November 04 -- Is Buddhism a religion?, part 5: The idea of awakening does not offer an escape from self, but a way to attend to its nature.
Buddhist monks listen as the Dalai Lama speaks to an audience in New York City. Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
The thread that runs through the dense and complex history of the Buddhist traditions is the metaphor of an awakened or luminous mind; a mind whose natural luminosity has been obscured by the dullness of the destructive passions and unruly appetite but is now awakened from the confusion of dream and the oblivion of sleep.
There is an implicit metaphor of freedom and bondage at work, a mind in bondage to appetites and passions that contribute to human and animal wretchedness, and a mind freed from this bondage long enough to regard human activity with a compassion that drives the evanescent sense of justice. The idea of this freedom appears to be that of an ideal limit, flickering and briefly realised, but expressed and preserved in our literatures and cultivated in our traditions of practice.
But what is actually revealed when the mind shines brightly and the obscuring clouds have disappeared? What constitutes the wisdom of someone who is thoroughly awake? It is misleading and subtly self-regarding to pursue an interpretation in terms of privileged and incommunicable insights into the true nature of reality. It is better to understand this wisdom as the attainment of forms of conduct and experience that are not determined by appetency and passion. Buddhist practice has sought to calm and, to transform the passions rather than destroy their energies: the aim is to release and strengthen the subtler emotions they stifle.
Exponents of the traditions talk of silence and what emerges from silence, of just listening or just observing, of attention to the suchness of individual things. Iris Murdoch famously talked of the brooding self with its hurt vanity disappearing at the sight of the hovering kestrel, so that there is nothing now but kestrel. This catches a significant experience of release.
But that experience can itself be misleading: the fourth-century Indian Buddhist thinker Vasubhandu distinguished between grasper (grahaka) and grasped (grahya), an ethically charged distinction where grasping is a particular, appetitive, form of experience, and the grasped is what is available to the grasper. The Buddhist claim is that it is possible to be released from this dynamic, so that it is not the self that disappears but a particular misapprehension of the world.
It is curious and revealing that some of the key positive terms in this kind of Buddhist analysis, alobha (non-attachment), advesa (non-aversion), apramada (non-intoxication) and, of course, ahimsa (non-violence), are all formed by the use of the negative prefix a- on terms that refer to the problematic mental states that are claimed to cause dukkha (suffering). It is as though we had as yet no words for this new form of emancipated experience, except to declare it does not belong to the old order.
The metaphorical contrasts of sleep and awakening, dullness and luminosity reflect a fundamental intuition of Buddhist thought – that there is a causal connection between our mental states and the nature of our experience.
This is itself an application of the general principle that things arise in dependence on conditions. The practical implication is that if we can intervene, then unsatisfactory outcomes can be removed. It is claimed that we can intervene and that a therapeutic programme is available, the noble eightfold path. Thus, famously, if dukkha depends upon craving or greed (lobha) and related dispositions, then reducing or ending the latter reduces or ends the dukkha it specifically brings about, whether conceived initially in terms of one's own individual discomfort or, more generously, in terms of harm to others.
This set of causal connections does not present itself to a disengaged consciousness, but only to one already alive to the destructive consequences of an unenlightened mind for sentient beings. This is one way of understanding the important notion of the arising of the bodhicitta: the idea of a mind, citta, increasingly directed to awakening or bodhi because it is increasingly directed to karuna or compassion.
This exacting and concentrated project is a candidate for what Kierkegaard called the highest passion of subjectivity. It provides a way of understanding self-knowledge as the progressive realisation of the possibility of compassionate freedom.