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.