Thich Nhat Hanh

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (5)

8-ox-herding-ox-and-herdsman-vanished

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

 

 

The Eightfold Path: Right Action (2)

Image
Part two continues by exploring the themes of theft, sexual misconduct, and cruelty as the basic elements of unethical behaviour.
In exploring these three areas of unethical behaviour we might reach the conclusion that actively practising their opposites could be a good idea. Instead of killing, that is taking life, we might see that preserving life and creating the right conditions for healthy life to emerge are the logical counter. If we were to take this logical conclusion on board, then some of the ethical behaviour that I outline in part one would make more sense. With that in mind, let’s begin the next phase of our meal together.
Taking what is not given (give me my fork back)
Theft doesn’t require a huge amount of discussion. Outside of stealing and robbery and so on, it is generally an issue of being clearer in our choices. Taking paper from work, or stealing a pen from a shop due to mindlessly placing it in your pocket are both examples of taking what is not given.
There is a need to apply care to the small things. We are asked to be more present in how we are occupying the spaces we move in. Potentially unseen consequences to our actions can be countered by living with integrity and striving for impeccability in our actions coupled with conscious choices. In lateral thinking puzzles there is a classic scenario designed to see if you would return a lost wallet full of cash if you found it with no ID inside. Another concerns helping an old lady up the stairs, even if it entails missing your bus. Right Action is in great part the returning of the wallet, assisting that old lady and basically being willing to help when it’s needed. These are actually forms of generosity.
Greed is the opposite of generosity and a form of theft too. We may have money and feel the right to purchase whatever we desire, ‘I’ve earned it, it’s my money’, you say. But greed is all about taking too much. It is having a lack of dignity in what you consume too. We become like a leech, sucking the life out of the world in order to feed a mindless hunger for more. There are countless manifestations of this. Among the most topical at present are obesity and vulture funds, but perhaps bankers are today’s best example of taking too much. The 1% that has the vast majority of the world’s wealth is a blindingly clear example of why greed is wrong. For that 1% to own all they do, they have to have taken it from the 99%, and even though our economic system congratulates them for it and western society has legalized such behaviour, we all know it is wrong and bad for the 100% in the end.

Mindfulness of Phenomena (2)

  Image
‘(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.
‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world – to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.

Mindfulness of the feelings

Image
Mindfulness of the feelings
‘Feeling is present at every moment of experience.’ Bikkhu Bodhi
What does it mean to feel? We often take feeling for granted, never really taking the time to investigate what is really going on when we say we feel this or that. We often fail to appreciate the richness, complexity, and also potential simplicity of the process of feeling, and yet, feeling marks each and every experience we have, have ever had, and will ever have. Our beliefs, ideas, self-image, are all infused with particular ranges of feelings and we use our feelings to judge whatever takes place both within and without as good, bad, or unimportant. For many, feelings are the gateway to truth, to authentic understanding and self-expression, whilst for others, especially my grandparents’ generation, feelings are unimportant, a form of self-indulgence, perhaps even weakness. 
 Feeling leads to the formation of emotions, but feelings are not emotions. Feelings are the sensations we experience, and for mindfulness practice, they are the quality of sensation in the body and can be labelled simply as positive, negative, or neutral. This threefold category is traditionally applied to practising mindfulness of the feelings. That is we use our attention, our awareness, to observe how we have an impulsive tendency to react to feeling by labelling it as positive, negative, or neutral causing us to act accordingly. Feeling is rarely allowed to be as it is; instead it is subjectively made important, or unimportant. We charge feelings with meaning. Taking interpretation of what is felt as a determining factor in how we choose to go forward and act. Feelings actually function as an elaborate code through which we forge the direction our lives take.
Ultimately, separation between body, feelings, emotions, states and phenomena doesn’t exist. One flows into the other. They are profoundly interrelated. These categories though act as convenient method for defining experience and working with its more recognisable dimensions. The body feels for example, or rather we feel through the body, and emotions are felt within the body, and are accompanied by feeling. Emotions and other mental states are within the body, infused with feeling and directly related to phenomena. Our feelings are stimulated by the physical in the form of our body and the ‘external’ world. So, an important understanding to make clear here is that these four realms of experience are really not separate.

Mindfulness: Introduction

Image
For this section I have taken inspiration from Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is a spokesman and elder of mindfulness; a Vietnamese Zen monk, and international figure in promoting world-peace and civil rights. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace prize by Martin Luther King and he is probably the world’s most famous Buddhist after the Dalai Lama, although this certainly does not detract from the potency of much of his teaching. At times his works are seemingly geared towards the mass-market, but within his books are many real gems, especially regarding mindfulness, and he has been forthright in transmitting a heartfelt form of Buddhism to a much wider audience whilst making mindfulness popular and accessible to all.
Mindfulness is a rich and varied topic central to the world of Buddhism. It has become increasingly popular and widespread, being incorporated into hospitals, prisons, major businesses such as Google and Apple, and has been implemented in the cure of depression and recognised by the medical establishment for its validity and comparability with antidepressants. Much research has been undertaken on the beneficial effects of mindfulness practice and this has led to a great variety of books being published that extol its virtues, usually aimed at as wide a market as possible.
This is all great news and certainly needs to be commended. It is important though to consider the intent behind this popularisation of meditative technology practice as intent is paramount in shaping the experience of actual practice and the capacity for it to move us in one direction or another. Mindfulness used to manage difficult emotions and feelings, and mindfulness used to help one focus one’s mind in order to work more effectively are not the same as mindfulness used as an ongoing path for liberation, radical freedom and change.
Perhaps it would be useful at this point to make a distinction between Non-Buddhist Mindfulness and Buddhist Mindfulness, between mindfulness stripped of any overt Buddhist leanings, and of mindfulness practised within the Eightfold Path, or any path for that matter, with the intent of waking us up. We can consider the latter as Right Mindfulness for the sake of simplicity and this post.

The Eightfold Path: the Fourth Truth

BBB_ExplosionBlue
The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold path is the Fourth Truth and it features eight arenas of practice. They are all inter-related. They can be followed sequentially if one is so inclined, although each feeds and amplifies the others. They are taught sequentially in order to give a theoretical framework and a direction for developing a practice that involves all areas of our lives. 
The Buddhist path is very often a logical one. It presents a problem, a solution and a systematic model to follow for creating change. In this regard it has a lot in common with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Like CBT it requires effort, consistency and follow-through in applying strategies in order to stimulate real, lasting change. It is not the passive perusing of books, but a hands-on approach to systematically working with how we have constructed our subjective experience of the world and the dismantling of great parts of it in order to give rise to authentic, awakened living. When looking at the eightfold path it’s important to understand that ‘our Eightfold Path’ is both created through volitional action, and met, through discovering a naturally emerging way of living that is in harmony with the flowering of awareness and presence. 
The key to understanding this classic teaching is to view it as an integrated and inclusive model for bringing awareness and presence to multiple arenas and aspects of our lives. It is a reliable basis for starting out and for coming back to when things get a little too confused. It is also a mirror of ideals and the potential present in applying ourselves to this cornerstone of the Buddhist quest. It reminds us that when our general communication is out of step with our aspiration to be a better version of ourselves, it weakens our ability to be present, connected and open. It remind us that our mindfulness is impacted by the way we act and work. The Eightfold Path helps us to appreciate the interdependent nature of human experience and how unconscious behaviour in one area of our lives will have consequences for the others.

The 8 Arenas of the Eightfold Path
1. Right View: our general outlook, core beliefs, ideas about ourself and the world
2. Right Intention: decision making, intending, choices
3. Right Speech: our general communication, how we use language
4. Right Action: our behaviour, both habitual and impulsive
5. Right Livelihood: our job, way of working
6. Right Effort: how we use our energies, how we apply ourselves
7. Right Mindfulness: how present we are and connected to experience, authenticity, meditation
8. Right Concentration: gaining insight, wisdom, mental discipline, understanding