak, which means to be aware, and in Tibetan byang chub, which means purified and perfected. The different regional translations of bodhi may have served to highlight an element of bodhi that was more pertinent to the time and social circumstances in which Buddhism was seeded there. Each term may highlight insight gained from those cultures in their own development of their unique expressions of Buddhism and its goal. This would suggest that in the West we ought to do the same and be very clear as to what we are pointing.

Initially, I will use awakened as a replacement for enlightenment as it is more tangible and faithful to bodhi’s root meaning. It is also a term that is increasingly used by the alternative dharma movement and can therefore link the work in this text back to those who are unabashed in claiming they have achieved the thing. Such folks include Kenneth Folk, Daniel Ingram, and Shinzen Young.

Awakening

To awaken exists as a verb and noun and relates to everyday experience as well as being a metaphor – we can wake up from physical sleep; we can wake up metaphorically from a state of ignorance. If ignorance is sleep, then to be awake is to cease to be ignorant. Such ignorance needs to be contextualised to mean becoming awake to one’s confusion, patterned habits and behaviour at a subjective level, and to the interconnected networks of relationships in society that lead and encourage people to be asleep to the conditions in which they live. The same applies to knowing. You can come to know how things are. You can explore different fields of knowledge and gain knowledge firsthand. In both cases, there are tangible, replicable processes taking place that can be understood by the individual and spoken of, elaborated and shared.

Awakening describes the process of becoming or of awakening into the nature of nirvana. From this there is an initial sense of process rather than a fixed goal.

Nirvana

Although nirvana may be associated with the idea of a perfect, blissful existence, it is not attributed such renderings in early Buddhist texts, implying instead the end or completion of practise through extinguishing the self. This appears to imply the annihilation of the self as the hub of human existence, but which self is eradicated? The loss of a self-existing, atomised-self cannot mean total annihilation of the person after all, otherwise the possibility of an awakened individual communicating with the world would never have be possible. If nirvana means the shedding of that which causes suffering, then there is a conflict with the body and our material existence. The notion of non-existence taken to its logical end means the body is the final piece to dissolve and decay before the evaporation of the embodied self. Meanwhile, the body, made of flesh and bone, is subject to the processes of erosion and decay that afflict all physical matter whilst existing in between the dichotomy of pleasure and pain. Physical suffering is an inevitable result of physical existence, so the suffering that can feasibly be eliminated during embodied existence is emotional and psychological, but not all suffering in all senses. To awaken from the suffering-self in practical terms must be concerned primarily with the psychological and emotional dimensions of being and their liberation from the characteristics of the suffering-self.

Death is revered in Buddhism and typically signifies the completion of the path of awakening and an opportunity to embrace liberation, or final release, but is it a release into non-existence? Turning off the light seems to mean just that when nirvana’s original meaning is explored. Although an honest reading of nirvana’s significance may lend itself to eventual nihilism, agnosticism may be a more honest position to take and one that reflects later Mahayana emphasis on buddhahood and the returning of the awakened individual in order to free other beings from the cycles of the suffering-self and collective ignorance that sustains it. We still have no idea what consciousness really is and to assume it evaporates at the moment of death is to display an act of faith. Either way, what is of primary importance is this life and our commitment to the world we inhabit for it is only there that change can occur.

The issue for those who take Buddhism’s claims seriously is to avoid holding out hope. An investment in the notion of buddhahood as supernatural being acts as a sort of cushion from the fear of being ultimately inconsequential and of the figurative and literal turning to dust which awaits our physical form and constructed self. Aside from being an act of faith, belief in nihilism seems to lead too often to hopelessness. We are not truly isolated, we are not truly atomised, and as consciousness inhabits an organic form in an organic environment, all of our acts are participatory and it is in participation that something meaningful may occur with the brief life we have. Motivation is distorted by the belief in continuation of the self and the nihilistic sense of meaninglessness, the wise choice being that we commit fully to this life in its finitude.

To remain incarnate is to do so as a creature that experiences itself as part of an ongoing collective existence and to awaken may free a person from the networks of the suffering-self as they exist within the collective but not isolate that person from those networks. Since the individual continues to exist as a human being, which is to say, is embodied and finite, the capacity to function in relationship to the world, the living animate creatures and inanimate objects that inhabit it must remain.

Is it possible that extinguishing the flame may thus involve birthing the individual into an ongoing experience of consciousness in which the atomised self no longer operates as a distinct operational force concerned with self-preservation? Taking this line of thought is problematic. I acknowledge this. It highlights how notions such as buddhanature may have evolved and how such a concept seems to imply some greater intelligence which is merged with and acted from. An alternative is to take the notion of extinguishing to be literal, but that would imply that bodhi is only possible at the point of death, or that one commits some form of suicide.

A further option is that we are part of a collective, a single species or entity that manifests itself through the multiplicity of human births in an evolutionary spiral towards some unfathomable goal. Perhaps it too easily becomes clear why metaphysics is not a central concern of earlier Buddhisms.

These lines of thought are problematic and rather than take Buddhist doctrine literally, or speculate on unanswerable questions, I will take it as possible to awaken to our all too human condition, to reduce self-referential suffering that based around an atomised self and that such a project does have value and should be made more accessible to those who are non-religious. The ontological issues emerging in this section are part of the motivation for exploring this topic phenomenologically.

Dismantling the phantom-I

Nirvana needs to be qualified, for we can only make sense of the world by giving it form and relating ideas to practice. Here it will mean the dismantling (extinguishing) of the structures and modalities of self that lead to psychological and emotional suffering and that surround the ‘phantom-I’.

We go through a self-making process following lines of becoming once we emerge into the world after birth. These lines are multiple and interwoven, consisting of;

  • family
  • the education system
  • societal values and norms (held within the prominent social symbols and dominant narratives)
  • ethnocentric concerns regarding power, race
  • class identity
  • the accompanying distortion of emotional and sexual expression that mark out the clan/s we participate in and stand against
  • the warping of our senses in order to adapt to the ideological lines that run through the dominant model of becoming that we are woven into

To peel away the conditioning that we adopt from these lines means gaining increasing clarity about the empty nature of the phantom-I and our identification with a false stable core.

Nirvana signifies ending the unconscious influence of these insidious forces, gaining insight into their structures and impulsive attraction and robbing them of their psychic hold. In this way, they begin to falter and their vacuousness becomes increasingly evident. At that moment, a symbolic resorting occurs and a new symbolic order becomes possible: one in which suffering is reduced and spaciousness begins to fill experience and allow room for creativity.

Dukkha

Dukkha is intimately related with bodhi and is probably best understood as an umbrella term for a variety of negative human experiences, most commonly translated as suffering. Some attempts have been made to find an alternative single worded translation with ‘dissatisfaction’ being perhaps the most well-known. Another alternative provided by the well-known Secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor is anguish, which he elaborates in his Buddhism without Beliefs. Any attempt at simplification though leaves out important elements of the concept of dukkha and although it is cumbersome to do so, indicating the range of afflictions that are encompassed within the term is vitally important. This is especially so as such a concept is the starting place of most forms of Buddhism through the teaching of the Four Truths. Furthermore, having a more complete sense of the meaning and significance of dukkha is vital to meditative practice.

As an umbrella term Dukkha might include the following: emotional and psychological pain and discomfort, confusion, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, the feeling or sensation of being incomplete, of being separate from experience, from the world and from others, the loss of what you have, separation from what you desire, frustration, depression, anxiety and existential loss. Further nuances could be added but this brief list develops the concept of dukkha beyond suffering as pain to include existential suffering, deep confusion about what and how we exist and relate to the world, and that perennial sense of things not being quite right, or complete.

As these forms of subjective suffering centre on a false self, I shall use the following phrase ‘the suffering-self’ to encompass all of the above forms of dukkha, but please do not consider this self to be only the individual’s affliction. It is helpful to consider these faces of suffering as shared realities that are a feature of our embeddedness in lines of interbeing, rather than referents to an isolated you or I.

[i]               Edward Sapir’s most famous quote: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000131.html