Religion and Spirituality

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

norbulingkashop_1132_manjushri_resize_800x1040_5f011772f1f655b0d91950f1e7b2fd43(Manjushri, the archetypal manifestation of wisdom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The following is my first attempt to define, describe and put together a view of the world from a non-dual perspective. It’s an experiment, so don’t expect too much. The language may be complicated for those readers with little background in Buddhist meditation, for others it may be inspirational or resonant with pre-existing intuitions. The language I use is increasingly coming from other sources than Buddhism and this is due in part to my desire to cease to replicate Buddhism in its frozen forms. Buddhism as I see it is not ‘Buddhism’ as that thing from the East, but rather a signifier of human potential, both individual and shared. The way I see it, we need to get on with waking up (see a past post for what I mean by this) and translating that into a modern vernacular that breaks from tradition whilst renovating it and making it relevant for this time and place.

Be aware, I write in spurts, squeezed in between family life, work demands and the pleasures of life. I could do with an editor on hand to highlight missing commas, repetition, inappropriate verbs, typos and the rest. If you spot such slips, make a comment and I’ll trim and snip. 

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by Capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming: modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, which act as lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality, there are two sources that tend to dominate contemporary discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum, and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion, but there are other ways to proceed in practice and conceive of the emptiness of being. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality, or emptiness, in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound up with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argument.

It seems necessary to me that once we work out what we are not, once we deconstruct, delete and deform the narrative self we are expected to mistake as ‘me’, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, what we are, and consider how our view of what remains determines how we build community, establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed and pursued. (more…)

Insights through Disruption: Buddhemes and Charism

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Insight through questioning: assumptions & buddhemes

To question is to disrupt. To challenge what is deemed as normal is to initiate dissention. Questioning pre-established positions, assumed knowledge and social constructs with questions that are both personally relevant and timely is one of the central elements of a fresh and independent engagement. Owen Flannigan in his The Bodhisattava’s Brain: Naturalising Buddhism has put together an insightful and refreshing take on Buddhism, which resonates in part with the Post-Traditional Buddhism experiment. Flannigan asks questions of Buddhism utilizing his background in naturalism that are not pro-Buddhist and that do not have the usual ‘loaded dice’ that Glenn Wallis speaks of over at his rambunctious blog. They take the form of the sorts of questions that I myself have posed, and they ask Buddhism to stand up to its own self-claims. That such an approach acts on Buddhism, rather than passively receive tradition as a river of prior knowing and expertise, is something that I believe needs to constitute a modern approach to any critical engagement with learning and knowledge, and in the case of Buddhism, practice. The notion of acting on and being acted on are central to a phenomenological reading of meditation as a radical technology and such an approach can be taken to Glenn Wallis’ rather revolutionary heuristic seeing it as a set of tools for ridding seasoned Buddhists of their shared assumptions through destabilising certainties and reintroducing them to the concept of impermanence as a reflection on existence, rather than as received wisdom.

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (6)

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Stage three: non-returner

The third stage of this model points to the elimination of desire and ill will, although frankly the idea that a human can exist without desire in some form appears deluded. If a human-animal had an absolute absence of desire, wouldn’t they be reduced to functioning as a human automaton? Isn’t desire also the wish to be free of physical pain and discomfort and to want the same for others? Desire is clearly a multifaceted concept. Expressing the want to end pain, to care for another, to learn, to understand, reach out, connect and so forth, are all positive manifestations of desire as human participation in the world. If, as has been proposed in the exploration of the first two stages above, awakening to freedom from suffering is about our ability to be full participants in the moving present and be devoid of the foundations for emotional and mental suffering, then desire and ill will necessarily concern the degree to which we participate in an open ended landscape of forms of feeling and thought, and human activity. Our ability to emerge into this open yet finite world is dependent on the degree to which the phantom-I has been destabilised and uprooted.

Stage three may then be envisioned in its foundational result as the destruction of two drives; impulsive grasping onto what is present or what we desire to be present, and pushing away or manipulation of what is present. This would make it the completion of the second stage. If there is a complete absence of these two tendencies, then we are basically left with a quality of sober, direct engagement with whatever is taking place. At this point, intent arises as a fundamental decision making apparatus and intelligent choices based on a measured response would ideally become the standard for engaging with the world. This re-emergence into the world is without the solipsistic impulse that defines those who are identified with the phantom-I. The question of how to help remains. If participation is in part to experience fully an unpredictable and un-cordoned range of sensations, then our experience as beings is immersed in those around us and their poignant plight: others who, like us, are human animals, all too familiar with suffering, confusion and the rest.

The third stage of this model may then imply the culmination of a sufficient amount of work on unknotting the layers of impulsive reactivity to stimuli that we might define in terms of attraction and aversion. As we release these knots we become increasingly cognisant of how those knots are formed and how they are linked to a need to sustain the phantom-I. These layers are individual, and increasingly collective. In peeling away the individual layers of self we find the collective, historical layers of self that are woven through our being. As we are rebirthed out of this knotty self, we release the basis for habitual repulsion and pushing away of sensations that do not fit our previously held list of what was and wasn’t acceptable, becoming less and less concerned about attempting, or for that matter, needing to maintain any particular state of being that might be dependent on external circumstances, and allow greater and greater freedom to be a natural expression of ever fuller participation in the moving and shifting moments and events of the days of our lives. As we open into that freedom we come to understand that to participate is genuinely to care and that to respond to the situation of the world is not really a choice. We have a duty to make this precious human life a meaningful one: one that reduces ignorance and suffering in the world. Non-returner could be thus understood as leaving the confines of the patterned, atomistic self behind which is reaffirmed through unconscious cyclical identification with patterns. It could mean that expressions of being are increasingly spontaneous and unbound. Before such ideas become new-age fantasy, it is important to remember that we are all bound and confined. Incarnate beings are by their very nature finite, conditioned, limited. Remember, there is no absolute freedom. Existence is conditioned and these paths, despite bringing a paradigm shift in the experience of being a human animal, do not lead to anything else.

Stage four: awake (arahat)

So, this is the final stage and the goal of sorts: to be awakened and live free within the confines of this world, this life and this body. It does not seem such a big deal after all and I cannot help but wonder whether the superlative descriptions, increasingly complex cosmologies, elaborate descriptions and subsequent social and political trappings emerge over time in Buddhism as a response to the question of why bother to go through all this. Dismantling the narratives onto which our sense of self is grafted is hard work. It places us into conflict with the roles and identity that are bequeathed to us by the society we are born into. It takes great effort to see through the claustrophobic walls of the phantom-I, and courage to attempt to consistently break them down. When we are birthed into a world where the suffering self is a collectively agreed upon modality of existence, albeit an unwitting one, the project of freeing ourselves from the matrix of interwoven webs of deceit, inauthenticity, entrapment, frustration, inequality, confusion, denial and the rest becomes an immense task: A dedication to shedding the false, and of deconditioning the emotional and mental patterns of being. Outside of monasteries, such a task runs to social norms and rules, against family allegiances and the education and economic systems.

I think that the reification of the awakened state has damaged what is a perfectly human and perfectly achievable phenomenon. In many ways, it is incredible how we as a human species have needed to elaborate a relatively simple conclusion into an immensely elaborate fiction. It is stunningly unfortunate how the machine of awakening that is Buddhism has become so incapable of actually freeing people and how in some cases it is even implicit in the act of entrapment. To be free of suffering is possible, to be awakened out of the illusion of separation from this world is possible and hardly such a big deal in the end. What is left is how to proceed afterwards. Can you make your life worth a damn? Can you contribute to reducing suffering and ignorance in the world? In a sense to be awakened is to be liberated into a full participation in the zeitgeist without you as an atomised self being the locus.

There are five final fetters to be removed. They are concerned with desiring specific realities to exist. The first two sound grand if we defer to the traditional terminology and the last must be contextualised:

  • Desire for existence in the fine-material sphere
  • Desire for existence in the immaterial spheres
  • Conceit
  • Restlessness
  • Ignorance

The knots of the self are fully undone at this stage and we no longer experience emotional or psychological suffering emerging from a locus of self. The suffering of the world is endless, however, and we are wedded to it. We no longer wish to fabricate experience as there is no longer a need to satisfy the phantom-I by affirming its existence through the maintenance of any sort of norm. Experience and its basis within sensations is allowed to exist on its own terms. These are the first two fetters of desire for a particular form of existence gone. Restlessness is addressed because it refers to needing to be elsewhere, or to force anything in particular to occur. Ignorance about the nature of suffering, impermanence and the nature of human existence is no longer an issue, but ignorance about so much else continues: how could it be otherwise? Or does any remaining reader believe in omniscience? Conceit concerning itself as it does with exaggerated claims and a high opinion of oneself seems misplaced here as a fetter, but perhaps it simply points further to the very human nature of this accomplishment and the fact that if there is any residue of self-importance emerging in response to perceived gains then that delusion continues to be a bedfellow and we are still fostering some special mini-me. This is worth remembering when meeting self-claimed enlightened folks out there.

The fourth stage results in centrelessness with ‘me’ losing its importance.

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 humans-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 its 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. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may actually be pretty much 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 are 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 shift to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value to wider society.

Within Buddhism there are socially sanctioned means and avenues for expressing the compassionate drive to help others, and alleviate suffering in the world. The establishment of norms regarding the type of behaviour exhibited by a semi-awake, or awakened individual may be laid out for him or her. This gives social recognition and a meaningful role to the individual, as well as a clear direction and avenue for expressing the compassionate act. But what of those who do not exist within such solid social constructs? And what comes next? Two key terms reoccur again and again within Buddhism: compassion and wisdom. Compassion seems to provide a usable metaphor for proceeding after the dissolution of the phantom-I. Compassion can be understood as to be with another and able to comprehend their experience and their suffering and desire to help it end. Empathy is a natural sign of boundaries weakening between one individual and another and their experience and compassion appear to imply that we are able to connect well enough to another to know their experience. If the false self structure is dissolved, then the natural ability to be with others certainly must increase as a result. We may cease to suffer, but there is no reason to believe that we stop feeling the suffering in others. I would be highly suspicious of anyone who makes such claims. Wisdom may be in part not the ability to validate Buddhist themes, but an increasing perception of what is unfolding and what is important within a given circumstance through more complete and unhindered participation, and hopefully the ability to communicate to that.

Bibliography

Online Materials

“Alagaddupama Sutta: The Snake Simile” (MN 22), translated from the Pali by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight, 1 December 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.nypo.html  Retrieved January, 2013

“The Progress of Insight: (Visuddhiñana-katha)”, by Mahasi Sayadaw, translated from the Pali with Notes by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/mahasi/progress.html  Retrieved on Feb  2013.

Sharf, Robert. Sudden/Gradual and the State of the Field . http://buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/sharf/documents/Sharf2009.On%20Gomez%20Sudden-Gradual.pdf  (Retrieved, January, 2013)

Brahmagunabhorn, Ven. Phra. “Factors of Stream Entry” in Buddhadharma (Retrieved, January, 2013) http://www.buddhistteachings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Factors-of-Stream-Entry.pdf  (Retrieved: January, 2013)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_enlightenment#CITEREFWarder2000  (Retrieved: January, 2013)

Chung, Ilkwaen. Deconstructing the Buddhist Philosophy of Nothingness: René Girard and Violent Origins of Buddhist Culture. (2012) http://www.academia.edu/1593233/BuddhismGirardChung  (Retrieved: January, 2013)

Sapir, Edward. The Status of Linguistics as a Science (1928) http://www.bible-researcher.com/sapir1.html (Retrieved December, 2012)

O’Connell, Matthew. Post Traditional Buddhism: the quiet revolution? Part.2. Elephant Journal. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/11/post-traditional-buddhism-the-quiet-revolution-part-two-matthew-oconnell/

Print Books

Buswell, Jr, Robert E. (Editor). Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Macmillian Reference USA (2004).

McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press (2008)

Ingram, Daniel M. Mastering the Core Teachings of Buddhism. Aeon (2008)

Loy, David. Nonduality. Humanity Books (1988)

Brahm, Ajahn. Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. Wisdom Publications  (2006)

Wallis, Glenn. Basic Teachings of the Buddha. The Modern Library (2007)

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage (1996)

Journals

Pepper, Tom. “Taking Anatman Full Strength.” In Non + X Issue 8 (2013) http://www.nonplusx.com/issue-8/

Pepper, Tom. “Naturalizing Buddhism without Being Reductive.” In Non + X Issue 4 (2012) http://www.nonplusx.com/issues-1-4/

Bodhiketu, Dharmacari. “Stages of the Path: Stream Entry and Beyond.” In western Buddhist review volume 5 (October, 2010) http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vol5/

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 (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

Post-Traditional Buddhism: the quiet revolution?

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(This is part one of an article on Post-Traditional Buddhism written for the Elephant Journal. Part.2 can be found here: Big Up Post-Traditional Buddhism)

Intro to the act

Imagine a giant golden Buddha statue sat in front of you right now. The Buddha’s golden gaze stares out onto an invisible horizon, expressing an out of reach wisdom and supreme intellect. His hands are clasped in unifying grace and his legs are perfectly placed in a lotus posture. The statue gives off an aura of graceful bliss, of wisdom, compassion and perfect meditational equipoise. Surely this image represents the quintessence of Buddhist iconography, its most transcendent and instantly recognisable form.                 
Golden statues are accompanied by exotic robes in most traditional gathering places for Buddhists. Incense is lit and golden bowls may hold offerings for imagined beings. Other more mundane objects such as zafus still draw heavily on Eastern forms, colours and shapes and each adds to that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that inspires warm feelings in the bellies of curious seekers, and quite possibly a smidgen of confusion. Seekers of one kind or another are still attracted by the exotic, by other, by the symbolic matrices that accompany religion, and most likely always will be as we are visual, feeling creatures.
Although not up to Hinduism’s standards, Buddhism has its fair share of rich visual display that acts to seduce the observer. Why is it that we are so drawn to symbols? Why is it that so many are drawn to religion, in this case by Buddhism, through rich symbology and unarticulated appearance? Perhaps in part, such exotic symbolism provides us with an alternative experiential environment, within which, we can explore different meaning-making systems, and feel free, to some degree, to shed the binds that adhere us to pre-existing, culturally normalised realms of being. The exotic provides us with a back door exit from our mundane existence, and further, from the pain and suffocation of modernity. The problem is that such an exit can lead us not to freedom, but to escapism and the adoption of a new identity, a newly fabricated self that reflects its new environment, both ideologically and behaviourally. We become new all right. Though we emerge as a false image of a distorted self that is framed in new jargon, hidden and stifled beneath the surface in a prism that distorts our own voice, our own knowing, and lack of knowing, through the lens of a Buddhist persona.