On freedom and nirvana

Stephen Batchelor was recently interviewed by Sam Harris for his ‘Waking Up’ podcast. Stephen and Sam had a fascinating discussion which ranged over a number of topics. What follows is Stephen’s response to Sam’s question on the nature of freedom and self-transcendence (nirvana).

SAM: What’s your doubt there? And this leads me to what I want to ask you now. What is your view of the nature of the freedom on offer by any one of these paths, and how do you think of the concept of self-transcendence, in that light?

STEPHEN: Well, for me freedom is a two-way street: a moment of freedom is a freedom from something, but it’s also a freedom to something. This is a distinction made by Isaiah Berlin that I’ve found very helpful. It’s not just that you’re freed from something, let’s say, attachment or anger or self-centredness, but that that freedom clears a space in which other possibilities are made available. This opens up a freedom to act in a way that is not conditioned by your anger or self-centredness. It’s from that empty space that the path unfolds in terms of your thoughts, your words and deeds, your interactions and so forth.

This is what lies at the heart of what practice is about: it’s about refining, and opening up, that inner spaciousness, that absence of reactivity. That is the ground from which one then seeks to live moment to moment. It’s not somewhere to rest and stand apart from your interactions with the world. It is an ethical space.

Nirvana for me is simply the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. The ‘unconditioned,’ as defined in the early Buddhist texts, is described in the same way: not as a transcendent state, but as the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. So ‘unconditioned’ does not mean unconditioned in some absolute sense, but simply unconditioned by greed, unconditioned by hatred, unconditioned by egoism. That is a state of ethical possibility. In other words, I can learn to live my life, as best I can, with full awareness of my shortcomings, in a way that’s not so driven by my personal likes and dislikes, not so driven by my fears and wants, but tries to respond to the world from a non-reactive, open mind.

That non-reactive mind is also the ataraxia of the Greeks. The untroubledness that Pyrrho, the founder is skepticism, sought to attain. In the longest fragment of Pyrrho he talks of a practice in which you no longer think of things as “is” or “is not,” or “both is and is not,” or “neither is or is not.” This is the quadralemma you also find in the suttas and Nāgārjuna. And if you can dwell in that state of mind, you come to what he calls aphatos, which is speechlessness, and that leads you to ataraxia, which is untroubledness. And it’s from that untroubled space that you then seek to live your life.

The Chinese idea of wu wei, “inaction,” is similar. In practice, the Buddhist nirvana, emptiness, unconditioned, all of them I think are different ways of accessing this space of freedom, which is both a freedom from and a freedom to. Otherwise freedom can become too strongly identified with an inner spiritual freedom, and risks losing sight of the fact that it is an ethical freedom as well.


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