Dec 16, 2009

Enlightenment vs The Enlightenment

(This post was inspired by a sentence in the statement made by the Insight Meditation teachers of Australia - "This was the original vision of the Buddha 2500 years ago, in far less enlightened times than today." Debatable sentiment that, to say the least. See an old post of mine - The Myth of Progress.)

Many of the English words used to translate Dhamma concepts are problematic; unavoidably so as no two languages are completely isometric. Some rather bad translations have become standard and are hard to avoid. The word "enlightenment" used to describe the state of one who has attained the goal is a particularly unfortunate example. It doesn't really translate any term in the Pali very well. "Awakening" as a translation for bodhi is better, but to my taste "Liberation" from vimutti is perhaps the best choice.

One problem with Enlightenment is that it is easily confused, consciously or not, with The Enlightenment of European intellectual history. We are the children of The Enlightenment whether or not we like it or even know it. Beginning in the eighteenth century with thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke The Enlightenment has bequeathed us such modern ideals as equality, personal liberty, freedom of conscience and thought, rationalism and indirectly, democracy.

It is far too easy to blithely assume that the legacy of The Enlightenment has been an unadulterated good. We forget that its first practical project was the French Revolution and the guillotine. The history of the world since has been bloody and cruel. The essentially inhumane systems of both capitalism and communism owe their distant origins to Voltaire and the Encyclopedia. A case could be made that even Naziism, a basically anti-enlightenment movement, came into being by way of Romanticism, The Enlightenment's shadow side, and would have been impossible without it.

This should not be surprising. As we should often remember, this is samsara and it's supposed to be broken. The Buddha's "enlightenment" came from a perfectly awakened mind in touch with the transcendental. The European Enlightenment was the product of the fallible minds of putthujana (the unenlightened many-folk.)

The underlying philosophy of The Enlightenment legacy has been called "secular humanism" and this is a way of thought which is at odds with the Dhamma in at least two important ways. First, its secularism means that it denies any spiritual aspect to humanity or the universe. There is no Unconditioned and therefore no escape from the Conditioned. This samsara is all we've got and we had best make the most of it. Second, it is humanist and that means that Man is the supreme value. This leads to the cult of the individual and a strong re-inforcement and validation of the Self principle. The implicit ideas of Enlightenment Humanism is one reason the anatta doctrine is so difficult for educated westerners.

To translate this into the practical issues confronting us right now. We cannot deny that in Theravada Buddhism for at least a thousand years women have not had the opportunities for practice at a deep level that men have. How we frame the problem defines how we will work toward a solution. A possible statement of the issue in Dhammic terms might be; some beings who have the potential for awakening do not have easy access to the ideal form for achieving that. How can we make the Dhamma more accessible to all? The Secular Humanist formulation would be; women should be equal in all things, including the forms for Dhamma practice. How do we attain this equality?

If the question is seen in terms of gender politics we are far away from the Dhamma. Man and Woman are not ultimate realities, they are dependently arisen transient forms born of karma and craving. If we primarily identify with these forms, we are taking refuge in the conditioned, the suffering and the impermanent. This works both ways; the patriarch and the feminist are both operating at a level of samsaric reality.

It may be appropriate, and even necessary, to work at this level within the realms of worldly politics. But the importation of this cognitive framework into Dhammavinaya moves us away from what should be the central concern; how best to disengage from samsaric identification and realize the Unconditioned.

Another way that secular thinking corrupts the discussion is in the call for "reform." The Dhamma, and the Vinaya, cannot be reformed. They are the product of a sammasambuddha (a perfectly awakened one) and cannot be changed until the next one comes. The Dhamma is not even invented by the Buddha, simply discovered and proclaimed, as the expression of a timeless truth. The Vinaya was invented by the Buddha, on a case by case basis, to deal with community issues as they arose. But is nonetheless a product of a perfectly awakened mind and any change made by an unawakened mind could only be for the worse.

On a practical level, there is no body within Buddhism that is competent to make changes in Vinaya. All that is possible is that some individual monks or nuns, or some communities, may choose to disregard some of the rules. They are still "apatti" (in offence) but may feel justified in doing so in this degenerate age.

This raises a whole range of problems regarding the bhikkhuni vinaya, which is not the same as the bhikkhu vinaya and is more restrictive in many ways. If there were to be bhikkhunis in the Wat Pa Pong tradition would they, like the bhikkhus of that tradition, attempt to follow the vinaya whole? Besides the practical issues arising from that, how would that satisfy the secular feminists who are so loudly advocating full ordination for women?

A final thought; there are three kinds of the "I Am Conceit." I am superior to you, I am inferior to you and I am your equal. All three are equally delusions.


Ayya Sobhana said...

Dear Ajahn, I am with you about the "I am conceit"
How about framing the question in terms of "restoring" the Dhamma and Vinaya? This still has the fault of being a modern, Protestant construction, but it is a construction shared by contemporary Theravada countries, including Sri Lanka and Thailand.

For starters, it would mean taking the Vinaya more seriously than the Thai sangha seems to be doing recently. It is not that difficult to study the canonical texts with sincerity, in their plain meaning, and try to understand what the Blessed one is asking of us.

Bankei said...

I don't think the Wat Pa Pong monks try to follow all the rules of the vinaya - or do they only wash once per half month?


Chanel said...

Jesus is the true messiah. contact me at or look at my website: