Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (6)


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.


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)


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 (1)


A post-traditional reconfiguration of Enlightenment

By Matthew O’Connell

“If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people’s thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way.” George Monbiot


This piece was written to fill a void. One that I see as being the denial of the more ambitious aims of Buddhism amongst many contemporary practitioners in the West, including those who self-define as secular and who share many of my own views and concerns. In this piece, I attempt tentative steps to resolve this by exploring enlightenment, its terminology in early Buddhism, and a model for mapping it into four stages, in order to demystify what is possibly the core abstract feature of contemporary spiritual discourse. I take a post-traditional approach and use Buddhist materials as sign posts rather than definitive truths, so although this work is indebted to traditional Buddhism; it will not be limited by it. As rich historical phenomena, Buddhism provides a wealth of valuable material that can aid our understanding of the human condition, including techniques and practices that lead to insight into our shared human condition and a moral framework to guide an individual to be less destructive. It also provides the historical roots for much of what we understand to be involved in the business of enlightenment.

This text attempts to push the phenomenological value of Buddhist enlightenment into the shared human landscape, unhindered by cumbersome institutional politics and traditional ideological ties, in order to construct an imagining of spiritual enlightenment that is rooted in our embodied, finite nature, and that has little concern for super powers and eternal salvation in Buddha-fields.

Post-traditional approach

A post-traditional approach means engaging critically with Buddhism and leaving all forms of traditional allegiance behind, whilst utilizing other sources of knowledge to explore it as human phenomena. On a personal level, post-traditional involves risking personal investments made in specific Buddhist narratives to come to an honest reading and engagement with Buddhism and its central tenets: an ongoing process that requires dedication to examining explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. A post-traditional approach refuses special claims or categories for Buddhism and its insights, and expects Buddhist materials to stand alone, without need of faith or a privileged status to validate veracity. Because it is post-traditional, this piece is an exploration unhindered by the social mores of any specific Buddhist community, where discussing enlightenment and claims to such are taboo, and where norms are often established that limit creative and critical engagement regarding its obtainment or lack thereof. Leaving aside such baggage, this piece hopefully builds a case for a reconfiguration of enlightenment in which its thoroughly human potential is made explicit and doable.

Mapping the way forward

There are multiple maps that lay out the route to enlightenment in Buddhism. Buddhist traditions have a habit of disagreeing which each other, so there are all sorts of potential outcomes that occur in the stories traditions tell themselves. Many Buddhist maps have turned the pursuit of enlightenment into a superhuman feat; others have made it into a form of increasingly inhuman self-control and denial. Many maps are extremely complex and worded poorly. I have chosen perhaps the oldest map to be found which has the great merit of being simple as it is set into four stages and is relatively accessible. There is a degree of tension in this piece though as this model comes originally from the Theravada School and I will be using a non-dualistic perspective more closely associated with later developments in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism to analyse and reconfigure it. The reasons for this will be made clear as the piece unfolds though this may seem a rather eccentric endeavour initially. What’s more, one might assume that the descriptive maps of meditational insight and progress are inseparable from the culture, time and place of their inception. Although in part this must be true, I find it motivating for it illustrates how in need we are of updated maps that are usable in our current cultural milieu. It may though simply be dismissive of the shared human landscapes that are accessed and traversed through meditation practice and the progress of insight. Suffering and ignorance are suffering and ignorance after all. Finally, since this text is conceived of within a post-traditional approach, anything is possible. It is along the creative lines of experimentation and daring that something of use may emerge and therein I shall travel. I do so unconcerned with the inevitable critique that may emerge from Buddhists following traditional lines of practice and community.