Epistemology and enlightenment

“How do you know the Buddha was enlightened?” asked the ogress in “Eating an entire epistemologist.”

Here are some similar questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

I won’t give any answers to these. Instead, I will suggest that Buddhists ought to ask them, and ought not to accept answers that are based just on “someone holy said so” or “I had a vision” or “it’s here in this book.”

[You might like to listen to my podcast discussion of this post with Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist Association.]

Epistemology

rubbish in the sea

Epistemology is the study of “how do we know what we know?” That seems to me a question everyone should ask, about as many things as possible.

Much of what we think we know must be wrong, because it changes so often. This is obviously true of factual knowledge; but perhaps more importantly of ethical knowledge. Within living memory, everyone knew that it was fine to dump rubbish in the ocean, and premarital sex was wrong. Now, everyone knows dumping rubbish in the ocean is wrong, and most people agree that premarital sex is fine.

Acting on mistaken “knowledge” often has bad results. Ways of sorting out what’s so are precious.

Problems with epistemology

The great triumph of epistemology has been to point out that two traditional sources of knowledge—experts and holy books—are not necessarily reliable.

Many Buddhist scriptures say that the earth is flat. A century ago, many Buddhist leaders said that believing the earth is spherical was heresy. The flatness of the earth is not just a random fact that scripture got wrong. Without it, the religion couldn’t function. Traditional Buddhist ethics is based on reward or punishment in heaven or hell. According to Buddhist cosmology, the hells are underground, and the heavens are flat planes up in the sky. Scriptures list the different heavens with their altitudes above the earth. If people didn’t believe this, they would have no motivation to behave ethically, and society would collapse. If the earth is a ball spinning in empty space, where could the heavens be? Anyone teaching this must be silenced.

Another contribution of epistemology is the realization that we can never be absolutely certain about anything. No source of knowledge is entirely reliable.

So, what sources of knowledge are good enough?

Unfortunately, academic epistemology, which claims to study this question, hasn’t got much more to say. It asks the wrong question: “How can we know anything, in general?” (“Like what?” asked Surya. “Like anything,” said the ogress.) What we need instead are practical ways to determine whether knowledge about particular kinds of things is reasonably reliable.

Technical disciplines—sciences, jurisprudence, journalism—have useful methods of this sort. But, there are still problems.

Problems with experts

Unless you have spent many years learning one of these specialized methods, you can’t apply it yourself. That means you have to take experts’ word for it—or not. How do you know whether they know what they are talking about?

Accredited experts may disagree. In that case, which ones do you believe?

Worse, entire technical disciplines can go off into outer space for decades at a stretch, completely losing touch with reality. In the mid–20th century, psychoanalytic theory was widely accepted as providing reliable insight into the workings of healthy minds (as well as ill ones). It became, for many, a powerful framework for understanding ethics, life, and meaning. Nowadays, orthodox psychoanalysis seems like a creepy delusion; you can only ask “what on earth were they thinking?”

A current example might be nutrition. Supposed experts endlessly hammer on the message that it is frightfully important to eat what they tell us to. However, their recommendations change dramatically every eight years or so. Not long ago, vitamin E was the key to preventing cancer; now that’s false, and moreover it causes heart disease and stroke. Soy was good for you, because it contains isoflavones, which prevented cancer; now it is bad for you, because isoflavones screw up your endocrine system. Food is mainly fat, carbohydrate, and protein; each repeatedly cycles in and out as “good” or “bad” relative to the others. Clearly, whatever method nutritionists are using to produce their “knowledge” does not work at all.

Beyond these problems, there are many aspects of life where there are no “experts” with wide credibility. These include particularly areas concerned with meaningness. How can we—and how do we—make sensible decisions about problems of ethics, purpose, and value?

Experts in enlightenment

Buddhism, and other religions, are attractive partly because they have supposed experts on meaning, who claim to have definitive answers.

Should we believe them? Why?

Buddhist answers usually involve “enlightenment,” or similar terms such as “bodhi,” “nirvana,” “kensho,” and so forth. I mostly find these answers unhelpfully abstract and theoretical. What can we know about enlightenment, and how?

Here the supposed experts disagree, loudly. They disagree both about theory (what enlightenment is) and about practice (who’s got it, and how you could get it).

Different brands of Buddhism have stories about enlightenment that sound very different.

  • How do we know which theory of enlightenment is right?
  • Maybe none of them. Maybe there is no such thing! Most claims about enlightenment sound like silly spiritual fantasies—which is one reason many Westerners reject Buddhism.
  • Maybe the theories only seem to disagree. Like the parable of the blind men, they are describing one elephant in different ways, or grasp different parts of the elephant.
  • Maybe there are different, real things that different Buddhisms call “enlightenment.” Maybe they argue only because they don’t recognize they are using one word for more than one thing.

For many Buddhists, these questions may seem irrelevant, because attaining enlightenment is not a realistic, personal goal. However, the experts also disagree violently about how you should practice Buddhism. And their explanations of why their methods work (and the other brands’ methods are no good) intimately involve enlightenment. So this is not something we can ignore.

Who is enlightened?

This is where abstract theory meets the real world of practice. Unfortunately, there is even less agreement here. Within traditions that agree about what enlightenment is, there are always sub-groups who quarrel about who’s got it.

For instance, several modern Theravada teachers invented their own meditation methods, which turned into sub-sects. Some Theravadins claim that only their own sect’s method works, so followers of the other sects are not enlightened.

Here are some videos in which Bhante Sujato is polite but firm in explaining deficiencies of the Other Leading Brands. (He seems insightful, but I don’t practice Theravada, so I have no opinions about its competing sub-sects. )

Based on invalid texts and Abhidhamma categories which obviously don’t exist… spiritual materialism

Rampant, institutionalized overestimation… thousands of unqualified but certified stream-enterers

Wrong ideas about enlightenment, probably imported from Hinduism and Mahayana

There are similar arguments within modern Zen.

The Mahasi sect (in Theravada) and Sanbo Kyodan (in Zen) both aim for sotapatti/kensho (initial enlightenment) as directly as possible, and claim beginners can get it in their first month-long retreat. This “rapid upward spiritual mobility” has made both sects particularly successful and influential in America, with huge numbers of students, teachers, and certifiably enlightened folks.

Competing sects say that the Mahasi and Sanbo Kyodan methods can’t possibly work, or certainly not that fast, and that their supposed “enlightenment” experiences are really only some confused jhana or makyo.

That criticism might just be envy and self-justification, since the competing methods work (if at all) only after many years of hard practice. Or, critics could be quite right in pointing out “rampant, institutionalized overestimation” in the “fast” sects.

How could we know?

How do experts determine who is enlightened?

If you want to know if someone is a competent mathematician, you have to ask a mathematician. On the other hand, if you want to know if someone is a competent nutritionist, there’s no point asking nutritionists, in my opinion, because the whole field is hogwash.

Supposedly, only an enlightened person can say if someone else is enlightened. They have special magic insight. Ordinary people can’t tell. So how does that work?

A skeptical view is that a supposed enlightenment expert (such as a Zen master) will declare you to be enlightened if:

  • You have been practicing hard enough for long enough to get enlightened, according to the sect’s traditions
  • You can recite the sect’s dogmas as needed
  • You conform to the social norms of the sect
  • You show conspicuous loyalty to the sect vs. competing ones
  • You have some sort of odd experience which you describe using the sect’s jargon

This is cynical, but seems to account for most of what actually happens. A year ago, I wrote about an interesting incident of this sort.

Concerning people outside their own sect, most Buddhist masters are reluctant to say anything. Perhaps most of them don’t believe that other Buddhist sects can produce enlightenment. Alternatively, maybe the methods for judging enlightenment do not apply, because they are based on conforming to specific behaviors required by the sect. No special enlightened insight is involved.

Later on this page, I’ll take a slightly less cynical view. Still, I think this skepticism is an important “null hypothesis”—the default view we ought to take unless there is good evidence that it is wrong.

Should experience remove doubt?

In my solitude
I have seen things very clearly
that were not true.

—Antonio Machado

According to some Buddhist texts, and some supposed experts, enlightenment is unmistakable. If you experience it, you know it, and it removes all doubt.

This is particularly common in “experiencing Oneness” theories of enlightenment. When you first taste chocolate, you cannot doubt your own experience of it. You know what chocolate is like. Similarly, if you directly experience your Absolute Oneness With Everything, that is indisputable. You know The Ultimate Truth. No one can dispute this, because The Ultimate Truth is itself an experience, and like all experiences it is private and unmistakeable.

There’s a couple of problems with this. You can (apparently) be mistaken about what you have experienced, and (more importantly) you can be mistaken about what it means.

On the first point, it’s not uncommon for someone to go to their Buddhist teacher and say, honestly, “O Teacher! How wonderful! I have had an enlightenment experience! Now I know without doubt The Ultimate Truth!” and the teacher will say “No, that’s just makyo—you need to practice a lot longer before you are truly enlightened.”

(It’s also common to encounter people who seem to sincerely believe they are enlightened, but who everyone else considers insane or just confused.)

Intense non-ordinary experiences often include what seem to be profound insights into the fundamental nature of reality. But the second problem is that those can be totally wrong.

Here’s a fun example:

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

This was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in 1871. He was a Transcendentalist—a school of All-Is-One monist spirituality. He was also smart enough to recognize that the intense conviction that you have discovered The Ultimate Truth during a non-ordinary experience is not reliable.

Non-ordinary experiences and insight

I’ve had dramatic, non-ordinary spiritual experiences myself. I can’t doubt that they exist. I do have questions about their meaning and value.

Some non-ordinary experiences don’t seem to imply anything at all. Even at the time, it’s just “wow!” The experience is indescribable and intense, but it doesn’t seem to have any meaning beyond its own feeling-quality.

Some non-ordinary experiences include revelations or insights that seem profound and unquestionable at the time. Among these, some are obviously stupid a few hours later (like Holmes’ discovery of turpentine).

I’ve had intense meditation experiences that included insights that seemed right for months or years after—but that I eventually decided were wrong after all. There’s others that I still think were profound and correct, a decade or two later.

My conclusion from this is that overwhelming meditation experiences can be valuable sources of insight, but they are unreliable. They can convince you of things that aren’t true. You need to test them against other ways of knowing.

Non-ordinary experiences and transformation

“Enlightenment experiences” are supposed to produce profound personal transformation (as well as insights). They can permanently alter the way you experience the world, and the way you act in the world.

Again, I have had meditation experiences that I think permanently altered my perception and way of being. (I am not claiming these were “enlightenment” experiences, of course!) Despite my self-perception of transformation, I am skeptical of it.

I’ve seen many a friend go to a weekend workshop on biodynamic crystal dowsing, or holistic orgone chakra balancing, and come back totally transformed. Or so they said. Now they saw the world completely differently, and they were at peace with everyone and everything. They had finally got it, and everything was going to be different forever.

Usually that high lasts about three days; sometimes a month. Then, somehow, life is about as usual. Evidently, it is possible to be entirely wrong about personal transformation.

So, I don’t take my own seriously. I hope I deal with life better than I did twenty years ago, and I believe that’s partly due to transformative non-ordinary experiences, but I don’t put much stock in it.

I’d consider it much more likely if there were good empirical data. Science, in other words. Anecdotes—even my own experience of myself—aren’t reliable. It’s too easy to fool yourself.

What is enlightenment good for?

Keep your silly ways or throw them out the window
The wisdom of your ways, I’ve been there and I know

Buddhism has the dogmatic belief that enlightenment is way better than anything else, and the solution to all problems. There is scant evidence for this, and almost no explanation. It’s just asserted, at great length, in Buddhist advertising hype (“scripture”).

If we drop the dogma, then why should we care about enlightenment at all? Is it actually good for anything? How can we know?

There are different stories about what’s so great about enlightenment. We could classify those in terms of stories about what kind of thing enlightenment is.

For example, if enlightenment is a special kind of knowledge, understanding, or insight: is what you discover true? How do we know? And, more important, is it useful? What is it useful for? If it’s good for something, we ought to see someone getting results with it. Do we?

If enlightenment is an experience, or state of consciousness, then it must be a highly enjoyable one. (What other use could a purely subjective quality be?) Advocates say that enlightenment is infinitely better than sex & drugs & rock & roll. Is that true? How could we know? If it is true, should we care? Sex & drugs & and rock & roll are very good indeed. They are easier than enlightenment. Maybe they’re good enough? Maybe they are all your brain and body need?

If enlightenment is a way of being, does it actually make you kinder, or more effective, or what? How much more? (Maybe there are easier ways to become kind and effective, if that is your goal?)

The Founding Myth

Buddhism is based on the dogmatic belief that:

There was this guy Gautama, who finally got it while sitting under a tree. He was totally transformed. Whatever he got is by definition the best thing you can get. He was as enlightened as it is possible to be.

There is zero evidence for this, and zero rational argument. It’s pure mythology.

In fact, it doesn’t matter whether there was such a guy, or whether he really got it. The important thing is that the myth hides the unexamined assumption that there is exactly one thing to get.

My guess is that some of the theories of enlightenment, told by different Buddhisms, describe real things—but they are about different things. That makes talk about “enlightenment” inherently confusing. It’s like a barroom debate about whether Spain’s La Roja or the New York Giants are the greatest football team, without anyone noticing that they play two completely different games that both happen to be called “football.”

Diverse functional definitions

Suppose we drop the idea that there is a single thing called enlightenment; and suppose we drop the idea that it is the solution to all problems. To avoid confusion, let’s drop the word, too.

Instead, let’s take more seriously the diversity of descriptions of Buddhist goals. Let’s try to clarify the vague explanations given for them. Let’s sort the ones that seem plausible from the obviously impossible. Let’s try to better understand their value, and how practice methods might develop toward that good. Let’s try to find reasonably reliable ways to evaluate progress and results.

Rationality

Toasted granary bread with melted cheddar cheese

Rationality is of limited use in religion–just as it is of limited use in music. That does not make either reasoning or religion bogus.

However, rational reasoning can eliminate some bogus religious dogma. It can show that some Buddhist theories of enlightenment are clearly false.

According to many Mahayana sutras, enlightenment means becoming a god—for all practical purposes. Technically, they insist that Buddhas are not gods. But enlightenment means that you become an immortal with supernatural powers, and live in the sky. In some of the sutras, you become not merely a god but a God: you create your own universe and rule it, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

Western thought has developed excellent reasons to not believe in gods. Most of those reasons apply to Mahayana Buddhas. So, a century ago, modern Mahayana decided to quietly abandon its own theory of Buddhahood.

The Theravada theory that enlightenment means non-rebirth is also dubious in the light of Western understanding. So, it is also widely ignored by modern Theravada teachers.

The most popular modern Buddhist theory of enlightenment is that you discover that All is One, so your True Self is in fact The Entire Universe. This is taught by many Zen masters and some prominent Theravadins. There is some basis for it in the Mahayana scriptures, but it totally contradicts traditional Theravada. It probably comes mainly from Western monist mysticism.

The theory is obviously false. All is not one; chalk is not cheddar. (Try making a melted chalk sandwich.) You are not the entire universe. You are about six feet tall, whereas the universe is about six hundred sextillion miles across. Your mind is not the entire universe, either. You know nothing about most of it.

(I’ve written more about problems with monist mysticism here.)

Proponents of “All is One” usually explicitly reject rationality. They have to, because the story falls apart instantly if they don’t. Instead, they insist that in a “trans-rational” enlightenment experience, the truth that All is One is revealed. When you’ve had that experience, then you know, and rationality is irrelevant.

I don’t doubt that there are experiences of Oneness—because I’ve had them. But I don’t think they imply what monist mystics think they imply.

Since, clearly, All is not One, they don’t imply that. Oneness experiences might simply be meaningless confusion or illusion. Many typical drug experiences are like that. If you take LSD, you will probably directly experience walls breathing. That does not mean that walls breathe.

As it happens, I think the Oneness experience does contain an important insight. It’s just that mystics misunderstand it. What the experience actually points to is the fact that there is no objective separation between you and your immediate surroundings. That’s quite different from your being the same as the entire universe; and it stands up to rational scrutiny.

Science

Recently, neuroscientists seem to be making significant discoveries about how Buddhist meditation methods work. This is exciting to me because I have studied neuroscience enough to consider it a reasonably reliable source of knowledge.

I have also studied it enough that I won’t take anything scientists say uncritically. They are quite capable of over-interpreting their data, and finding whatever they are looking for, whether or not it is actually there. It will take lots more experiments before I will be confident that the meditation scientists know what they are talking about.

Some meditation researchers want to go further, and investigate enlightenment scientifically. I think that’s terrific. Step one, though, is to stop talking about “enlightenment” as though it were a single, defined thing, because the word is hopelessly confused.

Some neuroscientists have an interesting guess about the mystical “Oneness” experience. If you are a monkey swinging through dense jungle, it’s critical to keep track of where all your body parts are. You always need know where you end, and the air or branches begin. Otherwise, you’ll slam into something. So, probably there is an evolved brain mechanism that keeps track of the physical self/other boundary at all times. Maybe what happens in the Oneness experience is that it stops functioning. You misinterpret your inability to feel where your body ends as having melted into the entire universe.

Learning what happens in the brain when particular spiritual goals are reached could be interesting and useful. For instance, if it turns out that the Oneness experience is just your boundary-tracker turning off, it will be harder for anyone to consider it a big deal. Neuroscience might also answer the question of whether enlightenment is one thing or several—maybe different “types of enlightenment” reliably correlate with different patterns of brain activity—and who has which.

There are limits to what it can tell us, though. If enlightenment is considered to be a type of knowledge, or a way of interacting, that will probably be inaccessible for the foreseeable future. The available techniques aren’t relevant.

And, neuroscience could never tell us what spiritual accomplishments mean—what their purpose and value is. Such judgements are outside the domain of science.

Provisional personal evidence

So far I have asked many questions and provided no answers. It might seem that I believe all knowledge is impossible.

In fact, I think our everyday experience of Buddhist practice, and our interactions with our sangha and teachers, provide a reasonably good sense of what Buddhism can do.

I think it’s important to avoid both starry-eyed romantic fantasies, and also stubborn refusal to recognize the value of Buddhism lest you get fooled again. It is good to be skeptical, to ask “is this really true?,” to take nothing at face value. It is not good to blind yourself to what you can see is true, useful, or beautiful because you are afraid to trust.

If you have practiced for long enough to make progress, you can see that a path points ahead, in whatever direction you have chosen. Then you may wonder how far it is possible to go. However, if you are happy with your direction, the question “is there some final destination, beyond which it is not possible to go?” may not matter.

Having made some progress, you can see that some people are further along the path. They may be uncommonly unruffled by adversity; unusually considerate of others; or have an electrifying personal presence. That is evidence that you, too, can go further—and inspiration to do so. As this ability to judge the progress of others increases, perhaps it develops into the ability to judge “enlightenment” as that is understood in particular Buddhisms.

If you work with a teacher, you may find that they are consistently able to give answers to your questions, that make sense, seem true when tested against your practice, and inspire further involvement. In that case, you may be willing to take some things they say on faith, at least as a default, when you cannot test them.

Further reading

I have argued earlier that mystical experiences aren’t valid metaphysical evidence. For example, you cannot argue that “All Is One” on the basis that mystics say they have experienced that. I also argued that mystical experiences are apparently diverse, which casts doubt on the theory that there is just one thing called “enlightenment.”

I’ve also earlier contrasted the Theravada, tantric, and monist theories of enlightenment.

Robert Sharf’s papers “The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion” and “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience” have been a major influence on the way I think about “enlightenment.” They cover many of the same topics as this post, in greater depth.

Brad Warner eloquently presents a similar view, against the “enlightenment as a big experience” theory, in his Buddhist Geeks interview. (Search the transcript for “supposed to fix everything forever” to find a particularly relevant bit.)

There’s an interesting discussion of intra-Theravada disputes about enlightenment here. This Appendix concerns the realization and methods of Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, whose lineage is one of the most influential in America. Apparently, he acknowledged that much of what he taught was inconsistent with scripture; here, he explains why he prioritized his visionary experience over ancient texts.

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59 Responses to Epistemology and enlightenment

  1. James says:

    A very insightful (ha!) article.

    It has occurred to me also that different Buddhist traditions quite obviously have different definitions of enlightenment. It escapes my understanding how anyone can read Mahasi-style talk about ‘cessation’ side by side with, say, descriptions of rigpa or (what is the same?) the result of Mahamudra practise and conclude that they are actually talking about the same thing – ‘cessation’ is very clearly a not-knowing, a phenomenological black hole, whereas rigpa is the pure awareness aspect of mentality (do pardon me if I have made a hash of that). I do know of a couple of Theravada teachers who (more or less privately) suggest that once one has done the work of seeing through the self, trying to see the nature of the mind as it is is the next step – so go talk to those Tibetans!

    Moreover, as you have pointed out, enlightenment is presumed by everyone to have definite relational qualities vis-a-vis our ethical interactions with the world. Compassion is just the tip of the iceberg, since being compassionately disposed doesn’t straightforwardly tell us anything about what an enlightened person ought/has to do in any given circumstance. Conservative Theravada holds that an enlightened individual must join the monastic order within a week of his/her awakening or actually die, meanwhile there are no Nyignma monks. Does compassion require us to vote for a strong government welfare program but not to give money directly to those in need, or is it the other way around (or both/neither/it depends)? Does being compassionate towards a severely injured animal mean that we should take it home and try to nurse it back to health or that we should put it out of its misery? None of these seem to have much to do which phenomenology, yet they are all considered to be crucially important to defining enlightenment and identifying those who have it.

    And does enlightenment require an enlightenment experience? Say we went looking for someone who fits a characature of the Theravada account of enlightenment (deep insight into anatta, anicca, dukkha, as well as ethical perfection and a limited emotional range) and we found such a person. If that person claimed never to have had any enlightenment experiences at all (maybe even to never have done formal meditation) would we be willing to say “yes, this person is enlightened, though it must have been pretty boring for him/her”?

    Ah, incohate thoughts. Sorry about that.

  2. David, I think it would be fair to include and recognize that the “end of seeking” attainment is real, common, and quite valuable if for no other reason than seeking and grasping to states of consciousness sucks. I assume, and hope you have largely reached resolution of your seeking energy or otherwise I would, respectfully, not consider you qualified to write any of what you have written here.

    I appreciate the dose of critical rationality that you put forward in this article, but I believe it actually does a disservice in further perpetuating the myth that enlightenment is not attainable by normal folks and can serve to prolong seeking into the indefinite future.

    I really like Kenneth Folk’s model of “developmental enlightenment” with a “tipping point” somewhere down the line.

    http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2012/01/enlightenment-for-the-rest-of-us/

    My current position is that all *ideals* of awakening are merely aesthetic choices and thus empty of intrinsic truth. But, pragmatically speaking, it is useful to realize that there is only THIS experience, no inherent truth exists, and that our thoughts are both unreal and create aspects of experiential reality.

    Any person whose identity has shifted in alignment with realization of the above and is fairly done with seeking I consider “awake enough” or enlightened.

    Of course there is an infinite amount of (illusory) development beyond that, but who gives a shit? Awake enough is awaken enough.

  3. To put it another way, I think debating about ideals of enlightenment is totally stupid.

    The important question is, “Are you awake enough?”

  4. @ James — Glad you liked it!

    does enlightenment require an enlightenment experience?

    Sharf argues that the whole idea of “enlightenment experiences” is a 20th century innovation, based in Western Romantic Idealism (Transcendentalism, Theosophy, etc.). It’s not a traditional Buddhist idea at all. I think he’s probably largely right, although I haven’t gone into the Mahayana texts enough to be sure.

    If I recall correctly, S.T. Suzuki Roshi never “had kensho.” That didn’t stop him from being one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in Western history.

    The Nyingma do have monks. We’re distinctive in that a large fraction of our teachers are ngakpas or lay people, but there are also monastics.

    @ Justin Chapweske — I know little about Kenneth Folk’s work, although did I hear his talk at the 2011 Buddhist Geeks conference and found him impressive, interesting, and likeable. I gather that his “Pragmatic” approach tries to get clearer on what the traditional Theravada “stages of the path” really mean; and that seems like an excellent idea. (As I suggested in the “Diverse functional definitions” section above.)

    So, if “end of seeking” is a particular Buddhist goal, then it would be great to get clear about exactly what it is, what it is good for / why you might want it, how to get it, and how to tell whether you’ve got it. If he’s done that, I applaud it!

    I think it would be helpful, then, to explicitly disclaim the possible (mis)interpretation that “the real meaning of ‘enlightenment’ is ‘end of seeking’.” There isn’t any “real meaning of ‘enlightenment’,” because different people use the word to mean different things (all of them vague and most highly dubious).

    I’m definitely not arguing that “enlightenment is impossible” (as you seem to have understood me). I’m suggesting that arguing about whether enlightenment is possible is pointless, because the word “enlightenment” is so ill-defined. Maybe that’s the point of your second comment, and we agree violently!

  5. Seth Segall says:

    David – well said!

  6. Hi, Seth! Nice to see you here. Thank you very much!

  7. Craig says:

    David said:
    “If you have practiced for long enough to make progress, you can see that the path points ahead, in a direction. Then you may wonder how far it is possible to go. However, if you are happy with your direction, the question “is there some final destination, beyond which it is not possible to go?” may not matter.”

    This paragraph negates everything you say before it. Progress, path, direction, destination, points ahead. These are all what Glenn Wallis calls buddhemes. Just other buzz words for enlightenment. If there is such a ‘direction’ why is everyone who meditates having different experiences and reactions?

  8. @ Craig — Ah, thank you, I see that what I wrote was unclear. I have revised the text a bit.

    I did not mean to suggest that there was one path with one direction, and so on. That would indeed negate what came before…

    I do think that it’s possible to make progress in some directions. The neuroscience data seems to be reasonably solid on that.

    Whether you care to go in any of those directions is another matter!

  9. William Robertson says:

    Enlightenment is simply the detection of the inexorable inevitability of everything that exists. There is nothing that an individual can think, say, or do that will modify the outcome of the process of existence. I myself happen to be totally fearless and terminally content with everything and everyone. And not because I dropped acid on numerous occasions forty-five years ago. Or maybe for that very reason.

    And what is the “outcome” of the process of existence? There isn’t one.

  10. Craig says:

    David-
    Thanks for the response. I see where you’re coming from. My response was as much for me as the blog. It’s so difficult to talk about anything buddhist without all those loaded terms. You make that point through out this piece. However, at the end we’re left with this idea of path etc. What else can you say. (shrug shoulders). What I’m saying is that I’m a kindred spirit. I meditate and, dare I say, it helps. Can’t really say much more these days. Is it like exercise where if you do it a lot you can do it a lot more? Talking about meditation with out the myth and metaphysics is a hard one.

    William-
    I like your idea that Enlightenment is realizing inevitable process of existence and the fact that we really can’t do anything about it. I am curious about your terminal contentment with everything. How’d you manage that? Also, the outcome, well, annihilation comes to mind.

  11. James says:

    @William: This is more or less the “God willing” and “there but for the grace of God, go I” point of view – one which I have found invaluable when I’m able to keep it in mind for the humility and gratitude it can bring to the mind (even though I don’t literally believe in God). Did you come to this view on your own or have you been strongly influenced by anyone, I wonder?

    @Craig: I think William meant by “process of existence” the grand total process, not our individual ones! Although, if you stop thinking that your process is a discrete *thing* then it doesn’t really end, it just sort of disaggregates and all these aggregates wind up doing other stuff. Of course, not that any of the sub-personal processes are themselves *things* either… So it becomes a headachey mess to think about

  12. @ William Robertson — I’d like to look at the form of your comment, setting the content to one side. It is:

    “Enlightenment is… [whatever]

    Buddhists and other spiritual people often say this. What I’m curious about is what it means—again, ignoring temporarily the whatever.

    Usually it seems to mean:

    “The really important thing, the best thing, is whatever. You ought to want whatever because it will solve all your problems.”

    I’d be a lot happier if people said that instead. Then we can ask “why is this the best/most important thing? Why should we believe it exists? Why should we believe it can solve all problems?”

    @ Craig — Maybe learning to play guitar is a good analogy. If you practice an hour a day, you will get better at playing the guitar. If you have a competent teacher, you will learn faster. There is a “path”: you have to learn things roughly in order. You need to be able to play the basic chords before you tackle bar chords.

    Also, you have to choose which direction to go in. You could learn classical nylon-string technique or electric blues technique. Those are different enough that trying to learn them at the same time won’t work. In fact, practicing one actively interferes with learning the other. (Or so I’ve been told; I’ve never tried to play classical guitar.)

  13. Craig says:

    David-

    I like that analogy. I’m a guitar player, so I can relate. I’m self-taught. However, I don’t think it holds up, especially with the questions you are bringing up in this blog post. What is meditation? What is the path? What is the direction? What is it for? With guitar, it’s quite clear. I learned chords because I wanted to play music that I liked in a band. Also, I aesthetically love the sound of a strummed steal string. It’s soothing. At the same time, there are some unexplainable things when it comes to music. So, it kind of works. What I’m currently interested in is the framework around which we ‘do’ meditation. If it’s for Enlightenment, that’s a slippery slope. If it’s an aesthetic soothing practice, then that’s a little more down to earth, so to speak.

    This whole question of What is Enligitenment? has always been interesting to me. Your blog raises lots of great questions. The vids of Sujato are entertaining. I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about! ;-)

  14. What is meditation? What is the path? What is the direction? What is it for?

    These are excellent questions! I think all Buddhists should ask them. Different Buddhisms will give different answers, and then you can decide whether you find them believable and/or attractive.

    If the answers are excessively vague, or unbelievable, then you can reject them. Maybe no Buddhism’s answer is good enough, in which case you can be a non-Buddhist :-) . I find answers that seem adequate for me personally, so I continue to call myself a Buddhist.

  15. Cristiano says:

    David,

    One of your best, thank you. I liked seeing the way emptiness and form played themselves out in it.

  16. karmakshanti says:

    OK, David, I’ll take your questions on, and I won’t use a single scrap of Buddhist orthodoxy to do it.  

    My conclusion will be that the reason there is an insoluble epistemological tangle around your set of questions:  What is enlightenment?  Was there a Buddha?  and so on, is that in some cases you are asking the wrong questions, and in others you are asking them in the wrong form.  As it stands, many of your questions are of the same form as:  Where is the residence of the present King of France?  Other questions, such as:  Should we care about enlightenment? are the wrong questions because they are questions about our attitude toward the “present King of France”.  The way this question should be asked is:  What should we care about in Buddhism?  You get to this point yourself, but it is easy enough to do this without any of your “questions that Buddhists should be asking”.

    Now, in order to do this, I must point out that there are three Western traditions of thought I will draw on, all of which your analysis has largely ignored, the Humanities, (from which my personal intellectual discipline comes); the Philosophy of linguistic analysis, and the Science of direct field observation and classification without the aid of experiment and technology.  I’ll be using all of them.

    The critique that the existence of the historical Buddha cannot be known or proven can be made with equal force about George Washington.  Nobody who knew him is now alive, as there are still people alive who knew Winston Churchill, so there can be no direct and personal testimony of Washington’s existence.  The only evidence we have for it are “texts”, using the term in the broad sense of referential artifacts and living oral traditions, as well as written texts.  This is where the Humanities come in, specifically the discipline of History.  There are no “experts” in the Humanities in the way you use that word, we are all “students”.  Some students are merely more familiar with the relevant texts than others.  There is no implication whatever that people in the first group have better judgment than the second.

    For history is a matter of rational judgment.  But since it uses texts and testimony exclusively, it cannot use the same standard of judgment as Science.  We can assert “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the Earth is a sphere and it travels around the Sun.  In the Humanities, we are forced to use “the preponderance of the evidence” as the sole possible standard.  The preponderance of the evidence clearly supports the existence of the historical Buddha nearly as strongly as that of Washington.  Neither is a myth.  A myth is something different.  Apollo driving the chariot of the Sun is clearly a myth, because there is plenty of evidence in the texts that people such as Socrates were in considerable doubt about the matter.

    Now, let’s look at the word “enlightenment”.  What your analysis makes clear is that what we have is a concept and a plethora of different and partially contradictory opinions about this concept.  But what that means is that enlightenment is what Wittgenstein in the Blue and Brown books called an “open textured” concept:  the opinions about it clearly share a “family resemblance” to one another, though there is no one thing common to them all.  All opinions about enlightenment are just that, opinions, and adduce no convincing reason to believe that enlightenment is anything more than a concept in the same way that the present King of France is merely a concept.

    This is a much different conclusion than an epistemological assertion that what enlightenment refers to is “unknowable”.  We can easily know that the “present King of France” is a concept without an objective referent, and we could conceivably know that about enlightenment.  The mere fact that we don’t know this is purely circumstantial, and in no way epistemologically necessary.

    Now let’s consider Freud and Psychology.  It is clearly Science, but science at an earlier stage of development, just like the Sweet Peas of Gregor Mendel or the Galapagos species differentiation of Darwin.  Technological progress advances Science, but that does not mean that pre-technological observation and hypothesis is “bad Science” or non-Science, even if the observation is limited and the hypothesis suspect.

     The capacity to use technology to see brain activity is far younger than I am.  The only way Freud could observe the brain directly was through dissection, which tells you lots about structure, but nothing about function, which is what we really want to know.  The notion that this function could be measured indirectly by experiments with behavior was years in the future and all Freud had to rely on was oral reports from his patients, and had develop his theories from there.  And they were patients being treated by a medical doctor for the condition called neurosis.  Freud had little to no access to the non-neurotic, but there is nothing unreasonable in assuming as he did  ( in the absence of direct evidence one way or the other) that brain function in neurotics was to some degree similar to brain function in the healthy.

    In the same way as Freud, the only thing we can directly observe about these matters is what Buddhism does to and for us personally.  Now I’m just as certain as you are that “peak” experiences are suspect and usually ephemeral.  But it’s perfectly possible to look rationally and carefully at our own memories with enough confidence that a simple question like:  Am I happier being a Buddhist than before I was one?  has a real answer, and, probably, a right answer.  It is the questions that don’t derive from personal experience such as:  Am I closer to Enlightenment than I was before?  that are functionally unanswerable, because they assume a relation to an objective referent that may or may not be there, like asking if the present King of France is your long, lost uncle.

    To return, then, to what is taught about Buddhism by monastic scholars of various sects with a clear lineage back to the earliest transmissions of monastic vows, all I can say is that what the Kagudpas have taught me has led me to a much different set of questions than you propose.  This because the primary focus of their teaching is about suffering and non-enlightened confusion.  Thus:

    1.  Does karma, cause, and effect work in the world as Buddhism describes it?

    2. Is the belief in past and future lives reasonable even if you have no direct memory of them?

    3.  Why does experience appear to have a private and possessive reference point? I.e.  “I, me, mine.”

    4.  Why does experience also appear to be “public”, allowing both you and I to experience the same exterior world, and for both of us to believe that this exterior world does not vanish when we aren’t experiencing it?

    5. Why does our mental and emotional contact with the world seem so liminal , changeable, and so little like the apparent stability of objects outside us?

    6.  What should we think and do about the fact that there appear to be other people with private “reference” points of their own?

    In other words, the relevant questions are not about religion particularly, Buddha particularly, or enlightenment particularly.

    They are about us.

  17. karmakshanti – Awesome post. I am very interested in deeper viewpoints on #3 and #4. I get that this reality is a free fall of groundless experience, but yet, why does this perspective appear to be centered?

  18. Just for fun, I want to take a different slightly contrarian tact:

    “How do you know the Buddha was enlightened?”

    Upon stream entry, it is COMPLETELY CLEARLY OBVIOUS that the Buddha was “enlightened”.

    Even the western Mahasi-practicing pragmatic dharma folks agree on the 3 fetters released at stream entry –

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sotāpanna#Three_fetters:

    “The three fetters which the Sotāpanna eradicates are: [7][8]

    Identity view – The speculative view that a so-called self exists in the five aggregates (physical forms, feelings/sensations, perception, mental formations and consciousness) is eradicated because the Sotāpanna gains insight into the selfless nature of the aggregates.

    Skeptical Doubt – Doubt about the Buddha and his teaching is eradicated because the Sotāpanna personally experiences the true nature of reality through insight, and this insight confirms the accuracy of the Buddha’s teaching.

    Clinging to rites and rituals – Clinging to the view that one becomes pure simply through performing ritual or rigid moralism, such as praying to a god for deliverance, slaughtering animals for sacrifice, ablutions, etc. is eradicated because the Sotāpanna realizes that rites and ritual are nothing more than an obstructive tradition, repetitious rites and dead dogmas; Deliverance can be won only through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.”

    So, while at stream entry you will not know what enlightenment is, you’ll be damn sure that the Buddha had more of whatever it is than your previously grossly ignorant self.

  19. karmakshanti says:

    I’ve already wasted too much of David’s bandwidth, but, from the Kagudpa viewpoint, these questions are sequential, and the answers the lamas give to them derive initially from the problem of karma, cause, and effect. Without going into detail, public and private experience are both the results of the karmic process, which must be understood (and assented to) to give sensible explanations for the other five. Thus this view starts from Ontology rather than Epistemology.

  20. Justin’s reference to stream entry as a workable model for determining progress on the ‘path’ popped into my mind when reading the earlier comments. Stream entry as a waystage is used by the Pragmatic Dharma chaps (Ingram, Folk, Horn), and also by Shinzen Young and others. From a practice position, it seems to a be a fairly workable model, with steps, rather than present an abstract final goal. As the first stage of the Four Path model, I have found it useful, even though I don’t practice Theravada Buddhism. Of course, how objective it is, how measurable it is, how applicable it is in different Buddhist schools, whether it is pliable enough to be applied outside of the Buddhist path, are all issues not easy to resolve and easily deconstructed by those with more advanced philosophical skills.
    Sometimes I wonder whether all of the deconstruction that is applied to the Buddhist Path shouldn’t be balanced out with better attempts at reconstruction; attempts at formulating new definitions of meaning and experience on the path? This is perhaps held back by notions of enlightenment and enlightened beings, which keeps us in a sort of collective deferral to whoever seems to be the super-Buddhist/s of our time. I have said it before on this blog, I feel strongly we need to take fuller ownership of not just the paths of Buddhism, but fruition, progress and results. We can then probably feel freer to reformulate, play with and see what works in ongoing experimentation.
    I thoroughly enjoy reading the Speculative Non-Buddhist website for their lacerations of Buddhist insider themes and myths, and yet, I still leave their site and then practice and have need to address the issues that arise within the experience of ongoing practice on and off cushion, which are not just part of an ideology, but of a a very down to earth human experience regarding suffering/dissatisfaction, emotional and mental well-being and my deficiencies as a human. Their site and approach is wonderful for recognising the deficiencies of Buddhism, but it does not provide alternatives as far as practice is concerned and builds very little in the way of alternatives to what is criticised except for encouraging critical thought to how we think about Buddhism and more specifically x-Buddhism as it is defined there. This is great, but the next step has to be, what’s left? What do I do now? You are still challenged if you wish to meditate to work with the body, the breath and immediate experience. Excessive deconstruction often leads to poverty of experience in which possibilities are denied as they may mean a descent into x-buddhistic falsity.
    My answer then is that I sit, I meditate, and I reflect on my experiences and after take some of the more traditional descriptions of practice as metaphors and attempts at describing actual experience, and attempt further to use more updated understandings of the human condition to inform and interpret, critical certainly, what is emerging in practice and how that shapes and affects my day to day life and my relationship to the world around me. I still require some method of determining progress on the path, which is the one I and you construct through practice, whilst attempting to follow, at times, vague or pre-prescribed external possibilities. I do this because what has happened in twenty years of meditating is of immense value.
    With regards to ‘enlightenment’ though, I think it is easier for us to agree that the concept is always contextually dependent and therefore quite useless outside of a given Buddhism, or other path. I like the Four Path model because it implies freedom, as opposed to an imagined/promised super-state, and it indicates freedom from a specific form of illusion. As a starting point, defining progress in Buddhist practice in terms of freedom from specific obstacles/kleshas/strata of identification, etc, could be very, very useful. I don’t see why we couldn’t eventually reformulate the Four Path model into a more westernised form, using data from MFRI mapping of progress in advanced meditators and by doing so perhaps find a workable model that crosses the variety of Buddhist traditions.
    As a slight aside, the thought returns to me that perhaps these outer reflections of Buddhism are not only political and social and historical entities that need to be de-constructed and reformulated (which they do in my opinion), but could be recognised in part as successful attempts at skilful means for disseminating the teachings in new contexts to the best of the ability of the folks of those times and in the contexts in which they existed.
    As Karmakshanti says, the path ultimately comes down to the question of whether you are living better after practice and the adoption of the four noble truths (interpretation from either vehicle will do), or not. You can philosophise as much as you like, but well-being does not usually emerge from it. This point is sometimes challenged as opposite to the goals of analysis, the finery of logic, but it isn’t. It’s more of a case of being able to adopt multiple views and inhabit multiple positions and recognise what the priority is in given moments. After thinking about whether the kettle exists, you still use it to boil water for a nice cuppa.

  21. Craig says:

    Matthew wrote:
    “but of a a very down to earth human experience regarding suffering/dissatisfaction, emotional and mental well-being and my deficiencies as a human.”

    I could be wrong, but this is classic x-buddhism as is this whole notion of path and progress. However, your description of your meditation practice seems very non-buddhist. I highlight this not to be critical, but to comment that I struggle with the same thing. I meditate and it helps. That’s about all I can say about it. As far as poverty of experience goes, I think the myths etc. are more responsible than deconstruction. I jog because it feels good and I seem to have a more skillful day. However, I don’t bow to Jeff Galloway before I set out on a run :-)

    As far as the buddhist geeks go, I used to really think they were the cutting edge, but they are say the same damn stuff. It’s like Christian rock worship services. New dressing, same old story. I at most leery of Daniel Ingram. He’s got a whole enlightenment-speak unto himself. I bet if I had the balls, I could start a website, claim full enlightenment and make a living teaching retreats.

  22. karmakshanti says:

    @Justin, Matthew, and Craig: I don’t want to invade your privacy by asking you about these matters, so, at the risk of championing Buddhist orthodoxy, I will say that I, personally, was both Buddhist and adrift until I found a human teacher with whom I had a genuine and indubitable connection, with a lineage that I also was clearly and indubitably connected to.

    We often miss the point in reading the narratives of the historical Buddha that none of his students became Streamwinners or better without his personal guidance. This personal guidance by a teacher is like yeast in bread, both flatbread and yeast bread go into the oven (meditation) but they come out of the oven quite differently. The first yeast breads were all essentially sourdough, and required you to keep a starter to be able to bake a consistent, but new, loaf.

    I personally think, based on my own Buddhist autobiography, that the really significant question is where can I find a teacher who has kept some yeast. I started in the Dharma in a social world that has almost totally vanished, where I was not troubled by a search for a neo-Buddhism, under whatever name you may call it, that needed to be “relevant” to anything, but I certainly had important intellectual questions tangential to Buddhism that clearly became subordinate and optional issues after I committed to a teacher’s guidance. By now most of them have changed from subordinate to irrelevant, but my relationship to a genuine teacher with a real lineage (sourdough starter) has remained rock steady amid all sorts of long and short term personal upheavals.

    So, if you do not have a teacher you know has some yeast, I think the first order of business is to find one without worrying much about any abstract intellectual questions. And, if you do have one, what is important is to follow his or her guidance and not worry much about any abstract intellectual questions, either. The best bread recipe is the one that you actually happen to know well, and you can’t bake it by becoming a critic of cookbooks.

  23. Craig says:

    karmakshanti-

    what is your lineage? my experience with teachers is that they are all ultimately full of shit. asking that one follow their guidance without intellectual question is ridiculous and the reason why i haven’t worked that much with a teacher. also, ‘the buddha’ is a myth. there is no ‘real’ story there. all these teachers claim lineage back to a ghost and basically say they are seasoned practitioners and teachers because they say so. it’s all seems to be as much a scam as TV preachers.

  24. karmakshanti says:

    I am a Karma Kagyudpa, my personal teacher is Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, the abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. He is monastic, and he personally has never made any claim in my hearing beyond being well schooled in the traditional Lama Training Retreat and monastic shedra. He always has had an outstanding intellect, even for a Khenpo, and, at 89 is still sharp as a tack. The head of my lineage is the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Orgyan Trinley Dorje.

    My lineage is very clearly and thoroughly traced back to Tilopa the Mahasiddha of about 950 CE. A second, less well documented, lineage extends reliably from Mahasiddha Matripa, about 1000 CE, and is said to go back in the human world to Saraha the Great Brahmin 800 CE?, though independent and detailed historical confirmation of this is scarce. My private practice derives from Rechungpa, student of Milarepa 1150 CE, and he received it from the Indian yogini Machig Drubpay Gyalmo.

    Besides being my teacher, KKR has authored what I think is an objectively excellent introduction to the general view of the Karma Kagyudpa Three Vehicle analysis of Buddhism called Dharma Paths, as well as an extensive English commentary on the Karma Kagyu retreat manual Mountain Dharma by Karma Chagme 1650 CE. He has personally told me that everything a Karma Kagyu practitioner needs to study is in Mountain Dharma. I have read it carefully in the light of other texts such as Gampopa’s namthar Jewel Ornament of Liberation and Jamgon Kongtrul the Great’s Foundations commentary The Torch Of Certainty; and, so far as my limited experience goes KKR is correct.

    As far as relating to him (or any teacher) is concerned, I have carefully evaluated his descriptions of the nature of my mind, my emotions, and my confusion (all of which I can observe directly on my own). Over nearly thirty years his personal teaching about this has been unfailingly correct. Like any other Tibetan monastic, he has taught and talked about a great deal in the Dharma that I cannot confirm one way or another, so I’ve cultivated an agnostic and open mind about this–particularly since most of it is background and only supplements, at most, the core teachings about how to do Dharma practice.

    It seems to me that to evaluate what you can check about teachings and to defer fixed views about what you can’t directly check, is the most sensible (and fruitful) way to relate to any teacher.

  25. Craig says:

    Karmakshanti-

    thank you very much for describing your tradition. very interesting. your lucky to have had such a teacher around. why haven’t you graduated? seriously.

  26. karmakshanti says:

    You have to understand what “graduation” might be. KKR recieved one of the most stringent Buddhist educations there is. And, since he was born in 1924, he recieved it in Tibet before its living tradition was disrupted in 1958. As a Khenpo, he recieved the highest honors. But he is a monk, which means (among other things) that you become a Buddhist 24/7 for as long as you keep your vows. Only monastics have enough free time to pursue all the details of Buddhism, including the memorization of thousands of lines of texts, and formal debate with each other to sharpen their analytical skills.

    Like the lay Lamas he has trained in America, KKR also has done the practical training retreats where you learn to practice the main Kagyudpa teachings (and some others) for 3+ years where you and your fellow trainees don’t leave the building, don’t cut their hair or beard, and don’t see anything out the window except the surface of a high surrounding wall. During this time you do meditation, group ritual, and practical skills such as the Kagyudpa tradition of shrine offerings, during a day that begins at 3:30 am with renewal of vows, formally ends at 9:00 pm, but usually is spent in private sitting meditation for several hours longer. By the end of the retreat, the most promising students actually cease to sleep at all, and stay in upright meditation posture all night. People who go through this are styled Lamas, but only the best qualified and most emotionally mature ones are given permission to teach the Dharma by KKR.

    Only a handful of his committed students can take off 3+ years of their lives to even do this, interrupting work, marriage, and family commitments for that length of time. It is also very physically demanding and folks in our culture are largely unable to keep up with it after about age 45–which is just when most people in our culture have enough relief from ordinary affairs to even think about doing this.

    Then there are long term students like me, who are given a narrow (but essentially complete) segment of the Lama Retreat to practice privately. This segment begins with a set of preliminary practices that are both physically demanding and time consuming, particularly when they are constantly interrupted by the rest of your life. I am one of only six students at my home Dharma center who have actually completed this (I was #5)–and it took me 23 years to do it. There are about 3-4 more in the pipeline who should finish in the next five years. After this, you are given a practice to do for the rest of your life, which prepares you for death, bardo, and fortunate rebirth, and can potentially induce Insight (Vipassana, lhak’tong).

    No, it hasn’t done it for me yet, but the possibility is there.

    It’s over 35 years since KKR came to America, and by now his total number of students is well over 1000, and perhaps even much more. For those who can’t commit to what I have done they are given easier practices to do alone or in groups that are not all that different in kind from my own, or the Lamas’ practices, but without those tough preliminaries, the intensity and speed with which they work is less.

    No degrees necessary.

  27. karmakshanti: Lets be clear. Are you saying after doing all of this practice you are still not awake enough? This is the impression I am getting, which tells me that other than being an extraordinarily complex hobby, the practices have been ineffective.

    On the larger scale, dodging and only hinting about claims to attainment is tiresome and, frankly, dishonest. Its okay to be wrong and make mistakes – an open honest discussion helps everyone.

    I started practicing noting, self-inquiry, awareness-recognition, and surrender three years ago. I attained stream entry a year ago and reached the end of seeking this spring. I appreciate that others may have much higher standards as far as ongoing attainment, but for me, at this point, that is all icing on the cake. I do not fear death, so there is zero motivation to practice for some “bardo” idea. THIS is spontaneously perfected presence.

    Yes, I still have opinions and an attitude that may irritate some people, but perhaps this attitude is more conducive to helping millions of people awaken in the coming decades – and perhaps I’m totally wrong.

    My honest guess is that you are significantly more accomplished and purified than I am, but perhaps your devotion to your teacher’s high standards is leaving you blind to simply being awake. I hope I am wrong.

  28. karmakshanti says:

    I’ll be as clear as I can then. First, I have made the first five Genyen (Upasaka) vows, one of which is broken by false claims to spiritual attainment. I have been taught by example that it is wise to err on the side of caution in such matters. That having been said, I received a glimpse of the nature of my mind three times, in my first interview with KKR in 1983, shortly thereafter when listening to a teaching by Kalu Rinpoche II, and once during a guru yoga focused on the current Karmapa. From that first meeting I have never had any doubt that the Buddhist teachings are correct in substance about the nature of the world and my mind. I consider these 3 men to be my root gurus and have no doubts that they are beyond Samsaric confusion.

    I have also made the Bodhisattva Vow not to rest until I have attained complete and perfect Buddhahood, and to help any sentient beings in any way I can to achieve it also. I have never doubted that this was possible from that day forward. It has taken me years to purify a sufficient amount of past karma to practice the Vajrayana without constantly running into major obstacles that distract me from my practice; to accumulate enough merit to rest assured that I can, in fact, be of real and permanent help to beings that I encounter along the way; and to gain confidence that I will, in fact, do this routinely in the future whether in this life or beyond it.

    I have, finally, made the Tantric Vows to regard all phenomena as completely pure from the root. These vows are very difficult to keep and I work hard to maintain them and repair them daily. I have learned from empirical experience that you can cause yourself some real problems if you neglect to do this, and lead a life of confidence and happiness if you do do this.

    Finally, after listening to teachings about Khenpo Gangshar and contemplating his text, Naturally Liberating Whatever You Meet (currently in print in English as Vivid Awareness), I have resolved my lack of understanding of the relative permanence of apparent objects (a result of the ripening of past karma) and the constantly changing nature of subjective appearances in my mind which are the seeds of further karmic accumulation.

    This is about as precise as I can be about it without making false claims. I’m not familiar enough with terms such as Streamwinner to be confident in using them to describe my own spiritual life. My lineage does not use them as its primary terminology. But to the degree that I can use its terms to describe where I now stand, I have done my best.

  29. Matthew wrote:
    “but of a a very down to earth human experience regarding suffering/dissatisfaction, emotional and mental well-being and my deficiencies as a human.”
    Craig wrote:
    “I could be wrong, but this is classic x-buddhism as is this whole notion of path and progress.”

    Hi Craig. We must stop meeting like this :) You can certainly argue that such comments belong to x-buddhism, but I can also state that they are not the property of x-buddhism and sum up nicely my own predicament. Down-to-earth means do the results of my meditation practice and commitment to responding in situations differently actually work with my son and wife, students and colleagues and those annoying old people in the supermarket long-term? Am I acting the part of a good Buddhist, or have I gained a more consistent ability to not indulge in my own arrogance and intolerance and be more straight up with people? What’s my intent for doing so? Is it mine or borrowed mindlessly from a Buddhist path? And, perhaps most importantly, am I suffering less, really? (I would include under the umbrella term of suffering; frustration, stifling anger, intense irritation, a lack of positive emotional states, a lack of equanimity, loneliness, anxiety, stress, feeling isolated from others/experience, a lack of intimacy, confusion that leads nowhere, etc). I borrowed the suffering question from the Buddhists, I confess, but it turns out to be an excellent question for avoiding narcissism and self-importance and is now thoroughly my own. What plays out in my day to day life is the level of mental and emotional well-being and my ability to be consistent in my commitments, which are also emotional. I consider authenticity to be of paramount importance, so faking it is not an option, plus my wife and son are not easily fooled and would probably spit on me if I started spouting Buddhist memes and smiled all the time.
    I think that what’s important is making concepts and ideas your own and experimenting with them to see how they actually apply to a lived experience, in this life, if they do at all and that doesn’t have to be done on x-buddhism terms, or consensus Buddhist terms. The x-buddhism argument, in my experience, has at its heart the uncritical adoption of popular Buddhist stances and behaviours and the unwillingness to look outside a given tradition, and then Buddhism as a whole, in order to get valuable feedback on what’s going on in one’s relationship to a tradition (path) or ongoing personal experience of practising something (path). If you take Buddhism as an elaborate set of tools that you can pick and choose from and explore on your own terms, the path becomes self-created/generated. If in doing so, you couple it with free-thinking and active experimentation, then the issues of x-buddhism become less of a prison and more part of the challenge to navigate and also part of the rewarding intellectually stimulating aspect of making the path your own that is building/navigating your own way through a personal and personalised relationship with the world of Buddhism. Later on you may find something works for you and find someone capable enough and intelligent enough to work with you in exploring it further, as opposed to following a master.
    I tend to think of Ingram, Horn, Young and even folk such as Rick Hanson and the Secular Buddhist as attempting this. I wouldn’t say they’ve gone as far as I would like, but it doesn’t mean I have to condemn them for their perceived failures. I would view them as part of a collective learning process, which I actually benefit from. Traditions in this day and age that are aware of their own internal structures/ideology/limitations/rigid adherence to tradition and are willing to engage and criticise and adapt to external structures (i.e. non Buddhist realities including the western academic tradition in all its glory) are about, but its early days in the meeting of Buddhism with the west and it can take effort to find someone, or a group that you can work with and they are all works in progress. This is a further aspect of the comment I Made at SNB about not throwing the baby out with bath water.The majority of Buddhism in the west does still seem to consist of middle-class, middle-age folk playing nice and smiling a lot, but I have nothing to do with them. They certainly do not get to have the final say though on what is worth exploring in the multi-faceted world of Buddhism.
    As for Buddhist practise. In actively applying a given teaching for a given period you get to have some personal experience with it and see what actually emerges from doing so and formulate your own questions, many of which will inevitably reflect, or be a rephrasing of pre-existant questions from those who have attempted similar practices. At that point the practise becomes your practise by definition.
    I agree with Karmakshanti that a teacher with whom you can actually explore the ‘path’ is more likely to provide ‘progress’. I do have a teacher (he doesn’t define himself that way, prefers the term mentoring to describe the process rather than assign himself a role with rigid rules) by the way; non-traditional and thoroughly western. Defining progress and path usually takes place within a tradition, but you could do so by yourself if you wanted:

    Example
    Path: developing tolerance in x situation with y colleague within the next three months by using deep breathing when I see y.
    Progress:
    1. express urge to punch y is slowly reduced during first two weeks as urge subsides after 5 minutes of effortful breathing
    2. y starts to appear as a simpleton instead of a malicious selfish assehole
    3. I couldn’t care less about y and he no longer bothers me.
    (Optional: Good x-Buddhist add on: I feel ever lasting love and compassion for y, we are getting married next week in a Buddhist chapel)

  30. Craig says:

    Matthew,
    Thanks for the response. Lots to consider. I like the way you break it down into really concrete examples. I think that is where non-buddhism is heading. The progress section is something I’ve been working on for years, but not necessarily in a meditative/buddhist way. More from a self-awareness of how I relate to people. I gained this insight through a corrective experience (supervision, analysis). Ironically, my interest in meditation was precisely as a adjunct to this insight. It takes lots of work and once you get to seeing one person as a simpleton, another one comes along and blows you out of the water :-) The best way I can talk about meditation, buddhism etc. these days is that it helps me be more skillful. Literally, to think before I act. I think this also might be where non-buddhism is heading. Think, Pay Attention, Meta-Cognition, Question. Now to me, that is being awake.

    BTW, I love the x-buddhis add on there :-)

    Justin,
    How the hell did you get stream entry? Aren’t these the buzz-type notions that David is attempting to question? I’m really curious as talking about attainments is taboo.

  31. @Justin “On the larger scale, dodging and only hinting about claims to attainment is tiresome and, frankly, dishonest. Its okay to be wrong and make mistakes – an open honest discussion helps everyone.”

    I find being open about personal practice attainments not be actually very helpful. One obvious reason is that it can give rise to all kinds of pissing contests, which are always stupid. But other reasons are more important. Here some:

    1.It does not really communicate: When I started intensive practice, and the practice begun to have its effects, I was rather open about it with my friends. I have grown up in a culture which values certain openness and I am a science guy who appreciates freedom of information. However, my personal experience has shown that talking openly about such things does alienate people who have not had the same experience and nothing really even communicates. How can you talk about the taste of fine Finnish mämmi(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A4mmi), if the other person has never tasted it? Communication can be possible with people who share the same experience – even then I want to leave it to confidential situations. Of course you can praise taste of fine Finnish mämmi, but the food itself look quite suspicious actually. Many foreigners do not dare to taste it, if they see it.

    2. Maps do not necessary fit: I can go and pick some attainments from some list (like Daniel Ingram’s Four Path Model) which would fit into my experience somehow. However, I do not have any connection to the Theravada teachings. My self assessment could be completely wrong. My interpretation of my own situation even within my lineage’s “maps” could be wrong too. But why it is problem to be wrong in public forum about these things? ->

    3. Practice peace: That is because I want some peace. I not want especially other Internet commentators to give me feedback concerning my Buddhist practice. I do not even want such feedback from my fellow sangha members. There are many essential and very private matters, of which I only want to talk about with my lama. He is the correct person to give me actual feedback. Other people lack personal information and competence to do that.

  32. karmakshanti says:

    @sky serpent:

    I can’t see why any should be intimidated by mammi. It looks no worse than devil’s food cake, double chocolate brownies, Christmas fruitcake, or even Unagi, Japanese barbecued eel. I don’t know what happens to rye flour after such prolonged soaking and the only thing I might find unfamiliar in such a dessert is the sharp taste and coarse texture you find in good rye bread. I’d also probably find it a little too sweet. I’ve had to alter my diet to deal with Type II diabetes and most sweet food now tastes far too sugary when I have a little of it.

    I think the main thing is not to get too swell-headed about good experiences. In my own case, they have generally been far less than what is really possible, even when they are far more than any you’ve had before. A good teacher keeps you grounded about this sort of thing, where fellow students usually don’t and other Buddhists actually can make you more swell-headed even if they violently disagree with you.

  33. @karmashanti: I find myself guilty of FInnish humor. I does not translate very well into English, and Americans take it too literately… Maybe I should have used salmiakki as an analogy instead. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gtMY_27PTc) ^_^

  34. Sky Serpant & Justin: I think we should definitely talk about attainments and by doing so bring them out of the traditions and into the wider realm of human experience. Claiming attainment should be with a proviso or two in my opinion; firstly, test the attainment long-term to see if it holds up and try it out in a great variety of scenarios that are both within and outside the norms of what you have known so far in your life, secondly define it as accurately as possible using your own language.
    The attainment of stream entry tends to mature with time and become, dare I say, richer. One of the illusions regarding spiritual attainment is that they are fixed, permanent realities; a sort of badge that you obtain and then show off to peers and friends. Achieving stream entry is more like shedding unwanted psycho-emotional fat, which does dramatically alter your relationship with experience and phenomena, reducing the distance between path and practitioner. You start to become the lived experience of the path. For Craig, you can no longer separate from a process of shedding identification with a fixed, separate self and the layers of identification that lie under such a false experience of the world.
    One of the risks that’s run is of attainment being claimed when a mere peak experience is had or an important shift has taken place, but does not actually imply a stage on the path i.e. stream-entry. The non-dual/advaita camp if full of these folk. I’ve met many of them over the years and the number of stories of supposedly (self-claimed) enlightened individuals (almost always men) inevitably turning up months, or a few discreet years later, caught up sexual misconduct, manipulation of followers, theft of money or megalomaniac behaviour is impressive.
    We don’t have a normalising of the attainment of spiritual states in western society and so therefore one of the dangers is that a new insider club is created which acts to define and affirm its own insider perspective on attainment and how its results (should/have to) take shape. Another issue is that of attainments remaining in the realm of the mysterious and abstract and viewed as super-special, which puts us in the situation where nobody ever achieves them, as in the case of some Tibetan Buddhists schools such as the Gelugpa.
    Define stream entry, or other attainment, in terms that make sense to any reasonably intelligent person and not just Buddhists, and that can be tested. Let’s go scientific! If there is consistency in what people are claiming (including what I wrote above), then there should be a pattern to the attainments and therefore they will be testable. Jeffery Martin has been supposedly attempting such a thing researching self-claimed enlightened beings from all traditions. I believed he coined the phrase ‘persistent non-symbolic consciousness’ to describe the experience of these folk, although how genuine he is I’m not sure: http://www.linkedin.com/in/drjefferymartin

    Maintaining taboos is ridiculous and probably has as much to do with the hangover of power politics in monasteries than it does with attainments going to a person’s head. Normalising achievements and redefining them in western language whilst developing systems for testing them should remove the notion of special and make them more accessible to anyone; Buddhist or otherwise.

  35. @karmakshanti – Thank you. I now understand much better perspectives like yours and where you are coming from, especially in light of the vows and the goal to become a perfect Bodhisattva.

    @sky serpent – I totally get your reasons for not wanting to talk about attainments. For me, personally, if guys like Kenneth Folk, Nikolai Halay, Chris Marti, Ron Crouch, and xsurf/Eternal Now hadn’t spoken very clearly about their experiences and attainments, there is absolutely no way that I would have made progress as fast as I did. Ron’s practice journal is fantastic modeling of this approach:

    http://kennethfolkdharma.wetpaint.com/thread/3696375/Ron's+Practice+Journal

    http://kennethfolkdharma.wetpaint.com/thread/4104517/?maxResults=10

    http://kennethfolkdharma.wetpaint.com/thread/4497870/?offset=0&maxResults=10

    Thusness’s map has been extremely useful to see where dead-ends may lie and penetrate deeper:

    http://awakeningtoreality.blogspot.com/2007/03/thusnesss-six-stages-of-experience.html

    @craig – I attained stream entry by noting my ass off and creating a habit of recognizing awareness as often as possible. During that period, so much momentum was generated that meditation was happening by itself 24/7. In particular, I would pay sharp attention to any resistance, which led to a moment of that resistance being seen as self and dropping away. Afterwards an identity as “The Witness” arose and I went through a definite “stink of enlightenment” phase – luckily, with feedback from others who had gone through it, I was able to recognize the trap and penetrate more deeply. If you’re interested, Kenneth Folk’s community has a very high success rate of getting folks to stream entry.

    Sorry for taking this so far off topic. None of this is actually counter to the wisdom that David is sharing about the word “enlightenment” and I appreciate all of your perspectives.

  36. One thing that I appreciate about this blog is that it discusses a different ideal/aesthetic than a lot of other sources. David is not writing about the “end of suffering” or “ego destruction”, he is writing about recognizing the illusion and still choosing to play the game, which I think is just as valid (and empty) as any other ideal.

  37. Craig says:

    skyserpent-

    what is deep practice?

  38. Craig says:

    Matthew,
    i’ve always found it so ironic that all the suffering problems of society and individuals still manifest in monasteries of so-called enlightened folk. i mean, if enlightenment makes you more of an asshole, then what’s the point:)
    study of enlightenment probably needs to start with some exhaustive lit reviews and lots and lots of qualitative research and coding. that would at least show some themes if they exist.

    my idea is that nothing is going to stop human suffering. to exist is to suffer. before you can do anything that might help, we need a society that is focused on human well-being rather than violence and profit. at that point, meditation practice might be able to help us sit with and maneuver skillfully in this world.

  39. Craig says:

    justin,

    thanks for the info. it really is hard work. i’m gonna check this blog out you recommended. :-)

  40. “I totally get your reasons for not wanting to talk about attainments. For me, personally, if guys like Kenneth Folk, Nikolai Halay, Chris Marti, Ron Crouch, and xsurf/Eternal Now hadn’t spoken very clearly about their experiences and attainments, there is absolutely no way that I would have made progress as fast as I did.”

    That stuff gave me some ideas initially, so perhaps it was useful back then. It stopped to be useful material after a point. To explain why would require longer conversation.

    I think that it is good to at least discuss about these things, even though I might disagree personally with some models.

    “Thusness’s map has been extremely useful to see where dead-ends may lie and penetrate deeper.”

    I can just send email to my teacher, or ask when I meet him, if there are obstacles around in my practice. It is one of those good sides when practicing methods of a not really popular lineage.

    @Graig:

    Deep practice is like you are being eaten alive while beautiful dakinis have sex with you.

  41. Anyone who found this post interesting will probably also like a new post by Matthias Steingass on Speculative Non-Buddhism here:

    http://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/09/18/ive-done-it/

    It’s about the epistemology of no-self and True Self theories of enlightenment. The approach he takes is quite similar to mine. (Supposedly I am going to write much more about that over in the Meaningness book, but who knows when/if that will happen.)

  42. Pingback: Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’ « Ataraxia and Mental Effluents

  43. Hi David, I just skimmed (late here already) through your essay thinking that there are points we both touch and here at the end of the text I find your link. Thanks a lot. I once called you an outright x-buddhist in a discussion. I am thinking since a while now I have to revise this judgement. It may be done hereby.

    I like it very much that here at your site there is also going on a discussion which is free to explore new creative ways to look at Buddhism – although at some points in the above discussion I got a slight stream-entry-hick-up…

    Good to read your work.

  44. ‘Stream entry hick up': stream entry pick me up. There’s nowt wrong with a bit of stream entry Mr Steingass :) Off to read your post now at the SNB on why it probably doesn’t exist…

  45. I’ll remain silent about this for the time being Mr. O’Connell B-)

  46. Hi, Matthias,

    Thank you very much for your comment. Sorry to be slow to reply—I’ve gotten several days behind on comment replies.

    Your project and mine seem quite similar to me (but I don’t fully understand yours).

    My default assumption is that Buddhism is over. It’s irrelevant and will be completely dead in a few decades—unless there is some good reason to revive it.

    That means everything is on the table. There are no sacred cows. The question is: “Is there anything left in the rotting corpse that looks edible?”

    I hope there is—but quite likely I’m wrong!

  47. saibhu says:

    Hello David,

    thank you very much for your interesting and important post.

    I have one question regarding the transformativeness (is this even an english word) of certain experiences.

    Martine Batchelor explained once at a retreat, that in her opinion an insight/meditative-experience is not enough, but that one needs to set in into practice in order to get something out of it on the long run.

    To me, this sounded very plausible: An experience is only transformative, if you make it that way. Does this fit within your own experiences?

  48. Hi saibhu,

    It’s hard to speak from personal experience, because I don’t have enough of it.

    Generally, though, I would agree with her. It’s sadly common for people to have spiritual experiences that don’t seem to make any difference for their everyday life. For the experience to be valuable, you somehow have to make it relevant to real-life issues.

  49. Gottheo says:

    From the perpective of an orthodox jew, mormon, or a conservative protestant christian the founding myth of buddhism is a sordid tale of a guy dumping his wife and kid and responsibilities to chase after a state of mind and once having achieved that had the charisma to persuade others if they followed the eight item to do list they could do the same! And at the same time depend on those dreary people doing the normal stuff to subsidize them in exchange for some sort of intangible spiritual benefits. The stuff buddha abandoned is to those theists is the acme of life, the arena where one becomes fully human and expresses being made in the image of God and the future eternity is continual growth before the open instead of the now unseen face of God.

  50. Great: That’s the best thing in a long time I heard about Buddhism!

  51. @David. I don’t understand my project either. I don’t know why I am still talking about Buddhism. It is silly.

  52. @ Gottheo – there *are* alternate readings and presentations of the foundations of Buddhism in general, and particularly those Buddhist vehicles which in historical terms are held to have manifested later than Sutrayana. Many are entirely different to the Gautama tale, or are radically different readings of that same tale of renunciation and asceticism. None of those I’ve encountered have a great deal to say about God however – even though some do wholeheartedly embrace the ‘acme’ of everyday working family life as a basis for spiritual practice. Seekers after the divine will find Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any number of other theistic religions will provide more fertile soil for spiritual inspiration than Buddhism.

  53. David,
    I’m coming late to the party, but am thoroughly enjoying and inspired by your updated tantra. Your critique of ‘enlightenment’ is great. It identifies many of the things that make me uncomfortable with the word (I still use the word occasionally, although I don’t identify as Buddhist). There are a few other things in this post, however, that leave me a bit uncomfortable. I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, but I’ll give it a try:

    1) The criticism of non-ordinary experiences through common sense materialism fall flat. As you wrote in your ‘unclogged’ posting: “The aim of tantra is to liberate [the world] from imposed meanings.” The most hoary of those imposed meanings are precisely the common sense perception of fixed bodies & clear cause and effect. The need to distinguish cheddar from chalk is a practical one, necessary for the maintenance of our bodies. But it may (as some scientists argue) emerge just as much from the wiring and training of our bodies as from the material difference between cheddar and chalk.

    Even if the neurologists are right that the unity experience comes from a breakdown of the ‘boundary-tracking mechanism’ (is that the same as the ‘soporific principle’ that makes opium work?) that says absolutely nothing about the significance of the experiences and perceptions that happen when that mechanism shuts off. What do we do with that new perception? I think most of us just left stunned, or–as you have described in another post–automatically apply some culturally or scripturally based interpretation (or, as in the case of my drug experiences, apply 3-4 interpretations almost simultaneously). Trying to measure these experiences against real-life common sense is a way to impose meaning on them not much different than calling them ‘enlightenment,’ or constraining them within any other premature concept on them.

    2) Unruffled by adversity, considerate and charismatic (which you later gloss as confidence, mastery and charisma). These are all nice effects. Plenty of people obtain them without tantra. And, frankly, if these were my goals, I could think of better, and easier, ways to attain them than through tantra. These are not goals, however, that would draw me to a modern tantra. They are goals that seem inappropriate to what we know about the universe.

    I want to give more weight to the mystical experiences, to learn how to explore them while reducing the weight of the concepts I will inevitably impose. Yes, it is extremely hard to have abiding experiences, to give them a lasting effect on our lives. But rather a tantra that points me back to ‘real life’, I would like one that helps me to better explore those non-ordinary experiences. We should instead be paying more attention to how we can live a life in more awareness of what we perceive through mystical experiences; not bring the mysticism down to real life issues.

    I’m not necessarily embracing irrationalism (although I do think there are limits to rationality). Much of what drives me are the findings of modern science: the infinitessimal yet empty and unknowable spaces of quantum mechanics; the incredibly vast spaces and huge numbers of the universe; the rise and fall and constant changing of species (including our own); emergent properties and statistical patterns. Not to mention the more speculative ideas such as multiverses, string theory, black holes as universes, the big bang, etc. And the inevitability of death. How should one live in a world like this? A “real life” orientation seems hardly appropriate. It would require me to ignore everything that science teaches me about the universe. What attracts me to tantra (and psychedelic drugs) is their ability to create experiences that ( can more directly engage this meta-nature . . . . which includes not only the mystical experiences, but also much of what you have explained such as the charnal/pure land and the acceptance rather than judgment of emotions.

  54. Thank you very much for such a thoughtful response! We probably agree much more than was evident from this post.

    Nearly everyone agrees that you must believe either in woo, spooks, and magic, or in “scientific” or “common-sense” materialism. The only disagreement is about which is right, and the two factions fight an endless holy war about that.

    I reject both woo and materialism. That’s not a matter of open-minded agnosticism; I’m confident that both are outright wrong. There are other alternatives. They are more complicated and less comfortable, and therefore less popular.

    My post emphasized one of those two rejections—although I hope I did make it clear that I think non-ordinary experiences are valuable. My outline has two up-coming pieces in which I will explain why I reject materialism also.

    So, yeah, materialism is a dogmatic and counter-productive ideology that deliberately blinds you to interesting, useful, beautiful things, and generally makes you miserable.

    Regarding your point 2, I’m not sure if we agree or not. You seemed to take me as as advocating Buddhist tantra for its pragmatic value to life as typically understood. That means life as seen through the grubby glass of limiting “common sense” assumptions, in which (e.g.) it is axiomatic that career success is terrifically important. This isn’t quite my point!

    Rather, my suggestion is that tantra is pragmatically useful for life increasingly freed from conceptual limitations. That might include pursuing a career—but only if it you do that rather ironically, in the understanding that there is no big meaning to success. It might also mean abandoning your career to become a wandering yogi, or adopting some other unconventional lifestyle. (I once considered becoming a prostitute to support my meditation habit.)

    “Confidence, mastery and charisma” are secondary to “nobility”, which I hope to get to write about soon. That might be an inspiring goal—or not. Different Buddhists want different things from Buddhism, and I think that’s dandy!

    The word “mystical” is ambiguous. It can refer to a specific set of limiting concepts (All Is ONE, etc.); or just to any non-ordinary experience. I think the All Is One concepts are clearly wrong (and, by the way, to have more to do with 19th century German Romantic Idealism than Buddhism).

    I like non-ordinary experiences, and I think any experience that causes one to loosen one’s hold on limiting concepts may be helpful. But, that only goes so far. There may be particular non-ordinary experiences that are particularly valuable (and maybe those are what get labelled “enlightenment”).

    But, valuable for what? And how and why and how much? I really can’t see them being ultimate ends in themselves.

  55. Joshua Jonathan says:

    Hi David,

    have you got the name of an author and/or publication for the “monkey thesis”? I like it, and would like to read more about it.
    Joshua Jonathan

  56. Hi, Joshua,

    This is embarrassing—no, I can’t remember where I’ve read about that idea.

    Anyone else know where it comes from?

  57. gilad says:

    I have many disagreemets, and unfortunately, not the articulate capacity to put them in proper arguments. I will just say these – There might be a difference between the types of Knowledge, Truth and\or Knowledge-experiences between Epistemology and Buddhism (and approaches within each). For a discussion on these, I refer you to David Loy’s “Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy” and his reading of Prajna; In my own words, in the spirit of Dogen, I think what we are looking for is a (deeply profound) Confirmation rather than ‘Truth’ which always hints at a subject\object gap.
    Also, I think the blind spot running through all this critique is a kind of [Americanized] hedonistic injuction, a ruthless “does it work” purposefulness that remains unattended to, and which is foreign to exactly the buddhist project- the wholly ambigous character of the middle way, built exactly on exhausting the epistemological driveness.

  58. Pingback: Podcast: Enlightenment & Epistemology | David Chapman at Wordpress

  59. 1Z says:

    “The theory is obviously false. All is not one; chalk is not cheddar. (Try making a melted chalk sandwich.) ”

    Diamond is obviously not charcoal, ice ks obviously not steam, you are obviously not the person you we’re five minutes ago..

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