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.