Awakening to Awakening

Friday September 15, 2006


During a talk on the Secular Buddha at Sharpham College, Stephen Batchelor suggested that Buddhism has nothing to do with Enlightenment. This might initially seem like an outrageous claim, but there are good grounds for it. To say that there was no such thing as Enlightenment before the eighteenth century, is to suggest that we are using the wrong metaphor to speak of the Buddhist idea of bodhi. The metaphor of enlightenment is drawn from the idea of the European enlightenment, an intellectual movement that is exemplified by the work of Hume, Kant and others. It may be that this metaphor, when applied to the Buddhist context, is misleading and is far from the obvious translation of the term bodhi, saying more about the world of the early translators of Buddhism into Western languages than about early Buddhism itself. Translation is always a treacherous business, but a better choice of translation for bodhi might be “awakening”.

So what? you might ask. It refers to the same thing, after all. Perhaps, but then again perhaps not. Metaphors are slippery beasts (this, too, is a metaphor!). And the metaphors we use when talking about dharma practice can have a powerful influence upon how we go about this practice. So what I want to do here is explore the metaphor of awakening a little more, to see why it might make a difference.

Metaphors are like coins: passing from hand to hand, the clarity of the images that they bear becomes dulled; the image is rubbed away with use. The metaphor of bodhi or awakening that lies at the heart of Buddhism is one that has passed to and fro for two and a half thousand years, so it is not surprising that it is one that not longer has the power to surprise us. We take it for granted. We don’t realise quite how striking it is.

So I want to think a bit about this awakening. Why choose this metaphor over any others? To try to trace back the metaphor it can be interesting to simply think about what the metaphor in its literal sense first of all, without asking what it is a metaphor for. Then we can begin to ask why this metaphor and not any other?

The first thing that is striking about awakening is not generally something we decide to do. We do not, slumbering peacefully, look at our mental watches and think, “I’ll wake up now!” Admittedly this can happen – as in the case of lucid dreaming – but our ordinary everyday experience is that we just wake up. Even if we set our alarm clock in advance or always insist on sleeping with a rooster in the room, this doesn’t really count as a decision to awaken, but only a cunning means of making sure that we are awoken at some time in the future. Awakening is something that happens to us, not something that we do. But, and here’s the interesting thing, awakening is also what allows us to do things – to make breakfast, feed the cat, open the post, meditate, write blogs, go to work, drink coffee and so on. Awakening opens up possibilities for us.

I’m interested in what the implications are for Buddhist practice, if we are to take the metaphor of awakening seriously. Over the years, I have sat for many hours on the meditation cushion trying to concentrate on the breath, trying to gain an insight into how I, and the world, tick. But somehow in my experience the moments of clarity that I have had have not really been things that have arisen through this effort. You can’t go in search of these awakenings (and here I am using awakening in a slightly less elevated sense than it is usually understood).

There I am, sleepy as hell, sitting in meditation whilst on retreat, late at night (late in Buddhist terms – calculating Standard Buddhist Bedtime as 10.15 pm, “late” is somewhere around 11pm). My mind is a soup. Everything is foggy. Then – out of nowhere, it seems – my body adjusts itself, I find my shoulders naturally roll back, my chest opens, my spine straightens, the restlessness that I hadn’t even noticed until then subsides. My mind is clear. This does not feel like something that I’ve done. It feels closer – if I dare risk a metaphor drawn from theistic contexts (although without any theistic implications here) – to grace, an idea that may be familiar to those Pure Land folks out there, but that seems strange within the context of some other Buddhist traditions.

But if – as does seem to be the case – awakenings arise as and when they will, doesn’t this undermine practice? I think not. It does, however, get away from the idea of practice as a technique that you employ to bring about a particular end-result. Seeing practice more as inquiry than as bringing about a particular state circumvents this problem, as far as I can see. My sense is that inquiry does not aim at awakening – because to aim at awakening suggests that we have an idea of what this means at the outset, and this limits meditative inquiry – but it provides fertile ground for awakening, by ploughing up the soil of our assumptions and our habitual beliefs to allow light and air to enter.

This is where the second aspect of awakening comes in. Awakening alone is not enough: to wake up and then to spend your days lying in bed is, although perhaps pleasant, in the end not the most useful way of going about your life. Waking up allows us to do stuff (make coffee, feed the cat, write blogs, cure the sick, go paragliding etc.) that we can’t do when we are asleep. When applied to practice, I take this to mean that awakening is about the opening up of a path that we cannot tread whilst we are sleepwalking through our lives. And this, I think, means ethics.

What, then, of experiences of awakening? Few awakenings, I suspect, are cataclysmic and dramatic. Most come so quietly that it is hard to even notice them. They are intangible and flickering moments. What is of more importance than the experience of awakening itself is that we permit what awakening we have to settle into our bones so that they might become a part of the stream of our own lives. Or, to put it another way, perhaps it is not so much a matter of seeking some experience of awakening, but rather of awakening to the awakenings that we already have.

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#1 · Erik

15 September 2006

This is a lovely post, and I especially appreciate the insights about metaphor. I wonder if you’d be willing to say more about the ways in which metaphor change our practice. Are they always negative? Have you read Lakoff and Johnson’s book Metaphors we live by? Erik

#2 · Erik

15 September 2006

sorry, typo on my web page. Should be like this.

#3 · Dukkha Earl

15 September 2006

Hmmmm. How much of it is tired metaphor, and how much of it is crappy translation of an elegant Eastern way of thinking into the modern West? Words are problematic – I guess that is the appeal of zen, as the practise (for me) begs for experiential understanding.

#4 · Tom

15 September 2006

You write, “Metaphors are like coins: passing from hand to hand, the clarity of the images that they bear becomes dulled; the image is rubbed away with use.”

This would be true if the “image” was something old and yellowed, weathered and getting lost by us, but enlightenment, awakening, satori—whatever—is experienced anew and enriched by new descriptions.

Buddha very much used the idea of light in his many descriptions of the experience, however.

Buddha said at the end of his life, “I can die happily. I did not hold one single teaching in a closed hand. Everything that may benefit you I have already given. Now, don’t believe my words because a Buddha told you, but examine them well. Be a light onto yourselves.”

At the point of his enlightenment, Buddha saw the morning star—not while awaking from slumber.

I think that ‘enlightenment’ is valid and is as useful as ‘awakening’ as a metaphor. Insight into the appropriateness of the terms comes to those who are enlightened or awakened.

We don’t need to search back to Buddha for lost, rich terminology. Language that is newly minted will give us amply shiny metaphors to use to communicate.

#5 · Will

15 September 2006

Thanks for the comments. Lakoff and Johnson’s book is wonderful, Erik, and I am very much persuaded by their claim that our thinking is much more deeply metaphorical than we suspect. I may write more about metaphor and practice if and when I have anything else to say on the subject!

Dukkha Earl and Tom: both of you point to something important that I perhaps glossed over – the renewal of experience in practice and how this may feed into language. And I suspect this applies whatever metaphors one uses – awakening, enlightenment, what have you. Metaphors become habit and their force becomes lost. But they can be reinvigorated through this way that experience flows back into language.

So I’d agree, Tom, that even if the translation “enlightenment” is strictly speaking inaccurate (which, strictly speaking, it is!), it does reflect at least some of the metaphorical usages from the Buddhist texts. Having said this I think there is value both in going back to the Buddha to see the richness of the terminology he employed (a kind of linguistic archaeology, to use another metaphor), and also in finding language that is newly minted.

What interests me is the effects that our choice of metaphors. If we use the metaphor of “enlightenment” does practice end up meaning something very different from what it would mean if we use the metaphor of “awakening”? Or does it make very little difference?

All the best,


#6 · Gary and Teresa

16 September 2006

We see why the Ven. Dharmakara likes your blog as much as he does. Good luck and keep writing.

#7 · Harriet

18 September 2006

There is an interesting parallel to the Alexander Technique. The more you try to do the Alexander Technique right, the less likely you are to get anywhere.

#8 · Jonathan Apps

18 September 2006

Hi Will,

Your comment about “grace” strikes a chord, but I don’t know how you can say that your moments of clarity don’t arise through the effort of sitting on the cushion trying….

Sure, one doesn’t always get the result one is after immediately (if I can put it that crudely), but that’s not to say that any later, more positive experience isn’t a DELAYED response to earlier effort.

Some of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in my own messy struggle have been unexpected, sometimes even while lying in bed! But for my own part, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have had them without previous hours spent sweating away on the cushion….


#9 · Justin Whitaker

19 September 2006

A great post. I too prefer the more literal translation of bodhi into “awakening.” The metaphor of dreaming is used often in Buddhism and doesn’t really make sense without our knowing that becoming AWAKE from all that dreaming (or the implication that most of us really are just dreaming) is the final goal of Buddha Dharma.

On the experience itself: I would imagine that it would be something of a realization (whether intuitively or more cognitively) that what we had been thinking of reality before was all wrong – and that now we can experience reality more clearly, directly.

#10 · Mike

19 September 2006

Perhaps awakening is no more than something that happens when you have had enough of sleeping and are resting. In part waking up happens consciously because you choose when to get out of bed and whether or not to go back to sleep again.

#11 · Jonathan Apps

25 September 2006 the way if you did start subscribing to a Pure Land school, would you change this blog’s name to Thank Buddha?


#12 · Will

26 September 2006

Ha ha!

W ;-)

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