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’Apocalypse’ as ‘enlightenment’? ‘Enlightenment’ as ’apocalypse’?
April 14th, 2016 (June 22nd, 2016)
’Apocalypse’ as ‘enlightenment’? ‘Enlightenment’ as ’apocalypse’?
(food for thought)

   I struggle to link 'apocalypse' with 'enlightenment'.
   It's a question of frames of reference: it sounds to my ears like trying to shoehorn Buddhism into a box where it doesn't fit, just like it would seem incongruous to present Christianity in terms of 'selflessness'. Of course, comparisons and mutual enrichment are possible, there's value in inter-faith dialogue… And, of course, one cannot use language without introducing some sort of "frame of reference" one way or another (which e.g. prevents two people from being sure they mean the same thing when they use the same word, or which e.g. makes the art of translation difficult, when a word in one language doesn't have an equivalent word in the other)… Yet, we can strive to appropriate multiple frames of reference, learn multiple languages, broaden one's horizon, minimise distortions, rather than force everything into one frame.

   The very idea of ‘apocalypse' is tied to the destruction of a former creation, of a former order. Meanwhile, nibbāna  is regularly described as "the deathless", and it is explicitly described as death-less because it’s also described as un-created: it is "beyond life and death”, “beyond arising and ceasing” (conditioned dhamma are impermanent, but nibbāna  is unconditioned, uncaused, unborn: impermanence doesn’t apply)! And ‘enlightenment’ relates to nibbāna…
   This being said, ‘enlightenement’ relates to nibbāna  without ‘being’ nibbāna,  it's an insight into the existence of nibbāna (an insight beyond what is told by others, be they buddhas), so maybe there’s still some equivalence to find.

   'Apocalypse', to my ears and according to the Oxford dictionary of English, refers to a "complete, final  destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation.” However, it may also take the more secular meaning of "an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale".
   According to Buddhism, regularly, a world ceases and another comes (with some causal links between the two: how  one ends will influence how  the next arises… maybe similarly to how small local fluctuations during the Big Bang end up causing galaxies and spaces in between). This arising and ceasing is 'change' or 'impermanence', rather than 'destruction' (I suppose we could still consider it to be of 'catastrophic' scale).
   If one goes on the basis that no energy (be it in the form of matter, radiation, movement…) is added or lost, but everything is transformed, then talks of 'destruction' implies the discernment of specific 'arrangements' of energy, and these particular arrangements cease (maybe to give other arrangements, or to remain in a state of chaos) while their constituents don't necessarily ‘vanish'… This is similar to breaking a vase: you still have all the pieces of glass, no physical matter has vanished, but the arrangement has ceased and the disorganised elements no longer play the function of a 'vase'.

   For all we know, the Buddha didn't vanish in thin air upon getting enlightened though… His physical appearance didn’t change… His personal history didn’t vanish or become irrelevant (on the contrary, he recollected all ‘his' previous lives and could therefore now consider the total set of accumulated lessons!)… So the "final ending of the world” or even the "destruction on a catastrophic scale" are difficult to project on 'enlightenment'.

   Somehow, ‘enlightenment’ does relate to a 'final' cessation, explicitly so even… but not of the world (in which the Buddha abides, to teach), and not of life: it’s the "blowing out" of three specific fires, it is the cessation of lust, aversion and ignorance. It's not,  however, the cessation of compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, patience, perseverance, wisdom… It's a freedom from automatic / prejudiced / biased responses… but it's not disappearance, it's not indifference, and it's not death (karmic residues from the past don’t even vanish, and will unfold!).

   Now, one could naturally argue that the Biblical ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t destroy identity or compassion either! If there’s a Judgement Day, and people end up in Paradise or Hell, the destruction of the world is about the material world, not souls. So maybe the apparent continuation of the Buddha after ‘enlightenment' might be not so problematic, even when ‘enlightenment’ is linked to ‘apocalypse’… 
   This is a funny twist though, because when Buddhist consider the impermanence of the world, they include heavens and hells in what they mean by ‘world’: heavens and hells cease too, not just the physical world!

   Buddhism contests the idea that an external judgement is necessary for people to have their comeuppance.
   In particular, ‘enlightenment' isn't like any judgement: it isn't a 'judgement' on your past performance, on your past morality, etc. So there’s no need for a supreme judge in Buddhism, and karma  isn't a retribution system, it's a causal system: if you make the world to be crap, you'll live in a crap world… This is a simple consequence of not having the option to live in ‘another' world, it's simple causal continuity, nothing requiring a judge or a judgement! The one key assumption is that the ‘world’ includes hells and heavens too, and therefore there’s no disconnect through time or space between what you do now and you will experience later: your present acts directly shape the context (the world) in which you will live, it’s the same (all-inclusive) world.
   ‘Enlightenment’ is letting go of ignorance and therefore it’s seeing what works and what doesn’t. From such a ‘seeing’, it’s ‘easy’ to do what works; why would you sabotage your own contributions, by voluntarily doing what you know doesn’t work? There’s no need for ex-post judgement; there’s need for discernment and for taking responsibility for one’s contributions.

   Going back to an ‘apocalypse' that preserves identity, there’s another key reason why it’s difficult to link it to the teachings of the Buddha: he refused to assert anything about the existence, non-existence, both, or neither, of a buddha after death! This is part of the famous 14 "unanswered questions”.
   This silence might certainly seem puzzling! Attaining nibbāna  is seen as attaining freedom from rebirth (i.e. ceasing any 'automatic', compulsive rebirth, without choice, without control). And it is generally admitted (in early Buddhism) that the Buddha entered parinibbana  when he died, i.e. he was not reborn [supposedly because it was the only way he had to prove to his students that he had a choice about it, which makes sense if rebirth was considered as the automatic, unescapable default]. If it is admitted that there's no rebirth for the Buddha and that he —as a human— died, why would he have refused to answer about the existence or non-existence of a buddha after death? To the non-enlightened mind, death without subsequent rebirth (not even in Paradise) implies inexistence of a soul, and therefore lack of existence; it tends to be relatively straight-forward (and nihilistic).
   But what happens when you realise ‘selflessness’, one of the key insights of the Buddha?
   And, even further, what happens when you see that, when you realised selflessness, you simply saw a trait of reality that had always been there (i.e. your realisation didn't change your nature, from self-based into self-less)?

   What happens when you realise that you are like a vase: a specific arrangement, ‘real’ in some momentary sense, playing a function, and yet ungraspable because it’s unclear what makes a ‘vase’?
   Does the colour of a vase make it a vase? Can a vase exist without an associated colour? Would coating the vase make it less of a vase, more of a vase? Would chipping the vase immediately destroy it? At what point would ‘damage' equate ‘destruction’? Would the ‘destruction' be irremediable, or could some Japanese kintsugi  or kintsukuroi allow for the function to be recovered, or some other function to arise ( And could a vase become 'more' useful, more appropriate to what the situation needs, once recycled into something else? Could the legacy of a vase long destroyed remain, e.g. inspiring new forms? Could you separate such a legacy from its function?

   If you philosophically talk of 'ending' in Buddhism, you can talk of the ceasing of some dhamma  (fundamental ‘atoms' of existence, atoms in the sense that you cannot decompose them further without irremediably losing sight of their ‘function’ and ways of interacting with the rest): conditioned dhamma  typically cease when their supportive conditions themselves come to cease (a simple change of context).
   But you cannot ultimately talk of the ceasing of a 'person', who (like a ‘vase’) is not a dhamma,  not an atom: a 'person' can be analysed in terms of body, perceptions, sensations, ideas and consciousness (themselves decomposable into smaller units). And a 'person' is neither its body, nor its perceptions, etc. A 'person' isn't not reducible to any single aggregate (change the body, e.g. by cutting a limb, and it doesn't seem you're automatically changing the associated 'person'!), a person doesn't 'own' any aggregate either (there's a lot of biological automatisms that were not chosen and are not controlled)…
   Talking of a 'person' ending doesn't make much sense, if you cannot reliably define what a 'person’ is! Talking of a ‘person’ may be convenient at times, in some contexts, sure: quick, approximate reasoning and choices sometimes are appropriate enough! But if you’re interested in ultimate realities, you have to be able to define what you’re talking about… or accept that 'unborn' silence might be the best you can come up with! And since we struggle to define ‘life’ or ‘consciousness’, defining ‘person’ is in great difficulty! It manifests a limit of perceptions, of words, of ideas! We don't even know if a specific 'person' actually exists in any way, because all we access is our own mental perception of it, like in a dream! We usually forget our own mind (, we ignore its filters.

   If ‘enlightenment’ is presented as the great ending, the ‘apocalypse' (be it preserving a self, or destroying it too), such a presentation implicitly relies on a notion of 'person' which is foreign to enlightenment, foreign to the cessation of ignorance (and notably of the ignorant belief — sakkāya-diṭṭhi — in a 'self’ or ‘personhood’ which cannot be found!). The "personal revelation” of the 'awakening’ comes with the insight that a 'person’ ultimately is not  like whatever concept we have of ‘person'!

   I struggle to link 'apocalypse' with 'enlightenment'.
   Apologies, my limitations!


   I’m not entirely convinced the Karmapa  is "trying to understand why we're here"  (which can be interpreted as seeking either a cause or a purpose).
   If one ignores questions about the creation (nothing can be done about it now, and it’s only an infinite regress if you move up the causal chain), and if you’re mindful not to lose yourself into far-fetched speculations about the future, then "what to do?"  (neither in relation to cause or to purpose, but appropriately to the contingent context at hand, without presupposing a direction, a destiny or even criteria set by god(s)) might be a more helpful question.
   In Tibetan Buddhism, they often phrase it thus: « Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do? » (

#Buddhism   #Dharma