Saturday, December 14, 2013

HfM:Ch9 Emancipation from the World

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 9: Emancipation from the World here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

Summary - Chapter 9: Emancipation from the World

The goal of vipassana (clear insight) practice is to end dukkha, transcending the worldly condition into the "supra-mundane" plane.

To understand that, let's look at the mundane plane.  It has three levels:
  1. Sensual: Contented in the various pleasures of the senses
  2. Forms: Contented in concentrating on various forms
  3. Formless: Contented in concentrating on concepts

All mundane beings, from earthly beasts to celestial beings, operate at these levels. Without active consideration, most beings settle into the sensual level as a default.

During the Buddha's time, several people had devoted themselves to maintaining the higher levels of the mundane plane. However, their concentration left them as nothing more than blissful rocks or logs, and they still struggled with desires and dissatisfaction.

Similarly, there are levels on the supra-mundane plane on the path to enlightenment; the Fruit of the Path. They are:
  1. The Stream-Enterer (sotapanna)
  2. The Once-Returner (sakadagami)
  3. The Non-Returner (anagami)
  4. The Perfected Individual (arahant)

An individual at these supra-mundane levels is known as an ariya. The level you are at corresponds to the level of release on has from the mundane world. This release is judged by assessing the Ten Fetters; ten subtle ties to the world. Once you are free of these fetters, you are truly free indeed. They are:
  1. Self-belief: Dropping the misconception that the body and mind are your self. (What is meant by self, and why it doesn't really exist, was discussed in Chapter 6)
  2. Doubt: Liberation from the uncertainty that the Buddhist path is the right and true path.
  3. Superstition: Releasing the misunderstanding that rules, rites, rituals, or objects hold some sort of special power.

When these first three fetters have been cut, a person has become an ariya at the level of the Stream-Enterer. They have been released from the most basic levels of bondage, and have entered the stream which will flow on to nirvana.

The next level of the supra-mundane comes after attenuating greed, hatred, and delusion to such a degree that there is only a feeble attachment to sensuality remaining. At this point, the ariya becomes a Once-Returner, as such a person will likely only dip back into the mundane worldliness only once.
  1. Sensuality: The attachment to and satisfaction in sensual things is completely extinguished.
  2. Ill-Will: All anger, resentment, hatred, annoyance, etc. are vanquished.

These two fetters are two sides of the same coin. Sensuality results from satisfaction, while ill-will results from dissatisfaction.

Once an ariya has released themselves of these first five fetters, they are said to be a Non-Returner, for they will never again return to the mundane worldliness, but instead will continue progress to nirvana.
  1. Bliss of Concentration on Objects with Form: Becoming free of the allure of deep concentration on object forms.
  2. Bliss of Concentration on Formless Objects: Similar to the sixth fetter, but instead pertaining to concentration on things like concepts, space, emptiness, etc.
  3. Awareness of Superiority or Inferiority: Ridding yourself of the delusion of having a status that is better or worse relative to another, further transcending the notions of "good" and "bad".
  4. Agitation of the Mind: Developing a mind that is not perturbed by sensory inputs.

An ariya having attained liberation from these nine fetters may still have some curiosity or inquisitiveness about things, but someone who has attained nirvana has no such interest in anything. In such an enlightened person, partiality is abolished, and nothing can provoke him or her to interest or action, even in the face of deadly circumstances. With the nine fetters cut, and advancing toward nirvana, the ariya is known as an arahant.
  1. Ignorance: Ending your ignorance. That is not done by knowing all things, but rather by knowing, and intuitively understanding, the true nature of things. Ending ignorance is about truly understanding dukkha. Ignorance will have you misidentifying suffering as pleasure, misidentifying the causes of pain and misfortune as being spirits or celestial beings, and misidentifying different levels of concentration or feeling as nirvana. Ignorance will have you pursuing non-essential knowledge, possibly making you even more deluded in the process.

A person who has cut these ten fetters has truly transcended the worldly condition; achieving nirvana. Nirvana is the canceling out of the worldly condition. It is the realm which is free of all conditional things, and therefore it is the end of dukkha and a complete, true freedom. It is the goal of Buddhism.

My Take

At the end of the book here, we get a little bit more information about what this nirvana thing is all about, at least according to Buddhadasa's Buddhism.  I've made references to Spock-like behavior, but, based on this chapter and all of the preceding content, let's push a little deeper...

What is this nirvana?  What kind of "bliss" can be expected from it?

In short, this nirvana is about causes and effects.

Consider all of the different stimuli which provoke you to into actions.  Often times, it's nearly an automatic process, like scratching an itch.  Other times, stimuli are strong influences, like browsing the dessert menu and seeing one of your favorites... chances are you'll end up getting that slice of cheesecake.  And, of course, there is an entire spectrum of other stimuli which coerce or provoke you into action.  Or, if not into action, perhaps they provoke you to think about them, hijacking your mind for some time.

In a sense, this provocation in the face of different stimuli is a type of bondage or slavery.  You react in a manner which, while it may appear to you to be under control, is actually controlled by the stimuli around you.  What you determined to do through logical evaluation is impeded, or even halted, as you become diverted or distracted by the influences around you.

Attaining nirvana means that you no longer respond to stimuli in a manner which is not first vetted by your logical mind, and your mind is operating in a condition which is free of any emotional influences.  You become fully in control of you.  So the associated bliss comes from the harmony of intuitively knowing the Three Universal Characteristics and of being independent of the influence of stimuli to the extent that your will alone determines your actions.  That is true freedom.

Or so the story goes.

And a story Buddhism is, not to be dismissive of it.  It's actually a pretty powerful story.  It's what leads some Buddhists into absolutely selfless, altruistic actions without consideration for their own safety, such as self-immolation to make political statements for the good of the general population.  These demonstrations prove that the state of nirvana is real and achievable, at least to a certain extent.  Obviously we can't tell much about the cycle segments of afterlife and rebirth from our temporal perspective.  ;-)

Yet Buddhism is not unique in its ability to prompt people into altruistic action, in either the extreme sense of self sacrifice, or otherwise.

As Buddhadasa said in the first chapter, Buddhism is best viewed as a religion.  Sure, it's quite different from the other major religions.  There's no attempt to placate some powerful deity, at least in Buddhadasa's version.  But even his version carries with it the key component of what makes a religion a religion; faith.

As we saw in the previous chapter, as well as this one, the elimination of doubt in Buddhism is part of the process.  We could say that eliminating doubt comes as a natural fruit of progress along the Buddhist path.  However, that defense falls apart given the prominence of elimination; it's purification #4 in the Seven Purifications, and fetter #2 of the Ten Fetters.

In other words, you commit yourself to believing in the religion before the religion provides its deepest proofs.  You buy into the worldview presented by the religion, and that is what helps you progress within it.  That's a common thread in all religions.

Religious faith aside, I find certain aspects of Buddhism practical and valuable to consider in everyday life.  I won't be setting myself on fire anytime soon, but I think there are some things which can really help live a more productive, and, perhaps, even a more enriched life.  I'm not talking about nirvana here, but it'll still be pretty damn good.  :-)

I'll write a post in the future concerning the lessons to learn from Buddhism.  Cheers!