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WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?

Charles Day*

www.desmoinesmeditation.org & click above on “More from this Publisher”

“Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness,” by Bhante Henepola


Gunaratana, is a detailed how-to manual for implementing in
everyday life Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the path to the end of
suffering, the path to enlightenment. Buddha said he taught only the
causes of suffering and how to end it, how to realize our already
innate enlightened nature. And he cautioned that his teachings
should be considered guidelines, not commandments, to be tried and
used, if they worked, and discarded, if they didn’t. In that spirit, if what
is said hereafter is useful, fine; if not, discard it.

This essay is not about the many practices that can be done to
facilitate spiritual growth or to elaborate on the Eightfold Path to
realizing enlightenment. Bhante Gunaratana does an unparalleled job
of that. What I’d like to share are some random thoughts about that
enigmatic and exalted state of experience called enlightenment.

We all occasionally have glimpses and experiences of enlightenment,


experiences of awe and grandeur in observing a sunset or listening to
a symphony, of unconditional love for a partner or newborn baby, of
gratitude in surviving an illness or accident, and of pure joy in just
being alive. But we rarely recognize these glimpses as reflecting our
enlightened nature because our illusory ego, which is what we have
been socialized and conditioned to identify with, takes credit for them.
And the experiences are so wonderful that we try to get them again
on a more sustained and even permanent basis. The irony, from a
Buddhist perspective, is that our efforts to become enlightened only
impede the realization that we already are.

So, what is enlightenment? It is, according to Buddha, the end of


suffering. Physical pain is still experienced but it is no longer
compounded by worries and fears, by mental suffering, which has
ended. Enlightenment is the ability to see things as they really are, to
accept that what is is, and to say “yes” to all of life. This is done, not

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out of naivete or denial, but out of a profound realization of the
selfless, interconnected, interdependent unity and oneness of all
mental and physical phenomena, of all experience.

For most of us full enlightenment comes gradually as a


developmental and cumulative process of growing spiritually through
steps and stages. And it happens through grace, rather than by any
egoic effort to attain it, because it involves transcendence, surrender,
and ultimate dissolution of the ego in order to realize it.

Mystics and masters of all religions agree, however, that we can set
up conditions that open us to the probability of realizing
enlightenment or union with God. We do this through meditation,
prayer, and other spiritual practices. study of scriptures, associating
with respected teachers and with other spiritual seekers, and living a
moral, mindful life.

There are examples of an instantaneous and radical transformation


into full enlightenment, such as that reported by Eckhart Tolle, but
they are relatively rare. The iconoclastic eighth century Chinese Zen
Buddhist Huang Po taught that full enlightenment, in fact, comes only
“in a flash,” and that in studying and working through stages “you will
have added nothing to it at all.” Gradual approaches involving rites,
rituals, and study, he maintains, while they may have value
intellectually, only perpetuate the desire to attain something we
already are, thus reinforcing our ignorance and delusion and
impeding the realization of our already enlightened nature.

Expressing the essence of Zen, he said, “If you can only rid
yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished
everything.” (“The Zen Teaching of Huang Po,” translated by John
Blofeld, pp 33-35).

It has been said that spiritual growth is a process of finding out not
who we are but who we are not and always thought ourselves to be.
Ordinarily we experience ourselves as a body/mind organism, as our
thoughts, feelings, and values, the roles we play, and our past
experiences and future aspirations. But these are not who we are.
They do comprise what we call our ego or sense of self, but this,
according to Buddha, is an illusion because it has no substantive

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reality, no independent and autonomous existence, and is always
changing.

Nothing, no thing, exists independent of anything else. And every


body, every mind, every thing is continuously changing. It is our
inability to recognize and accept the reality of selflessness and
impermanence that causes so much suffering and dissatisfaction.

Eckhart Tolle (“Power of Now”), Willigis Jager (“Mysticism for Modern


Times”), and Bhante Gunaratana (“Eight Mindful Steps to
Happiness”) all describe the ego as a convenient conceptual myth, as
an operating principle that facilitates functioning in the world of duality
or what we call commonly call “reality.”

Momentary or sustained enlightenment happens when we transcend


and let go of our identification and attachment to the dualistic
attributes that constitute our ego or sense of self and realize that we
are instead the non-dualistic source, out of which these identifications
and all dualistic mental and physical phenomena arise. Buddhism
calls this the realization of “emptiness.” On the relative level of form,
emptiness refers to the reality that all form is interconnected and thus
empty of an independent self. And on an absolute level, it refers to
the emptiness even of form, to the pure consciousness or awareness
out of which dualistic space, time, and form arise. The paradox
inherent in conceptualizing dualism and non-dualism, form and
formlessness, is captured exquisitely by the common Zen expression:
“Emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

Enlightenment is living fully and mindfully in the present moment,


realizing that the present moment is all there ever was, is, or will be.
It is the experience of the present moment as perfect, not in any
judgmental sense, but because it is the inevitable result of the
interaction of all previous causes and conditions and could be no
other way. The past and future are just thoughts in the mind,
occasionally very useful and practical, but generally redundant,
unnecessary, and all too often lead to destructive actions.

Enlightenment has also been described as realizing that all


experience happens, not only in the present moment, but that it
happens only in the abstract, insubstantial mind.

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The revered Tibetan Buddhist Master, Sogyal Rinpoche (“Tibetan
Book of the Living and Dying”) put it this way: “The still revolutionary
insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and
nowhere else. Mind is revealed as the universal basis of experience
—the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of
what we call life and what we call death.”

Another statement worth repeating about enlightenment or


realization, as it is generally called in Hinduism, appears in the
Vedanta Upanishads: “Eye cannot see It, tongue cannot utter It, mind
cannot grasp It. There is no way to learn or to teach it. It is different
than the known and beyond the unknown. In this all the ancient
Masters agree.”

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching expresses it this way: “The tao
that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” (“Tao Te Ching,” translated by
Stephen Michell).

A few remarks are in order about enlightenment expressed as the


capacity to simply accept that what is is, and that suffering results
from wanting it to be different that the way it is. This definitely should
not be confused with approving of what happens or being passive,
indifferent, or insensitive to the reality of the need for action or
change. It means accepting the way it is without reacting negatively.
It means letting go of the negative reactions that arise, so that one's
energy is not wasted in emotional reactivity to what can't be changed,
since it's already happened, or worrying about a future that has not
yet arrived. Accepting the way it is enables one to respond to any
suffering or need for action with greater clarity of thinking and greater
compassion.

For most of us, getting even close to experiencing this level of


accepting that what is is takes lots of practice, especially of non-
judgmental patience. Historically the best forms of practice have
been regular meditation or prayer and mindful living. The Serenity
Prayer used in alcohol and other addiction programs, whether recited
as a petitionary prayer to God or as an affirmation of one’s thoughts
and intentions, expresses this goal very well:

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“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the
courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the
difference.”

The Indian philosopher J. Khrisnatmurti said it very simply when he


was asked his secret to living so peacefully. He said: "I don't mind
what happens." Accepting that what is is, is a quintessential
expression of our already enlightened nature.

Again, it should be emphasized that compassion is the natural and


spontaneous result of genuinely accepting the way it is. It has been
said that the greatest paradox is the willingness and ability to accept
the way it is while striving compassionately to make ones “self” and
the world the best it can be.

It behooves us all to make the best of it, to live together in community,


harmoniously. and compassionately, and to love one another. This is
the ultimate expression of God’s will, of enlightenment, of the end of
suffering. And it results, not from the desire to selfishly satisfy or
pleasure ones self or someone else, but from the realization that
there is no difference between us, that I am you and you are me.

To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 25:40: “Whatsoever you do unto


others, even unto the least of your brethren, you do unto yourself.” It
has been said the “God looks through six billion pairs of eyes.” We
are all one, appearing as individuated manifestations of a
continuously unfolding, unified interdependent whole. Unfortunately,
we suffer and cause so much suffering because we live under the
delusion of separateness.

In conclusion, I’d like to share a story told by Ajahn Sumedo, an


American monk who studied in Thailand with the revered Buddhism
master Ajahn Chah. Sumedo tells about a fellow monk from
Germany admired for his brilliant intellect and intense devotion to
Ajahn Chah. So, when Sumedo encountered his German friend
years later on a trip through Europe, he was quite shocked to find that
he had forsaken Buddhism. He had disrobed as a monk, embraced
Christian fundamentalism, and professed the sincere belief that only
those who were born again in Jesus would go to heaven.

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When Sumedo later visited Ajahn Chah in Thailand, he told him what
happened to his formerly devoted student and asked him to explain
what could possibly have gone wrong to make him want to convert to
Christian fundamentalism.

Ajahn Chah’s response was simple and immediate: “Maybe he’s


right.” He did not play into Sumedo’s efforts to try to figure it out or
reinforce his negative judgments about what his friend had done or
about the implied superiority of one religious form over another.
Ajahn Chah’s response represents an exquisite reflection by a master
teacher of what Zen calls “don’t know” mind, of complete calm and
comfort in accepting whatever happens in life, and of the enlightened
capacity to acknowledge and transcend dualistic judgement and
thinking.

Hindu mystics describe the universe we experience as “lila” or the


play of consciousness and the way we ordinarily experience
ourselves and the world as “maya” or the illusion that everything is
separate, substantial, and real. These ancient observations parallel
those of modern science. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics
tell us that everybody and everything is fundamentally nothing, no
thing, just interconnected patterns of energy manifesting in constantly
changing forms. These forms appear to us as separate entities
because we are neurologically incapable of perceiving directly the
underlying interconnected subatomic web of all reality. And we are
conditioned to view these forms or appearances as separate,
independent, and autonomous, the illusion that is finally shattered
when full enlightenment is realized, according to the mystics.

In summary we are already enlightened, even if we don’t recognize it.


And what is is. Life is just a play of consciousness in which each of us
is simultaneously the playwright, the director, and all of the
characters. So, lets enjoy playing our part, the part we call “me,”
“myself,” and “I”, in this marvelous, infinitely complicated,
unpredictable, and mysterious phenomenon called life.

Let us intentionally recognize and acknowledge our glimpses of


enlightenment, those moments, whether brief or sustained, when we
experience selfless splendor, grandeur, awe, unconditional love,
humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, appreciative joy,

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equanimity, and the oneness and perfection of the universe. These
are the experiences that reflect transcendence of the sense of a
separate self or ego and surrender to the will of God or to the
unfolding mystery of the universe. These are the experiences that
are accompanied by the peace that surpasses understanding, by the
tranquility, bliss, and joy of enlightenment.

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*Charlie Day is a retired psychologist who teaches meditation and


Buddhism in Des Moines, IA. He can be contacted at 515-255-8398,
charlesday1@mchsi.com, or www.desmoinesmeditation.org. A
version of this essay was presented to an Interfaith Book Club in
February 2009 after discussing for several weeks “Eight Mindful
Steps to Happiness” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.