Enlightenment: Psychological Transformation and Transcendence

Enlightenment: Psychological Transformation and Transcendence “We all agree that the subjective world is a mental construction that emerges from interaction between ‘actuality’ and fashion it into a subjective psychic reality.” Daniel N. Stern M.D. Recently, I read an article in which the author mused that there is little written about the place of the transcendent in Buddhism. This surprised me because I think transcendence is central as the resulting psychological transformation that occurs when a person achieves the ultimate goal in Buddhism – enlightenment. This blog will give a short exposition of how enlightenment is an experience of transcendence. Here is a definition of transcendence that applies to the enlightenment experience: Transcendence, the fact of transcending, means a state of interpretation which goes beyond typical comprehension or experience. So, what is the transcendent experience that enlightenment discovers? To answer that, we need to first understand the difference between Reality and Actuality. Referring to my previous blog, Reality and Actuality, transcendence is the radical comprehension of ‘emptiness’ as our cognitive based experience. Emptiness, or Actuality, is what Buddhists use to denote the ‘way things are’, the ‘true nature of things’, and is often used as synonymous with the Buddha as an accurate mirroring or reflecting of things as they are. The removal of cognitive constructions, which obstruct a ‘direct’ seeing, is called the radical reorientation to actuality. This ‘truth’ is the actual beyond the representation, the antecedent behind the referent. Different from actuality, it is the addition of subjective and conscious factors that create our reality. Reality is our perceived world (and for it to be perceived, there must be a subject/object dichotomy) and is described as a ‘cognitively conceived’ world. Therefore, reality is that which is perceived with a subjective consciousness and interpretation, meaning, or value, including all the constructs of who we are. In short, our reality is how we understand and organize the complexities of existence. We make a cognitive ‘model’ of life, create our ‘world’, and operate along those guidelines. In addition, this model serves not only as a means to process incoming information; but also as a filter. It not only determines what we perceive, but what it means. Knowing the subjectivity of reality versus the truth of actuality, it is easy to understand why the same event can be viewed and interpreted in countless different ways. Even though an actuality is that which is, reality is constructed by what people perceive and then think. Actuality is an existence that is independent of any human conceptualization/construction of it; what humans normally cognize is an approximation, or an interpretation, of that existence. While this external existence can never be truly conceptually understood, individuals can transcend their subjective constructs to intuitively experience this actuality. The experience of ‘as it is’, ‘suchness’, or ‘bare attention’, is the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditative practice. Buddhist meditation asserts that people can transcend the ways in which they normally experience reality and attain enlightenment. Through a gradual transformation program – the Eightfold Path- a practitioner is able to transcend the ordinary cognitive state of experiencing the world through the filter of their reality to actuality. As I describe in my book, The Teachings of the Buddha: Seeing Without Illusion(Revised Ed): (1.) The path to transcendence is through a practice of Bhavana or mental development culture. The focus of the Buddhist method is the mind: its understanding, shaping or development, and liberation. Buddhist practices weaken and transcend conceptual attachment and identifications. Interestingly, according to E. Fromm et al. (1960), some psychoanalytic ideas deeply resonant with Buddhism, particularly the principle that ‘‘knowledge leads to transformation, that theory and practice must not be separated, that in the every act of knowing oneself, one transforms oneself’’ (p. 82) (2.) In Buddhist psychology, many of the conventional ways in which individuals interpret the world are seen as unwholesome and create suffering by the dogmatic imposition of constructs and concepts onto experience; maintaining the notion of a self; and applying dichotomous constructs as interpretations of reality. Indeed, Buddhist insights go against the grain of what appears self-evident in everyday experience. As a result of enlightenment, the Self is revealed as being empty of any Self-nature and it exposes the “I” as ‘‘a self-representation as agent, as an image, abstraction, or simulacrum.’’ (Epstein, 2007, p. 47) (3.) Such insights entail seeing clearly that the ordinary experience of our cognitively constructed self is a fiction, and illusory in nature; a conceptual designation or imputation which we normally represent and mistakenly take to be real. Even the old master Freud recognized that the ego (das ich) can impute to itself its own independent existence and treat itself as an object. Our conventional way of representing Self is deeply embedded in both our language and culture. Our very use of a language that requires subjects and objects, referring to essential entities and things, becomes problematic from a Buddhist standpoint because they are in actuality insubstantial, possessed of an ineffable nature. A common misunderstanding of emptiness or selflessness is that it is equated with the loss of personhood or the disparaging of psychological functions. Buddhism, however, does not invalidate mental functioning, nor eradicate functional life-skills. Such simplistic interpretations of Buddhist teachings are errors of nihilism. Instead, what is given up is the erroneous conception of an inherently existing ontological Self. Buddhist practice does not resort to fantasy, denial, or repression. Thus, what Buddhist meditation negates is the illusory nature, and seemingly real sense, of an ontological real Self. In other words, the empirical self does not disappear with a realization of selflessness; a person still uses the word “I”, still has a name and a unique historical learning and cultural identity, but the person is no longer rigidly fixed, obsessed, or attached in categories, representations, self-images, or habitual reactions. Mental training in Buddhism is based on a most elementary fact: experience is the ultimate criterion of truth. With the penetrative insight of enlightenment, the Arahant (meaning “worthy” or “noble” and a title given to someone who has attained enlightenment as a result of listening to and practicing the teachings of a Buddha) sees through the concepts. While an object of perception for the unenlightened is essentially something that is conceptually real, something one is looking at and categorizing, for the Arahant, all concepts are transparent; they are not grasped dogmatically; they are not regarded as ultimate categories, and are discarded in the course of the Bhavana mental practice. This discarding of concepts is an unsettling revelation to most, and an immediate reaction is often fear or disbelief. However, the “Awakened” transcend concepts. For them, concepts are “merely worldly conventions in common use, which he makes use of, without clinging to them.” (D. N. I. 202) One’s entire conceptual structure has to be released, though gradually, and in the final awareness, even those concepts that have given us the greatest help in our practice are given up. In the end, the Arahant has no illusion of the ego because she/he has gone beyond points of view by escaping and disowning all views and concepts; she/he transcends them rather than demolishing them in toto. While one can distinguish between the relatively true and false in theory, between the precise and the vague in terminology, and be aware that some concepts are more conducive to the attainment of enlightenment than others, etc., it is remembered that as concepts, they are all the same. So even though they will continue in use as worldly conventions in spite of all their flaws and contradictions, none should be regarded as absolute and inviolable categories in preference to others. Therefore, the Middle Path of Buddhism essentially consists of the pragmatic approach of choosing and using what is essential for a purpose, without attachment. Just as a dream may be proved false in the light of waking experience, it is still relatively true as a fact of experience. Similarly, the fabricating character of concepts is a fact of experience and must not be ignored on that account. Concepts, for all their ability to delude us, are not to be blamed per se, for they are merely objectifications or projections of our cravings, our conceit, and our views. Hence, in the last analysis, concepts have to be tackled at their source. They are not so much to be demolished as to be comprehended and transcended, for any attempt to dislodge concepts at the purely intellectual level leads to infinite regress in thought. To many, it is a staggering and fearful revelation to be told that the world is “empty” and where concepts are no more. But one need not panic, for the descent to those depths is gradual and collateral, with rewarding personal experiences. Hence the three significant terms in Buddhist ethics is applied: gradual training, gradual doing, and gradual practice. One can, therefore, without inhibition, make use of the conceptual tools at one’s command in the Bhavana meditation tradition; only they wear themselves out in the process of use. The twin principles of relativity and pragmatism are the guide. So our perception and conceptualization is our unique reality. We perceive and cognitively construct the world in which we live, and we often assume that everyone else sees it the same. The truth is that we don’t. Perception and cognitive construction is reality, but not actuality. Our perception and constructs are the basis of our ordinary decisions. We believe what we perceive to be true, and we base our decisions on that assumption. We decide what to do based on what we believe will best satisfy our lives. Our mistakes can show us that our reality is tentative and relative; and so we change. With change and insight, our reality can ultimately be transformed to transcend to actuality. These transformations mark our acquisition of wisdom. To close, Zen Master Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin wrote, in a now famous quote, how his “knowing” transformed and transcended with his Bhavana practice resulting in awakening: “Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’ After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.’ But now, having attained the abode of final rest [i.e., Awakening], I say, ‘Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.’” The Buddha's Teachings: Seeing Without Illusion (revised Ed) Rodger R. Ricketts (2013) Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis E. Fromm(1960) Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective Mark Epstein (2007)

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