Some practical considerations
In Buddhist literature we can discern two ways of looking at the question of what makes awakening possible. One way is to suppose that sentient beings have no potential for awakening because their essential nature is that they are already awakened. There is no obstacle to awakening as such; there is, however, an obstacle to knowing that awakening is the nature of all things, and that obstacle is a fascination with the world of experiences in which one sees oneself at the center of everything that is being experienced.
Another way of viewing this question is that awakening is something for which sentient beings may or may not have a potential. As is the case with all unrealized potentials, there is no certainty as to whether a sentient being has a potential that is not yet actualized because of some hindrance or has no potential at all.
Here are two ways of looking at the question, and now it is tempting to ask which of these two views is the better one. I suggest approaching this question with the Pragmatist philosopher William James as a guide. In his sixth lecture on Pragmatism, delivered in Boston in 1906, James articulates what he calls the “usual question” of the Pragmatist:
Grant an idea or belief to be true,…what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experiential terms?1
Approached with this question in mind, it looks as though the two ways of thinking about the potential would not lead to any substantial concrete differences. No matter whether one sees a fascination with the phenomenal world as an obstacle that is blocking awakening or as an obstacle that is blocking one’s knowing that awakening is already the essential of all things, the practical project is the same. The task is to become disenchanted with the phenomenal world and with oneself as the central observer of the phenomenal world. William James would probably conclude that the centuries-long debate over sudden and gradual enlightenment is a logomachy—a war of words, with nothing concrete hanging on the outcome of the war. I would therefor be inclined to dismiss the debate as one of no real importance.
There does, however, remain a question that could have practical consequences. There remains the question of whether awakening is possible at all. Was there ever actually anyone who attained the complete elimination of all afflictive conditions that produce unhappiness? Is it really possible for anyone to attain nirvana? If one answers that question in the negative, then one is unlikely to engage in Buddhist practice. If one answers in the affirmative, the one is more likely at least to make an effort to engage in Buddhist practice. But what would someone do who really could not arrive at an answer to the question? What if one concludes, following the reasoning of Dharmakīrti or following the implications of the story of poor Channa, that there is no way of knowing such things for sure? Here again, I think one can draw inspiration from William James. He offers the following thought experiment:
Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”2
To demand a guarantee of success before acting, says James, is in effect to opt to do nothing. And doing nothing is simply not an option.
Questions for discussion
- William James, Pragmatism, ed. Bruce Kuklick, (Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 92. ↩︎
- James, Pragmatism, p. 130. ↩︎
- James, William. Pragmatism. ed. Bruce Kuklick. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981.