The Buddhist pursuit of self-knowledge

by Michael McGhee, The Guardian, 28 October 2013

Is Buddhism a religion?, part 4: Bodhi is the condition of being awake. But is this a metaphor that can find human embodiment

London, UK -- When I was moving towards Buddhism, what acted on my imagination was the image of the Buddha, the representation of a human being whose demeanour reflected composure and self-knowledge. It seemed to be the projection of a human possibility, perhaps illusory, but it threw into relief our ordinary human disarray, particularly at first my own. Later I came to find that Buddhist practice was at its most authentic when I sat in meditation alongside others, an incipient sangha (community of practitioners).

The core metaphor is in the name, the Buddha, the awakened one, and in the cognate term bodhi, the condition of being awake. I never thought of this awakening as something I must "believe in" before I could pursue it. It presented itself as a possibility that had to be investigated. Focusing on this image, this metaphor, led me to ask whether it represented a genuine and desirable human possibility, whether it could be embodied or realised.

It was apparent from Buddhist discourse that awakening was associated with prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion). Such language resonated with me partly because I seemed to hear its echo in the ancient Greek idea of philosophy as a form of eros or desire in which the quality and timbre of the impulse was tempered by the nature of its object, which was not simply wisdom but wisdom coupled with virtue.

In common with a growing number of philosophers, I had been persuaded by the anti-metaphysical thrust of contemporary philosophy, but frustrated by the dominance within the discipline of a set of research projects that in effect constituted a sort of avoidance of subjectivity, a sapiential deficit.

The pressing question then – which had considerable existential force – was whether one could retrieve a worthwhile notion of wisdom from the metaphysics within which the idea had originally been framed. There was another way to ask the question, too: what must be salvaged from religion in a postmetaphysical world – and how adequate to the human condition are the ideas that constitute the public profile of secular humanism?

This seemed to me to be the point of entry for a dialogue with the Buddhist traditions, with a developing secular humanism that was also open to the possibility of learning from the Abrahamic traditions, aspects of which were part of its own history.

The connection with a notion of eros that was refined by its object found its counterpart in Buddhist discussions of the desire for nirvana, for that extinguishing of destructive and egocentric passions that it was claimed were the obstacle to bodhi. It was clear from the language of both traditions that we were not talking about a dispassionate inquiry, but one in which the whole person was engaged. The power that the Buddhist imagery exerted upon the imagination did not entail a sort of anti-intellectualism that ignored the hard questions.

We had to understand that the exuberantly extravagant ontologies of the premodern world had already collapsed, and that individual doctrines had to be treated on their merits. As the traditions, both Buddhist and classical, themselves insisted their merits were to be determined by how they answered to experience. But this is not just immediate experience, which may need to be challenged because forms of our everyday experience are determined by subjective formations that may obscure and narrow our vision.

So we need to test the claim that these distortions happen, and to see whether our subjective formations can indeed be transformed. The poet Rilke offers an aesthetic version of this – the beasts of the forest fall silent when they hear Orpheus singing, and this quietening of the passions lets in a larger perspective.

Kierkegaard had claimed that "faith" was "the highest passion of subjectivity" when he contrasted it with "Christendom". The "faith" he refers to is a culturally specific, Abrahamic formation of spirituality, no doubt rich in metaphorical possibilities. But we can't get back there. In a secularised, postmetaphysical culture the certitude has collapsed that had attached to the system of belief within which faith in this sense had been conceived and developed. This has meant that such faith – the role of believer – is widely unavailable, except as a metaphorical vehicle, a mythological residue of projections, for the transformative struggle to embody the values of justice and compassion.

So we are left with the question, what kind of project can be adequate to the idea of the highest passion of subjectivity? One direction is towards self-knowledge. The attraction of wisdom is based on the bitter experience of folly and human misery, the haunting sense of the Fool's judgment on Lear: "Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise."

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: