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.
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.
Within Buddhist circles and literature, enlightenment is alluded to, discussed, reified, celebrated, but almost never achieved and when it is obtained, it is always by some long dead chap in the distant past. Even the Dalai Lama, Buddhism’s most famous representative, claims to have achieved no such thing, to be, in his own words, ‘a simple Buddhist monk’. Why is it that the crème de la crème of Buddhism should not have achieved Buddhism’s ultimate goal? And, if it is indeed so, what hope is there for the millions of other Buddhists spread around the globe? What is the point of engaging in Buddhism if Buddhism’s goal is unattainable? Either there is a problem with the technology employed by Buddhists, a problem with how enlightenment is perceived and discussed, or there is some form of deception going on from those teaching it. As Buddhism’s promise of redemption is apparently obtainable in this lifetime, unlike the post-death deliverance of the biblical religions, we should in theory be able to achieve it in this life, and in this time. We should be able to arrive at the same result as the original Buddha himself, otherwise what are we in it for?
The first step is obviously defining the thing and this is not so straight forward because enlightenment remains a doctrinal foundation amongst not just Buddhists, but Hindus and Jains, as well as an elusive topic of fascination amongst New-Age teachers, other ragtag individuals and groups. A lack of consensus emerges from these disparate groups on what enlightenment actually might be with definitions ranging from becoming your true self, to eradicating the self entirely. Even within Buddhism a range of definitions emerge regarding what it is, the impact it has on the individual, how it is obtained, what the resulting consequences are and who is likely to achieve it. Most Buddhists tend to either spout a very specific set of answers to these questions based on the stories they are told, or are simply ignorant and happy to leave the business of waking up to the specialists. For those less tradition bound, questions may naturally arise: what is to be made of such variety and how are we to know who has the right definition and indeed if one exists? How do the earlier traditional definitions from the Buddhist canon that were generally world-denying fit with modern day sentiments and ideas about spirituality as a means for living more fully in the world? These questions are fundamental in beginning to look at the range of cultures that surround Buddhism’s core aim and perhaps more than giving rise to simple answers, such questions can provoke a less naïve exploration of the wider implications of the role of enlightenment in Buddhist cultures and the tensions that may emerge as a consequence. Enlightenment is certainly romanticised excessively within Buddhism and spiritual groups in general and this allows it to remain a topic seemingly off limits to rational discussion and so it therefore remains in the realm of the speculative. At the risk of losing all that is special and dreamy, humanizing the affair may be the best step forward and that is what I will attempt below.
Considering that Western Buddhism, even in its contemporary traditional guises, tends to mash together a variety of historically conflicting views into a single, idealistic catch-all notion of enlightenment, clarity on the topic is elusive. Sticking with a single tradition’s definition and particular way of relating to the concept of enlightenment is one choice of course and likely the one that most committed practitioners of Buddhism take. Buddhism as presented by its consensus sustaining members in the West usually mixes together the no-self teaching with the true-self doctrine of Buddha Nature into one. Any respectable western philosopher will tell you that Buddha Nature basically implies the existence of a soul, which runs in stark contrast to the conclusions of earlier forms of Buddhism and in opposition to the philosophical conclusions of Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka school of thought. This essay avoids explicit certainties regarding the ultimate nature of things, or the truth status of cut and dry philosophical conclusions, Western or Buddhist, firstly because I lack any real expertise in either, secondly because I am more interested in the phenomenological nature of the thing and open exploration of how it may exist as a thoroughly human affair.
As Buddhist enlightenment has yet to be significantly explored by outsiders, that is to say, those with a total lack of investment in sustaining one view or another, we are usually left with arguments for a given tradition’s concept of the thing, or the task of investing our mental faculties in deciphering the wealth of literature on Buddhist Philosophy and trying to make sense of it all. The majority of Buddhists seem to accept what they are told on faith and will inevitably filter what they learn through their western upbringing, education and modern assumptions, which are likely polluted by Christian notions of salvation, transcendence and soul. As far as most western philosophers are concerned, they seem generally happy to remain at the level of the analysis of ideas, though ideas alone are not enough for those attracted to Buddhism as a means for addressing life’s core difficulties. Buddhism was always intended as something you do, rather than just believe. So for those who are curious and wish to explore it as a methodology rather than a religion, but wish for a less biased understanding of enlightenment, very little, if anything, is available in the way of sober discussion free of the rhetoric of traditional Buddhist views, or a western materialistic refusal to consider such possibilities as even out there, as potentially available to anyone with enough dedication to bring the thing about. When there is fresh discussion to be had, it so often devolves into overt mysticism and deference to ineffable results that are far removed from any seemingly achievable reality that a human might come to know in a human life and a human context.
Within Buddhist traditions enlightenment is reified and adorned in wonderful lyrical rhetoric. Our tradition has the answer and we know the true way is too often a collectively cemented assumption yet inevitably it is only the distant master who is speculated to have achieved such an exalted result, so followers are left with an odd predicament. They are told again and again how wonderful enlightenment is, how they must end suffering, they must become a bodhisattva and that they must achieve it all as time is running out and we live in a dark age, yet no one ever gets anywhere near it. The reason in part may be political and related to issues regarding transmission and hierarchy. It could also simply be that it is easier to encourage followers to focus on the more mundane, but no less intangible goals of Buddhism, such as seeking merit, positive karma accumulation or next life-time rewards, or perhaps worst of all, the allusive wisp of happiness. It may also be that teachers are simply carrying on as normal the tradition of leaving the most transformative aspect of Buddhism where it belongs, as a romanticised fantasy that acts to validate and cement the tradition, whilst ensuring the rabbit hole hatch remains firmly shut and business continues as usual. Having followers bamboozled by an abstract dream, rather than face up to the harsher truths of Buddhism and their consequences, if truly embraced, certainly avoids the destabilising potential of people waking up not only to the individual causes of suffering and ignorance, but also those inculcated by the tradition itself.
Mass market Buddhist meditation has emerged in its most accessible and commercial form in the Mindfulness movement, which avoids such lofty goals as freedom, and focuses on stress relief, pain management and the pursuit of happiness. It is all well and good to secularise meditation and turn it into a stress reduction technique deigned to be used by anybody (including unethical bankers and billionaires with suspicious sources of income), but as any sufficiently well read Buddhist knows, stress reduction has very little to do with the original motivation for engaging in meditative techniques within the multiple forms of traditional Buddhism. You can take the mystical and religious aspects out of secularised Buddhist meditation practices, but you cannot take Buddhism out of the history of secular meditation practice. Further, if any half intelligent person decides to take mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation seriously as an ongoing daily discipline, at some point they will start to realise that the techniques involved have more to them than simply making you feel comfortable in your current life circumstances. If Buddhism is to provide a meaningful exchange in an engagement with secular society that goes further than the commodification of a handful of techniques, it needs to be willing to expose its most sacred treasure to constructive and potentially disruptive outside criticism so that the walls of obfuscation that have been built up around it can tumble and reveal what is left. What may remain could be an answer to the never-ending dilemma of meaningless brought about through the project of modernity: a phenomenological response to how to live with the loss of ultimate intervention in human affairs.
In spite of the term enlightenment becoming a buzz word that has been used to sell endless books, seminars and visits from celebrity dharma teachers, as a central premise its actualisation is radical and does not lend itself so readily to commercialisation and pop packaging. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that definitions of enlightenment in Buddhism are so often superlative and full of mystique. The cold facts of dismantling our cherished notions of self and casting ourselves into the infinite embrace of uncertainty may simply be too uncomfortable and, more than ever, a direct affront to our self-obsessed, collective self-image. As the world becomes increasingly unstable though, and shared ideas of identity are undermined by global forces, the opportunity to shed the imprisoning nature of a fixed I, a fixed self, a stable narrative that gives sense and meaning to life, could theoretically become more easily available, and more than ever needed....