However, I sometimes wonder that maybe things are the other way around: Maybe this other place is a hellish environment, a formless void where the self has little power, and has a bare existence, undifferentiated and unrealized. Maybe the self is striving to escape from that existence and to come into being, and to build a better world. That better world is not this world; but this world is a key waypoint on the progress from that formless world, to that place that is enlightenment.
That is, that hellish place is ignorance, and to escape it, one must have consciousness and insight: and in order to express consciousness, one must have a body. It is only through consciousness that enlightenment can be obtained. In other words, the cycle of rebirth is a necessary phase in the passing from ignorance to enlightenment.
As a path to enlightenment, Budhism is saying that it is not "me" who is important: Don't be deluded into thinking that "me" is special. All "me's" are special, but "me" will die when my physical body dies, just as the "me" who was six years old died a long time ago, living on only in my memory. And so when I die, the greater self will remember "me", even as I cease to exist.
Dogma is bullshit. Everything written by humans is wrong, and must be questioned and distrusted. Well, almost everything. Even God cannot change the value of pi, and this is true. Now, the human conception of what pi is may be subject to flaws, but its relationship to sine and cosine is still true. Even what I write here might be wrong.
Superstitions. The "black cat crossed my path" is so low that I've never taken it seriously. I dunno maybe you have, and so this fetter applies to you. What I am more worried about is the superstition that "what goes around comes around", the superstition of bringing bad karma onto oneself by living bad karma. Maybe attachment to "right superstitions" isn't so bad? When is belief and knowledge a superstition, and when is it not?
These five middle "rights" of the eightfold path are self-evident to any western man. That is, the western culture in which I live, the greco-roman/euro-american/christian culture, will find these middle five truths as self-evident as anything that Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin ever penned. However, neither the first nor the last of the eightfold path are at all obvious.
Certainly western culture (the catholic church) has practiced with monestaries and contemplation, but this seems hardly a sure path to enlightenment. Its also not hard to see the monastic components and the monastic culture in just about any engineering lab or research center: they are rarely palaces of hedonism. To scale the highest peaks of engineering or math seems to require an ardent, secluded lifestyle, a renunciation of inebriants and of the sense pleasures and an ardent resoluteness in the pursuit of the goal of intellectual enlightenment. Western athletic culture is hardly different: the locker room is not a pleasure palace, and "Just Do It" is a Zen koan.
Yet, for all this right thinking and right doing, these very same monastic scientists and self-denying athletes continue to yearn, to exhibit passion, to lust over fame or fortune or both. Is it that they have not hewn close enough to the true path, or is it that there is something more required: an active renunciation of cravings? I guess we've come full circle.
Somewhat less clear is the question of the font of motivation. In western/capitalistic canon, as set by Adam Smith, it is seen that greed, and its cousins, liking, disliking, passion, desire, lust, aversion are all the engines of commerce and capitalistic behavior. If these are abolished, what will happen to the systems of materialistic production? It is, after all, these systems that allow an unprecedented number of people to live in great wealth, for people like me and you to read and write and contemplate, rather than starving and scratching out a living tilling the soil. Poverty is the friend of ignorance, poverty tightens the fetters. In the western world, one cannot be a homeless wandering sage, (unless you are Paul Erdos), dispensing truth and knowledge. In modern society, one must first walk the path to wealth before one can have the luxury of contemplation.
Of course, not all economic production or activity is done by corporations; one has the non-for-profits, and a vastly greater number of people who aid and assist without the cover of a formal legal entity. What motivates these people? Is it not compassion? The desire to help? Ooops, there we go, using the word "desire" again. "Desire", if I remember correctly, is one of the fetters that bind. If one kills desire, can one continue on to do good works? If one has no desires, how does one explain motivation? This is one of the unresolved philosophical conundrums posed by Buddhism.
Nonetheless, there is motive, and we see in many Hindu/Buddhist systems that even the enlightened do reincarnate and come back to earth to help others find the way; so the font of motivation need not be rooted in base desires and hatreds.
Lets ansatz: it is vitally important to engage and fully participate in the political life, to change society and living conditions for the better. Modern technology, especially in the form of surveillance and espionage, is bringing great danger to the world. Evil men will happily use these machines against you and your fellows. How can one obtain Nirvana when one is subjugated? How can future generations obtain Nirvana when they are subjugated? Do you hate those evil men that subjugate you, huh, do you, punk? Oh, there's that word "hatred" again. Do you think that "hate" is a necessary component of political life? Are ad hominem attacks on political figures the necessary means to a nobler end?
Just as buddhism seems to avoid the issue of political life, it also avoids the issue of child-rearing. In virtually all societies, raising children is a duty taken on by women. Oh dear, have we discovered another area where budhism fails to address the issues? The lower stages of budhism seem to be anchored in strongly moral statements, about "right thinking" and "right action", and things of that sort. Yet curiously the upper stages, as interpreted by fundamentalist elements, seem oddly centered on mysogenistic, nihilistic, suicidal dreams of erasing the impermanent. This fundamentalist budhist canon does not directly address these issues except to deny that these are issues. There is something strongly morally repugnant in the denial of these issues. One cannot simply leap from the moral foundations of Budhism and pretend to sweep away all rotten-ness and misery and suffering in one stroke. Even thought it all is an illusion, one cannot simply pretend that it is all illusion. Simply pretending it is illusion is not the way to nirvana. Pretending is an escape that allows one to ignore suffering, and that is not right. Ignoring the suffering in this world, by blithly labeling it as "impermanent", is not an advance on the path to enlightenment. This is not the path to individual enlightenment, nor is it the path for the self-enlightenment of the universe unto itself. Alas, the path to enlightenment is not so simple.
This can be interpreted as another statement on the activist duties and social morality in Budhism. Unfortunately, many seekers lust to be saved, be it saved by Jesus, saved by Budha, take your pick. In the Christian canon, Jesus absolves you of your sins; how then can it be that you still suffer? In the simple-minded budhist canon, all suffering is just a manifestation of the impermanence, of the not-self. So the simple mind will just sweap away the very importance of suffering by calling it impermanent. But we see that this simple mind is bound by this seventh fetter. It is lusting after formlessnes, and forgetting its involvment in the here-and-now, is forgetting its activist role in the betterment of society and the universe.
What do I mean by "activist"? Nothing but the dictionary sense: the political activist. The duty of child-rearing. The pursuit of higher learning, be it math or philosophy, art or science. The active involvment with life that is all about. Yes, this life that surrounds us all around is transient, putrid, miserable, suffering, unreal, an an illusion. And the sixth and seventh fetters make it clear that lusting to leave the here-and-now only serves to tie you down to the here-and-now. The sixth and seventh fetters make it clear that by failing to be actively involved in the current affairs of the current world, only serves to keep you stuck in the current world. You cannot escape the shackles merely by desiring to leave the shackles behind, by lusting to be free of thier bonds. One cannot escape the misery by desiring escape. (Why, there's that "desire" word again.) But there is a way: one can escape misery by being active, by doing. And now that you are a good, active, proud doer, lets move on to the next fetter.
According to strict budhism, the world we live in is an artificial reality. And the movie the "The Matrix" implies this too, so it must be true. Now, the part that I find curious is that scientists, and in particular, physicists and mathematicians have a great deal of excitement in the discovering and unveiling of the operations of the universe, of the operation of this artificial reality which we inhabit. Physicists live out Plato's allegory of the cave every day: this reality is nothing but a set of shadows on the wall, and we grasp at what must be the true form.
There is certainly the sense that the universe is trying to understand itself, through its own creation of human beings who have analytical abilities. Its as if the universe were striving for its own enlightenment. Yet the universe is but a shadow of the real thing, the 'true self'. The universe is the vessel in which our physical being manifests.
There are times when Budhism and its quest for Nirvana sounds suicidal or nihilistic, at least at its most basic interpretation. This is surely wrong. I would be a lot happier if Buddha had spent a few words dealing a bit more closely with these issues: the goal of the True Self, and its manifestation as the Universe, is not to kill itself and to deny itself out of its own existence. It is rather quite he opposite: through self-action and self-realization, the universe comes into being as a necessary step on the path to enlightenment. The seventh and eight fetters make it clear you cannot just renounce this world: for renouncement of this world is suicide, and suicide is just lust for that other world. Excitement for the deconstruction and destruction of reality is a fetter. The intentional demolition of of self-delusion and self-illusion is just one more thing that will keep you tied down and unable to escape. You can't escape from it, you must escape through it.
So we've uncovered a curious thread: fetters 4 and 5 seem to deny base desires as the basis for motiviation. And yet, one cannot be unmotivated. Fetters 6 and 7 deal with the motivation of seeking godhead: one cannot simply seek godhead, while being be unmotivated and uninvolved in the current world, one cannot simply brush away the present in seeking the hereafter. Fetters 6 and 7 state that one must be actively involved, one must be a doer, more precisely, a doer of good works. And how timely: fetter 8 cautions us about the pitfall of taking excessive pride in ones good works. Fetter 9 is, among other things, a caution about building great palaces of good works in the here-and-now.