Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for June 10th, 2011

Enlightenment? Suit yourself.

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In a comment left on a previous post, Marshall Massey made the following observation:

Successful graduates of all three traditions (Buddhism, guruistic Hinduism, and Sufism) will testify that there is a great “spiritual” opening-up that can happen when our own self-esteem and will are successfully defeated, even if the defeat is only momentary, and a rightly prepared student can grow tremendously at that time. All the crushing burdens of Buddhist monastic discipline and guruistic and Sufi disciplines seem aimed at bringing the student to that point.

It is true that there is no lack of testimonies to spiritual openings in various traditions that identify themselves as spiritual (in some sense of that bafflingly polysemous word). What is not entirely clear is whether there is any truth to the testimonies. Is there any truth to the matter of whether someone has had a spiritual opening, or is enlightened, or has been liberated from the world of suffering, or  is saved? And if there is some truth to the matter, then what is the criterion by which one can distinguish a true from a false claim about the matter? Who is it who is in a position to determine whether anyone (including himself or herself) has had a genuine opening, enlightenment, liberation or salvation? It seems to me that all these questions are so intractable that the best policy may be to set them aside altogether, and in setting them aside, to suspend judgment on all claims to spiritual attainment, whether one’s own or that of another.

At this year’s Summer Seminar on Buddhism, John Maraldo has been lecturing on members of the Kyōto school of philosophy. In the first lecture in his series of talks, Professor Maraldo read excerpts from letters written by Nishida Kitarō, regarded as the founder of what eventually came to be called the Kyōto school. Writing about his own Zen training, Nishida observed to a close friend (probably D.T. Suzuki) that he had seen many people who had passed through the rigors of Rinzai Zen training, which meant that they had passed through the curriculum of kōan, without showing evidence of being improved in any way at all. They still seemed as selfish as ever, as prone to moral peccadilloes as ever, and as subject to falling prey to painful mental attitudes as ever. He could not understand why their Zen master had passed them and certified them as having gained liberative understanding (kenshō). Nishida’s doubt about the efficacy of Zen training increased when he himself was deemed by his Zen master to have passed the hurdles and gained insight into the true nature of things. He admitted that he did not feel any wiser or any closer to liberation after successfully passing his kōan that he felt before passing them. If being authenticated by a Zen master as having had an opening or an insight produced no noticeable differences in mentality or behavior, mused Nishida, then how could one attach any meaning to what was putatively being authenticated?

Before dismissing Nishida as a hopelessly deluded fool for questioning the notion of enlightenment that is identified as the greatest good and the goal of all Buddhist practice—such a dismissal would be facile unless it could be shown to be warranted by some criterion—it should be asked in a more general way who decided that the Buddha was, well, a buddha. That is, who decided that Gautama was indeed awake (buddha) from his dogmatic slumbers? The Buddhist literature suggests that Gautama himself declared himself to be awake. The Buddhist literature also narrates that not everyone agreed with him. There were those who doubted his wisdom, questioned whether he was correct in claiming that he had been liberated from greed, hatred and delusion. And the Buddhist texts also narrate that Gautama’s own teachers declared him to have reached the goal of awakening, but that he himself knew that they were mistaken, for he knew that he had not reached that goal.

Having an opinion about someone else’s attainments is rarely a good idea. It is really not any of one’s business whether someone else has been enlightened, liberated or saved. I would be inclined to say that even when it is one’s business (which happens only when one’s own spiritual state is in question), it is probably not a good idea to have an opinion about this particular issue. Not much can come from thinking of oneself as enlightened except hubris and disappointment.

One of the most provocative stories in the Buddhist literature is the narrative about a monk named Channa, who was in terrible suffering from a disease that all the physicians he had consulted regarded as incurable. Seeing no point in being terminally ill with a painful disease, Channa told his fellow monks that he was going to take his own life. His friends examined him by asking all manner of questions, and on the basis of his answers they determined that he was an arhant. That is, he had eliminated all traces of greed, hatred and delusion and was therefore in no danger of being reborn in heaven or any other realm at the end of his current life. In short, he had achieved the goal of Buddhist practice. Following the custom of the day, his friends remained silent when he asked their permission to end his own life; in other words, they voiced no objections to his decision. Channa then cut his own jugular vein. As he was bleeding to death, says the story, he became afraid of dying. Fear of death is a sure sign that he was not an arhant. In short, Channa and his friends had all been wrong in their judgment that he was an arhant. Fortunately, the story continues, Channa drew all his resources together and overcame his fear of death at just the moment that he drew his last breath. When Channa had died, news of his death was relayed to the Buddha, who used his superhuman powers to determine where Channa had gone after his death. Seeing that Channa was nowhere to be found in any of the celestial realms or the hell realms and that he had not been reborn as a human being or an animal, the Buddha declared that in the very last moment of his life, Channa had become an arhant.

The story of Channa is as disturbing as it is dramatic. It raises the question: how on earth did the Buddha know that Channa died an arhant? Why did the Buddha believe that his inability to see Channa in any of the usual afterlife settings was sufficient grounds for concluding that Channa no longer existed and so had attained final cessation (nirodha), the summum bonum that is the goal of all Buddhist practice? Might the Buddha have been wrong? Is there any reliable way of answering the question of whether the Buddha was right or wrong in this matter? Is there recourse to anything but dogma and blind faith in such matters? Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. How could I? How could anyone?

Marshall Massey raises another interesting point in his comment to my previous posting. He says:

But if we reject the idea that it is merely a happy-puppey syndrome, then we have to accept that there is an important potential spiritual benefit to be gained from tough monastic discipline, alongside the undeniable abuses of the system and the undeniable psychological and social costs. And the question then becomes: is there a better alternative? Is there some other path to the same benefit, that doesn’t come at so high a price?

A lot of people — at least here in the West — say, yes, there is: we can defeat our own pride and will without entering a cult. And we point to some examples of success on that alternate path, including Gautama himself, Francis of Assisi, and to a lesser degree, a few of the Quaker giants. But the rarity of such successes is not encouraging.

It seems to me that this observation is based on a questionable premiss. The presupposition is that the legitimacy of monastic disciple, or the lack thereof, is determined by its consequence, and specifically the consequence of spiritual benefit. First of all, I doubt that there is any way of defining spiritual benefit that does not involve some form of circularity. If there is no non-question-begging way to determine whether there has been spiritual benefit, then that cannot be used as a criterion for deciding whether monastic discipline is worthwhile.

Here an important Buddhist text comes to our rescue, a text called Milindapañha (Milinda’s Questions). In this text a Bactrian king named Milinda asks Nāgasena, the most highly-respected Buddhist monk within his kingdom, whether it is necessary to be a monk to gain nirvana, that is, liberation from the root causes of suffering. Nāgasena replies that for every monk who attains nirvana there are one hundred ordinary householders who attain that goal. Then he corrects himself and says that in fact thousands—no, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands—of  laymen attain nirvana for every monk who attains it. Naturally Milinda then wants to know what on earth the purpose of monastic discipline is, if it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for freedom from suffering. Nāgasena’s answer, which might surprise some, is that the monastic life is pleasing to some people. It exists just for those people who find it a satisfying way to live, here in this world, independently of any other considerations. This seems to me just exactly the best answer one can give to the question “Should I be a monk?” The answer is “Suit yourself.”

I would suggest that exactly the same answer is the right response to a whole range of other questions. Should you meditate? Well, if you find meditation enjoyable, and if you can do it without harming anyone, then please yourself by meditating. Should you seek out a spiritual master who will dominate you and break your will, as if you were a wild horse that needs to be domesticated to be of use to someone else? If you find being dominated fulfilling, then please yourself by joining an organization that will break your will. One possibility is to join a Buddhist gang, whose members praise the Buddha for being anuttara purisadammasāratī (an unsurpassed trainer of the human beast). Or should you seek out the company of people who perceive social hierarchies as damaging and therefore try to avoid them? If that would please you, then by all means seek out such company. (Good luck finding it in any species in the order of primates!)

On this whole series of questions, I find that Van Morrison speaks my mind when he sings:

I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating
And still I’m suffering but that’s my problem
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, June 10, 2011 at 13:55

Posted in Buddhism