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.
Finally, before embarking on this linguistic exploration, I need to add that I consider Buddhism at times to be overtly interior and individualistic. There is at times a failing of it to move beyond the personal to the collective. I see enlightenment as being an initially interior event that shifts towards greater and greater concern for the world at large and a desire to engage creatively with it in ways that are meaningful. Creatively because being of service is often delivered in set modes of right and wrong behaviour that limit a creative engagement with the world and its many ills. The self-referential nature of some of the initial steps regarding enlightenment may seem a little too self-referential at times, but that is because an individual needs to get to grips with their own self-obsession before they can start to see more clearly the web of conditioned reactions and the range of limitations imposed on him or herself by their personal narrative and the embeddedness of their individual identity in the collective identity and that includes its meaning as a potential opposite to that society. Once that is dealt with, the value of personal liberation finds context only in a commitment to participate in the world, conscious of the inseparability that exists as a natural prerequisite for our existence.
Before jumping ahead to consequences though, we really need to look at how the term enlightenment is presently used. In Western society it has two distinct usages. In spiritual circles it is infused with mystical connotations and gets bandied about a lot as a buzz word to denote spiritual, special and ultimate, whereas amongst those who are unconcerned with spiritual matters, the term refers to an historical phase of shifting priorities and intellectual and political revolution in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries heralded by Kant as the search for new understanding devoid of religion’s heavy influence. It is possible to argue that the tension between rational and secular and religious and spiritual continues to this day and that within Buddhism it still plays a prominent role.
The word enlightenment did not exist in the Asian countries that Buddhism has migrated from and it was not actually coined as a noun in English until the 1660s. In spite of there being much better translations, enlightenment persists as the most widespread term used to translate both bodhi (Sanskrit and Pali) and nirvana (Sanskrit)/ nibbana (Pali). It is worth beginning with an exploration of the term enlightenment to see whether it has any coinage in opening up our discussion here, simply because of its omnipresent status in Buddhists circles and beyond.
Spiritual Enlightenment is a term that is primarily considered in its function as an abstract noun, that is to say, an intangible with no grounding in mundane daily experience, which points to why it is open to all manner of interpretation. For if it is removed from that which is tangible then it is relegated to the imagination. Enlightenment however does exist as a verb (to enlighten) and an adjective (enlightening) and therefore can be related to both action and the defining of experience. A post-traditional approach to the topic cannot blindly accept the assumptions or assertions of a given Buddhist interpretation, so therefore stripping language to its commonly held meaning can help us arrive at a less contaminated appreciation of a clearer reading of the terminology. So, how is the word commonly defined? Dictionary.com provides us with the following:
1. the act or means of enlightening or the state of being enlightened
2. Buddhism the awakening to ultimate truth by which man is freed from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations to which all men are otherwise subject
3. Hinduism a state of transcendent divine experience represented by Vishnu: regarded as a goal of all religion
Buddhist enlightenment here then is defined as ‘the awakening to ultimate truth by which man is freed from the endless cycle of personal reincarnations to which all men are otherwise subject’. The initial problem with this definition are its key claims of ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘reincarnation’. The former, like enlightenment, is defined in a variety of ways by Buddhist traditions and is open to as much speculation, the latter is a topic of debate and incredulity in ongoing secular western discourse and as it is impossible to prove at present that such a possibility is real, I will leave it out of the discussion here. However you take it, resting at this level of interpretation, we are left with vague pointers to insider knowledge and a phenomenon that is beyond validation. In spite of what Robert Thurman the celebrity Buddhist scholar may have us believe as a staunch supporter of the reincarnation principle, reincarnation is impossible to validate, so remains an ideological proposition. Apart from the issues that arise philosophically in building accurate descriptions of what it is that transmigrates, the whole notion of reincarnation leads to a sort of romantic idealism that permits us to believe that secretly, we will live on after death and somehow remain immortal. Letting go of reincarnation as a necessary marker for defining enlightenment allows us to have a more sober discussion of the immediate significance of achieving Buddhism’s goal as a human affair, and not as some eventual reward for our hard-working attempts to become perfect or an extremely nice person with impeccable ethical credentials, which sound suspiciously to me like a disguised form of parental adoration a la Christianity and God’s reward of paradise. Considering that the desire here is to understand the thing at a human level and as an achievement that is possible in this lifetime, reincarnation will be set aside as a possible factor in determining the nature, function and result of the thing.
The third interpretation is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it actually captures a commonly held perception amongst many Buddhists. Secondly, it manages to capture the sort of definition that pushes enlightenment off into the ‘light’ recesses of the unattainable, an abstract elsewhere phenomenon that makes discussing the human experience of it impossible. As a noun we are left with a considerable degree of abstraction. If we switch to the verb, we get the following from the paper edition of the Collins Concise Dictionary:
- to give information or understanding to; instruct; edify
- to free from ignorance, prejudice, or superstition
- to give spiritual or religious revelation to
- Poetic to shed light on
Notice that enlighten is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object. There is an interaction between a doer and a receiver of the act of doing. Points two and three could conceivably play a part in an eventual description of enlightenment, but they would need to be qualified. Point three is problematic because of the liberal interpretive possibilities regarding the word spiritual. Whereas religious can be clearly defined as in relation to the phenomenon of religion, spiritual leaves us with little to grapple with, so although I like the word revelation in point three, I am left wondering what that would be and also whether it must always come from another person. This of course would imply transmission, a central element in many Buddhisms, but something that apparently the original Buddha was sort of against. What does emerge though is a shift from the abstract to a slightly more workable term in exploring the verb, although the nuts and bolts of the affair are still missing. Shifting from a noun as a fixed reality, state or manifestation to a verb as action and process appears to make sense and lead us towards the following more faithful representations of the thing.