The Awakened Ones

It is slow reading but rewarding...

Gananath Obeyesekere's "The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience" ...

He is a distinguished anthropologist and his book described as an 'essay' (after the manner of Locke) pays its respects in its title to William James' 'The Varieties of Religious Experience'. Like James he writes well and he allows his theoretical insights to emerge from concrete example and those insights are presented in a way akin to Wittgenstein's 'forms of life': they compose a way of regarding what is presented rather than giving a structured argument.

It is compelling not least because, though a tenured professor in the United States, he comes from Sri Lanka and from a rooted, respectful, agnostic Buddhist background. His task is to present a case for 'vision' as a way of coming to and offering knowledge. The rationality of modernity should not have the last say. That we need reason is a truism that we only need reason is falsity.

His first chapter begins with the Buddha's awakening. The use of 'awakening' rather than the more 'traditional' 'enlightenment' is part of his strategy. The nineteenth century choice of 'enlightenment' as the appropriate translation of the Pali was freighted with a cultural choice. Buddhism was being extolled as a 'rational' religion - the Buddha as a stoic philosopher. But as Obeyesekere reminds us the Buddha's whole life is embedded and related in mythic terms and the story of his awakening is a story about a cycle of visionary experiences beheld in a particular manner that sees through them to how the world is. This is then explained in both narrative and rationalising forms (and there is a dialectic between experience and culture that prioritises neither).

Obeyesekere is clear that visionary experience transcends language, not for him the postmodern assumption that 'everything that is' can be said (or is radically conditioned by what is said) and his account of the dynamic between that which is, in visionary experience, and what is said of it is illuminating (and refreshing).

It has become the 'orthodoxy' that mystical/visionary experience is linguistically constructed (Stephen Katz, Denys Turner) and this has diverted attention from the concrete embedded reality of mystical states. It is true that James' emphasis on 'discrete experiences', rather than on the transformation of how the mind experiences anything at all, was an unhappy one. But that the mind (and body) are transformed through envisioning experience is not to be sacrificed on the altar of linguistic philosophy (Anglo-American or Continental).

I was reminded of Denys Turner's remark (in relation to Julian of Norwich) that modern theologians no longer had visions to which you could only reply, 'what a pity' and 'why let their lack distort our understanding of those that do dream dreams whether ancient, medieval or modern'?

Obeyesekere does not lay claim to visionary experience himself but has a refreshing, non-reductionist attitude to those that do. They breathe in his text with engaging life.


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