The Social Models
In the same vein as the love models and the special models are the social models. These tend to involve all sorts of social implications or issues around awakening. For instance, we may imagine that enlightenment will automatically have certain desirable social implications, such as being accepted in a specific social role, like that of a teacher, guide, mentor, spiritual friend, guru, leader, avatar, etc. This usually involves some poorly defined group of people accepting us.
While spiritual attainments and unrelated qualities can sometimes inspire people to view us in these ways, there are absolutely no guarantees.
As I have pointed out before, plenty of people with wisdom have been ridiculed, ostracized, persecuted, attacked, jailed, tortured, and murdered when they spoke from that place. In short, any social repercussions of an individual’s realization (assuming we are correct in claiming or believing it) will be at the mercy of ordinary causal reality, just as with everything else, and ordinary causal reality can really suck sometimes. Further, most people don’t really have any clue what awakening is about, don’t think that awakening really exists today, may not have awakening as part of their view of what is possible or even desirable, or may even find the notion that you think you are enlightened to be a threat to their religious beliefs or an indication of your grandiosity, arrogance, delusion, or psychosis, and they might just be partially correct. Having lived with these issues for over a decade, I can tell you that these reactions are as likely to be found in the social circles of Buddhism as they are in the social circles of any other meditative or non-meditative religious or non-religious tradition.
Other social models involve enlightenment having something to do with other people’s opinions regarding whether we are awakened, meaning that enlightenment is purely a social convention or collective designation and has nothing to do with reality or an individual’s perception of it. In this model, just as we may elect a president (or at least believe we are casting votes for one), so it is with enlightenment. This is common in many Western Buddhist circles, including some major retreat centers, in which they all bow to the senior teacher list and yet hold the paradigm that no one really gets enlightened. While this is all basically the neurosis and confusion of spiritual children, there are some real, practical truths hidden in this model.
Our direct perception of reality will depend on our practice and insights, so any attempts at directly promoting similar insights in others will be greatly helped or hindered by what people think of us, whether we are given some title, whether a lineage authorizes us to serve as a teacher in that lineage, and whether the concepts and language we use to describe and promote our realization fit in with the cultural expectations and norms of our social circles. Remember the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz who had a brain made of straw but felt so much better about his intellect when he was given a diploma? The social models often predict similar effects on the spiritual path. Further, there are those who falsely think they are enlightened because someone else thinks they are, and there are many people on senior teacher lists who probably shouldn’t be there.
One way or another, it is worth examining our deepest beliefs regarding the social implications we imagine will occur when we get enlightened or more enlightened. These can have a big impact on our practice, our motivation to practice, and what kinds of successes and failures we have in spreading insights around once we have insights ourselves. Unfortunately, most of our beliefs are likely to be somewhat unrealistic, springing from the understandable human grasping for recognition, role, and social status. The serotonergic buzz of status feels very nice. Again, the further we find our dreams are from our current reality, the more we need to look at what is happening right now, with those dreams and needs being one small part of the transient, causal sensations that are arising and vanishing.
Stated in practical terms and by way of example, you could be a medical graduate who had trained well in some medical school in another country, completed a good residency there, be perfectly qualified to practice from the point of view of knowledge, experience, and talent, and yet not be allowed to practice in the United States until you had jumped through all the administrative and educational hoops. The same problem can arise when people go outside of a tradition or partially outside it and yet do very good insight work. They have the knowledge but not the social designation. That said, it also gives the freedom to speak out without worrying about those channels liking what you say, and, as you are probably noticing, there is much about the standard channels to speak out about.
I myself exist in a gray area like this, as do many contemporary teachers and practitioners. I have accomplished much using the techniques of the Theravada, a tradition that explicitly says that only monks can know what I know and sometimes only recognizes monks as lineage holders. This is a cultural and social problem, and highlights the truth embodied in the social models. I suspect there will be a lot more of this as the dharma continues to adapt to our times and places and more people are successful. We need to come up with solutions to this problem that neither artificially elevate people nor artificially prevent them from sharing what they do know that is of benefit to others. Also, if you find yourself in a similar situation, I strongly recommend that you reach out and cultivate a peer group and, if possible, good mentors, so that you all help keep one another on the up-and-up and can address problems when they arise in a way that draws on the wisdom of that community rather than on the limited perspective of those going it alone. Those who go it alone, even very wise beings, often run into various forms of trouble that even a small community providing good social support might have mitigated or prevented.