The Meaning Models
Spiritual practice is clearly not just about sensate clarity, but also contains explicit implications for what might generally be called “meaning”. Meaning is obviously one of the keys to how our lives will go, driving our interpretations and even sensate experiences of essentially everything. Those interpretations clearly are profoundly causal. Remember how I was railing against exclusive emphasis on “content” earlier in the less mature sections of this book? This is an attempt at a more mature version of that same set of points. Remember how I said that content was only half of the equation and the other half was sensate clarity? That first half, content, is still half of the point, and as such is extremely important. Clearly, the other half, that of basic sensate clarity and the insight that comes from that, is also extremely important.
Putting a section on meaning in the grand sense in a section on awakening is dangerous on the one hand and hopefully creates an appropriate contrast of axes of development on the other. Awakening as having sensate clarity about the three characteristics is one axis of development. Skillful development of a set of meanings that helps us skillfully navigate the fact of having been born into this life is another axis of development. Curiously, the first axis, that of awakening, has a natural endpoint. The second one, that of meaning, is endless.
We could have a sense that awakening in the strict insight sense is meaningful, and here we begin to see some overlap. However, beyond that, the two are strangely unrelated. This is often disconcerting for practitioners, even very advanced ones, as there is often some residual part of us that somehow believes that mastering sensate clarity will perfectly inform meaning. When this fails to occur, it can cause a significant amount of angst, even in awakened beings.
Each tradition generally claims to have found the best, most optimal meaning or set of meanings for the big question of the meaning of life. However, as the existentialists will be quick to point out, meaning is arbitrary. They are clearly right, at least within the framework of existentialism, as the large number of seemingly contradictory meaning structures offered by spiritual traditions and philosophies readily demonstrates. “It is all Illusion!”, “It is all pure love!”, “It is all emptiness!”, “It is all the tao!”, “It is all God!”: each of these clearly has a totally different feel, and a person subscribing to one of them will likely interpret reality differently from someone subscribing to another, even if they both have a high degree of sensate clarity. These interpretations will clearly have radically different implications for the relative aspects of how we think, feel, speak, and act.
That is where the Buddhists come in, as they will remind you that meaning is causal. Meaning is causal in its arising, as it arises naturally from specific conditions that are biological, psychological, and cultural, at a minimum. Meaning is also clearly a cause for other phenomena to arise, and one of the moderating causes for how meaning creates conditions is the relationship to the meaning itself as it arises and vanishes. Meaning when perceived very clearly in the light of awakening is likely to produce better outcomes, it seems, as meaning is part thought, part feeling, and part something else that is hard to define without circular definitions. As we have seen, what happens around thoughts and feelings benefits from clear perception. Still, beyond just the clear perception, there are the relative implications of the specific meanings that arise, and so the question of which meanings will produce the best outcomes is hotly debated, and strong opinions on this tend to be a core component of spiritual traditions. Even those traditions that propose doctrines along the lines of, “The highest meaning is to transcend meaning,” that still conveys meaning.
As all the traditions seem to have a monolithic confidence that their meaning structure is the optimal one, conflicts are inevitable, as we see again and again when the various traditions interact. Two traditions that agree almost completely on teachings related to sensate clarity can still be perpetually at each other’s throats when it comes to questions of optimal meaning. Most traditions generally don’t think along the lines of “optimal” when it relates to their stock recommended meanings. They just have their meanings, forgetting that they have those meanings for some hopefully good reasons. Obviously, this sort of pragmatism as a lens through which to view meaning structures is itself a statement of meaning in some way, but please forgive this point, since if you throw out pragmatism, then, pragmatically, things get dicey in practical terms. Most of the traditions don’t seem to have the breadth of perspective to sit back, examine what their meaning structures and stock recommended goals and interpretations of reality were supposed to actually do, or to remember this when interacting with other traditions and specific individuals.
Pragmatism is informed by statements of value. What is worthwhile? What is valuable? What is most important? Clearly, I believe that sensate clarity and using this to awaken to the specific sensate truths that remove that tangled, painful space warp at the center of perception is valuable. In this, I put value on sensate clarity as a high ideal. There are other explicit skills, perspectives, and techniques that I value, as should be obvious by now. You have similar lists of values, and I place value on knowing what those are, since knowing what we value leads to the natural question of what leads to the things we value, and then this can lead naturally to doing these things that lead to the things we value. However, some of this is clearly very individual, very personal, and conditioned by causes and conditions about which we likely have little to no awareness, as the psychologists know all too well.
Which do you value more, dispassion or engagement with the world to save all beings? Do you value love or equanimity more? Do you value joy or clarity about suffering? Do you value gritty humanity or refined idealism? These are key questions that superficially divide whole traditions which otherwise would agree on and delight in many other points of shared practice and experience. Clearly there are answers that involve various combinations of apparent opposites, shades of grey, and all the other nuanced aspects of mature meta-philosophy. However, somewhere along the way, for reasons we may never really sort out, we became wired to lean more strongly towards one side or the other of these sorts of initially dualistic-appearing questions. Personal predilections are issues of personality; and personality styles, while not perfectly fixed, are powerful karmic conditionings that are not easily changed. It is true that as we age, grow, and develop, we may come to view these questions differently than we did at various previous points along the path, and our honest answers may actually change moment to moment and circumstance to circumstance. That said, certain trends do tend to persist throughout our lives.
Given that personality styles and relationships to these sorts of questions of value and meaning are often relatively stable, I would advocate for traditions which wish to be broadly applicable to make room for both sides of these debates. Clearly, in some way the traditions are aware that, by taking a strongly one-sided stand, they will often alienate those whose personality style is different from their own. They then often forget this, viewing those on the other side of these perennial questions as somehow inferior to them despite the clear evidence that smart, wise, mature, reasonable people may hold apparently different views from them on key topics of meaning.
All that set-up accomplished, we now come to the meaning models in a more explicit way. Most of the traditions explicitly state that awakened beings will hold certain specific values as more valuable than others, interpret reality through specific meaning structures and, in general, agree with the positions staked out by that tradition regarding the core perennial questions about the meaning of life. They will often then use the corollary of this view to confidently state that those who hold contradictory views regarding key spiritual values and meanings are obviously inferior to those who have practiced in their own tradition. We can reasonably presume that most of this is based on the notion that their views are somehow optimal for this life and that the experiment has been done decisively and that their view is the very best.
Here’s the thing: I can’t for certain tell you that some tradition isn’t right when it comes to answering these questions. I personally am quite certain that I don’t have enough definitive data to make such a claim about my own tradition or about any other tradition. It is possible that such a data set exists and is incontrovertible, but I haven’t seen it yet. If you have seen such a perfect data set that optimally proves the supremely practical complete canon of relative views for all practitioners in all times and places, please let me know.
Until then, perhaps we should all keep an open mind regarding perfect certainty about optimal meanings and values and keep doing the experiment as best we can, as this is likely to allow us to get a lot more out of the efficacious spiritual technologies developed by the various traditions and enjoy the conversation about those technologies a lot more. Here, I clearly value efficacy, communication, and enjoyment in such matters, just in case my obvious biases aren’t clear. If you value something else, I hope it works out well for you based on whatever value system you hold. Still, beware of entangling nets of views that bind you up in fear and conflict, as that may cause needless suffering, particularly when it comes to traditions, and I will try my best to be similarly mindful when I can; this is not easy, as I am sure you have noticed.