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What the luminous mind of the Buddha shows us | Michael ...

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/bud...

What the luminous mind of the Buddha


shows us
Michael McGhee
Is Buddhism a religion?, part 5: The idea of awakening does not offer an escape
from self, but a way to attend to its nature

Buddhist monks listen as the Dalai Lama speaks to an audience in New York City. Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty
Images
Monday 4 November 2013 09.00GMT

he thread that runs through the dense and complex history of the Buddhist
traditions is the metaphor of an awakened or luminous mind; a mind whose
natural luminosity has been obscured by the dullness of the destructive passions
and unruly appetite but is now awakened from the confusion of dream and the
oblivion of sleep.
There is an implicit metaphor of freedom and bondage at work, a mind in bondage to
appetites and passions that contribute to human and animal wretchedness, and a
mind freed from this bondage long enough to regard human activity with a
compassion that drives the evanescent sense of justice. The idea of this freedom
appears to be that of an ideal limit, ickering and briey realised, but expressed and
preserved in our literatures and cultivated in our traditions of practice.
But what is actually revealed when the mind shines brightly and the obscuring clouds
have disappeared? What constitutes the wisdom of someone who is thoroughly
awake? It is misleading and subtly self-regarding to pursue an interpretation in terms
of privileged and incommunicable insights into the true nature of reality. It is better
to understand this wisdom as the attainment of forms of conduct and experience that
are not determined by appetency and passion. Buddhist practice has sought to calm

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14/02/2015 18:17

What the luminous mind of the Buddha shows us | Michael ...

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/bud...

and, to transform the passions rather than destroy their energies: the aim is to release
and strengthen the subtler emotions they stie.
Exponents of the traditions talk of silence and what emerges from silence, of just
listening or just observing, of attention to the "suchness" of individual things. Iris
Murdoch famously talked of the "brooding self with its hurt vanity" disappearing at
the sight of the hovering kestrel, so that there is "nothing now but kestrel". This
catches a signicant experience of release.
But that experience can itself be misleading: the fourth-century Indian Buddhist
thinker Vasubhandu distinguished between "grasper" (grahaka) and "grasped"
(grahya), an ethically charged distinction where "grasping" is a particular, appetitive,
form of experience, and the "grasped" is what is available to the grasper. The
Buddhist claim is that it is possible to be released from this dynamic, so that it is not
the self that disappears but a particular misapprehension of the world.
It is curious and revealing that some of the key positive terms in this kind of Buddhist
analysis, alobha (non-attachment), advesa (non-aversion), apramada
(non-intoxication) and, of course, ahimsa (non-violence), are all formed by the use of
the negative prex a- on terms that refer to the problematic mental states that are
claimed to cause dukkha (suering). It is as though we had as yet no words for this
new form of emancipated experience, except to declare it does not belong to the old
order.
The metaphorical contrasts of sleep and awakening, dullness and luminosity reect a
fundamental intuition of Buddhist thought that there is a causal connection
between our mental states and the nature of our experience.
This is itself an application of the general principle that "things arise in dependence
on conditions". The practical implication is that if we can intervene, then
"unsatisfactory" outcomes can be removed. It is claimed that we can intervene and
that a therapeutic programme is available, the noble eightfold path. Thus, famously, if
dukkha depends upon craving or greed (lobha) and related dispositions, then
reducing or ending the latter reduces or ends the dukkha it specically brings about,
whether conceived initially in terms of one's own individual discomfort or, more
generously, in terms of harm to others.
This set of causal connections does not present itself to a disengaged consciousness,
but only to one already alive to the destructive consequences of an unenlightened
mind for sentient beings. This is one way of understanding the important notion of
the arising of the bodhicitta: the idea of a mind, citta, increasingly directed to
awakening or bodhi because it is increasingly directed to karuna or compassion.
This exacting and concentrated project is a candidate for what Kierkegaard called the
"highest passion of subjectivity". It provides a way of understanding self-knowledge
as the progressive realisation of the possibility of compassionate freedom.

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