Sunday, March 19, 2006

What Is Enlightenment?

I received a letter from a poster the other day, Smith, asking me what I personally thought "enlightenment" was. That is a good question. It's a question that people should think about in their relationship to Pirsig. Something that I'm glad I did think about a little bit more. One thing that is evident about my relationship to Pirsig is that I don't know all that much about Eastern philosophy. I know some surface things, but my range of acquaintance and depth is lacking. So when I talk about mysticism, it isn't from a lot of first-hand experience (which is true enough for when I talk about anything, including Western philosophy, but more so for Eastern). That's something I hope to someday correct, but as of now, all I have is what I got. So when I write about mysticism, as poetry or metaphor and the like, I like to think of what I'm doing as clearing space for the activities of others. Someone like Paul Turner certainly has a better grasp than I do, and we are in a real sense working the same vineyard, but I hope my clearing efforts aren't so forlorn as to be useless.

What is enlightenment? To contextualize my thoughts, I'd like to do a quick comparison of two parties who have adopted the word to their uses. If we compare, roughshod, the European cultural phenomenon in the 18th-century, the Enlightenment, to the Eastern or Buddhist conception of attaining "enlightenment," I think we can see a surface similarity and dissimilarity. The similarity is that Enlightenment philosophers took "enlightenment," what they achieved, to be an epistemological achievement. They thought, with the New Science and the shrugging off of "superstition," that they were now in a position to know things as they really were. Likewise, the traditional Buddhist idea of enlightenment also seems to be an epistemological achievement—an "enlightened" person now knows how things really are, they've cut through maya, the illusory nature of perceived reality, to reach nirvana, enlightenment. The difference between the two is that Buddhist enlightenment is also depicted as a state of bliss, the "laughing Buddha" who has seen through the suffering of this world. Losing our attachments, we relieve suffering and so reach a state of bliss in which we are not perturbed by anything. There is no accompanying state of bliss for European enlightenment (unless you count the haughty laughter of Voltaire). The idea of a philosophically significant "state of bliss" was thought, for the most part, to be a remnant of the superstition of religion that they had finally, through exalted reason, left behind. Unlike the laughing Buddha, European philosophers are serious about what they do. (The elevation of seriousness over playfulness can be seen as true today in Western philosophy when we look at many philosophers’ reaction on both sides of the Atlantic to Derrida.)

Naturally, I would jettison both sides' pretensions to having made an "epistemological achievement." However, I would still hold on to "state of bliss." And that's how I would describe "enlightenment": a state of bliss. Having said that, I think there are as many ways to reach enlightenment as there are people. Reaching a state of bliss can be achieved by just about anything, all depending on who the person is and what could cause them to achieve it. I think of the two views on "enlightenment" as two different views on two different topics. One way to firm up the difference is to look at the 19th-century reaction to Enlightenment philosophy—Romanticism. The Romantics (like Hegel, Schiller, Pater, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, etc.) thought there was more to life than cold, hard Reason. They thought imagination and aesthetic bliss was important, too (though they all come off as devaluing reason just as the Enlightenment devalued imagination). I think the two can and should be balanced when understood in a certain way.

The clash between these two conceptions of enlightenment (which I view as two different topics) occurs because of their mutual epistemological assertions. The two parties don't just define enlightenment differently (and so talk about different things), they say that what they're talking about is the right thing to talk about. Once you jettison epistemology, you won't get a clash between these definitions because you aren't setting these definitions up as getting at Reality As It Is In Itself. Once you do that, you get an argument about how you could say that. That's an argument that Plato started when he said the "dialectic" would prove he was right about the Form of the Good, Descartes when he said that "introspection" would prove he was right about sundering the world into two substances, mind and matter, Kant when he said that the "transcendental deduction" would prove he was right about sundering the world into the noumena and phenomena, the logical positivists when they said that the "scientific method" would prove they were right about saying it’s all atoms in a void.

Once you start forwarding theses about the Way the World Really Is, you have to generate an epistemological method to prove that you are right. Nobody's ever been able to do that without begging the question over their opponents who forward different theses about the Way the World Really Is. When you get to that root level, where all you can do is beg the question, then you basically end up resorting to "my definition is better than yours" without any way to resolve it, at least not a way that is epistemological in the requisite way. Because pragmatists have to do the same thing for their own definitions. The difference is that pragmatists no longer think there is any way to argue for their definitions, views, except for the pragmatic, practical ways of pointing out upshots and deficiencies of various definitions for getting what you want. This isn't a method, this is just living life.

What differentiates me from traditional Eastern philosophy (so thought of as cutting through maya) is that I don't think a state of bliss has anything to do with knowing, or cutting to reality, or anything else like that. It is simply a euphoric state of bliss. Saying that, I think we can see what the Buddha was right about: reaching a state of bliss is about losing your attachments. Attaining a transitory state of bliss is about suddenly forgetting where you are, who you are, all your problems and desires, and simply being still. Where I may differ yet from Buddhism (so roughly defined as being obsessed only with reaching nirvana, bliss (not because they all are, but simply because I don't know enough to know any better)) is the idea that bliss is a state that should be something we have all the time. I don't think reaching nirvana will help the starving children of the world very much. Something doesn't seem right if we no longer care about starvation, because we are in bliss, even if the starving children themselves don't care that they are dying, because they've reached a state of bliss. Pirsig himself expresses this sentiment clearly when he raises his hand in the Benares classroom and asks coldly, "Do you mean to say that the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were all an illusion?" (This exact sentiment is also satirically displayed, brilliantly as usual, by the Onion this week ( with its article "Poverty-Stricken Africans Receive Desperately Needed Bibles," which later shows a picture of a horribly emaciated man with this caption: "Moussa Yaouli derives spiritual nourishment from his handcrafted leather Bible.")

There needs to be a balance between the attempt for a private state of bliss and the public achievement of the alleviation of material suffering. But when it comes to private enlightenment, I think it can be achieved through any number of routes, from watching sunsets, seeing a rare orchid, reading a poem, or writing a poem. I think what all those things have in common is that they send us out of our skins, they effectively cause us to shed our linguistic ability. I think that's one of the pinches of insight in Eastern philosophy. By shedding our linguistic ability, we sometimes return saying really weird shit. That meaningless refuse is what our metaphors are, that with which we build new vocabularies and meanings out of. Metaphors don't get at reality, but they do open up new vistas of knowledge by producing new ways of talking.


  1. Hi Matt,

    On a meta-issue, the correspondence that prompted this post. "Smith" seems quite active in asking offline questions, and he seems to be up for making real progress. Do you have any idea "who" he is ?

    Great blog, by the way, Ian

  2. My thoughts on this are that, historically, enlightenment (nirvana) meant the uprooting of the causes of transmigration of self (samsara) prior to physical death upon which the cycle of rebirth was escaped (parinirvana). In some of the reams upon reams of Buddhist texts one can find references to rebirth in the Pure Land (of Bliss) but this is not accepted by all of the eastern traditions, nor even by all schools of Buddhism.

    The Madhyamikan exposition of transmigration of the self can be interpreted in terms of Rorty's description of the self as a web of beliefs and desires. Beliefs and desires are uncontrollably 'reborn' when one is unaware of the process in which they do so because, e.g., one sees them as an inherent part of your identity. Madhyamika points out that all phenomena, including beliefs and desires, are subject to a dependent arising and ceasing and thus have no inherent existence. Nirvana then becomes less about an escape to a land of bliss and more about freedom from uncontrollable rebirth of beliefs and desires and the ultimately unsatisfying attempts to fix and attain them.

  3. Paul,

    So--my waste removal project isn't totally useless, right?

    The thing that caught me was, naturally, your ability to link to Rorty. It reminds me of two things. One is Freudian psychoanalysis, where one tries to excavate one's past to come to terms with it. And two is Nietzsche's project of self-creation, which is something of a forerunner to Freud (which is one reason why Freud said he was always afraid to read Nietzsche).

    Nietzsche, in effect, began a new genre of philosophical writing, traced by Alexander Nehamas in two books, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, and even more interestingly, The Art of Living (which traces the use of Socrates in our projects of self-creation). This genre is kinda' like what Rorty said about Heidegger in my earlier post, about coming to terms with your contingency. Heidegger picked that up from Nietzsche. With Nietzsche, we not only have to recognize our contingency, but we have to unearth it and redescribe it to make it ours. And if we are radically successful in this redescription, of making the terms we describe ourselves in not the ones we were handed to by contingency, but wholly ours, then we can say Nietzsche's line: "Thus I willed it." This, to me, looks similar to the freedom you talk about in connection to Madhyamika. We have to become aware of the contingent process that made us and to become free of them, at least on the Nietzschean slant, is to cease with their beliefs and desires, and so cease the rebirthing process, and instead birth something completely new.

  4. Hey Ian,

    I don't know much about Smith. He's a former hippie who enjoys art and, like many, would like the MoQ to have "practical application" (and you probably know what I think about that, in addition to the equally obscure, to me, notion of "real progress" with Pirsig). I think he started asking offline questions because he was disappointed with the MD--he wasn't getting much response from people online.

  5. I thought of the "Thus I willed it" connection myself. My initial thoughts were that this was anti-Buddhist in that you often find that the aim of the Buddhist is to avoid 'willed' action to avoid bad karma. However, I think there is a subtle distinction in there somewhere between the selfish will of the ego and another kind of 'will', something like dharma or arete, or what Buddhists sometimes call the big self.

    Either way, there are certainly enough connections here to 'clear some ground' for further thought. Having the awareness to unearth the contingency of the self seems to be the common ground. Once you are aware of the process I find it is quite an eye-opener.

    On this subject, here is something Pirsig has written which might interest you:

    The static self or ego-self is described in the MOQ as a composite of inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual patterns capable of responding to Dynamic Quality. In Buddhist language this is sometimes called the “small-self.” The “big-self” is Dynamic Quality. By dropping away the static ego patterns of small-self through meditation or other disciplines, the big-self is revealed and becomes dominant. In Sanskrit a person in whom big self is dominant is called a “self-lord” or “sva min” a term that has been anglicized to “Swami.”

  6. Quite futile, an enlightened being has total compassion for humanity in this state. You say this leaves starving children out of the picture? But protesting and such does nothing, and if starving is not your current state then why are you to use energy on thinking about them. Why have the 2 bombs been dropped? Human thought has created this catastrophe, no one is saying it never happened. But the two nuclear explosions are not happening in the present moment. Someone in the state of nirvana will only try to point people who created the bombs in the correct direction, to become aware of oneself and see that thought which leads to desire and attachment, is the root of suffering. To end illusive thought, which has created the false thinker (hence the most important phrase ever uttered: The thinker is the thought/ the observer is the observed) is the way to salvation. Thought has no place when you do not need it, but humans think all day long. False images are being created of everything, this state effects many people in the area because all is one, it effects the whole. It is much deeper than you define it, and their is no achievement. Once in that state you know it is not achievement, and that it is beyond seeing the world as it is. Enlightenment throws imagination out the window to the contrary, beliefs and idea's have no place in the true self. The world is thought, and that is contingent, the world is therefore illusion. Awareness or pure consciousness is true reality, all your philosophies have no value. For thought is time, and thought has never stopped anything, but create war and some inventions. Thought is past, so no true real new creativity comes out, and thought is conditioned, and thought has became a thinker on its own because it sees itself as impermanent and so creates a thinker. But you are the space that allows thoughts to exist, but you have indentified with your minds, and it has taken you over. No-mind is enlightenment, that is all. Bliss comes from the ending of inner confliction and contradiction.

  7. An interesting response, Scarfox. The way it was composed, I think, is quite important to its message and effect, the content and form having come together. Coming in a single, solid block, the sentences themselves are, by and large, interchangeable in terms of their sequence, each one for the most part being able to lead into any single one of the others. What they do is hang together as a loose web, reinforcing each other as they pass through.

    The reason I think the form and content coming together as they do is important is because the very nature of what you are talking about, enlightenment, is non-discursive, an outcast from what Wilfrid Sellars called the "space of reasons," in fact an active opponent as you spell out. And that's just it--it has to assert that words and ideas are bad by using words and ideas, which seems like what Habermas called a "performative contradiction," but is simply a function of necessitated condescension. And because of the rejection of an argumentative framework, because argument is pointless because it takes too seriously the idea of words and reasons, your response quite rightly takes the form of something like defiance. I assert "A," you assert "not A," the only difference being that I offer something like reasons and arguments and you instead offer what we might call a "reason vortex," all the thoughts hanging together more or less coherently (at least, one will have forgotten "no one is saying [Hiroshima] never happened" by the time they get to "the world is therefore illusion"), yet all leading to their own destruction.

    The two primary things I would object to in your web of assertions is the notion of a "true self" (how do you know the self you've discovered by shedding your attachments is your true self?) and the notion that enlightenment, the shedding of attachment is, ipso facto, compassionate. The latter can be made an empirical claim, but theoretically its quite counter-intuitive that we should know beforehand and a priori something that says of itself can only really be known experientially.

    Not that that should really matter for you. Your performance is quite appropriate and demonstrative of what I said happens at the root level: "where all you can do is beg the question, then you basically end up resorting to 'my definition is better than yours' without any way to resolve it, at least not a way that is epistemological in the requisite way." You don't have an epistemology, nor would you want one, but you do have a rhetorical method that fits--you reassert counters with loose echoes to the previous assertion, but in such a way that the words become seeds for a new thought pattern, and so the echoes become cues for the new pattern's defensive strategy.

    The Catholic Church called it "dogma." Political pundits call them "talking points." Richard Rorty meant something similar by "final vocabulary". It's all rhetoric, but there are important differences between different kinds and strategies.

  8. Indeed enlightenment is non-discursive, but enlightenment is not against words or ideas. It’s not actually ‘against’ anything. But for the sake of it, let me say that, enlightenment is not an idea. It is an idea to one who keeps it as an idea, but the only thing a guru asks one to do, is try and be aware. And out of this awareness, there is a greater intelligence at work which you could say is part of the true-self. You say that the true-self is not provable? Very so, but keep in mind that all forms must have a source for they are not self-caused. Thought itself must have a source, and the very thinking about it is what philosophy is, but to touch the source through thinking you are doing the very opposite. The only true thing about the mind and thought is that if there was no thought there would be no enlightenment. Therein lies the paradox that you speak of, and that is reality, a paradox. Descartes made a mistake when he said I think, therefore I am. This is a very mechanical way of looking at existence, if you were only thoughts, how would you know that you were? Thus consciousness itself is primary, and that consciousness or awareness is the very source of the thought. Enlightenment is actually a simple thing to , as you say, achieve. It is a natural state, beyond an animalistic state. Is it that complex that one has to be taught to live in the present moment? The only moment that which exists? Man tends to always think about the past, and project the mind into the future. This always misses the present, and causes suffering and conflict inevitably. Personally I see that thinking about the past is depressing, and thinking about the future creates anxiety. Thinking itself is mostly an unconscious process, and it makes us unconscious. You say that you are giving reasons and arguments, but it seems you are only giving me past learnt things, that have nothing to do with your experience, and that all your thought is conditioned past and thus not new at all (although it may seem new to you). The fault in this dialogue between the two of us is the enormous subjectivity of the topic itself. Firstly, arguing over it is futile of course and neither of us can be right about the subject, which is enlightenment itself again. Like you said we are basically arguing over the definition of nirvana, which has no definition. No words can capture the immeasurable, and thought is measurement. The only thing I am doing here, though, is asking you to be aware yourself of some of the things I said about thought and the false self (the thinker and its images). Also i’m not showing any signs of dogma here, dogma has no room on this planet at all. And if I am, that is the nature of the paradox then. I have glimpsed this state, and that is the only reason I agree with certain masters who I believe have achieved this. After the glimpse, I read Tao Te Ching, teachings of the Buddha, awakening of intelligence, etc. They all pointed toward the same thing that I saw, which to me was universal, and so that is how I am defiant with my best possible definition, and others should pursue being conscious to if they are sick of the inward and outward suffering. Again, see the subjectivity, so it is very tough for either of us to prove anything. But it is interesting nonetheless, and the dialog is interesting, and you can see some of the wisdom I am conveying. I don’t want to sound like a preacher and say try it yourself and all that, but if your going to go on and defy something then what grounds can you do that on if it’s only a concept to you? One rational man who has agreed thought is the major problem is David Bohm, to catch up with me on this stuff if you like, maybe read some of his dialogs with one of the most rational teachers Jiddu Krishnamurti. They both come to amazing insights, and one is from a scientific background, the other- awakened. The other reason I would care to bring this up at all is because I think it is the most important thing for mankind, to evolve ‘spiritually’, along with physically which is mostly natural. The universe to me is the evolution of both inner and outer, and so to bring someone to start trying to observe this, enlightenment isn’t the big deal that’s just what happens if you do end seeking. So anyway, to see the whole you cannot see it in just fragments (thought), so there is the paradox – how can we see the whole then? Well freedom to see, the freedom doesn’t exist when there are fragments. But wholeness is freedom in seeing all the fragments- but the whole does not start from the fragments. Once the whole operates then there are no fragments. So the paradox comes from supposing that the fragments are real, that they exist independent of thought. Then you would say that the fragments are there in your thoughts, and you must somehow do something about it- that would then be a paradox. But the whole starts from the insight that these fragments are nothing. Not substantial, therefore they do not prevent wholeness.

  9. One could say that I'm fundamentally interested in our culture's spiritual development and evolution. I don't, personally, get a whole lot out of what we might call the mystic tradition, whether Eastern (the Buddha, Lao-tzu) or Western (Kabbalah, Suffism). I don't find it nourishing for what Whitman called me myself. What I think is important, spiritually speaking, is that as a culture we find ourselves in this radical subjectivity in terms of it--wherever people find spiritual nourishment, within the bounds of social acceptability (i.e., killing people is unacceptable, like in American Psycho), they should be able to pursue because the nature of spiritual nourishment is, we've found, so radically idiosyncratic.

    I appreciate the mystic traditions, but I don't turn to them. I do turn to Emerson and Whitman. Like Harold Bloom, I turn to literature and I think the older traditions that stretch back to our pre-literate, oral cultures need to make room in their parameters for what counts as "spiritual" this newer insurgent--the secular reader.

    I never really became convinced by Pirsig that Reason or the Intellect was something to be wary of, nor distrusted as the mystic traditions felt further than Pirsig was willing to go. I think the Stoics were right, that its all about balance. The trick is the understanding that life generally is the ultimate context for this achievement of balance. Various kinds of people, often of a mystic stripe, occasionally object to the seeming underpinnings of what I write here and there as a forgetting of the now, the present, a forgetting of life. What they don't really seem to get about writing and reading is that, what one reads here or anywhere for that matter, isn't the sum total of my, or anyone's, life. I spend a lot more of my time doing other things, loving other people for instance. A reader just doesn't get to see that because of the very nature of writing--I'm writing about this particular thing here and not any other currently--but it is only through the very same pernicious reductive fallacy that they, say the mystic, accuse the writer of in reducing life to thought that makes the writer look like he's forgotten to live life.

    I think the whole of my life functions as rebuttal to most of the fears of reductionism, but that's not something that can be said, only shown. And its been 2500 years of philosophizing to help intellectuals come to a greater understanding of it. But already being here, I don't get too upset about it. I like thinking. I don't think its evil. I know the difference between the present, the past, the future and how to balance them (or so I think). It is important to learn that balance, and that's something that should be taught to our children and culture. But I don't think saying that "thought is unconscious" or that "past learnt things have nothing to do with your personal experience" is helpful to this end. Everything is within our personal experience, its the only thing we could draw from. Some of our personal experience is with books, like say history books, but I've never quite figured out why books were bad.

    I think the language of paradox is outdated and outmoded. It's the flipside of Platonism's smoothing reductionism. It is time to reinstitute the language of balance once more, everything in its right place. I write, I read, I laugh, I love, I cry, I eat, sleep and be merry--just not all at once, and not all on my blog.

  10. Truth has no name, and truth is not confined in any system of thought. Truth is not a theory, a theology, a philosophy. Truth is the experience of that which is. Truth is not intellectual or emotional; truth is existential.

    These are the three layers of human consciousness. The first is the intellectual: it theorizes, it spins and weaves beautiful words, but with no meaning at all. It is a very cunning part, very deceptive. It can make you believe in words as if they have some substance. It talks about God, truth, freedom, love, meditation, but it only talks; it is just words and words and words. Those words are empty shells; if you look deep down into them they are hollow.


  11. Well, then as the pragmatists say, don't look deep.


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