The following was originally posted on Gather.com in October 2006.
Last night in our vipassana meditation group one of my fellow students, Brenda, posed a question to our teacher regarding the Big E: Enlightenment. She asked: “What exactly does it mean to be enlightened?” For all we hear about “enlightenment” and “awakening” in Buddhist teachings, it doesn’t seem to be a common topic of discussion.
It turns out that Brenda’s questions had been stirred up by a question raised by one of her friends about why we practice meditation. Do we meditate for stress reduction? Well, not really…. Why, then, do we practice? Is the “goal” to be enlightened or awakened? Well, maybe…. If so, what does that mean?
Our teacher gave, in my opinion, a very appropriate answer about the nature of enlightenment, about it being an active shift in perspective. When asked whether she had actually met anyone she considered “enlightened,” she mentioned Eckhart Tolle. (Although she was quick to say that if someone claims to be enlightened, they probably are not.)
In a way it’s kind of funny that enlightenment is an almost taboo subject, although there is certainly good reason for that: In a sort of Zen paradox, enlightenment seems to be at once both the goal and the “not-goal” of meditation practice. If one practices meditation to get to enlightenment, one will never get there; it’s not a destination. Yet we don’t meditate without having some sense that the practice is doing something, and that something is indeed “awakening” or “enlightenment.” Awakening is essential to Buddhist practice, yet enlightenment can become a problem if it becomes the focus of the practice. As the late Korean Zen master Seung Sahn said, “Wanting enlightenment is a big mistake.”
(Another Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, is credited for giving my favorite response to the question of “What is enlightenment?” When asked, he is said to have responded: “Why do you want to know? You may not like it!”)
So last night’s discussion got me to reflect on my own understanding of enlightenment. In my opinion, the best understanding is that enlightenment represents a radical shift in perspective towards an unobstructed view of reality. Enlightenment is a visceral – not just intellectual – understanding of the way things are. Initial awakening may occur very suddenly, in a flash of insight or awakening, or kensho as it’s known in the Japanese Zen tradition. However, awakening is also a long-term process, which is reflected in the complementary term satori, or “gradual understanding.”
Once one has had the initial experience of awakening, it is impossible to go back to seeing things the way one once did. Nevertheless, it seems that the process of awakening is also something that matures over time; meditation is one technique that can help us in the maturation process.
I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who I could identify as being “enlightened.” (I certainly claim no such distinction for myself!) To me, I think the some of the marks of an awakened being are peace of mind, grace, clear-mindedness, lightness of being, a sense of oneness, serenity, and equanimity. While I’ve never had the honor of being in the physical presence of the Dalai Lama, even on television one gets the feeling that he probably “gets it.” Perhaps Mother Theresa or Gandhi would also qualify. There certainly seems to be a recognizable presence or “vibe” about some people.
John Doyle Oct 18, 2006, 3:01pm EDT
well said, Well written. Zen says those who say don’t know and those who know don’t say. You seem to have a good teacher Hang in there.
X Tabber Oct 19, 2006, 10:04am EDT
Perhaps if one merely practices those things that our Enlightened examples tell us we should, but with the goal of relieving suffering instead of securing some benefit for ourselves, we will achieve our not-goal, and we will not-care.
Steve B. Oct 20, 2006, 4:16pm EDT
Thank you for this “enlightening” essay.
shak el Oct 22, 2006, 10:38am EDT
“practice is enlightenment.” Dogen
Carolion Grailbear Nov 14, 2006, 12:21am EST
And isn’t there a kind of “sea of enlightenment” experience, where one is sometimes floating, sometimes below the surface, sometimes struggling – sort of like the ebb-and-flow of samsara/nirvana attention?
Beth T. Nov 10, 2007, 4:09pm EST
Forgive me if these are naive questions, but how does awakening relate to enlightenment? As one gains experience with meditation, will moments of awakeness become more common? Is enlightenment a type of continuous awakening? Or do you have moments of enlightenment like you would have moments of awakeness?
Timothy Little Nov 12, 2007, 1:17pm EST
Beth — As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a stupid or naive question!
First, I think the term’s “awakening” and “enlightenment” are often used interchangeably. I think it’s probably closer to the traditional meaning to speak of “awakening” — after all “Buddha” means “the awakend one” — and that “enlightenment” is more of a linguistic artefact of early European translations of Buddhist texts. That said, there’s really no reason that one is more appropriate than the other.
I think you’ll get different answers to your questions depending on whom you ask. The different traditions with Buddhism — and even different teachers within those traditions — all approach the matter somewhat differently, and with different emphases.
I think you’re pretty close to the mark, tho: Certainly one purpose of meditation is indeed to sustain distinct moments of awakening, however I think one can also break through to a “point of no return” where one can’t fall back to an unenlightened point of view. Certainly that’s what the traditional texts would have us believe.
If you’re interested in some interesting reading on the subject, Harvard psychologist and vipassana teacher Jack Engler gives a day-long course at the Barre (Mass.) Center for Buddhist Studies called “What is Enlightenment?,” published as a two-part article in Insight Journal:
Of course it’s important to bear in mind that his is just one perspective….
Barry H. Jan 18, 2008, 3:23pm EST
A very interesting article, and thanks for the connection as well.
I really like the phrase about enlightenment being the goal and the “non-goal,” and also the idea that in some ways the concept defies words, and so when we try to describe it, we inevitably diminish it.
By the way, I think the latter idea applies to much more than enlightment.
Erica Hidvegi Jul 21, 2008, 4:47pm EDT
I totally agree enlightenment is ‘an active shift in perspective’, THAT IS WONDERFUL and so true. Its not about the definition really, its more like accepting another way . . . You did a great job on this !