Pali

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