Many of us probably do not much care about enlightenment or what it means. When we ask this, we are usually asking another more important question – is the end of suffering a myth?
Recently, I went through a very painful and dark period, after my furry soulmate Shania passed away. Suddenly I was buffeted by such strong emotional winds that I felt I could not cope. At first, I did my best to pretend that everything was perfectly fine. However, it was not long before everything crumbled and I felt tired all the time, was physically ill, had no appetite, and couldn’t muster the strength to get out of bed.
It was during this time that I read The Tao of Fully Feeling and from there I started to explore the interesting field of Buddhism. Unlike a lot of Western psychology which emphasizes only the positive, Buddhism starts off by looking at suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and how to achieve it through the 8-fold path. That Path is the path to enlightenment.
Buddhism, Enlightenment, and Suffering
A concept in spirituality, philosophy and psychology related to achieving clarity of perception, reason and knowledge.
Being advanced and having gained necessary information or knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge.
(buddhism & hinduism) A state in which the individual transcends desire and suffering and attains nirvana.
The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it approaches emotions and suffering from the deep perspective of understanding and wisdom. In this way, all the definitions above apply. Enlightenment is achieved not through some arcane ritual that we take on faith, but through deep self-examination, self-experience, and reflection on the three characteristics of all phenomenon –
- Impermanence – Everything rises and ceases. Because everything is transient, we will face loss; the loss of belongings, the loss of loved ones, the loss of happiness, aging, illness, and death.
- Dissatisfaction – It is in the nature of our mind to continuously categorize all things as good, bad, or neutral. As a result of this we form attachments to the good and aversions to the bad. Because all things are impermanent, we get dissatisfied and suffer when conditions change from what we perceive as good, to what we perceive as bad.
- Emptiness and No-Self – All three of these characteristics are quite deep and nuanced, however, this last one was the most difficult to understand and accept. Emptiness refers to how all things are empty of inherent existence. In the Dalai Lama’s book on Buddhism he captures this concept well by explaining how a melody is not contained within a flute. Rather, it is brought forth by the combination of musician, flute, and air vibrations. I.e. the melody is not intrinsic to the instrument but arises dependent on various causes and conditions.
Similarly, our emotions are not intrinsic to us, but arise dependent on causes and conditions. Remove any one of those causes and conditions, and the emotion ceases to arise. Our brain’s categorization of all things into good, bad, and neutral are also empty of inherent existence. They arise based on conditions such as our emotions at the moment, physical sensations, mood, habits, beliefs, memories, and more. Change any one of those things and we get a different result.
Good, bad, evil, loser, and other traits that we commonly attribute to self or other are also not intrinsic. What we consider to be the self of this moment, is different from the self of the previous moment, and that of the next moment. We may judge an act to be cruel, but like the melody, the act is not intrinsic to self or other. Just like everything else, it arises dependent on causes and conditions. Blame in this context becomes pointless.
Repeated reflection on the three characteristics, together with the application of appropriate antidotes can be very helpful for emotion regulation and in stopping entanglement with problematic emotions.
Our minds are infinitely malleable. It can learn, change, and grow in a fairly short period of time. This makes us highly adaptable, which is a great advantage to our survival and evolution. Whatever unhealthy habits and incorrect beliefs we have formed in childhood and later can be unlearned, retrained, changed. However, this also means that our minds are susceptible to unhealthy suggestions, misunderstandings, and pervasive conditioning. This is why we employ mindfulness, introspective awareness, the 3 characteristics, and various antidotes, to prevent such disturbances.
The Problem with Enlightenment
The problem with enlightenment or the promise of an end to suffering, is that we quickly cling to attainment of that ideal. In so doing, we give in to our fear of suffering and end up pushing enlightenment farther away. This is similar to how the direct pursuit of happiness makes us more unhappy.
As always, the answer lies not in the goal, but rather in the journey itself. The Buddhist Path gives us the tools to lessen our suffering each and every day, if we choose to travel upon it. The Path or journey is its own reward, just as life is its own reward. Neither needs a meaning or an end-goal. Grasping for an end to suffering will only create greater dissatisfaction for us in the present, and prolong our current suffering.
I recently read an article on the enlightenment experiences of several Buddhist teachers. Described within it are a series of personal accounts of spontaneous enlightenment, achieved after having met Poonja-ji. Even more interesting is a follow-up article with a series of responses from teachers and luminaries in the field. Here are excerpts from some of the responses –
Perhaps your issue has done the community a favor in displaying the very prejudice and pride that, hidden behind the cloak of “liberation spirituality,” is ripping the planet apart. Our vulnerability to such spiritual narcissism tends to weaken faith and confidence in the very practices that are intended to liberate.
~~[Michele McDonald-Smith and Steven Smith, Insight Meditation Society and Vipassana Hawaii]
I think this pointing-out instruction is particularly relevant to us in America, where we seem to have a penchant for the “quick fix,” even in spiritual practice. Intimations of freedom are not liberation. They can either inspire us further or lull us into complacency. It is up to us.
~~[Joseph Goldstein, Insight Meditation Society]
Given that this debate is one that has bedeviled the Buddhist community for centuries (cf. gradual versus sudden enlightenment in Zen), we would have hoped for a more balanced approach, … Exposure to other perspectives and teachers can certainly be helpful in gaining fresh insights that make our previous understanding seem incomplete, even naïve. This need not indicate a deficiency in that first tradition, merely an immaturity and impatience in oneself.
~~[Fred von Allmen, Damma Gruppe, Stephen Batchelor, Gaia House]
I am fairly new to Buddhist teachings but here are my thoughts on the two articles. The first article increased my doubts on the truth of enlightenment. While spontaneous enlightenment may make memorable stories, they lack in methodology and do nothing to help increase my understanding of emotions, self, life, or anything else. Furthermore, these stories were told by teachers who have not had success with years of following rigorous practice and techniques, only to go searching for something better. This does not exactly instill confidence in the teachings.
The second article pulled no punches and was definitely a burn. Perhaps we should only be happy for our fellow sentient beings who have achieved a temporary peace. However, a rebuttal may be necessary due to the doubts and misunderstandings left by the first article.
Is Anyone Truly Enlightened?
All this left me to wonder if anyone is truly enlightened. These are all people who have practiced the Path for a long time and yet they seemed not too different from the rest of us; still beset with emotional warts and afflictions. Then it struck me that this comparison is self-defeating and a product of getting entangled in doubt and fear. In actuality, I learned many things from both articles and they inspired me to write this piece.
Enlightenment is not an all or nothing event. For me, enlightenment is a process of understanding. It is the mind trying to understand itself. This increased understanding has helped in my day-to-day emotional health. I still get entangled in afflictive emotions, but less so today than yesterday.
The articles made me realize that I was still grasping for the end-goal of some special enlightened state. Instead, a daily focus on practicing mindfulness, introspective awareness, as well as contemplating the 3 characteristics was already bringing good results and would likely serve me well for the future. Ultimately, I do not know if true enlightenment or a total end to suffering is possible. What I *do* know is that grasping for a total end to suffering will only bring us more suffering.
The many teachings of Buddhism have made a big difference in my life. I do not agree with all of the doctrine, but the spirit of questioning lies at the heart Buddhism. This adherence to mind exploration and freedom are what I love most about Buddhism.
It is said that the famous ninth-century Chinese Buddhist monk Linji Yixuan told his disciples, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The statement deliberately confounds people and is meant to jolt them from complacent ways of thinking. However, beyond this purpose there is another. One should seek the inner Buddha nature that resides within, not an external Buddha for liberation.
~~[Oxford University Press]
If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. In other words, if you encounter a “Buddha” separate from yourself, you are deluded.