Saturday, September 1, 2012

Wisdom: The Key to Liberation

In my last blog entry, I briefly touched on the debate between those who regard liberation as symptom reduction and those who consider liberation cessation of suffering. There are certain Buddhist circles that view clinical mindfulness interventions as little more than a band-aid on the wound of primordial ignorance. I readily admit to having moments of frustration with those in my field who consider mindfulness just another cognitive-behavioral skill and meditation as nothing more than another relaxation strategy. Of course this perspective perfectly fits our medical model. Patients just want to feel better—less anxiety, less depression, less stress, more energy, more happiness—with the least amount of exertion.

To bring clarity and possibly some resolution to this disparity of opinion about liberation, Buddhist scholars and clinical mindfulness researchers are now coming together in an effort to better define what exactly constitutes mindfulness. Is it a trait, a state, or an activity? What are its benefits physically, psychologically, and socially? How does it work and what are its neurobiological mechanisms? A great example of recent fruitful dialogue on these topics exists in a series of essays on mindfulness featured in the journal Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 12, No. 1, May 2011.

Many of these essays seemed to heighten my sense that wisdom (paññā), the ultimate result of mindfulness, is a key factor in any experience of true liberation. Andrew Olendzki (2011), offers a fairly complete definition of what constitutes wisdom from a Theravadan Buddhist perspective, “Wisdom in Buddhist thought is a quality of understanding the nature of experience, of seeing clearly the impermanence, interdependence, and impersonality of it all, as well as seeing the origin and cessation of suffering as it manifests moment to moment in experience.” Therefore, wisdom is a spectrum of experience that begins with insight into the empty nature (impermanence, interdependence, and impersonality) of all phenomena including the self, and finds its fruition in the liberation of mind (ceto-vimutti) through direct knowing of unconditioned, transcendent wisdom.

Olendzki continues by delineating the primary distinction between mindfulness and wisdom, “It is only when the wisdom factor arises that insight meditation really occurs, for while mindfulness can regard an object with balanced objectivity, it is understanding that is ultimately transformative.” So we can attend to experience mindfully and still not be engaged in vipassana or insight meditation and we also can practice mindfulness and gain little or no understanding of the actual nature of phenomena.

Clearly, without insight into the empty nature of all things, especially the self, mindfulness becomes no more than a band-aid on the wound of primordial ignorance (avidya). Yes, mindfulness practice may feel relaxing and it may provide temporary distraction from suffering, but this is not the liberation of the Buddha; not the “dharma door of awakening” that is the birthright of all sentient beings.

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