“Enlightenment in Pragmatic Buddhism: The Dilemma of Freedom” (Part 1 of 3) Talk given by Shi Yong Xiang (Dr. Jim Eubanks Sensei) Director of Buddhist Studies, CPB


Belief in strict determinism or in chaotic indeterminism, whether it be in ontology or in human behavior, was considered by the Buddha and [Willam] James to be inimical to the conception of human freedom (88).     -David J. Kalupahana in The Principles of Buddhist Psychology

One of the most interesting and simultaneously confusing teachings of Buddhism is that of “enlightenment” (nirvana/nibbana). In Pragmatic Buddhism, we often call this “realization,” because we want to emphasize that enlightenment is a mind-mediated change requiring a continuous commitment. Realization or enlightenment is, in short, “freedom.” It is the process of freedom and freedom itself. The nature of this freedom will be revealed as we continue this dharma talk.

Dr. David Kalupahana, a teacher in OPB/CPB’s own lineage, teaches that the key to understanding enlightenment is first understanding the Buddha’s views of causality, or “dependent origination” (pratityasamutpada/paticcasamuppada). Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, saw through his personal experiences and through discussion with others that the Universe flows, emerges, evolves and changes because of causality. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another, ad infinitum. But, what we often forget is that causality is not linear, where influence comes from specific starting points and results in specific ending points. Instead, causality derives influence from a myriad of relationships, like a web, some with more impact and some with less depending on proximity (think about an angry bull in your house versus an angry bull in a pasture!). Reality is non-linear, and many things influence our experiences. However, as explained in Kalupahana’s quote above, as illogical and unhelpful as a belief in complete chaos is for the human life, it is equally illogical and unhelpful to assert a reality where all things are predetermined. Some, as Kaluphana points out in his book, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, think that if the world is causal it must be predetermined. However, the Buddha (and the father of Pragmatism, William James) taught quite the contrary.

To Be Free, or Not To Be Free...

   Even though the Buddha made a persistent endeavor to avoid these extremes [determinism and indeterminism] and follow the middle path of “dependent arising” (paticcasamuppada) to explain the life-process (samsara) as well as freedom (nibbana), most critics of Buddhism as well as some of its followers have failed to understand the implications of his views. For them, any conception of causation or dependence, when universalized, becomes inimical to freedom of choice. Therefore, the Buddha’s conception of karma is seen as conflicting with his view that all phenomena are dependently arisen. This has led to the unfortunate view that the Buddha admitted a total or absolute difference between the life-process (samsara) and freedom (nibbana). Thus, the transcendence of this life-process becomes a necessary condition for freedom. Freedom becomes the absolute, ineffable, ultimate reality (88).

Kalupahana explains the dilemma for many between an assertion of causality and an assertion of freedom of choice. When we look closely at the Buddha’s teachings, we can better understand what kind of "eedom he was referring to; not an absolute “free will” like that found our own JudeoChristian heritage, but a freedom that is determined in whole by our human intention, or “selection.” The Buddha’s conception of the life-process, as well as James’ view of experience, properly understood, provides an explanation of the possibility of freedom...Both the Buddha and James emphasized the centrality and importance of selection (89).

“Selection” is a term used here to explain the process of deciding what to focus on as human beings within the causal spectrum, or “possible choices.” In other words, we have a responsibility, as Buddhists, to consider and “screen” what we put into our minds because our minds become a reflection of what enters it, a teaching my own teacher David Shaner Sensei shares frequently. The mind does what it knows. If we want to have a positive outlook on the world, we can choose to cultivate this by deciding, deliberately, to not expose ourselves to abusive language, violent films, and unhealthy people, OR if we find ourselves there, take the necessary actions to get out. The factual nature of the mind and how it works from a psychological and sociological perspective back this concept up in full. Buddhist training, and the path to freedom (enlightenment), is a matter of “selecting” and focusing on what you will spend your time doing, and in return, what you will let influence you. Kalupahana states, “when sensations give rise to perception and reflection, the selectivity is conditioned by the stronger “dispositions” (89). If we want to become healthy and positive human beings, we have to make a pro-active choice to increase the quantity and quality of healthy and positive experiences we have. “Freedom” in Pragmatic Buddhism is found here: the intersection between who we are and who we want to become. 

The Moral Element of Fact For the Buddha, there was no separation between fact and value, or “the world” and “what is important to us about the world.” So, we are made responsible as soon as we realize that the kinds of facts we focus on serve as the foundation for the kind of person we are. If we want to be good neighbors, or exceptional athletes, we must focus on the realities that define them: practicing altruism or practicing the skills of the sport respectively. About this, Kalupahana writes, “The Buddha’s way of introducing a moral element into the discussion of empirical facts is rather unique and basically pragmatic...he utilized the term dhamma to refer to all empirical facts” (90). Here we all learn that the term “dharma” is not some word for special, esoteric practices of Buddhism, but represents the entirety of the experiential world. In Buddhism, sensory experience of the world is our source of knowledge and our opportunity for freedom (enlightenment).