What Is Enlightenment?

by Rev. Sarika Dharma

This morning Rev. Vajra handed me an article from Tuesday's paper, about how many Westerners, including celebrities such as Oliver Stone and Richard Gere, are embracing the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, hoping to reach enlightenment. I guess most everyone interested in Buddhism wants to reach enlightenment. So maybe we need to figure out what it is, if we're going to get there. First, I'd like to open this up to everybody here and hear what you think enlightenment is.

"I think it's perfect mental health."

Perfect is a word that comes up a lot in talk about enlightenment. Many people agree that someone who is enlightened is also perfect. So that's a good one to start with.

"A clear perception of reality."

First, of course, we need to define what we mean by clear, by perception, by reality. But I think we're getting somewhere already.

"Everything's all right."

That leads us in the direction of the Zen idea that we are already enlightened, and we just have to get in touch with that which is already within.

I did some exploring of other people's ideas about enlightenment. I recently got connected to the internet and discovered a way to communicate with Buddhist practitioners all over the world. Here are some of their thoughts:

One woman said, "I don't think enlightenment is perfection in itself, like the Christian ideal that God is perfect. Buddha made a few mistakes after his enlightenment." She referred to a specific incident where the Buddha gave a meditation on death to a group of monks and later returned to find they had all committed suicide out of despair. So, that could be seen as a mistake, yes. But whose mistake? Maybe not his.

She continued, "I think it is beyond anything we can imagine or comprehend in our present state of mind. I can sort of visualize it, but I can't put it into words. How can anyone comprehend ultimate transcendence if it hasn't happened yet? I think we sometimes get quick flashes of insight into this state. The main thing I know from the quick flashes is that it is nice, everything is clear."

She goes on to say that her husband believes that perfection is impossible to attain, whereas enlightenment is not. Difficult, but not impossible. He is in the army and was in the Gulf War. He told her that his experiences with meditation during the war gave him great clarity and focus of mind, and he now believes that enlightenment is there, it's just a matter of getting to it by continuing the effort. That's the clincher.

Another person wrote, "We are already perfect, but we don't know it. Enlightenment is knowing it." But what is perfection? Is it doing no wrong? Is it the absence of unstructured thinking? Is it total clarity without illusion? Maybe it's being at peace most of the time, during crises as well as the good stuff and old age and death and no ending of old age and death.

Someone else wrote, "The Buddhist path is for its own sake, not for the sake of some mythic state called enlightenment." So this person thinks that enlightenment is a myth. Some teachers and practitioners prefer not to focus on the question of enlightenment; they object to the idea of a goal, of having to attain anything. Perhaps we do have to accept, at least, the fact that without the Buddha's enlightenment experience there would be no Buddhism.

I think of it like this: we are perfect, we all have Buddha nature, but we haven't yet realized it. How can we identify this perfect state? It may be always acting so as not to harm oneself or other sentient beings and so as to benefit oneself and other sentient beings. It may be the absence of all destructive thought, or perhaps it's full clarity with no illusion. Maybe not.

Maybe it's seeing our thoughts clearly say eighty to ninety percent of the time. Maybe it's not being caught up in the self-centered dream. Maybe it's being at peace in all situations. Maybe it's when we don't hang on to the thoughts and emotions that color our experience of life.

Too many maybes.

Are we getting closer? I don't know. It's beginning to sound more complicated.

One correspondent asked, "Take a person who has attained the thing that cannot be named, are they necessarily going to be without personal flaws of all kinds?"

This is an important question. Because when we make a judgment on someone else's attainment and we see that they still have personality traits that we consider flaws, we may think the person is not awake at all.

Someone else answered this question by saying, "The attained person may still have flaws, but they are acutely aware of them and are diligent in clearing them away." Then enlightenment is an awareness of imperfection and a willingness to live in such a way that those imperfections don't interfere with our relationship with the world and all that's in it.

One person responded by suggesting that if I wanted to know what enlightenment was I should ask a Buddha, since Buddhas are the only ones who experience enlightenment. Well, who is a Buddha? Are there any Buddhas alive today? How can we tell?

To me, my master was an enlightened being. Many others agreed with me. He wasn't "perfect" if that means never making mistakes. One time, he locked his car with the keys in it and the motor running. He didn't get upset with himself or upset at all, actually. He laughed at his own foolishness and said, "Zen mind is forgetting mind." That phrase is still used by his disciples as a good excuse.

Forgetfulness is a human characteristic. Enlightenment can only be attained by a human being. An enlightened being doesn't become super-human, but rather fully human. Ven. Thien-An had a way of being that showed he was right there in each moment. He saw clearly and was able to communicate that clarity. We learned from his presence beyond what we learned from his words. He spoke with a smile of mind-to-mind transmission, the most important learning of all.

Can we really know if another person is enlightened? Maybe only the person having that experience can tell. Of course, that can be very dangerous; it may be our ego rather than our clarity that is telling us that we are attained. We may not be able to discern the difference until we have expanded our ego to include all. More importantly, if we focus constantly on our state of being and on the concept of enlightenment as a goal, we may miss the process of being in each moment, and thus never find it.

Another correspondent said, "Anything to be attained is also something to be later lost. The reference in the tradition is Nirvana, which is not enlightenment but extinction. And when the extinction is complete, that which has no beginning or ending and cannot be attained or lost is fully manifest."

There are so many different ideas. Many many different approaches. Let's look at a few more technical definitions.

First, we need to look at the word itself. Enlightenment is a translation from Sanskrit, but English doesn't have a word with exactly the same meaning. Enlightenment sounds like the light is shining, perhaps shining from a halo above a person's head. If the word enlightenment makes us think that an attained person would have light around them, an aura of light, then it is not the best word to use.

But enlightenment also suggests a light that makes everything clear, that makes everything able to be seen. Perhaps the word "awakening" expresses this more precisely. Being awake to our own processes, to what is really going on in the world. Understanding how the world works, how it functions, and how we function in it. The Shambhala Dictionary defines enlightenment as "an awakening to a nowness of emptiness, in which the person is empty, even as the entire universe is empty."

What is the meaning of this word "emptiness" (shunyata)? We usually think of empty as referring to something that doesn't contain anything, like a cup without liquid in it, like a hole that's been dug in the earth. But that is not what empty means in the Buddhist sense. Emptiness has to do with impermanence, with no essence, with imperfection--the three characteristics of life and the world. Emptiness means that everything is constantly changing, that there is nothing to hold on to. There is no solidity, no permanent form; everything is in process.

Emptiness is not an object that is perceived by a subject. Enlightenment also is not that. In this ultimate state of being, there is no object, there is no subject. There is oneness--and connection.

Mental health? Certainly, because we are not filled with all kinds of paranoia or neuroses about how the world "treats us." When we are awake, we can understand that when someone insults us, it doesn't really have anything to do with us; it has to do with that person's state of being. And as much as we would like the person to give us approval rather than insult, we can't make them different, can't make them understand. If we practice not responding to insults, which is a practice monks do, we see that we are not really involved in what is happening. It is the other person who is angry, maybe about something that doesn't have anything to do with us. When we see this, we can begin to let go of our ego defenses and ultimately we will see that there is no self that needs protection.

Once when the Buddha was teaching, the wife of a man who had left his home to follow Sakyamuni came to see him. She was exceedingly angry at the Buddha for ruining her life, as she saw it. She approached the Buddha and began to regale him with epithets, blaming him for all her troubles and demanding that he force her husband to come back to his home and his responsibilities.

The Buddha listened to all her complaints with great patience and respect, but he never answered her. After a while, she ran out of steam and left. Ananda turned to the Buddha and said, "Lord, why did you not answer that woman; she is very unhappy." Sakyamuni replied, "She came to give me a gift, but I refused to accept it, so she took it back home with her."

The Buddhist tradition acknowledges different levels of enlightenment. Perfect, complete enlightenment, or anuttara-samyaksambodhi, is the enlightenment that the Buddha realized, the enlightenment that is the beginning of the Buddhadharma itself. If the Buddha hadn't experienced enlightenment, he wouldn't have had anything to tell us about. But since he did, we have Buddhism and a path to follow.

Enlightenment is by its nature always the same. Still, there are different degrees of enlightenment. If we compare the process to breaking through a wall, then the experience can vary from a tiny chink in the wall, letting in a glimpse of light, to the total annihilation of the wall, destroying all obstacles to seeing clearly. In Zen, these glimpses are called kensho, seeing one's own true nature.

Many times these first glimpses surprise us. We like it, so we try to grasp onto it and, of course, then it's gone. It takes a while before we can just watch. If we keep on with our practice, the glimpses become more frequent and more prolonged. We have to be willing and diligent to continue on the path without really knowing where we're heading. We may become confused and think that enlightenment, the experience of emptiness, is separate from the ordinary world of phenomena. It is not. Both exist in oneness. The Heart Sutra tells us that form is no other than emptiness and emptiness is no other than form.

In profound enlightenment, the ego is annihilated; it dies. In Zen we say that we must die on the cushion. Don't drop over dead, just let your ego die! The result of this dying, of this great death, is great life. A life of freedom and peace.

The Theravadin tradition delineates different stages of attainment, which are frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon. One moves from stream-enterer to once-returner, to non-returner, and finally to arhat, an enlightened being. The model also includes three stages of enlightenment: that of a noble disciple, that of one who seeks enlightenment for himself alone, and the enlightenment of a Buddha. In this system, one moves along the path step by step.

Most of the Mahayana sects also recognize three kinds of enlightenment: enlightenment for oneself, which is the enlightenment of an arhat; enlightenment for the sake of others, which is the enlightenment of a Bodhisattva; and the complete, perfect enlightenment of a Buddha.

Zen employs a model of insight into nonseparation; that Nirvana and samsara are one through the nondifferentiation of subject and object. Zen master Dogen said, "To go forth and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things spring forth and experience themselves is enlightenment."

The experience of awakening enables us to comprehend the true nature of things, their emptiness. Not nihilistic, but rather unperceivable, unthinkable, unfeelable, and endless beyond existence. This is a totally new kind of experience for us, different from anything we can conceive of.

The Therigatha, or songs of the elder nuns, was composed by women who lived at the time of the Buddha and are considered enlightened beings. Through their words we can get a glimpse of what the enlightened state felt like to them.

"Buddha who set me and many others free from pain, I have reached the state where everything stops. This is my last body, and I will not go from birth to birth again."

Enlightenment as "the state where everything stops."

Another says, "I don't long to be god; there is no fear in my heart." Yet another says, "Free from ties, I live in the world without obsessions."

The latter is one of my personal goals. To not be imprisoned by my mind, by stray thoughts that return again and again, but to simply let those thoughts pass right through me.

Another of the elders says, "I have annihilated all the obsessions of the mind. When you throw away your longing to be, you will live at peace. With the roots of craving uprooted, I have become cool and quenched." So there's another aspect of enlightenment.

"Now I am quenched and still. I am careful quenched, calm and free. My mind was freed Free from all bonds. My heart was set free." Freedom.

Perhaps the light in enlightenment doesn't refer so much to a light that can be seen, but to the lightness that comes with feeling free. No longer oppressed.

"Intent on peace of mind, untied from all that binds, my heart is at peace. The great dark is torn apart and death, you too are destroyed. Nirvana, the unchanging state, desire and hatred fall away, along with the obsessions of the mind."

Another says, "I have no thought of becoming. I know freedom from birth and death and do not grieve or weep. I am free and want nothing. I realize great joy. I have quenched the fires. My craving has died. Free of desire and its chains, your mind is free of clinging."

Perhaps when you came to services this morning you expected to get some answers about enlightenment. And I have given you many answers. Your own answer may be different, but these ideas encourage us to continue our explorations. But it's best to not look too hard for "answers." To know enlightenment, we must first learn to be, just that.