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.
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
The Woal of It: Friday December 8, 2006
Hiedegger, Riddley Walker, and how to make friends with your own head.
Slippery truths: Wednesday December 10, 2008
Toughts on Mark Siderits’s Empty Persons.
Emotional Weather Report: Friday February 9, 2007
Caught up in bad weather?
Darwin's Dharma?: Tuesday February 17, 2009
Darwin the crypto-Buddhist?
The Madhyamaka Bus?: Friday February 6, 2009
Let’s hit the road on the Buddhist bus.
Mental Discontents: Monday June 12, 2006
Can we eradicate mental discontent?
Western Buddhism and Other Capitalist Avatars: Saturday April 8, 2006
Žižek and Western Buddhism.
My New Brain: Friday July 13, 2007
A note on the pleasures of having a new brain.
Wild Geese: Wednesday January 18, 2006
Buddhism and Philosophy Part II - Practices of Freedom: Tuesday December 6, 2005
Philosophy and Buddhism as practices of freedom.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.