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.
Dukkha is another key Buddhist term that requires explanation before going any further with bodhi as the two are intimately related. This term has traditionally been translated as suffering, which is not a bad term, but does leave out some of the primary elements of what was intended by dukkha, which really would be best considered an umbrella term for a variety of human experiences. Some attempts have been made to find a single worded translation that better fits the originally intended meaning. Dissatisfaction is perhaps the most well-known alternative, but if you prefer, there is another provided by the well-known Secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, who opted for anguish in his Buddhism without Beliefs. These attempts at simplification leave out important elements and although it is cumbersome to do so, indicating the range of afflictions that are encompassed within the term dukkha is vitally important, especially as it is the starting place of most Buddhisms through the teaching of the Four Truths. It is also vital to understanding the nature of meditative practices to have a more complete sense of what one is confronting in the meditative and contemplative act. Dukkha as an umbrella term includes, as a minimum, the following: emotional and psychological pain and discomfort, confusion, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, the feeling or sensation of being incomplete, of being separate from experience and others, the loss of what you have or the separation from what you desire, frustration, depression, anxiety. Further nuances could be added but this list points to not just pain, but deep confusion about what and how we exist and how we relate to the world and that perennial sense of things not being quite right. For convenience sake, I shall use the term ‘the suffering-self’ to capture all of the above forms of dukkha, but please do not consider this self to be only the individual’s affliction. It is helpful to consider these faces of suffering as shared realities that are a feature of our interwebedness, rather than referents to an isolated me. Suffering is taken to be very personal by most of us and Buddhists are certainly no different but it is more accurate, and healthier, to see it as something we very much share.
Returning to bodhi. The Buddha apparently said that he taught only one thing: dukkha and the end of dukkha. That is to say, what the suffering-self is based on, and how to dismantle the its foundations, and awaken out of its blinding and binding affect. Taking this as a leap off point, a simplified overview of bodhi could entail the following:
- Gain firsthand knowledge of the experience of being free of the suffering-self.
- Awaken from identification with and participation in the causes of the suffering-self.
- Leave behind the internal hooks onto which the suffering-self attaches: no longer sustaining the basis for the suffering-self.
We might refer to these as the progressive and accumulative acts of awakening, rather than a moment of achieving some final breakthrough that expand to encompass the increasing complexity and vastness of the human predicament. Immediately something tangible and seemingly possible emerges from this simplification. We can come to know directly the internal causes of mental and emotional discomfort, dissatisfaction and pain, we can come to understand the structure and form of these experiences, we can come to know the means for moving out of these patterns of experience and we can come to awaken from our confusion about our existence and our relationship with the world. Awakening then may be the exploration and actualisation of these acts, rather than a divorced final prize or gasp of realization that separates you from the human sphere. It may be best considered not as a self-generated experience that is isolated from the process of engaging in and developing through a particular meditative practice, in depth questioning and ongoing enquiry, and a radical shift in our approach to experience. Awakening in this way could be understood as a developmental process filled with an ongoing confrontation, or friction with the boundaries that we establish to avoid experiencing what is unknown and that function to hold together the leaky-self. It may seem a very tall order for those who recognise how deep our embeddedness in an atomised self runs, though perhaps it is possible to get some sense of progress on the way, of meaningful breakthroughs that indicate a person is moving in the right direction and not simply caught in escapism of sorts or allegiances to new alliances that undermine the project of loosening and dismantling the suffering-self.
Buddhism has a range of elaborate schemes for determining the qualities of an enlightened individual such as the thirty seven factors of enlightenment and maps of the theoretical path such as the twelve bhumis, but perhaps they are best understood as a guide to what is possible, or desirable, rather than a definition of what is guaranteed along the way or that which must be achieved before the good stuff happens. If many of the maps and criteria in Buddhism are taken literally, then indeed waking up would be impossible because the effort required to become perfect in the manner indicated in these teachings is beyond any mere mortal.
If awakening is based initially on gaining firsthand knowledge of the experience of being free from suffering, it is a process that has some potential stages that, although not fixed in stone, may provide a sense of direction - a sign post of sorts. In my opinion, the Four Stages of Awakening provides such a model and may just be pragmatic and workable enough as a basis for outlining steps that are available to any serious and dedicated individual. But, before exploring a reconfiguration of this model, we need to examine the third term for getting at the thing, namely nirvana.
(Suffer - Burning Spear)
This third and final word has actually entered the English language and is typically used to refer to paradise, or some perfect escape. With its association through popular usage with pleasure and heavenly domains of experience, the term is likely to mislead curious individuals into believing there is that promised reward of happy-ever-after lingering at the end of a life of meditative practice. Although nirvana may render the idea of perfect, blissful being, it is not attributed such renderings in early Buddhist texts. It commonly implies instead the end or completion of practise through extinguishing the self, that is to say, removing the fuel that sustains its existence. This appears to imply the annihilation of the self as the basis from which we exist, but which self is lost exactly? The loss of an atomistic-self implies that we remain, but as a creature that knows itself only as part of an ongoing collective existence. We would function as a player who is free from the networks of the suffering-self as they exist within that collective, but would continue as an integral part of that collective all the same. Since we still continue to exist as a human being, that is to say we are embodied, we have to be able to function in relationship to the world and the living animate and inanimate objects that inhabit it. For sure this post-freedom state is sometimes reified, yet perhaps it is not as grand as all that, perhaps the fireworks do not ignite, the goddesses and gods do not sing our praises and we are left with nothing but infinite’s gaze. This gaze may represent a gap for Mahayana Buddhists, one that is best filled with compassion, or as I prefer to define it: active, encompassing care.
Nirvana implies the shedding of that which causes us to suffer first and foremost, but this sets up a conflict with the body. Taken to its logical end, the body is the final piece to leave behind because it is always susceptible to unpredictable bouts of pain from the common cold to a broken bones to debilitating illness. As the body is not supernatural, but made of flesh and bone, it is subject to the processes of erosion and decay that afflict all physical matter and so therefore exists in-between that dichotomy of pleasure and pain. Continuing to set aside supernatural abilities, the body cannot be excluded from the natural order and therefore will eventually fall apart. Physical suffering will always be an inevitable aspect of physical existence, so the suffering that can feasibly be eliminated completely remains as emotional and psychological. To awaken from the suffering-self then has to be focused on a discussion of the psychological and emotional dimensions of being.
Death is revered in Buddhism and often signifies the completion of the path and the opportunity to embrace liberation, or final release, but is that a release into non-existence? Turning off the light, seems to mean just that when nirvana’s original meaning is explored. What comes after is open to speculation, but what it certainly is not, is the opportunity to keep our favourite toys and say: wow, I did it. Although an honest reading of nirvana’s significance may lend itself to eventual nihilism, I am personally agnostic. I try to remain so without hedging my bets. That is to say, I have absolutely no idea what will happen at the moment of death to consciousness, but wish to avoid holding out any hope either way because it appears to me dishonest to do so and seems simply to act as a sort of cushion from the fear of being ultimately inconsequential and of turning to dust.
We are not isolated however and as we inhabit an organic form in an organic environment, this means that all of our acts are participatory and it is in that participation that something meaningful may occur with the brief life we have. If nirvana implies the extinguishing of the I, the phantom-self, then it has to be deconstructed through careful examination of its multiplicity of forms. This implies an enormous undertaking: a deconditioning of the absorbed self making process received from family, education, society, ethnocentric concerns and a distortion of emotional and sexual expression.
To remove the conditioning that we receive from external sources is to gain increasing clarity on aspects of the phantom-I that are embedded in identification with the inter-personal and relational aspect of being, and experiencing, handed down through the collective me-making process. Nirvana implies turning off the influence of those insipid forces, gaining clear insight into their structure, functionality and attraction and making sharp choices on how to proceed. The idea of nirvana is that by revealing such forms and seeing clearly and fully into their mechanisms they begin to falter and appear as vacuous. We become able to pierce through the illusion that surrounds the phantom I and eventually we knock over the house of cards and it falters and ceases to take centre stage, eventually dissolving, whilst remaining as a convention of sorts.
Part.4 to follow.
Part.4 to follow.