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.
Buddhism of course has answers to these questions, but the figures within Buddhism that have become highly noble beings and revered in their traditions have almost always remained in their traditions with their social status confirmed and maintained in a way that normalised their behaviours. The exceptions to this rule are the minority, or established a new orthodoxy of their own in new Buddhist traditions, becoming idealised in the process. Their compassionate acts then emerge from a socially agreed upon context that allows them to fulfil that role, supported by the community. If you are not in such a tradition, how does such ennobled behaviour express itself without the support of a traditional Buddhist structure? This of course reminds us of one of the great benefits of tradition; it provides a social and cultural means for engaging in certain social acts, which may be either unavailable, or difficult to realise otherwise. Normalising the thing into very human terms might actually provide a means for the emergence in wider society of valid expressions of freedom from the suffering-self. If the emerging sciences of consciousness are able to validate eventually what occurs when a person breaks through the phantom-I and emerges as still thoroughly human, but radically free from the bundles of confusion and embedded distortions that constitute the suffering self, then creating a reasonable model of such an individual that is freed from abstract religious and spiritual claims in theory should be possible. What we might end up with is a means for first validating and then understanding and then finally providing a socially recognised basis for creating secular forms of practices and guidance for awakening and freedom in the manner described above. It does not seem so farfetched to consider it a possibility.
All the rage in the meet-up between science and Buddhism is the use of brain scanning to uncover the neurological interplay and characteristics of seasoned practitioners of meditative techniques. Understanding in real terms the results of such studies and tests is unreliable at present although much speculation has been made to the significance of initial data. To understand though only through the mechanical functioning of the brain the shifts that might be occurring as individuals make progress in long-term meditation practice is insufficient in providing a real evaluation of the experiential reality of awakened or awakening individuals and the potential value of such. In depth questioning and observation as well as testing by psychologists and clinical psychiatrists with an open mind would be equally important in order to produce a more complete picture of not just the physical changes and differentiation in brain wave patterns, but also in obtaining insight into the emotional and inter-psychological processes established within the day-to-day experience as a constant within these individuals’ lives and relationships.
People do claim to be awakened both within and outside Buddhism and I have a suspicion, due to my own encounter with a wide range of spiritual teachers, that most are able to replicate certain behavioural and experiential freedoms, but only within controlled spaces where their actions and claims are part of a normalised environment in which the way they act is socially recognised, confirmed and rewarded. For example, gurus are often surrounded by disciples and adoring followers, but what happens in those unseen spaces, or what would happen if their garments, symbolic adornments and followers were to be removed and the individual found himself in a location in which his actions, behaviour and beliefs were not at all recognised? That is when things start to get interesting. To speak of the human, is to speak of the shared and if the types of freedom and liberation that we are getting at in this essay is worthwhile, real, tangible and sustained, then it should function in any circumstance and without any special support.
A workable model: experimental update
If awakening can be considered as the process of advancing through the applied practice of appropriate techniques and a personal search within this process that is fundamentally open and critical and based on gaining direct and personal understanding that is tested in the inhabited environment rather than simply a safe space of practice, then perhaps there is an initial model of awakening that can prove a workable means for measuring progress on the way. It of course will require some adaption, and this is what I will attempt in the second part of this act of reconfiguring. The model that I have chosen to explore here is the Nikaya scheme of the Four Stages of Enlightenment. This model has been explored and laid out in the Visudhimaga, but the four stages, or paths, that it refers to appear in the Sutta Pitaka, one of the main teaching groups, or baskets of the earliest Buddhist teachings that we know of, so it has a clear doctrinal foundation and thus has that all important kudos!
But why bother dragging out this traditional Buddhist system for categorising a phenomenon that many believe to be the lofty heights of spiritual stardom for the elite few? Well, firstly because the model continues to be used by Theravada Buddhists worldwide today and secondly because it has actually gained some usage amongst figures in the alternative dharma scene and by the godfather of secular Buddhism himself, Stephen Batchelor. It therefore represents a connection between traditional and contemporary expressions of Buddhism. What’s more the model has four clear stages that consist of clear tasks to achieve, so lends itself to pragmatic application. The four stages are accumulative and the tasks can be read as not referring explicitly to superhuman powers, accomplishment or achievements. Finally there is the factor of simplicity which is often missing from Buddhist lists and maps.
The immediate obstacle is some of the wording. As per the decision laid out in an earlier section of this text, I refuse to discuss reincarnation and this simplifies further the fourfold classification provided by this model. Please note, I am calling this a model for good reason. There is no imperative to consider it as a final and authoritative system for categorising the transformative results of a dedication to gaining insight into the human condition. As a model it is a representation of shifts and changes that may likely occur in the project of dismantling the phantom-I. I am going to tweak and mould anew this model in a sympathetic manner.
Before venturing further though, a little background. In my exploits with Buddhism a few years back I came across an assorted crew of characters gathered together under the banner of the Dharma Overground. They were brought together through the inspiration and work of Daniel Ingram, an AR doctor and self-claimed obtainer of freedom and liberation. He defines himself as an Arahat (an awakened person). Ingram is a wonderfully eccentric chap and a real candidate for the sort of study I suggested above. He spread Mahasi style noting practice among his fans and managed, it seems, to assist quite a few folk in reaching all of the four stages within the model we will look at. Now, whether his claims are true or not would be impossible for me to confirm, but the spirit of the group and its democratization of the awakening process was inspirational and even if my curiosity would really be connected to a social study of the nature of the group dynamics within their small collective and the subsequent results of their self-claimed achievements, I applaud the spirit of their initiative and the willingness to break with traditional Buddhist taboos of breaking open the awakening project. Vince Horn (of Buddhist Geeks) and Kenneth Folk were both involved with Ingram with Mr Folk claiming the same attainment and Vince writing about stream entry on his site as a doable achievement. Shinzen Young is the other noteworthy addition to those who claim to have awakened and uses the four stage model himself. This model then has coinage in alternative contemporary dharma movements, which represent a rupture of sorts from traditional Buddhism.
Batchelor also speaks of Stream Entry and awakening in a way that imply each is possible. He tends to define Stream Entry in subdued terms however. He and Ingram stand at opposite ends of the spectrum even as they are in a way both representatives of the democratisation of Buddhism. Batchelor is the face of a new movement seeking to validate itself even as it breaks from traditions by returning to scripture as the source of authority.
In various talks, Batchelor defines stream entry as simply entering the eightfold path, that is becoming a Buddhist. But this is problematic for two reasons; firstly it implies that being a self-identified Buddhist is required to enact or realise the first stage (which has to be part of a model of human experience) and therefore is really implying that it is a mere social convention, secondly it ignores the associated shifts that are assigned to the stages within traditional sources, to which he is very much enamoured, as ever more radical steps of dismantling the me-making structures of self. I should probably point out that I lean more towards Ingram’s interpretation of the model than Batchelor. The stages of the four path model delineate a process of unbinding from fetters, or psycho-emotional layers of fabricated being. This sounds quite distinct from simply entering onto a metaphorical pathway and signing on to Buddhism as Batchelor appears to indicate in many of his talks on stream entry.
The Four Stages of Awakening
This model features four stages with each qualified in two distinct ways. The name for each stage either directly indicates a shift with regards to reincarnation, or defines the beginning and end of the path, so that we have the traditional four stages of:
1. Stream Entry: start of the path
2. Once-returner: will be reborn once more
3. Non-returner: will no longer be reborn
4. Arahat, awakened one: completion of the path
On one hand, we have a model that ties itself to the notion of rebirth and on the other we have categories of something called fetters that are discarded, or broken through as we progress through the four stages. Setting aside the reincarnation principle, we have a map for the sequencing of the fetters that are broken through in stages as we gain ground on dismantling the relationship we have with the phantom I.
This model has great weight in the Theravada school, where it is still prominent to this day. Although this model emerges from that tradition, which has a keen eye to moral restraint, I will be exploring it from a slightly different perspective. Namely that of non-dual-ness. Again, as a post-traditional perspective, this view will not be beholden to Buddhism, or Neo-Advaita for that matter. Non-dual-ness in this context is merely the recognition that the basis for suffering is the phantom-self’s assumption that it is separate from the world around it, separate from experience, separate from what is emerging, or taking place, so in the sense used here, it simply means we are not isolated, atomistic individuals, and that we need to recognise the truth of this shift and dismantle our embeddedness in this false mode of being.
When we take death to be an impending end and its arrival as potentially imminent and wholly unpredictable, then we really are forced to recognise the fact that life is always imminent and that we need to be dedicated to dealing with what is actually taking place right here, rather than project onto desired futures, or be obsessed with sustaining a dead past presented through a seemingly consistent narrative. The idea of the long path to awakening is abandoned in this perspective and a sober acceptance of the immediacy and necessary participation in the moving present is the only real choice left open to us. The question that then emerges is how capable am I of engaging with what is taking place? How much do I manipulate what occurs in the sense fields? How much do I avoid certain uncomfortable or painful aspects of life? Where do I intentionally choose to look away, close my eyes or ignore? These questions acknowledge that participation in experience is always limited by what is expected, or feared. Another way to say it is that we are generally incapable of and are habitually lazy in accepting immediate events as an invitation to really engage and see what is taking place.
The four stage model is a means for coming to understand the key obstacles that prevent us from being full participants in this life. Awakening is concerned in part with how much distance we allow to remain between what is experienced, and how fully we participate. We co-arise with the phenomena that are in our immediate experience and a substantial, visible self is missing from that equation. In a way what we exist as afterwards is a symbolic self, a mirror of the time we live in, expressed through our own genetic makeup, proclivities and character leanings and as a reflection of a wider social discourse that we are conditioned by and dependent on. How liberating it is to realise that we actually are all in this together and that the atomised distortion of being that we drag around is really not needed. How important it is also to realise that attempting to fabricate an alternative self or a re-enactment of an historical awakening is futile and is really a refusal to honour the time we currently inhabit. If awakening is to have value, it must be an awakening in this time and place, within this symbolic reality and through its symbolic forms of which language is primary.