Coming Back to the Cushion, Gunning for Stream-Entry

I never really stopped meditating, per se, I just wound up doing less of it, less frequently than I had done in the past. I got busy with other things and tired from the increasingly hectic pace of work – to the point where now, for now, I’m always on-call for the company. It’s hard to make / take the time to sit when you get home tired and the phone rings every half hour with some issue needing your attention (or kids, kids could be bad for it too), but over the past couple months I’ve been ramping up my sitting time and ignoring the phone more assiduously (having figured out that they’ll figure it out). And as, and as much as, the monkey-mind settles down, my motivation to practise increases.

Once upon a time, I was determined to make it to stream-entry (Theravada Buddhist talk for the first stage of enlightenment). At some point, I’m not sure when exactly, it went away. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that instead of the desire going away, it was more that the goal seemed out-of-reach, sort of like dreams of stardom are for many people. The sort of case where it is not so much that one wouldn’t love to be famous, or that one wouldn’t immediately give up ordinary life if fame descended upon her in some form, but more like the acknowledgement and acceptance that life probably just won’t allow her that experience: discouragement. Just so, I became discouraged that awakening is an experience that I could experience.

But lately – and I don’t know whether it’s the increased cushion-time, having just made it through a difficult moment for the family, re-reading old books that make it seem doable, or just knowing that my work situation is going to become both less intense and allow me lots of time to dedicate to practising – the goal has seemed so achievable. So I’m shooting for that – I’m shooting for stream-entry.


Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’

A discussion has erupted over at David Chapman’s blog about that most important of Buddhist concepts – namely, enlightenment.  More specifically, he took as his subject matter the following set of 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?

He also asks what do we want Buddhism for?

These are, naturally, very important questions for Buddhists to ask of themselves and their sanghas since the whole point of the Buddhist path is to take us from wherever it is that we are toward enlightenment (even if enlightenment wasn’t anywhere else to begin with). Buddhism without enlightenment seems a lot like coffee without caffeine – sure, it tastes sorta the same, but what’s the point? Unfortunately, it is a question that very few Buddhists actually pause to give much thought to.  I’ve been thinking about this myself and have concluded that people really are confusing/conflating enlightenment as epistemic event/state, as metaphysical event/state, and as worldly-pragmatic state.

Enlightenment as an epistemic event/state:

This version of enlightenment-as is constituted by some sort of knowledge-that/of or the moment of the acquisition of such knowledge. In Buddhist terms it is relatively straightforward what might count as ‘enlightened’ knowledge: emptiness, universality of the Three Characteristics, dependent origination, karma and its workings, rebirth, etc.  However, there are other possibilities here too – God-like omniscience is surprisingly frequently thought to be gained at enlightenment.  At bottom, any realistic idea about Buddhist enlightenment will necessarily include some epistemic aspects – non-enlightenment for Buddhism just is ignorance about not-self, etc. – but need not include all of these.  For example, Mahayana traditions maintain that arahantship (a sort of enlightenment) is possible without having fully comprehended the emptiness of all phenomena (a point which Theravada disputes).

Enlightenment as a metaphysical event/state:

Metaphysical enlightenments-as are characterized not by knowledge but by a change in the being of the enlightened person.  On such conceptions enlightened beings are freed from the birth-death-rebirth cycle, have gained magical powers, replaced their material bodies with immaterial ones (!), merged with God, etc.

Enlightenment as a worldly-pragmatic state:

Though not as colourful as metaphysical enlightenment-as, this is perhaps the most broadly inclusive category as it can include all sorts of different things.  There is the old Buddhist stand-by of enlightenment as freedom from suffering.  There is enlightenment as moral or ethical perfection.  Enlightenment can be imagined as the total absence of negative mental states and the continual presence of pleasant ones.  It has even been suggested that enlightened beings will have become the ultimate learners, able to learn new languages (or other such novel tasks) with great ease.

Any of these could comprise a reasonable definition of enlightenment (singly or in combination)[1] but one nevertheless has to be really clear with oneself about a few things.  First, one must be clear about when there is some mixing-and-matching happening between different enlightenments-as.  What is important here is that while any picture of enlightenment will likely cobble together different aspects of each of the categories given above, there will generally be something that is thought of as being the core ‘essence’ of enlightenment (say, it’s epistemic but emotional good times follow, or emotional stability is the aim but knowledge is a step on the path to that).  Second, it may be that in reality there is no connection whatsoever between these different enlightenments-as – for all we know, knowledge of the emptiness of external phenomena may be just as likely to lead to a complete lack of regard for others’ well-being as it is to lead to ethical perfection.  Third, one should not be under the impression that it will necessarily be the case that the methods that produce one sort of enlightenment will lead to the production of some other sort.

Based upon what I’ve seen in my investigations, it strikes me that Vajrayana Buddhism (in general?) tacitly acknowledges this – at least, this seems to me the most probably useful way to gloss the three-yana/nine-yana approaches to the path. It seems to me the instructions are to hit stream-entry, defined as epistemic insight into emptiness, as quickly as possible and then to move on to cultivating real-world usefulness and compassion, although not totally ignoring other stuff either [2] – full enlightenment, Buddhahood, being a blending of insight and worldly efficaciousness.  This is very different from, say, Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk’s brand of Theravada, where the point is to pound emptiness through the skull as completely and as quickly as possible and then worry about everything else after arahantship, which one will have to do since the method isn’t designed to produce e.g. compassion (this is cartoonish but good enough).  This sort of approach is based on enlightenment as purely epistemic (albeit, with the real-world consequence of suffering being eliminated).

Obviously, these paths are going to appeal to different types of people. Vajrayana (as it is presented to Western lay-folk) makes much hay about compassion and so those with an empathic or ‘real-world’ sort of bent are going to be strongly attracted to that sort of practice. Ingram and Folk are much more INTP in their orientation and so will naturally appeal to those like myself (pure episteme, “knowledge for its own sake”). But if one spends all his time doing compassion practices (e.g. tonglen, metta) he should not expect to ‘get’ emptiness, nor should someone who spends all her time breaking down reference points expect to become temperamentally different from before merely because she sees that her anger is dependently arisen. Of course, most Buddhist teachers either don’t know or won’t say what their brand of enlightenment is aiming at – so we enter Dharma centres and get talks about cutting through self-clinging but are given metta practices, or about cultivating compassion but are given vipasyana/vipassana practice. And since most students aren’t clear about the difference between these or even what they’re after, they can’t get whatever it is that they really need.


[1] Rather, some of these could present a reasonable definition of enlightenment – flying cross-legged across the universe is unlikely to be truly possible.  By “enlightenment” here I mean, of course, ENLIGHTENMENT!!!‘ – i.e. something that is suitably desirable and non-ordinary that it would be a satisfactory aim for a spiritual practise.

[2] Major caveat: I have a suspicion that in monastic settings the aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to produce arahants first and then move along to other things (hence the decades of training).