Friday, August 24, 2012

What Is Liberation?


I wonder how many of us believe that when we seek liberation through the Buddhist path our expected end goal is permanent happiness? I have the feeling a lot of Buddhist practitioners might say, “Yes.” This primarily has to do with the common misconception of nirvana as a permanent mental state of blissful imperturbability. 
“Buddhism is, at its most fundamental level, a practical philosophy that claims, that being wise, virtuous, and mindful brings its own reward. Wisdom and virtue and mindfulness are necessary for, possibly sufficient for, liberation (Nirvana), for eudaimonia, for flourishing Buddhist style. And they are necessary but not sufficient... for happiness. By living a life of wisdom and virtue and mindfulness we overcome suffering and unsatisfactoriness and gain (maybe) happiness.” The Bodhisattva’s Brain, Owen Flanagan, 2011
Flanagan employs the Greek term eudaimoniaδαιμονία]—a fundamental concept of Aristotelian ethics that is best understood to mean, “human flourishing”—as an equivalent to nirvana and makes a clear distinction between happiness and flourishing/liberation.  For Aristotle, eudaimonia emerges from reasonable, virtuous action and does not have happiness as a pre-condition. From his perspective, flourishing has more to do with skillful response to conditions than the achievement of pleasure.
From that perspective, though nirvana and eudaimonia share a lack of dependence upon happiness for their existence, I find Flanagan's conceptualization of nirvana as equivalent to eudaimonia problematic. It is analogous to viewing nirvana as symptom reduction (less suffering) rather than rooting out the source of the illness (primordial ignorance) itself. I think the Buddha was pointing at liberation as more than just less suffering.
For me, the heart of the Buddha’s teachings on liberation are best exemplified by this quote from the Visuddimagga 21:70,
With great resolution there is the contemplation of impermanence; this leads to liberation through signlessness.
With great tranquility there is the contemplation of unsatisfactoriness; this leads to liberation through desirelessness.
With great wisdom there is the contemplation of selflessness; this leads to liberation through emptiness.
We can see the parallels between eudaimonia and liberation in that each requires a specific container for skillfulness—eudaimonia requires virtue and reason; liberation requires resolution, tranquility, and wisdom. However, it seems to me that the Buddha is envisioning flourishing as something beyond skillful responsiveness. This liberation is described as signlessness, desirelessness, and emptiness all of which result from direct experience of the unconditioned, deathless, non-conceptual ground of being. This is primordial wisdom, the recognition of the true nature of reality; a liberation that is beyond all concepts, including samsara and nirvana.

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