Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Please follow this link to my primary website. All the new postings will happen there. I will no longer be using this one. Thank you:








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Thursday, 20 June 2013

Insights through Disruption: Buddhemes and Charism




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 (End)


Closing Thoughts 

To be awakened is to participate in creative acts of engagement with the world in which we exist, including its historical and symbolic structures. If anything, that is the game we are called to engage with, if we awaken as human-beings and not as transcendent super-humans. These creative acts of engagement are ultimately a form of communication. After freedom is gained from the me-making self obsessions and their rootedness in layers of conditioned illusion, to communicate with other human beings may be understood as a recognition of that same potential in the individual, but it may simply be the earned ability to see the individual simultaneously as a product of their world and as a free individual at once and speak successfully to both. For genuine communication to take place we can either baffle and amaze our interlocutor with our new bangles and jewellery, as some do in a sort of weak narcissistic act of parenting, or we can communicate to the individual as a resident of the world they inhabit and to the roles that they are embedded in. It seems to me that the image of the Buddha that has been passed down to us is of the latter model, even if it is a mock image. It seems to me that many traditional Buddhist teachers, who may be quite awake, believe that the best means for them to continue the latter tradition is to spread and sustain the tradition that has enabled them to reach the point they are at. But, for others, and I think this is where a creative act emerges that is of greater value, a pushing through, or delivery of a blindingly sharp observation of alternatives that speak to the time we are in is the most powerful options available to a person who is actually able to see and who feels that drive to disrupt the norms of the status quo. Those are the voices that echo through history in a sense, that are more likely to produce actual change outside of a small circle of followers, or a shift in consciousness within a collective. This type of act, or dedication to pushing through the status quo is what is needed for any real change to occur and for the awakening of an individual to be of any lasting value.
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 Mahayana 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. 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. Needless to say, these two would really warrant a further essay.

Concluding the experiment

In this essay I have attempted to reconfigure enlightenment taking Buddhism as the essential source and then attempting to shed some of the baggage that accompanies common attitudes towards enlightenment. I have been a faithful Buddhist Modernist in the way David McMahon has defined in his great book, by uniting disparate elements from different Buddhist traditions, whilst utilising modern thought methods for attempting a fresh look at a normally abstract phenomena. I have abandoned reincarnation and mentioned science too. In my case this has all happened consciously however and I have done my best to be true to my remit – to avoid any talk of special, or consigning any particular special category to Buddhism. I have utilised elements of Buddhism consciously and realistically do not see how it is possible to achieve the premise laid out in this essay for awakening without methods and observations that have proven to work and that have survived long enough to be available today and that emerge from Buddhism. Meditative techniques that derive from Buddhism are an effective means for developing clarity in awareness and thought and they provide a basis for exploring the key themes of death, impermanence and the suffering self and the phantom nature of the I. Buddhism is not a single authority on any of these topics however. It also fails in many regards to provide an adequate means for understanding the relationship between the individual and society, which is no surprise considering it emerged as a tradition over two thousand years ago when the world was a very different place.
I have tried to define enlightenment as awakening from and as freedom from specific forms of entangled suffering and illusion regarding the phantom-I. I have taken a model prominent in early Buddhism and utilised by some modern Secular Buddhists and reworked it to extract a view of four stages that may be loosely considered an overlay for a lived, human felt adventure, through which, increasing freedom is obtained as we wake up to the nature of the phantom-I, as it is, embedded in multiple structures of me-making. I have tried to make it clear that I consider it a perfectly human and perfectly possible endeavour and after all perhaps not as complex as it is traditionally made out to be.
This naturalised approach seems highly reasonable and functional, and a further step in removing the mystique that surrounds the romanticised interpretations of the path and lengthening of goals to abstract dream like distances, out of reach of mere mortals, where hence we can only dream of knowing. Such indulgent watching does not serve the purpose of reducing suffering, whether emotional, mental, physical or other. Only sober engagement and avid exploration will lead us into gaining clear insight into how we are in the world and how this world is and how the two interact and depend on each other and how we are both singular and collective beings and the causes of our suffering and the sustainment of that suffering is found in both

Monday, 20 May 2013

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (6)



Desire

With desire we find yet another problematic term, loaded with repressive and antiquated implications. Desire, attraction, lust are typically rolled out as the bad boys of the emotional and feeling realm and it is no surprise that such terms and their Buddhist definitions conjure up notions of chastity, sexual purity and other dull nonsense considering the Church’s influence still drags on insipidly here in the West. As anyone with enough life experience knows, passion drives action, attraction leads us forwards and lust as lustiness is healthy and a sane part of pleasure in this insane world of messed up ideas regarding sex and sensual pleasure. If we set aside moral arguments and agree that safe sex is healthy and a natural part of a healthy adult life, and that religion has no place entering our sex lives, then when desire emerges as a fetter to be removed, the question arises – to what is it really referring? Many of the holier than thou are often the ones with the sexual hang ups and naughty (abusive) behaviour, so assigning sexual repression the label of holy or spiritual is deluded. Perhaps the real issue is not rampant crazy desire for sex, or food, or the latest gadgets and so on, which are really manifestations of something deeper. If a person has moved through the first stage, desire is less likely concerned with simple addiction, but is instead bound to the first fetter of self-identity. The desire to exist, the desire to continue, as we are, the desire to remain the same, the desire to change as we would like, on the terms we set out, the desire to be seen as we would like, the desire to be loved and accepted, and all the other faces of the self seeking its own recognition, validation, and ultimately, survival, are where the real work should take place.
Desire is in great part related to what we are willing to experience as it is bound up with being obsessed with maintaining identity through the narratives that move attention and thoughts towards the past and the future. This movement of shifting attention is infiltrated by other desires for control, for familiarity and for confirmation of what is assumed, believed and often hidden, often subverted through distorted attitudes and assumptions. Much of our desire is rooted in the urge to avoid experiencing a multitude of sensations that upset the delicate balance we seek to maintain over our limited range self. The immensity of the still moving present, which contrary to popular belief can actually be uncomfortable and immensely destabilising when met, involves a particular loss of the boundaries that occurs when the fictitious self is loosened or dropped for a period. It can be blissful, we know about this through contemporary Buddhist claims, but the unnerving aspects concerning lack of certainty is often not. This is actually connected to a fear of annihilation, which is one of the rawest faces of the fear of the unknown that we avoid both individually and collectively.
 This approach to desire also encompasses the establishing of boundaries between experiences and sensations. As we engage in attempts at controlling or fabricating specific sets of experience and their accompanying sensations. We are also often involved in attempts at controlling environmental possibilities in order to force or restrict what occurs. This happens primarily through the establishment of patterns that ensure consistency in the range of feelings and sensation we open ourselves to. The habitual behaviour of seeking to fabricate, control and avoid, limits our ability to experience an open relationship with a greater potential variety of experience. We are basically overly selective and afraid of what is unknown and resistant to what is new. Groups and societies function in the same way with fear of the unknown being one of the most powerful binding elements for a community and identity is not only informed by our particular narrative, but is also bound up in group and societal identities and their narratives. Needless to say, there are multiple core narratives that make up our identity and they are drenched in history and ethnocentrism.
A valid criticism that is often aimed at spiritual folk is that they too often fail to realise that they are not necessarily obtaining any degree of genuine freedom or radical transformation when they engage in a new set of rules within an alternative spiritual community; formal, traditional, modern or otherwise. They are simply exchanging one identity for another. Does growth, change, transformation, healing, etc occur? In many cases it is likely. Unfortunately, most folk seem to be happy enough to take this redefinition of their identity and their new shared narratives as the be all and end all of exploring the dynamics of the self, existence, freedom and so on, and simply settle back into a new, more comforting form of the status quo in which the new improved version of self is better able to function. Ideally, shifting social roles and narratives provides the means for not only finding some balance and sense in a human life, but for more radical engagement with the edges of what it means to be human. Too often in spiritual groups there is an inability to recognise where blind spots occur, where certain sets of experiences, sensations are avoided and others are solidified collectively. Unspoken agreements on which behaviours are to be commended or avoided solidify over time into rules and regulations that instead of guiding individuals to learn and discover alternative possibilities in behaviour, thinking, feeling, and imagining, become a gated reality in which the full scope of radical breakthrough regarding ignorance and suffering and their causes ceases to go deep enough.
The releasing of desire is in a way the surrender of the habitual conditioned responses to stimuli so that we are in a constant process of rediscovering experience anew. There is a constant opening to engagement with the unknown in which the familiar reoccurs yet reveals a certain vivid uncertainty that runs counter to expectant perceiving. This is an odd concept in many ways and it is often coated in flowery rhetoric within spiritual literature. It is not necessary though to add additional flavours to a description of what is in reality a serious and honest acceptance of the implications of impermanence. Things are never really the same twice. There are seeming constants, but they are never exactly and precisely the same. Because we relate to people, places and experiences as if they were, we become lazy participants, hooking our attention onto habitual responses to what is known, shutting out a great deal of what is happening around us in favour of reigniting familiar feelings, thoughts and reactions.
Hopefully, it is clear that this releasing of desire does not relate to intelligent decisions regarding changes to life style, work, and necessary, pragmatic change. It really comes down instead to the willingness to experience the loss of solidity and seeming certainty that this moving present can bring up when experienced more thoroughly and without the certainties of our contriving behaviour and self obsession.
In sum, desire as a fetter may primarily be all about wanting out of full participation in this still moving moment and the random, multiple and unpredictable experiences of life. It therefore takes time to loosen, weaken and drop this fetter because the layers of impulses, aversions and fabricating tendencies towards what is taking place outside of our control are so well established, and further, mirror the same collective forces that move around and through us. If radical change is to be achieved, then happiness, bliss and joy cannot be sold as the only path fellows on the way. Letting go of desire may have as much to do with sobriety and facing reality and its loss of enchantment than it does with chasing after peak experience. Humility and sobriety often emerge as travel companions yet passivity does not need to accompany them. Rather than consider this reconfiguration of desire as an act of passive acceptance of everything as it is, we might see it as an act of waking up to the real circumstances in which we exist, whilst understanding the limits that are present in our lives and bodies. This may help us to see what is actually possible in this world and enable us to take real steps, rather than inhabit inner or outer lands of escapist indulgence in utopian thinking, daydreaming, or a resignation to hopelessness.