What Is Enlightenment?
Rev. Sarika Dharma
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.
it's perfect mental health."
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.
perception of reality."
of course, we need to define what we mean by clear, by perception,
by reality. But I think we're getting somewhere already.
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.
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:
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
we getting closer? I don't know. It's beginning to sound
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?"
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
are so many different ideas. Many many different approaches.
Let's look at a few more technical definitions.
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.
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
as "the state where everything stops."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.