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)


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.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Reconsidering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (5)

It sounds like cheese, but it isn’t. So, what is a fetter? They are typically defined as intrapsychic phenomena. Intra- indicates internal, psychic refers to psychological processes. Fetters then refer to structures that are embedded within the mental and emotional faculties of an individual. Another way to consider them is as binding elements that bind us to the cyclical nature of habitual states of being and experiencing. Phenomenologically, it might be better to define them as psycho-emotional patterns embedded, or centred, around a phantom-I supported by fictional narratives. In either case, they are expressed through habitual behaviour, thought patterns, feelings, beliefs and assumptions both visible and buried, hidden under layers of conditioned senses. There is of course a clear relationship between our inner me-making and the social norms that affirm the I as existing and that support its maintenance.
Our whole social reality is based on creating subjects, consistent persons that interact through reliable identities that are shaped from birth to adulthood. One of the limits of Buddhism is that it fails to appreciate the collective dimension of me-making and therefore is likely 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 inadequately performs in the collective me-making field, it can only watch passively, or offer a Buddhist identity as an alternative means for navigating such terrain. Both are insufficient. This probably helps to explain why those genuinely invested in self-knowledge often end up in therapy, or simply leave Buddhism behind.
The self can be understood as a story that we tell ourselves: we refine, change trivial elements but basically maintain what is familiar. Since we do not really have a single accurate definition of what mind is and considering that Buddhist definitions are both contradictory and at times clearly wrong, it is hard, at least for me, to define these fetters as truths that exist within the structure of the brain, or within consciousness. At this point recourse to a phenomenological exploration of these fetters and how they might be experienced by an average individual is the most logical option if we want to take this model into consideration, because ontological arguments will likely lead us in the wrong direction as far as the purpose of this essay is concerned. A map is a map after all, it is not the geographical features it attempts to record. I shall take Bas Van Fraassen’s conclusions regarding Constructive Empiricism and take the Four Path stages as the most workable option I have for now for attempting to get at the thing, rather than an accurate representation of the truth of the stages of the path. Taking a phenomenological approach, the question that arises is how do these phenomena get experienced by a person and how do we define those experiences in human terms?
First Stage: stream entry
Taking nirvana as implying freedom from, the four stages can be defined in terms of what we progressively get free of. The three fetters are given as the following at the first stage;

1.      Identity view/self-identity (seeing through the self-making compulsion)
2.      Sceptical doubt (specifically regarding; the truth of non-self, impermanence and its implications, the root causes of the suffering-self)
3.      Clinging to rites and rituals (gaining sobriety on the nature of external form & its relationship to actual, direct experience/addressing dissonance) + (losing enamoredness for solely symbolic forms, or the stabilisers of identity)

The first fetter is concerned with how we actively view the self, or the I. We might simply state that the first fetter involves the illusion of a fixed and permanent self-existing I that is apart from the world, connected yes, but separate somehow. Gaining freedom from this fetter then would imply that we free ourselves of this illusion and begin to see how the self as we thought it to exist is empty of any solid, fixed features: it is basically hollow. As an intrapsychic phenomenon, that is as a psycho-emotional structure,  gaining freedom from this fetter would imply more than mere visual perception. We recognise ourselves as embodied through our senses and through our thoughts. Phenomenologically speaking it needs to be experienced in the body and through tangible sensations and not only understood intellectually, so that awakening from the illusion of a solid, separate self and perception into its mechanisms of support comes about through a unification of the sense fields, otherwise known as synaesthesia. It is as if we need to be convinced in as complete a sense as possible so that mere perception is insufficient. This fetter is really the most important of all. Not only does it represent the key Buddhist insight, but it opens the possibility of us viewing others, experience and phenomena as also being devoid of a permanent fixed self or 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 it override the delusion of an atomistic I pushes against so much of what constitutes our sense of self that it is easier said than done though. That does not mean it is not possible however, or something that needs to be relegated to future lifetimes or decades from now.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (4)

Removing the exotic: English alternatives

I am not a great fan of using foreign terms, even if they have gained coinage in English, as however you come at them, they cannot help but carry added flavour and nuances that get in the way of a cleaner reading. Asian terms in particular seem to hold an exotic allure. The two workable western terms that could be used to replace nirvana and bodhi, which emerge really without great effort, are liberation and freedom and are most likely useful in this context when the preposition from is added to both. To gain freedom from or liberation from provides a compelling basis for defining more effectively what the thing is and perhaps remains faithful to an alternative translation for nirvana suggested by Thanissaro Bhikku and once championed by Glenn Wallis: unbinding. The tendency to define nirvana as an absence allies it nicely with these two English phrases. If we gain freedom from identification with a separate phantom I and come to know that it is a socially constructed self, formulated within the lyrical forms of our place and time and entrenched in narratives that emerge primarily from our family, then we are released from the needs and concerns and obsessions that go with those levels of identity. We are left with the foibles and limitations of our particular physical structure and continence, our particular flavour of character and the genetic predispositions that make up our body, but we become free from the confinements of a network of historical ties that are part of the claustrophobic isolation that constitutes the phantom I.
What we ought to be able to make tangible eventually is an understanding of what is left once this form of freedom and liberation have been achieved. The human that is left with the aftermath of having obtained Buddhism’s goal will still be human, still be embodied, still be a psychological, emotional, social creature that partakes of all the same bodily functions as any other human. So what determines the usefulness of this attainment of actualised freedom from emotional and psychological suffering and is that a fair way to describe what has been achieved? Isn’t that it? Isn’t that the thing? What are you left with at a human level and how does that translate into a form of communication that may be useful in the ongoing struggle for greater justice, opportunity and freedom for the many and not just the few? I for one refuse to believe that it has to be a happy, shiny, smiley, geeky idiot that professes their great freedom to the world and looks out wisely and compassionately onto an inferior class of citizen. I met enough of those deluded individuals during the height of the New-Age craze in the 90s to know that they are full of something dark and pungent.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Post Traditional Buddhism goes Live

After realizing that times are a changing and that I seem to be the primary voice covering the topic of Post-Traditional Buddhism at present, I have decided to set up a dedicated website to cover this topic, so that the ideas related to this mode of engagement with contemporary Buddhism can be more easily found by those searching for alternative voices among the western Buddhist collage. My hope is that others will feel a desire to contribute to some of the sorts of deconstruction I am involved in that seeks to humanize Buddhism.

This blog will remain active, but hopefully, with time, will start to become an Italian home for Post-Traditional Buddhism; if I can find someone kind enough to help me translate the more worthwhile posts here. Although my Italian is pretty good, translating into it is beyond my capabilities, in fact, anyone who knows anything about translation will be aware of how challenging such  a task is, especially considering the nature of this blog. This process will undoubtedly be a slow one, and for now, posts will appear both here and over at my new website , so you will be able to access my writings in either location if you so wish.  

Come on over and see what you think.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration, Part.3


Moving to more faithful representations of the original terminology utilized within the earliest records of Buddhism, we find the two terms bodhi and nirvana. The oldest texts we have available within Buddhism are in either Pali or Sanskrit and our first word, whose form is identical in both languages, is bodhi.  This term’s primary meaning is 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 we have byang chub, which means ‘purified and perfected’ and as usual the Tibetans are prone to hyperbole. We can continue by taking awakened as a more accurate alternative to enlightenment, we then have something that is immediately more tangible and also more faithful to its root meaning. To awaken exists as a verb as well as a noun and relates to everyday experience as well as more generally with awareness – we can wake up literally from physical sleep, we can wake up metaphorically from ignorance. You can become awake to confusion and patterned habits and behaviour at an internal 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 and exist. The same obviously applies to knowing. You can come to know how things are within you and without. You can explore different fields of knowledge and come to gain knowledge firsthand. In both cases there are tangible, replicable processes taking place that can be understood by the individual and spoken of.
Like the majority of key reoccurring terms within Buddhism, bodhi is subject to a variety of uses. Its meaning is not fixed into a cast iron conceptual box, but serves different purposes within different contexts. It does get used synonymously with nirvana, our second term, but is perhaps best understood as either the experience or process of awakening, or the emergent processes that lead to nirvana (to be discussed below). Awakening then could be the first half of a two-part phenomenon and as such describes the process of becoming, or of awakening into, the nature of nirvana. From this simple definition there is a clear sense of a process rather than  a fixed goal.
Although historically and contemporarily there are cases of both gradual and so-called instant awakening, the latter may actually be a smoke screen of sorts with claims being precocious at best and delusional at worst. The whole idea of final vague ends, achieved instantly in a flash of spiritual wonder is problematic for obvious reasons and seems to ignore the complexity of the conditioned nature of the self and the dependency of our identity on our relationship with the world around us. The idea that you could disband all such webbing in a single moment seems delusional. Finality is problematic when discussing such highly subjective phenomenon, lending itself to abstraction and running counter to impermanence that is so central within Buddhism and which speaks to the constantly changing and shifting nature of physical reality. A sympathetic approach may also consider some forms of self-claimed awakening as partial in the best of cases, or possibly complete within a very narrow set of parameters.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration Part.2

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, in my view, to getting anywhere in an honest revaluation of Buddhism and its content and this is especially so as far as enlightenment is concerned. This is no small task as grasping at spiritual claims can be very seductive. The way we talk about enlightenment must be examined carefully if we are to make any sense of what it alludes to and the first step involves examining the terminology that is commonly used to define the thing. If the act of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment is a genuine and worthwhile human attainment that can exist as a tangible possibility, then it must be able to be defined outside of a religious or spiritual tradition’s idiom. The type of language that is so often used to describe spiritual enlightenment is bombastic, supernatural, and usually out of touch with the experience of the majority of the people within the traditions themselves. What’s more, enlightenment is often described as ineffable, but that leads to any 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 the indulgence in a division between those who know and those that don’t. Perhaps what is needed is not more blind faith, but simply a new way of talking about the thing. Rather than dismissive assertions that it is something beyond words, we can look at the key terms within Buddhism and see what they are actually pointing to and I shall attempt this in my own simple way. Traditional followers of Buddhism will likely find fault with some of my necessarily limited analysis, but I would hope that their critique is able to avoid being overtly filtered through their own institutionalised Buddhist idiom, and informed by thoughtful, independently minded critique.
Language and experience are almost always inseparable. Language acts to give shape and form to experience, as much as it shapes and forms experience itself. Even moments of formlessness are followed by the form of conceptual formulations of reflection on what occurred. That is at least if we wish to share that form with others and not isolate ourselves or keep as private our experiences of extended phases of clarity, open awareness and the diminishing of distances. The structure of the language and the 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 ourselves through our inner-dialogue, or as Mitchell Green, professor of philosophy at Virginia University, defines it, ‘the chatter of consciousness’. The same is true of course at a collective level. Groups however small or large develop their own internal dialects that shape, 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.

A prime intellectual weakness amongst many Buddhists is that they become bound by their own allegiance to codified norms of describing the phenomenon of Buddhism, their tradition, their teacher, their role within that tradition and ways of observing how relationships within their tradition unfold, evolve and are managed. Buddhists follow a religion that holds out hope of freedom, yet they do not seem to realise that when they sign up as Buddhists, they are actually entering into a potential new form of entrapment: one of ideas and perspectives. It might provide a more comfortable and more enriching reality than the one they left behind, but the self-referential nature of most Buddhist groups does not allow for such a conceptual possibility of confinement to exist and therefore questioning Buddhism’s assumptions, norms and its ultimate aim often fails to lead to discourse that might challenge the structures of their traditions and give rise to creative and original engagement. There is such certainty within Buddhist circles of their own truths and a sense of ownership of the answers to life’s great questions and it is such that they rarely peek outside the door of their tradition to check if this is actually the case and whether doubts, or lack of conviction by non-members are not perhaps valid. Followers are unwittingly duped and enlightenment remains as an ideological holy grail; a great promise held out in perpetuity. It is solid enough to guarantee unending devotion, ephemeral enough to never be fully grasped. Perhaps it is possible though to ignore such games and institutionalised behaviour and to come at the notion of enlightenment as a phenomenon of ongoing experience that can be examined, clarified, defined and reasonably understood. Perhaps then its actual value to both individuals and society may be examined, questioned and thought about more soberly. 

Friday, 19 April 2013

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration Part.1

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration

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 essay follows on from a previous article I wrote for the Elephant Journal, which attempted to give a positive overview of Post-Traditional Buddhism, an emerging form of modern Buddhism that is not embedded in traditional Buddhist structures. Below, I explore enlightenment, its popular terminology, and a simple and straightforward model for mapping it into four stages that hopefully works to demystify one of the core abstract features of contemporary spiritual discourse. I wish to continue to consider post-traditional possibilities in approaching the topic of enlightenment in Buddhism in an attempt at a sort of soft subversion of its central taboo. I will take Buddhist materials as sign posts, rather than definitive truths in this exploration, so this work is indebted to Buddhism, but I hope not overly limited by it. It is really an attempt to push at the constraints of Buddhism and find an increasingly human phenomenon that might leave behind the religious, and perhaps even the fuzzy notion of spiritual all together.
I, like many, feel that Buddhism has failed to evolve and live up to its original promise to show us the way out of ignorance, confusion and suffering, becoming instead too often a means for developing a Buddhist identity, or a much taunted basis for the pursuit of the ever ephemeral goal of happiness. It provides an immense wealth of invaluable material that can aid our understanding of the human condition, techniques and practices that can lead to insight and genuine breakthrough, as well as a moral framework that can guide an individual to be less destructive, but at the same time, Buddhism has stagnated in its traditional expressions, and in the West it has failed to evolve into a truly new and radical form on any meaningful scale Instead it has undergone cosmetic changes and evolved into more user friendly forms that generally result in what we might term Buddhism-Light. Rather than engage in a simple deconstruction of Buddhism, I am driven by a compulsion to push the phenomenological value of Buddhism into the shared, human landscape, unhindered by cumbersome institutional politics, and traditional ideological ties. I believe strongly that such ideas as freedom from suffering and liberation from the claustrophobic, fictitious self are possible. I believe we can experience immense care and empathy for other human animals and contribute to shifting the momentum of history in a better direction. For me, leaving such possibilities to Buddhism, or any other religion for that matter, is no longer intellectually viable, and it is possible that the further I go with my own reconfiguring, the more likely it is that post-traditional, will become post-Buddhism, but for now the link remains and the project of reconfiguring continues to prove fruitful.
For those who are unaware of the notion of Post-Traditional Buddhism, it means what it says: after tradition, outside of tradition, but not abandoning Buddhism. Post-traditional means engaging critically and utilizing other sources of knowledge to explore Buddhism, but more importantly, risking everything that is personally held dear about it to come to a more honest and authentic reading and engagement with it. It is an ongoing process and requires a dedication to examining the explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. Radical change as alluded to by the figure of the Buddha is possible and it is likely found beyond the norms and social boundaries of Buddhism and the identities that form within it. It is often forgotten that identity is in great part the problem that is being got at through Buddhism’s technology and that often followers confuse being a Buddhist, with doing Buddhism, and both of those with simply exploring the human condition and seeing a way to engage with it on terms different to those promulgated by whatever passes as normal in the time and place in which they exist.
A post-traditional approach is unbeholden to traditional notions of ownership over Buddhist teachings, but does not jettison Buddhism’s wealth. It does however refuse special claims or categories for Buddhisms, Buddhists or Buddhist insights and willingly expects the materials that emerge from Buddhism to be able to stand alone, without special faith, insider trading of special knowledge, or a privileged status to validate their veracity. Therefore there will be no allowance given to special claims of super powers, non-human attainments and ultimate or omniscient knowing, being, or otherwise: a post-traditional approach is unwilling to allow for privileged positions of apparent knowing to determine the direction of discourse, or silence critique. 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 regarding Buddhism’s goal are established and often act to limit creative and critical engagement regarding its obtainment, or lack thereof. Leaving aside such baggage, this piece hopefully builds a case for a sort of reconfiguration of enlightenment, in which its thoroughly human potential is made explicit. 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.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Big up Post-Traditional Buddhism


                               Part 2: Big up Post-Traditional Buddhism 

My new bride on the spiritual path is perhaps best defined as Post-Traditional Buddhism. A term I picked up from Hokai Sobol, who is a Buddhist Geeks associate. What a grand title that sounds. Yet, what it appears to imply in essence is the shedding of deference of authority for the path to traditional Buddhism, whether it be Zen, Gelugpa, Burmese, or Hokai’s own traditional roots, Shingon Buddhism. Emerging Western Buddhism that is post-traditional is in a very early stage of birth. What follows is my own understanding of this emerging phenomenon. Others will no doubt be wiser on this topic, but for now too few voices are discussing it in the public sphere, so, not one to fear for my safety, I’ll dive straight on in and do my best to paint a rather challenging picture with words.

It appears that the pregnancy started in earnest in the 1960s, although it seems to me that the birth has only really begun to take place in this century. Whereas Western Buddhism defines any form of Buddhism, traditional or otherwise, that is alive and functioning on western soil, Post-Traditional Buddhism is perhaps the most radical and accurate description for what is starting to show tentative signs of flowering in both North America and Europe as a response to the inadequacies of traditional Buddhism for a contemporary western audience. Secular Buddhism is one of the more well-known faces of this emerging phenomenon. Though most often this disconnected movement towards a radical re-engagement with Buddhism is found in very small pockets of physically disconnected individuals, couples and groups who are connecting primarily through the Internet and through informal meetings. Some of them came together at the Buddhist Geeks conferences in 2012 and 2011, but rumours abound that they were infiltrated by many traditional Buddhist buddies. In fact a key feature of Post-Traditional Buddhism is the mixing of old and new. Post-Traditional Buddhism is built on the work that has come before it.

Interestingly, many of the shared themes emerging within this movement seem to represent a push by a new generation of practitioners willing to engage with many of the issues which are central to the evolution of society as a whole at this time, and many of which take up the central issues concerning post-modernity. Post-modern thought seems to me to be central to the rewiring that is occurring in these informal exchanges and elaborations. The sanctity of ultimate truth, the rules of engagement handed down through traditional structures, the structures of power that are seemingly inherent within institutionalised Buddhism are put to the guillotine by Post-Traditional Buddhists in a symbolic act of reclaiming the bare bones of knowing and experiencing.

It seems that the more intellectually leaning members of this movement are concerned with bringing together not just science and its analysis of meditational results, but the Western intellectual tradition - from philosophy to linguistics, to the political sciences and sociology - to bear on the interpretation and working of Buddhism and its beliefs, core tenets and practices. This in my opinion is where the tastiest of morsels can be found. Whereas science may provide secular means for quantifying the value of meditation and its results, other academic fields challenge and destabilise the ideological ground of Buddhism, and in particular its traditional methods of delivery. Although science may convince a whole new generation of businessmen, housewives and school kids to practice secular mindfulness, those interested in the bigger picture of personal and collective transformation may benefit greatly from uprooting Buddhism from its traditional base of power in the hands of Asian teachers and exploring it under the light of existing and emerging sociological and philosophical enquiry.

Post-Traditional Buddhism is a concerted effort to move away from the hegemony of what Dave Chapman describes as Consensus Buddhism. Because of this, many of its features are a direct refusal to kowtow to traditional Buddhist forms and relationships. Post-Traditional Buddhists are not content to swallow whole the doctrinal proclamations of an exotic and powerful figure, whether Asian or otherwise. Post-Traditional Buddhists are independently minded and determined to work through the raw material of Buddhism on new and divergent terms. Post-Traditional Buddhists are usually individualists and are incorporating a relationship with knowledge and technology into their practice that mirrors the shift that has taken place in wider society through the arrival of the Internet. Sources are multiple, open, instantly accessible and dissectible. Post-Traditional Buddhism is not embedded in a foreign culture, or in a foreign language. Post-Traditional Buddhism is not based on lineage and the passing down of power and the ownership of exotic roles such as Tulku, Lama, Rinpoche and Holy One. Post-Traditional Buddhism is not based in a temple or a building which deliberately recreates the symbolic reality of another time and another country. Instead it is likely taking place near a computer screen, on the subway, or in the pub in multiple realities and possibilities. Post-Traditional Buddhism both criticises constructively and destructively. Post-Traditional Buddhism is very often results-orientated, but does not necessarily take traditional Buddhism’s definitions of the goal as accurate or realistic. Post-Traditional Buddhism is increasingly open source: accessed through blog, podcast, webinar and free, downloadable content, some of which may be illegal.