In this first part of lesson 6, Stephen reflects on the topic of the thirty-two dimensions of awakening [#add text].
Talk ‘Thirty-two Dimensions of Awakening’ [Download this audio file here]
Chapter 11. Thirty-two Dimensions of Awakening (1)
“A talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.”
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.
Secular Dharma is not just another interpretation of Buddhist teaching, but another way of articulating the dharma in a new idiom, according to a different logic (Buddhism 2.0), and then to express it through creativity and imagination in new forms of art, literature, music etc.
I first used the expression “a culture of awakening” in Buddhism without Beliefs (1997), nearly twenty-five years ago. I chose it as a way to find an alternative to describing Buddhism as a whole as a “religion”. Culture is a broader term that designates the human-made features and structures of our lives (in contrast to those of the natural world), which does, of course, include religion.
In the Chambers dictionary, “culture” is defined as “the state of being cultivated.” Since the fourth task is to cultivate the eightfold path, a culture of awakening would thus describe a community that has cultivated/is cultivating such a path.
A culture cannot be the preserve of a single person, but only a community. This reminds us of the parable of the city, which presents not nirvana but the creation of a renewed civic space as the goal of the eightfold path. This implies that the practice of the dharma cannot be reduced to becoming proficient in contemplative skills, but requires a practice that includes one’s social, economic and political life.
The discourse On Cultivation — the Bhavana Sutta — provides us with a clue as to what such a practice might entail. In this text, it is not only the eight-fold path that needs to be cultivated, but thirty-two dimensions of awakening, which include the eightfold path but add a great deal more, thereby providing a richer matrix for a culture of awakening.
In On Cultivation, Gotama starts by imagining a person who is tormented by her compulsive patterns of reactivity despite a sincere longing to be freed from them. “Why is that so?” he asks. “Because she has not cultivated herself.” He then lists six groups of virtues that need to be cultivated for her to achieve such freedom. These are:
The four foundations of mindfulness
The four strategic efforts
The four bases of creativity
The five powers
The seven facets of awakening
The noble eightfold path
Only by cultivating — bringing into being — these thirty-two dimensions of awakening will the person be able to achieve the liberation she seeks. Even should someone have no interest at all in awakening, adds Gotama, by developing these qualities in her life, she will nonetheless attain it.
The process of awakening is rational, natural and organic. It does not depend on what you believe in or long for. Whether or not you are a Buddhist is irrelevant. Once the conditions for awakening are in place, the consequences will follow. If p, then q. Gotama illustrates this with an analogy:
Imagine a hen with eight, ten or twelve eggs, who had not properly sat on them to keep them warm and incubated. Despite her wish that her chicks break out of their shells with their claws and beak and hatch safely, they will fail to do so. But if she has sat on them properly, then even if she doesn’t want her chicks to hatch safely, they will.
Just as the mother hen turns and rearranges her eggs with her feet to ensure that all will be kept equally warm, so does the practitioner of the dharma constantly adjust and rebalance the elements of her practice to ensure that no one factor predominates while others are ignored. In the case of the eightfold path, over time meditation came to assume the dominant role, while factors such as imagination, work and survival were sidelined.
This metaphor is similar to that of the raft, where one puts together a makeshift craft from different elements that are to hand in order to get across a body of water. In leaving the raft behind, one leaves behind one particular configuration of the dharma, but does not abandon the dharma — the values, practices, principles, frames, dimensions of awakening — itself.
A clutch of eight shifting eggs in a nest has no intrinsic order. The sequence in which the limbs of the eightfold path is traditionally presented is just one of many possible iterations. Imagining the limbs of the path as a clutch of eggs — or a raft — liberates you to arrange them in ways that are adapted to the needs of changing circumstances. By reordering them to culminate with work and survival rather than mindfulness and focus, such a secular iteration reconfigures the dharma to help us face our uncertain future on earth.
While each egg is a garbha or womb that brings a new life into being, the brood of hatchlings could be seen as a metaphor for bringing another kind of society into being.
These thirty-two dimensions of awakening are correlated to the four tasks. We will explore in the second semester how this works in greater detail — as well as how this correlation was preserved in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism (via the early Indian Sarvastivada school) through the doctrine of the “five paths,” but lost in Theravada Buddhism. This correlation enables us to understand each task with greater granularity.
From this perspective, not only the fourth task, the path, but all four tasks are to be cultivated. The four tasks are thus subsumed within the path as a whole (the Way).
It is striking that three of the six groups of virtues (12 out of the 32 dimensions) are included in the first task alone. This implies how “embracing” or “fully knowing” requires a far more complex set of interrelated activities than the other three tasks.
In the previous talks, we have covered most of these dimensions. Now we can begin to see how they fit together.
First Task: Embracing Life
Virtues: Four Foundations of Mindfulness:
Four Strategic Efforts:
Creating conditions for reactivity not to arise
Creating conditions for letting go of reactivity
Creating conditions for virtues to arise
Creating conditions for sustaining and increasing virtues
(= the four tasks)
Four Bases of Creativity:
Heart and Soul
Second Task: Letting Go of Reactivity
Virtues: Five Powers (faculties or strengths):
Third Task: Beholding the Stopping of Reactivity
Virtues: Seven Facets of Awakening
Fourth Task: Cultivating the Path
Virtues: The Eightfold Path
In examining the connections between the tasks and virtues, it becomes clear that the virtue of mindfulness serves as the guiding thread (le fil conducteur) of the entire process. For among the thirty-two dimensions of awakening, only mindfulness is included in each of the four tasks, working in concert with the other virtues it accompanies. Mindfulness is a “team player” whose role is qualified and modified by the other qualities with which it works.
By grounding each task in immediate experience, mindfulness ensures that one’s practice is informed by embodied know-how (kayanupassana) and emotional intelligence (vedanupassana) as well as ethical sensitivity (cittanupassana).
And by bearing in mind what each task is for (dhammanupassana), mindfulness serves as the compass that keeps each group of interconnected virtues directed toward one’s ethical goals.
There is no reason why practitioners of secular mindfulness could not expand their understanding of mindfulness to include all these associated dimensions of the path and its tasks.
“Imagine a carpenter,” says Gotama at the conclusion of On Cultivation,
who notices how the handle of his adze has been worn away by the pressure of his thumb and fingers. He has no idea what was worn away today or yesterday or before then; all he knows is that over time the handle has been worn away. Likewise, a person whose life is dedicated to cultivation has no idea what reactive habits were diminished today or yesterday or before then; all she knows is that over time they have diminished.
The same idea is found in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. This is the translation of A.E. Stallings:
Year after circling year,
The ring on the finger thins from inside out with wear.
The steady drip of water causes stone to hollow and yield.
The curving iron of the ploughshare fritters in the field
By imperceptible degrees. The cobbles of the street
We see are polished smooth by now from throngs of passing feet.
And at the city gates, right hands of statues made of brass
Are worn away by touches of the greeting hands that pass.
And thus we see things dwindle by their being rubbed away –
But what is lost at any given moment, we can’t say
Because our stingy sense of sight will never let us see. (I: 311-321)
The ethical path Gotama advocates is a lifelong project. Its transformative effects on one’s character only become apparent over time. And since you are the person undergoing this gradual change, the effects may be more obvious to others than yourself.
In letting go of reactive habits, the second task, you need faith in a process that may not deliver either immediate or permanent results. Since reactivity is built into the limbic system of the brain, it is liable to keep flaring up no matter how many years you have devoted to mindfulness, wisdom and focus. Human flourishing is a fragile achievement, constantly threatened by renewed eruptions of reactivity and, as you age, with the breakdown of your physical and mental faculties. This is a faith that requires patience, humility and a sense of humor.