Forget Enlightenment … It’s Already Here.
Every so often I get asked about enlightenment – or nibbana, or nirvana – all of which Wikipedia describes as: ” … a spiritual revelation or deep insight into the meaning and purpose of all things, communication with or understanding of the mind of God, profound spiritual understanding or a fundamentally changed consciousness whereby everything is perceived as a unity.”
I’ve got no idea why people ask me about it because I’m not enlightened. Nor am I concerned with enlightenment or expect it, or even want it.
About the most I could say about my relationship with enlightenment is, I am perhaps, more enlightened than I was before I began meditating.
I know this, because I see how I have changed – my behavior and abilities, and my capacity for detachment – and definitely my health. Also, I’ve noticed I’ve become more flexible, not only physically, but emotionally as well. Though I still make stupid mistakes, becoming passionate, angry, sad, confused, depressed, these states pass away a hell of a lot more quickly now than they did when I was young, and balance always returns.
So perhaps I am a little more enlightened than I was … but basically I still regard myself as an idiot.
There is a delightful Zen parable that sort of stands to the side of what I’m saying:
One day the Master [Joshu] announced that a young monk had reached an advanced state of enlightment. The news caused some stir. Some of the monks went to see the young monk [Kyogen]. “We heard you are enlightened. Is that true?” they asked. “It is,” he replied. “And how do you feel?” “As miserable as ever,” said the monk.
Nevertheless, enlightenment remains the ‘holy grail’ of meditators everywhere, and though I personally think this is a hindrance to meditation, it does need to be addressed. And having written about it n the last chapter of my book ‘Love & Imagination’ I thought I would reproduce that chapter here, because it says what I want to say better than I can right now.
‘Enlightenment exists solely because of delusion and ignorance; if they disappear, so will Enlightenment … Therefore be on guard against thinking of Enlightenment as a “thing” to be grasped at, lest it, too, should become an obstruction. When the mind that was in darkness becomes enlightened, it passes away, and with its passing, the thing which we call Enlightenment passes away also.’ – The Buddha
Enlightenment or, as it is otherwise known, ‘Nirvana’ or ‘Nibbana’, or ‘Liberation’, is the holy grail for most who have made meditation a focus of their life. Many teachers profess to be enlightened or pretend to it; many are famous for it and there are many radically different views of what it actually is.
Of all I have read on the subject, there are very few who speak with the clarity of direct experience, the Buddha being the most direct and nonsense free of them all. As well as the quote above, he also said of enlightenment: “There is a sphere of influence that is beyond the entire field of matter, the entire field of mind, that is neither this world nor another world nor both, neither moon nor sun. This I call neither arising, nor passing away, nor abiding, neither dying nor rebirth. It is without support, without development, without foundation. This is the end of suffering.”
Many people have turned this simple description into an impossible fantasy in which they assume the Buddha is speaking of another dimension to which one is somehow transported when we become enlightened – a place where all the other enlightened people are – the equivalent of the Christian notion of ‘heaven’. Others are seduced into believing that enlightenment is an ‘altered state’, and at the first sign of bliss or some ecstatic vision in meditation, they believe they’ve become enlightened, often with disastrous consequences.
The mistake all these misguided views make is in trying to understand enlightenment with an unenlightened mind, which needs to fit everything into what it already knows. But enlightenment by definition can only exist beyond the boundaries of our current experience. For this reason, enlightenment cannot be anticipated, or created. It can only be experienced.
In the same way, it cannot be described. Even the Buddha never actually described enlightenment, so much as indicated it by specifying all the things it isn’t. In this, he is not indicating a different physical state to the one we already have, nor is he speaking of another magical place.
The world stays the same. The only change is the ‘stuff’ of the world as it exists in the mind – namely concepts, memories, desires, fears, worries. All the usual mental concoctions are let go off so emphatically, that even the propensity for them effectively evaporates.
The venerable Thich Naht Hanh affirmed this when he said: “Nirvana is the extinction of all notions. Birth is a notion. Death is a notion. Being is a notion. Non-being is a notion. In our daily lives, we have to deal with these relative realities. But if we touch life more deeply, reality will reveal itself in a different way.”
When all concepts, notions, beliefs and conditioned thought forms have evaporated from the mind, in the bare awareness that is left, all that remains is enlightenment. As such, enlightenment is so innate to existence it is the beginning point of everything – the most fundamental state of being.
For this reason it could be said that we do not attain enlightenment, so much reveal it by cleaning away the reactive mental muck that obscures it. In the continuous state of flow that remains, the mind is calm, expansive, aware and insightful, no matter what happens. This is the freedom from suffering that is so much talked about in Buddhism – not a heaven, or paradise – but simply here and now lived as they are, rather than what we make of them.
Part of our problem with understanding enlightenment is that it has been so mythologised and romanticised, largely by those who have never experienced it. They speak of it as some kind of earth shattering revelation, a dramatic epiphany in which we are suddenly turned into perfect beings. But unlike these silly myths, enlightenment is not a burst of heavenly light in which we are made gods, nor is it necessarily a sudden epiphany of the spirit as many think, although in rare circumstances it can seem to occur like that.
As Ram Dass says: ‘You may have expected that enlightenment would come Zap! Instantaneous and permanent. This is unlikely. After the first “ah ha” experience, it can be thought of as the thinning of a layer of clouds …’
Most usually enlightenment occurs as a series of insights and realizations in which the mind gradually softens, letting go of its attachments piece by piece. ‘Enlightenment must come little by little, otherwise it would overwhelm.’ (Shah, Idries, Seeker After Truth). As such, once it has formed itself it is actually quite a mundane state in which we have simply lost the mental mud most people spend their lives puddling about in.
The Buddha said of this in the Mahayana Sutra: ‘If we are not hampered by our confused subjectivity, this our worldly life is an activity of Nirvana.’
So life goes on, nothing is enhanced, nothing glows brighter than it is. There is no substantial change in physicality, or place, or even of perception when enlightenment occurs. The basic personality characteristics of the person remain essentially the same. Of this, a Zen saying goes: “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water. After I became enlightened I chopped wood and carried water.”
The essential difference is that our Self sees itself very clearly and knows its limitations. Where before our conditioned Self thought it was our entire universe now it knows it’s merely functional – a temporary, and often momentary vehicle for a life experience. And each experience we have brings with it a new self, which must be let go of along with the experience. A life is seen as a vast river of momentary ‘selfs’ coming and going continuously. And though each life experience is precious, it is not so precious that we must suffocate it by clinging to it, or filling it with fear or desire, because we know that awareness is not confined to this self, or even this brief spark of life.
As Longchenpa, a 14th century Tibetan Buddhist Master says:
Since everything is but an apparition, perfect in being what it is, Having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, One may well burst out in laughter
Many, in describing enlightenment, have used the notion of ‘emptiness’ – they speak of enlightenment as ‘no mind’, or a ‘void’. From this, we could mistakenly infer that enlightenment must be some profoundly nihilistic state in which we have annihilated everything that we are, to become nothing. It also implies that enlightenment is tantamount to a profound state of mental apathy, or ‘vacantness’.
And this misconception seems affirmed when we are told that the ultimate objective of every dedicated Buddhist is to extinguish all mental attachments, habits, addictions and cravings. Once again we could assume that with all habits gone, only a mental void could remain. And for most of us, this is a vision of hell, because we define our lives by our desires, habits and fears – they are our entire concern. Surely without these things we would be reduced to apathetic idiocy?
But the notion that enlightenment as a ‘void’ has nothing to do with these nihilistic interpretations. I’ve practised with two, perhaps three enlightened men and each of them was an extraordinarily dynamic, decisive person with wonderful senses of humor and incisive, and engaged intellects. The only difference between them and me was that they were pristinely aware, and had total command of their conditioned Self, whereas my conditioned Self still had command of me. As such they wore their sense of self like clothing, to be put aside when it had no use, while I remained trapped in the labyrinthine concoctions of my self, still struggling to be free.
So the notion of ‘emptiness’ or ‘void’ does not refer to any lack of intellect or capacity for considered thought. Rather the emptiness refers specifically to the lack of any reaction to what arises either from life, or the mind. It is profound detachment, in which the enlightened mind knows all that arises but if it has no use for it, lets go so immediately it was as if it was not even there.
And we can see the beginnings of this profound detachment even as we practice meditation and mindfulness. We practice ‘separating the chaff from the hay’, so to speak – highlighting the functional reality of sensations, while letting go of all the rest – letting go of the conditioned thoughts, reactions, desires and fears we are constantly building out of our bare sensations; pollution that only wastes mental energy. Practicing this letting go, we find the mental smoke usually blocking our awareness becomes transparent and unimportant. An apparent ‘emptiness’ appears. As one of the first Zen masters in China, 1st Patriarch Damo, said in AD 526: ‘ True merit consists in pure awareness, wonderful and perfect. Its essence is emptiness.’
The paradox is, the emptiness is full.
From out of the apparent void of a pure awareness, our true intelligence appears – the intelligence of knowing. This intelligence does not arise as thoughts, nor is it even localized to our singular Self, as we have seen. It arises from the spaces, the infinite potential between our thoughts, in much the same way as the quantum particles of the entire material universe arise from the apparent emptiness of space.
So, like love, enlightenment is not something we get, nor do we own it, or make it. It exists within us already, only needing to be revealed.
And it reveals itself slowly.
There is no before or after – no flash of light. Our enlightenment becomes realized in many stages. And in this, with enlightenment as our most fundamental state, life is always leading us back to it. It leads us by showing us the cost of our mistakes and faults, while at the same time giving us small tastes of our latent possibilities – exquisite moments when having forgotten ourself, we experience sudden unity with the world around us.
All those special moments of magic that we all experience in unguarded moments, are like pinholes looking into enlightenment – when we experience the bliss of non-self for just a second – syncronicitous, or ‘extrasensory’ events that stop us and make us wonder whether we are more interconnected with the universe around us than we thought. Minute glimpses of the divine appearing in music, art and the natural world around us – the birds, the trees, the sky. In this way, like a compassionate teacher, enlightenment keeps alternately showing us our mistakes, then gently tugging at our sleeve, begging us to follow it. When we are absorbed in naked fascination or giving from our heart, or simply in a state of innocent wonder, its then we feel enlightenment close by. A friend once described listening to Mozart as “disappearing into perfection for a while’”.
We also experience tastes of enlightenment in the exhilaration of challenge: “In a chess tournament, players whose attention has been riveted for hours to a logical battle on the board claim that they feel that they have been merged into a powerful ‘field of force’…”
A taste of enlightenment occurs when we give from a heart needing no reward or recognition, or when we wholeheartedly appreciate someone else’s triumph or good fortune. At that moment we lose our name, our title and race and become brilliantly alive.
And meditation trains us for these moments. Each time we practice letting go to be still, the heavy cloak of our cultural conditioning becomes a little more subtle, a little more transparent and more aware. And with increasing awareness comes a calm knowing, inspiration, empathy and an enduring joy that feels gentle and deep.
So we keep on practicing. It’s all we can do. And though sometimes it feels as if we’re getting nowhere, we never give up. In this way we slowly move closer to enlightenment.
“Do you remember how electrical currents and ‘unseen waves’ were laughed at? The knowledge about man is still in its infancy.” – Albert Einstein.
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