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.