(Note: These reflections emerged out of a group reading of Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism, among other texts, as part of the year-long Nalanda program’s continuation module at the end of May 2018).
Stephen Batchelor begins After Buddhism by expressing his discomfort with the Geluk [Tibetan Buddhist] teaching that a positive description of emptiness is not to be given. He then provides an account of what he has learned from the teaching and his practice, in effect describing emptiness in positive terms.
I am very sympathetic to his project. It seems to me that we progress on the path by studying and applying the teachings, bringing us new insights and understandings about ourselves and the world, which we then try to express in words as well as in action. Our articulated understandings can then be further examined in light of experience and amended or replaced. We can do this mindful of the hazards of ontologizing, the tendency to develop and attach to “views” taken to reveal ultimate truth and reality. The Buddha exhorted us to seek our own salvation and trust only what is known from experience. We are to use our own lights on the path, including finding symbolic forms adequate to express our understandings, giving form to reality as best we can know it at this moment.
I found Batchelor’s account stimulating and insightful but in some ways incomplete and fragmented. What seemed to me to be lacking was a conceptual framework describing development along the path. I found myself drawn toward articulating such a framework, using ideas I have found useful from psychology, phenomenology, and existential thought as well as from Buddhist teaching.
What I found most intriguing and puzzling in Batchelor’s presentation was his conception of nirvana and his description of peak experiences in terms strongly reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s “numinous”. As I understand it, Batchelor asserts that nirvana is experienced episodically as one proceeds along the path. This means that nirvana is an intermediate point rather than an end point – or perhaps it is both. If it is both, is it experienced differently at different times or at different stages of development? Along the path, what causes it to arise when it does? How is it that we would experience it and then “lose” it? Does such an experience somehow serve to guide or motivate us on the path?
Batchelor describes a kind of experience that corresponds precisely to Otto’s description of “numinous” experience, but he curiously never invokes that term or references Otto’s work. In The Idea of the Holy, Otto posited that “numinous” experience is the quintessential religious experience, occurring across traditions and experienced by persons with no religious affiliations or beliefs. Briefly, Otto describes “numinous” as the experience of a mystery that is at once fascinating and attractive (mysterium fascinans) and terrifying (mysterium tremendum). It is an encounter with a power that is “other”, a sense of the presence of a reality of a different order, beyond what we understand our separate self to be. The “fascinans” aspect is the sense that we have some connection to that mystery and that it could lead to enhanced life, a fullness of being, meaning and value. Conversely, the “tremendum” is the sense that the mystery might annihilate this self and reality as we know it. The numinous at once offers both the possibility of greater life and personal death.
Otto’s “numinous” has had a central place in studies of religious phenomenology for the past hundred years. It has been useful in comparing experiences across religions and elucidating individuals’ experiences. Had Batchelor overtly invoked Otto’s work and the concept of “numinous” experience it would have been useful both for comparative religious study and for understanding development on the Buddhist path. In particular, it would prompt the question of the relationship of the numinous and nirvana. Is nirvana, as Batchelor understands it, a type of numinous experience? If so, does the nature of that numinous/nirvana experience change at different points along the path, and in what ways? Otto indicates that numinous experience can take different forms, some of which are relatively subtle (though he does not elaborate on this). Might there be forms of numinous experience which occur in “everyday” life, which are important to progress on the path?
Such questions re-awakened my own long-standing interest in better understanding development along the path. One place to begin that project is a look at sentience. Any sentient creature has some capacity for sensitivity, arousal and reacting to its surroundings. In Buddhist teachings, these basic components of sentience are represented by the five skandhas – perception, feeling and volition toward some formed object in the context of some degree of consciousness. Social psychology speaks of “attitudes”, comprised of cognitions about, affect toward and disposition to act in particular ways toward an object. From an existential perspective, these structures of sentience are an embodied being’s lived relationships toward objects in its world.
Human development involves changes in sentience, and progress along the path can be understood in terms of such changes. It seems to me that our two types of abstract thinking, concept formation and hypothetical thinking, play central roles in this evolution of sentience and our progress on the path. I have found some ideas from gestalt psychology, phenomenology and existential philosophy to be helpful in understanding this development, providing conceptual schemata that may connect and underpin some of Batchelor’s understandings.
The delusion Buddha saw as the root of much of our suffering has been termed “dualism”. I see dualism as having two parts: perceiving separate things, and assuming that those things have “substance” or essence, that they are real in themselves. Buddha’s teaching is that the assumption of substance is mistaken and leads to suffering. I think our belief in substance arises from several factors. One is that we naturally organize sensations into whole percepts, not attending to their composite nature. Another is the “pleasure principle”, our natural inclination to seek pleasant and avoid unpleasant experiences. Because things bringing pleasure or discomfort seem to cause us to feel as we do, we view them as having a power or agency in themselves.
Perhaps the most important factor in the development of dualism is concept formation, identifying things as members of a class or classes. Concepts/classes exist in an abstract way and (provided we don’t see our role in creating them) are seemingly outside of space and time, fixed and eternal, unlike material things. The pleasure principle approves of this unchanging, dependable nature, as it means that knowing the names and characteristics of a thing means we can know with some confidence how best to relate to it. This enchantment is epitomized in Plato’s argument that conceptual forms are themselves ultimate reality. To some extent we are all Platonists, viewing conceptually-known “things” as having fixed properties and their “own being”, substantial and independently existing. We tend to view the reality and importance of a conceptualized “thing” as overshadowing the reality and importance of the particular, unique phenomena experienced here and now.
Conceptual thought is an advance in consciousness that is tremendously useful in organizing experience. It facilitates learning and forming generalizations about “things” we encounter, allowing better anticipation of events and planning of actions, and aiding memory and communication. It is central to our social organization, as concepts are socially taught, including not just identifying characteristics but “correct” attitudes towards objects, how to feel and act toward them, how to orient our sentience.
Before considering the problems with conceptually constructing the “world”, it may be useful to introduce some notions from gestalt psychology, drawing particularly on the gestalt therapy of Frederick Perls. In the gestaltist view, organism and environment always exist together as an organism-environment field. Of critical importance is contact at the interface of organism and environment, the scene of our sensitivity-arousal-response, where mental activity arises. What is of interest and importance to the organism is experienced as a gestalt, a “figure” of interest emerging from the “ground” of available experience. When contact occurs there is excitement and vitality. As our existential reality changes, our needs and interests shift, and our gestalts change, with figure dissolving into ground and a new or revised figure emerging into awareness.
With the introduction of concept formation, organism-environment is transformed into abstractly existing self and world. The great downside of conceptually-constructed self and world is that they are generally accompanied by repression, channeling and limiting what we are aware of, narrowing the sensorium available to us. Repression occurs partly through active effort, as we receive social messages that certain thoughts, feelings or actions are “bad” and should be eliminated from awareness. Repression also results from inattention, as we believe we know something fully by naming it, assuming that the class it belongs to is its reality. The unique details of experience, the sensations and feelings it might evoke, and possible ways of exploring it, are not noticed. In gestalt terms, what never becomes figural in our attention over time is eliminated from the “ground” of experience, excluded from the realm of possibility. What we are able to perceive is very much shaped by our conceptions, resulting in diminished contact, excitement and vitality.
Our substantialist assumptions about self and world are the source of suffering in several ways. The Buddha pointed out that our attachment to forms necessarily brings about worry and disappointment. David Loy [in Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism] adds that we have a pervasive sense of “lack”, being at least subliminally aware of the many ways we are not in fact permanent, independent or unitary as our world view assumes. Paul Tillich, the Christian theologian, describes a pervasive feeling of alienation and estrangement that comes from understanding ourselves as existing separate from all other things and alienated from much of our own experience. In addition, there is the diminished sense of vitality from the narrowing of the sensorium entailed by our conceptual world-construction. In all these ways, the assumption of substance-in-separateness contributes greatly to human suffering.
The next advance in consciousness, which can help us escape the substantialist delusion, comes with the emergence of hypothetical thinking. Hypothetical thinking develops later than conceptual thinking skills, with maturation of the frontal lobes in adolescence and young adult years. The neuropsychological progression of motor control begins with early maturation of neurons innervating specific muscle sites, followed by more anterior “secondary” frontal areas innervating simple motor acts involved in sequenced neuronal firings. Lastly comes development of the most anterior, prefrontal “tertiary” areas which control more complex activities, extended in time. Organizing and regulating such activities requires the ability to form and maintain an idea or intention that is not present in immediate sense experience. It exists in an abstract or hypothetical way and is capable of exerting superordinate control over sensory, motor and attentional processes allowing us to carry out activities over time. Such ideas or stable intentions underlie activities such as planning and organizing, setting and pursuing goals, anticipating and evaluating possible consequences of actions, and forming and utilizing standards and ideals. It is also manifested in perspective taking, disengaging from ongoing thought and perception by making them objects of attention. Mindfulness practice is such perspective taking, by virtue of forming a stable, abstractly-existing intention to repeatedly disengage from and notice moments of experience, making them objects of awareness.
In our dualistic condition, the conceptually-constructed world is our ground, the storehouse of possibility. In gestalt terms, what can emerge as a “figure” of interest and importance arises from this storehouse/ground, the available parts of the sensorium. This is papanca, (proliferation), mind scanning the realm of possibilities found in our conceptually-constructed “world”, generating story fragments about “things” that matter to “me”. In mindfulness of breath, noticing thoughts and making them objects of attention reveals their insubstantiality and their often useless and fantastic nature. At the same time, through mindfulness “ground” is expanded to include sensations and feelings that are omitted from our constructed world. When a thought is noticed and then dissolves, attention returns to what’s present in sensation and feeling, phenomena that had been “beneath notice”. In the process, parts of the sensorium that had been neglected as “boring” or simply unknown become more familiar and comfortable to “be with”. Thought is suspended for longer periods of time, subtleties in sensation and feeling are explored, and in periods of absorption the sense of differentiated subject and object dissolves. Through this practice we realize that our substance-assuming papanca stories are questionable at best, and that we can carry on without them for periods of time.
As mindfulness practice progresses and we become more “at home” in minimally-formed sense and feeling without our usual world constructions, we sense that things are not quite as we had assumed. There arises a need to re-define self and world, and the second of the seven awakening factors, “investigation”, naturally begins as a meaning-making process. Mind’s activity shifts from papanca to finding new understandings and meanings, new schemata/gestalts/symbolizations for this broadened, minimally-formed experiencing.
In Eugene Gendlin’s description of this process (Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning), when our existing constructions of self-world are incapable of representing and expressing the reality we encounter, we are drawn to focus on “felt meanings” and try out new ways to represent our experience. When an understanding fits or “adequately symbolizes” experience, there is insight, often with feelings of excitement and joy. It is a process of attitude change, finding new understanding/feeling/action toward things. It is a self-transformation process, as new understandings of “the world” bring corresponding changes to the understanding of “self”. Our new understandings and attitudes are further refined and modified by mindful awareness of experiencing, mindfulness and investigation operating as complementary activities in an ongoing dialectical process at the interface of form and formless.
Beyond mindfully following breath, sustaining a stable intention to examine any phenomenon moves us towards awakening by revealing the limitations of conceptual understandings and the interconnectedness of things. This is exemplified in the pedagogical technique employed by biologist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz had his students examine and then describe a specimen. He sent them back to examine it and describe it again…and again…and again. Each time discovering more of what’s here, more of their own sensorium, students came to recognize that no conceptual account is complete or final or fully adequate. There is always more to the reality before us than we currently appreciate; our understandings may be useful but are always partial. His ideal for science – and I think an ideal for life on the path – is to develop understanding by thorough and persistent examination without attachment, always open to new experience and new understandings.
Something similar may occur in Zen koan training. I also think it is what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches as “deep” listening and seeing, responding to any phenomenon, including another’s behavior, with a sustained consideration drawing upon all that we know, including empathy, memory and imagination, to understand the experience and conditions giving rise to it. Such a thorough examination of conditioned arising also reveals the connection of all things across space and time, every moment a hologram, a jewel in Indra’s net.
I think this background may shed some light on the issue of the relationship between the numinous and nirvana. Numinous experience might be understood as occurring in the dualist/substantialist condition of consciousness, as a narrowed or sensorium that is suddenly de-repressed, opened to more of experience than can be meaningfully interpreted with existing conceptions of self and world. It is an experience not of the intellect but of sense and feeling, which are suddenly brighter, more powerful, and more in the foreground of awareness than usual.
As noted earlier, mysterium fascinans is the intuition that even though it is beyond comprehension, what is experienced is somehow one’s own, one’s true home or “ground”, while mysterium tremendum is the intuition that what is experienced could annihilate this self. I think nirvana as Batchelor understands it might be understood as the experience of fascinans with little or no tremendum. This stage is set for such an experience by increased familiarity and comfort with sense and feeling, an increasingly non-dualist condition of consciousness brought about by mindfulness practice, generating a faith that this “space” is safe and somehow where “I” belong. When an intense and brightened awareness of sense and feeling arises in numinous experience, it is experienced as welcome, a homecoming.
I think numinous experience serves both to guide and motivate; the path might be viewed as pursuit of numinous experience. It is noteworthy that Tillich asserts that the search for reunion is a basic human motivation arising from our separateness and estrangement. Simone Weil wrote of “gravity and grace” in describing our conflicting motivations toward pleasure and wholeness. I think understanding the attraction of the fascinans, the quest for re-union and fullness of being, as a natural and fundamental motivational principle is central to understanding “spiritual” life.
From this perspective, “awakening” is living with a kind of experiencing that is not bound by substantialist/dualist assumptions. The path toward awakening is taken up as one resonates with the Buddha’s message that all the forms with which we identify are insubstantial, that attachment to them brings suffering, and that another way of living is possible. I think we are at once “pushed” toward the path by the aversive experience of estrangement and “lack”, fears and disappointments, and the diminished vitality, and “pulled” by numinous encounters, the sense that greater wholeness or fullness of being may be found in this life. Just as the path begins and ends with right view, first as an intuition of wholeness and later as realization of it in everyday living, I suspect that “nirvana” is experienced differently at different points on the path. What is an intense numinous experience early on may become what Batchelor calls the “everyday sublime” when we are not so separate and reactive, experiencing more of what is here in sense and feeling moment-to-moment.
Our personal “light on the path” arises from the many manifestations of numinous experience. We progress on the path by noticing and responding to those varied and often subtle manifestations. Its many forms include times we feel touched, moved, or inspired; times we experience love, joy, reverence; in personal “dreams”; and in conscience and moral sensibility. The common thread across these experiences is recognizing and affirming the reality and value of a non-material “something”, known in sense and feeling, that is greater than narrow self-interest.
Pursuing the path requires relying on the light arising from our numinous experiences, leaving the security of social conformity and the security of narrow self-interest, risking our social “place” and the sense of self we have known. This broadened experiencing brings interest and concern for all we encounter but puts us at odds with both personal and social interests, estranged from the familiar self and world of dualistic existence. It is a difficult enterprise, in which the Buddha, dharma and sangha are refuges, giving a ground on which to stand in following our numinous lights. The Buddha provides a model of what can be achieved in human life; dharma provides a non-dualist set of understandings and attitudes; and sangha provides the support of a social group living by non-dual lights.
Steve McKay is a long-term participant in programs at BCBS, including the year-long Integration of Study and Practice Program and the Nalanda Program. He is a newly-retired psychologist who specialized in neuropsychology. He lives in Orono, Maine.