Terms of Enlightenment

To understand or not to understand, both are mistaken.” —Rinzai

Buddhist studies are impeccably laid out. Once upon a time the lists of truths, maps of the path and descriptions of insight dangled like diamond-encrusted carrots before my donkey-mind. No matter how I reached for them however, they eluded my grasp. As I mastered them I was able to define the problem with increasing precision, but this theoretical fluency was as much a distraction as an aid.

Despite my increased understanding of what to do, my inability to do it remained stubborn. My thoughts, as usual, ran amok. Long, silent retreats helped, but only temporarily; mental chaos soon resumed.

It’s very tempting to substitute theory for practice. Thinking is easy; it’s conveniently goal-oriented and strokes the ego nicely. But it’s also treacherous, for meaning is deceptively fluid.

best ideas are only best when taken with a grain of salt

For example, when commenting on a Buddhist blog favored by abstract theoreticians, I once used the obscure Buddhist term, ‘end to views,’ and was ridiculed for suggesting that one could or should stop thinking. While some people interpret the phrase in this simplistic way, I don’t. I trusted these deep thinkers to give me some leeway, but no such luck. My interlocutor hung on to his preconceived conclusion and worried it like a dog with a bone. Although he claimed to be identifying my error and putting me back on track, in fact no communication whatsoever was taking place.

The shared jargon of specialists can be useful in science and technology, but there’s a subjective side to it too. No matter how professionally they defend their views, some challenges get taken personally. The situation is even more ambiguous when it comes to philosophy and ‘spiritual’ matters. That’s when it’s good to consider, ‘an end to views’ in which the view is just a point of reference. As you move on it becomes less relevant; hanging on to it sends you round in circles. The best ideas are only the best when taken with a grain of salt.

what we know is only our invention

Academics are famously long-winded communicators. Some rise above it, but big words and convoluted sentences are the norm. I remember myself as a freshman in just a few minutes constructing a page-long sentence of multiple sub-clauses, each one bursting with polysyllabic Latinates. I thought, for a while, that I was clever.

Several million words later, I’ve learned that rendering all that raw verbiage into a clear breath of meaning is hard work. It takes not just respect for the reader but empathy. Unless you consider what the listener’s actually getting from it, there’s no point in speaking; even if it makes sense to you, it’s just adding misinformation to the world. That’s why scholasticism turns more people off than on.

Some Buddhists are perturbed by the license I take with sacred terminology. I talk about gurus, dharma communities and scriptures as if they’re everyday things. I play with Buddhist concepts as if they’re matters of interpretation. Well, you can’t please everyone. I’m not a technician; I’m an explorer. Language, like meditation, is chaotic — and yet with persistence we draw meaning from it.

I once thought that Buddhist terminology was sacred, but what concerns me today is only where it leads. To viscerally distrust words and meaning is to expose yourself to the destabilizing reality that what we know is only our invention. There is no ‘out there,’ for you are unavoidably ‘in here’ with everything else. You can’t excise yourself and point to any immutable truth. You can’t even claim that impermanence is permanently true; apart from the irony, how will anything be impermanent when time ceases?

When I treat the sacrosanct terms of Buddhism as ordinary, I’m accused of disrespecting them. In fact, I can’t conceive of any greater respect. If you are practicing and not just theorizing Buddhism, then your understanding of it will morph. One day, you’ll discard it like a boat on the shore, as the Buddha himself predicted:

I have compared the Dhamma to a raft for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.”— Alagaddupamasutta (adapted)

As for my failed meditations, they were indeed abject failures. In the end that’s what broke the donkey’s back. However, it wasn’t a wasted experience; it revealed my grasping clearly enough that I could start letting go.

That is not theory, but the act of awakening.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

13 thoughts on “Terms of Enlightenment”

  1. How many of us are so busy clinging on to the raft for dear life that the shore seems just as distant as when we started?

    Or are we already there and just don’t know it?

  2. Atomic, algorithmic, physical, chemical, biological, mechanical, structural LAWS all proceed according to an intrinsic yet decipherable operational manual.
    I always believed that “body knows best”.
    Then came the MIND to wreck things up, with absolutely no initial manual BUT the aftermath of fortuitous and disconnected experiences we call a LIFE.
    I wished I was my turtle Donald where lettuce is bliss and I am his God.
    Stephen, I don’t believe there is doubt WITHOUT knowledge, and the sad part is that the deeper the knowledge the more reason to doubt.
    Is ignorance better…. Definitely for the ameba, YET, it has survived longer than Homo sapiens and I honestly doubt it questions anything.
    The sad story about Homo Sapien Sapien is that we are born stupid and build upon it.

    1. Hello.

      Thank you Stephen for this article.

      Ralph, it seems to me you’re doing some intense thinking. Perhaps a challenge for you is to be the amoeba, and just ‘be’ for a little while. Without the thinking then, you wouldn’t be stupid or building, just ‘being’.


  3. Thanks, Stephen! I am very grateful that I didn’t start studying Buddhist doctrine until after I had some time to absorb the initial insights of my mindfulness practice. From that perspective, it seemed obvious to me that the texts were subservient to the practice, and that the reason for studying them was to help clarify and deepen what I was learning from my own experience. It’s an attitude that brings one into conflict with those who are sure that awakening has to work just the way the Abhidharma says it does, and for whom the Pali canon has to hold together tooth and claw in order for it to be the pristine container of What the Buddha Taught. Gotama was able to say “Come and see” because there was something already there to be seen before any suttas were composed. That basic human wisdom is what we are after, and the doctrine either serves that purpose or it is, at best, counterproductive.

  4. Pleased to meet you, sir. Introduced by a facebook “friend” to your Anger blog, now exploring further…..
    ….and reminded of a favorite philosophical maxim from Weird Al Yankovich: “Everything you know is wrong, and everything you think is important…….isn’t.” A worthy companion whilst wandering, wondering, the ways of the world.

  5. Hey Stephen, I emailed you once regarding this topic, kind of. I asked what you thought of the maps. Vajrayana seems to have the most highly conceptualized, sophisticated and all out convoluted systems, setting a high bar that’s probably rife with any number of frustrations.

    Which one did you do? If I may ask. The Tibetan Five Path Model? The Ten Bhumi Model?

    It’s interesting to hear how much time you committed to practice and yet you found the results underwhelming (more or less. If I understand correctly)

    Are there some things you attribute to your “failed meditations” more than others? Like say, not using good technique, or having bad instruction, or having bad teachers?

    My sense of you is that you’re a capable and competent doer of whatever it is you wish to do, with the ability to develop key skills to a fruitful practice, so I’m interested in learning more about what happened. Which of your books best delves into it?

    Love your blog
    Mike Cannon


    1. Hi Mike: I wouldn’t say vajrayana’s inherently problematic, but it can certainly become whatever a wishful thinking neophyte wants it to be, which is why it’s dangerous.

      Neither the five paths nor the ten bhūmis are vajrayana practices as such, although the vajrayana does claim to be based on these ‘lesser paths.’ Also, they are not alternatives to one another but integrated teachings. For more, see this Wikipedia entry.

      Most of my Tibetan training was in the Gelugpa tradition and provided a theoretical foundation, but my practice really took root when I visited Sri Lanka to explore early Buddhist practice.

      I attribute my ‘failed meditations’ to being the wrong practice for me at the time. They may work perfectly well for others at other times, though they might also be disastrous. The worst sort of thinking is that which attributes all power to the method. In fact, all power is always in the hands of the practitioner, whether or not he/she knows it.

  6. Hello Stephen,

    Thank you for your post(s) and podcasts.
    Glad to encounter idea’s and points of view about and also from the inside of ‘ism’s’ !
    The openness and honesty strikes me, I am happy to read stuff like this.
    In my own modest way I am trying to find words to express what Buddhism and dharma is about. It’s for sure one does not have to be a Buddhist. On the other hand because of Buddhism I am where I am in my spiritual endeavour.

    I am also inspired by Stephen Batchelor.Do you have tips for further reading on the web about ‘secular Buddhism’?

    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Pjotr,
      Yes, identifying oneself as a Buddhist does seem to be somewhat unBuddhist, especially if your approach is secular. I like the work of the secularists, but there are other useful directions too, for example the Buddhist Geeks. For something more traditional and yet still fresh, there’s Unfettered Mind. My best suggestion is: “keep exploring.”

  7. My Zen teacher and friend was Paul Reps, co-compiler of ZEN FLESH, ZEN BONES. The first time I heard him speak he said, “Buddhism is dead, Hinduism is dead, Christianity is dead, Zen is dead. End of lecture. Are there any questions?” Enough said.

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