Awakening in the real world
by Winton Higgins
– a dharma talk given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney, 31 March 2016
In spiritual and new-age circles – including some Buddhist ones – there’s a lot of talk about enlightenment, a metaphor which can come across as a synonym for awakening. So let’s de-claw it before approaching the real thing.
Enlightenment is a cosmic promotion into a post-human and super-human condition. Depending on the individual or group using the term, one attains enlightenment as a status that confers irreversible omniscience, perfect wisdom and poise, and the radical absence of the suffering that human flesh is heir to.
It may even confer immortality, including rebirth in blissful states. Enlightenment is mystical and mysterious, and an all-or-nothing phenomenon which promises transcendence of the human condition to an angelic or saintly condition.
Enlightenment belongs to a larger subset of religious ideas called soteriologies (after Soteria, the Greek goddess of safety, and of deliverance and preservation from harm). A soteriology promises redemption, salvation, and transcendence. Conventional Christianity is a good example.
The Buddha neither invented nor used the enlightenment metaphor.
Awakening in dharma practice
He did use the metaphor of awakening, which is a much more (literally) everyday one. We all awaken from sleep at least once every 24 hours. We all know what this transition feels like. We’re oblivious, or dreaming, and then fairly abruptly we’re back in the hard-edged real world, with its familiar sights, sounds, companions, challenges and joys. We know what’s going on, and have a pretty good idea of how to handle ourselves in our familiar life-world.
Like literal, everyday awakening, the dharmic-metaphorical use of the term conveys a process. Some of us awaken more slowly than others. Some urbanites feel they’re not fully conscious and functioning before their first cup of coffee for the day. Other annoying people (like your humble servant) leap out of bed fully alert and ready to hit the gym as soon as the eyelids fly up.
But we’ve all undergone much the same process, which doesn’t confer any lasting status. People don’t whisper in awe behind our backs at work: ‘Behold – there goes One who is Awake!’ Because at day’s end we’ll all be recalled to oblivion and dreams, and have to go through the awakening process all over again the next morning.
That’s not quite the end of it, however. We humans generate very different levels of ambition for what we tackle during our waking hours. At one end of the scale are those who spend most of them just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what’s required of them to stay out of trouble, and rounding out the day with something soporific like telly, beer, and some footy replays.
At the other end of the scale are those who put their idealism and curiosity in charge and into overdrive, and work to be a more grown-up, kind and wise individual at bedtime than they were when they first got up. They’ll start from a more advanced baseline on waking the next day.
If they build this effort into their daily lives, they’re likely over time to realise their ambition. Their waking hours will be all the more intensely lived.
But to their mums, kids, cats and dogs, they won’t have changed status at all – just become nicer and more uplifting to hang out with.
To awaken in the Buddha’s sense is to become so much more than we already are, without becoming someone or something else. Awakening in this sense is the goal of dharma practice. One interesting classical definition of awakening in the Laṅkāvatāra sutra is ‘a turning around in the deepest seat of consciousness’.
The Buddha left us with some invaluable pointers about how to direct our spiritual ambition so we recognise what’s important and don’t drive it into dead ends, like the self-indulgence and self-torment he mentions in his very first discourse. The four great tasks, and the eightfold path in particular, articulate these pointers to awakening.
But note that they’re not standardised and over-prescribed – reducible to rules and techniques. Each of us must work with the grain of our own developmental process. Each of us must work from a unique starting point dependent on our personal origins – a starting point we haven’t chosen, but still our own personal track head.
On the way we might have awakening experiences, especially if we meditate intelligently and quite a lot. Meditation retreats are the most likely occasions for these experiences, which will sometimes build on nirvanic experiences – that is, the radical absence of reactivity (greed, hatred and delusion).
The usual precondition for nirvanic experiences – and thus awakening ones as well – is samādhi (mental integration). Like all experiences, they arise dependent on conditions for which we are largely responsible, and they (like all conditioned things) fall away.
Not all samādhic experiences are nirvanic, and not all nirvanic experiences are awakening ones. These terms represent a rising scale of potential impacts on our development. We need to nurture, deepen into, and recall all these sorts of experiences. So nurtured, awakening experiences may have a strong formative impact on us.
Awakening as flypaper…
In popular and conventional Buddhism, awakening has come to mean a radical change of status, synonymous with soteriological ‘enlightenment’. Predictably, the Zen tradition has pricked this balloon in its inimitable way.
In its annals, we find a student asking a Zen master: ‘What is enlightenment?’ The master replies: ‘Flypaper!’ Some of you may be too young to have encountered flypaper; it predates insect repellant and wire screens. It consisted of smelly, sticky strips of paper hanging from the ceiling, ones that flies, mozzies, bits of airborne fluff etc would land on and get stuck.
The Zen master was succinctly delivering two messages to the student: a) stop fantasising and get back to work!; and b) whatever else enlightenment is about, it’s crucially about clearing the mind of bugs and fluff (idealisations and self-deception).
…and as culture
But if we get back to the processual, experiential idea of awakening, we find Stephen Batchelor talking about dharma practice generating ‘a culture of awakening’. Which refers to a communal movement based on dharmic ethical commitments and focused on the aspiration to awaken to the human potential.
Remember that ‘culture’ refers to making something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen, as in ‘agriculture’ and ‘horticulture’. I suggest this is a far superior way to think about the dharma world, one that frees it from its often backward and unhelpful traditional institutions that focus on individual redemption and transcendence.
The aspiration to develop a culture of awakening challenges the deeply rooted idea that dharma practice is simply an individual solution to human difficulties. It intriguingly brings the Buddha’s parable of the ancient city into focus.
Perhaps the Buddha was ultimately concerned, not so much with individual awakenings, as a communal development towards a new civilisation based on a shared awakening.