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The Lure of Enlightenment

Remember Enlightenment? A stable, unflappable mind; a permanent state of inner joy with unobscured vision, boundless love and complete fearlessness; a plateau beyond doubt, anger, frustration, self-hatred and uncertainty; sure knowledge with the power to heal heart and mind.

Utterly blissful.

I didn’t make it up. That carrot was dangled before my credulous eyes when I first encountered Buddhism. It was absolutely, precisely, exactly what I was looking for. No half-decent marketing guru would be surprised that I projected my dreams on to the scriptures, teachers and culture that had trademarked Enlightenment, and invested myself utterly.

Imagining that words capture reality is exactly what empowers us to believe whatever we want

The human mind is sublimely able to put common-sense experience to one side and believe what it wants. The Buddha saw this, and declared us all deluded. His remedy was to get back to experience, starting over in the present moment.

As our ancestral religions wither away and modern people cry out for spiritual purpose, mindfulness seems to fit the bill. The Buddha’s signature method has captured our imagination.

That’s a problem, for getting back to experience is all about letting go of imagination. Not that the thinking mind and human creativity are bad things, but that there’s a time and a place for them. We’re addicts. We need to let go.

No words, not even the Buddha’s, are sacred. How could they be? Imagining that words capture reality is exactly what empowers us to believe whatever we want. Like signposts, words point to things that are not here but elsewhere—or even nowhere. Get hung up on the Enlightenment project and it becomes a projection screen reflecting your dreams in full, nebulous technicolor. The Tibetans call their Buddhism a Wish-fulfilling Jewel.

…was the Buddha a superman or just flesh and blood?

According to legend, the Buddha struggled for weeks before he agreed to teach. He knew what would happen as soon as he opened his mouth. He must have picked his words very carefully, for despite the distortions of two and a half millennia they still can, though not necessarily, shake us from our comfort zone.

They don’t do so by magic, for words have only the power we give them. When we interpret the Buddha’s awakened state (bodhi) as ‘Enlightenment,’ it is we who invest it with the power to fulfill our wishes.

But the Buddha’s goal is nirvana: the extinction of wishing and wanting (taṇhā).

Vague, capitalized words like Enlightenment are open to endless speculation. We might ponder a lifetime and go to our graves none the wiser. But the path of not-wanting leaves no room for romance, nothing to the imagination. It sticks in the throat to provoke a paroxysm of coughing and choking. It’s a matter of life or death. It’s tangible, earthy and, when you’re caught in it, exclusively meaningful.

Even in its most generic form, Enlightenment is presented as the End of Suffering. Who doesn’t want it—but do you believe it? How? The Buddha’s words offer no clue until you make that existential leap for yourself. The choice is between wishful thinking and a bone in the throat. Either way, you’ll find a way make the Buddha’s words ring true for you. Buddhists do that—not because they’re Buddhists but because they’re human.

Speaking of which, was the Buddha a superman or just flesh and blood? Did he really no longer suffer after his breakthrough under the Bodhi tree? It defies common sense. It makes him an impossible role-model. Even if you believed in him, how could you possibly emulate him?

Enlightenment is not a breakthrough to a veiled reality. It is simply letting go of the unreal. Life is not what we want, and the attempt to make it so is an exercise in futility. More importantly, it’s an abdication of the innate human purpose of exploration and discovery. Life is a short journey to death. Will you dedicate it to changing reality, or will you enjoy the ride?

It’s not really complicated, until we decide to hope and dream.


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15 responses to “The Lure of Enlightenment”

  1. stephen

    Very useful words indeed Stephen. The more i immerse myself in being and continue my practice the more i see for myself that there is no, and there is not going to be any, “nirvana vacation/paradise”. Even wanting to “not want” feels unhelpful. Can i instead see the wanting in me as it arises- then allow it be, as it is, and then choose my response carefully? – Rather than blindly running to what i want next and then away from i do not want? Waking up is a process and not an event (methinks!) . And also, waking up to what is is not resting in bliss (although at times it is that too) and there is pain to be experienced as well (“this too…”).
    On the other hand, although waking up is not “the solution to pain” once begun it feels just about impossible to go back to ignorance. And so – onwards i go….until i too die.

  2. lee

    Take all the magic halos off of nirvana & enlightenment & what do we have?

    The case for left vs. right brain re-entrainment of experience is demonstrated in stroke victims describe nibbana/nirvana experiences (see the neuroanatomist account of her stroke on TED talks).

    The question is, can anybody dwell outside the serial/karmic cause&effect processing of the left brain over extended durations? Well, can a person maintain a just-being (just-seeing, just-thinking) mode as a matter of daily life?

    Might it be that it’s just as possible that many doubt the veracity of nirvana or enlightenment states of mind, rather like Vipassana novitiates assume it’s a mistake to feel deep samadhi-form states exist (obviously they do, and they can be quite instructive).

    The Abidhamma & Pali canon both point out that Nirvana isn’t magical: It’s the re-entrainment of the 3rd & 4th aggregates of Notion/Idea & Composites (including Self). It’s the same as Samsara but without the head-sack. Why, b/c the 1st, 2nd & 5th aggregates still prevail (form, sense & consciousness). That’s it, it is what it is!

    Vipassana does point the way, in the just-sensing discipline that ultimately extends to the Composite of Self, and onward. But here in the West we’re still stuck in the eternalist vs. annihilist argument that Enlightenment is either Woo for Flakes, or unattainable Sainthood for Gurus.

    Look, if we could live day-to-day with a case of an organic, intrinsic Ecstasy trip, what would we think about reality then?

    Please, can we please let Buddhism be Buddhism?

    1. lee

      I’m going to apologize for the tone of my response toward the end there… I misread part of your post. I landed here by way of Facebook, and one familiar theme I’ve noted is that the Dharma can be freed of religion, or framework. I’m not in agreement with such a sentiment, and I don’t want to hang it as an albatross back on any one particular group or person, but it does seem to be a theme amongst Western Buddhists that Buddhism suffers from being a religion.

      Well forgive me for erecting a facile rhetorical strawman here but . . . Heavens forfend that Buddhism is more than a philosophy!

      Is it overly simplistic to approach the problem this way, as a matter of non-theistic faith & salvation: That to abide in the present moment proffers salvation, but requires faith? That to set aside notions and self really are acts of faith, and demonstrate the utmost in skillful devotion of a votary?

      If you get my gist, I’m not picking on you, b/c what you wrote made sense. What I’m actually gristing on about are the Stephen Batchelor types who soapbox about jettisoning Nirvana & reincarnation b/c they entail too much “Woo.” That position has gained a great deal of traction, but it seems to me a baby-and-bath-water proposition.

      I looked at the vote tally, & of your readers (not a scientific sampling) a great many reveal they are “Leaving Buddhism.” This doesn’t surprise me, b/c I have my suspicions why people do depart from the Buddhist Big Tent… too much Woo, hierarchy, not enough in the way of a tangible teaching or result.

      Perhaps it’s that the Dharmic framework has been rendered less approachable, for a variety of reasons rooted in Asian history, I have some hunches. If John Kabat-Zinn & Marsha Linehan can distill & decant the essence of Buddhism & render it into more than just a modicum of non-dual dialectic behaviorism, then maybe Buddhism foundered in the context of the societies that have hosted it, but not in its actual quintessential core.

      More to the point, I didn’t understand Nirvana or enlightenment until recently. I was hard pressed to find a digestible primer on the actual core notions of Buddhism past some rather dry tomes on the 4/8 path, and how to meditate. It seems that the actual linear structure of Buddhism’s depth psychology is kept to itself, out of sight, as a matter of pedagogical defense.

      I express this from my own observation, of countless arguments about the proper interpretation of Buddhist doctrine … the validity of Nirvana, reincarnation & any number of meditative states — the arguments go ’round & ’round, with anti-theists calling the loudest, and more-spiritual votaries finding themselves at a loss to explain it any better to suit their antagonists. It’s almost as though upon the Dharma coming to the West that it has to undergo the annihilationist vs. eternalist argument all over again.

  3. lee

    Hi Stephen, thanks for the reply. Yes, it’s all rather a vast pageant, or pantomime, depending. And where I might have been beating a dead horse on some of that, mea culpa.

    Codifying depth psychologies? To some extent, yes, I do believe so, just as with the 8 jhanas. There’s an entire Abidhamma devoted to it.

    What I feel is lacking is an accessible vernacular to help people be better ready to navigate the experience. I think it’s entirely feasible, and maybe Kabat-Zinn & Linehan & their ilk are doing just that.

    Can’t we observe commonality between the broad expanse of many firsthand experiences? Surely each to their own, but any one soul’s liberation can’t be all that different from any other’s.

    Asians v. Westerners. Well, I never meant to say there’s a psych. difference between groups of humans, but rather a cultural heritage in Christiandom that lends to dialectics veering between naive materialism & god-hole stand-ins. You should rightly cringe at the suggestion that Asians are preternaturally one way, and Westerners another. I wrote that with the assumption is that our heritage of Western cartesian materialism has erected some necessary milestones that entail addressing those dialectics, and hopefully resolving and dispensing with them. If I’m wrong, I’d be happy to dispense with my theory in that regard… 🙂

    Stephen Batchelor: Either I must’ve read two of his tomes before his nuanced argument came out, or at the time he was playing to my personal audience, and so I missed his finer points (might’ve been me more than him…) I didn’t know he’d suffered broader critiques, I’ve been arguing the brief all by my lonesome that anti-theistic Buddhism doesn’t make sense (and I’m an atheist after a fashion… I don’t follow the broader dharmic press that much). Upon reflection it makes sense that his position would be more nuanced, having been a monk. That said, he rather broadly stated, in “Buddhism Without Beliefs,” that he’d like to dispense with Nirvana & Reincarnation in fomenting a more-accessible Dharmic paradigm. If he’s since recanted, well good on him… 🙂

  4. lee

    Ahhh, I worked my backwards to your first question: What have been my experiences, or what will they be?

    Well, for starters, I’m just starting meditation in earnest, as a regular practice. In the past I’d do it in moments of precocious experimentation, with spectacular, and then disappointing results.

    I really identify with the stroke victim’s description, in one very key way. I’ve encountered a different, but nonetheless stunning, supra-mundane state of consciousness. Not light shows & sensory explosions, not grand epiphanies of voidness, but the sensation of mind itself. I’ve since come to find out this state is cultivated by yogic meditators (a far-longer exegesis & summary is required to do it justice).

    Looking back, I see it not in rank spiritual terms but rather with more of an engineer’s perspective of qualia, state-mechanics & state-feedbacks. At the time, it proved counterproductive to pursue it – in terms of ego & frustration. Frankly it’s a sensitive subject b/c at least w/in Buddhism supernal states carry with them a great deal of stigma, as being the trippy-dippy pursuit of that other group of novices. Over in the Siddha Yogic fields it’s a different story with chakras, kundalini & godhead as shameless pleasures; on the Buddhist side of the dharmic fence, we’re taught those are guilty pleasures.

    So her enlightenment experience from her stroke, I can completely believe it. And it’s bold & brave of her to come out & state it so clearly and succinctly as Nirvana. But it makes perfect sense to do so, stating a great deal about the nature of the physical substrate of consciousness and mind, and what is and isn’t mind, be it ordinary, original, primordial, supramundane, supernal or otherwise…. erm, to barr(d)ow a metaphor, different strokes ^H^H^H^H^H^H I’ll stop while I’m ahead….

  5. Ralph Chidiac

    Enlightenment is Plato’s theory of Forms. Non reachable yet directional. Like any Ideal or Absolute.
    Something to set us on a path more so than an achievable destination.
    I am not particularly immersed in the Dhammapada (had to look that up), as my initial attraction to Buddhism was a misconceived notion of enlightenment through meditation/mindfulness.
    Yet, this delusion did propel me on the right track of self discovery without all the burdensome aspect of the Buddhist doctrine.
    With no disrespect to the teachings, I promised myself to only learn multi-purpose tools for life without drowning in the details (Occam’s Razor).
    I can sum up the legitimacy of MINDFULNESS beyond the commonsensical aspect of “assessment before action,” simply by citing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (The presence of consciousness changes the outcome of measurement at the micro level), what better than self-consciousness (i.e.awareness/mindfulness) to change the course of unconsciousness.
    Whether true or not it appears to work on a pragmatic level.
    Infinity cannot be derived from finiteness, yet we possess both in our mind/brain;
    The Universe/Reality/Brain on one end, and Imagination/Expectations/Mind on the other.
    I must admit that my admiration for the Buddha resides in his tremendous insight of this dichotomy.

  6. lee

    “..If life itself is inexplicable, why should any of its components, like Buddhist history/philosophy/practice/institutions, not be so as well?”

    I fully got the dry humor in that statement. But just to say … there’s only one reason why life it inexplicable, and it’s because the universe is.

    It’s been said that the universe has attempted to solve this by being hospitable to life arising within it, to observe itself. If that’s an unfair thing to pin on the universe, and the blame falls on its child, chaos, it still says as much about chaos’ upbringing than it does about chaos’ treatment of its playthings, entropy & the negentropy along with it.

  7. nayeli

    Another great post. Thank you Stephen S. for opening the door to this discussion where I find many different color facets in the posts of Stephen, Lee and Ralf. It’s inviting to pick the thread and comment, but English is not my mother language and it takes about three times for me to write, So I will leave it there just with a Thanks to all.
    In any case I am on the same page as Ralf, going back to the topic “Enlightenment is Non reachable yet directional. Like any Ideal or Absolute.
    Something to set us on a path more so than an achievable destination.”
    I find this blog and posts enriching even when I don’t agree with all. I also have this same response to Batchelor’s writings and thought.
    Maybe I know too little, and all this are windows that are being open for a wider view. sometimes from my perspective those windows just open to a brick wall, while others to an inviting view.

  8. Rob Stolzy

    I’d like to add yet another angle to this varied discussion which has been triggered mostly by the loaded term ‘Enlightenment’. If I chose to steer towards my own favorite ideas associated with this concept, I might focus upon the large body of wonderful Zen koans or upon the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the Gospels. Reflecting in both of these directions has been useful for me precisely because they use language which is deliberately and of necessity indirect in order to appeal to the seeker’s intuition without trapping him in specific dead concepts. You can’t talk about something so ephemeral and beyond usual comprehension with explicit rhetoric — unless you want to foster fake certainty, or dogmatic belief. (In other words, unless you want to inhibit further open inner questioning.)

    I agree when Stephen reviews his original post and concludes that the heart of the matter is language and how we are applying it during spiritual discourse. You can readily see in the comments how some use language for this purpose: rhetorically and didactically. I reject this intellectual approach. Wrong technique for this domain, for this endeavor, for this inner undertaking. Our language is only a guide, an opening remark to set the tone and shape our gaze. After we are initially oriented, and inspired by our chosen jewels of wisdom, it becomes up to us to stake out our inner terrain and deepen our concepts according to the intensity and honesty of our persistent questing. I think Stephen’s writings seem to be particularly helpful in propping up the honesty element; he emphasizes steadfast authenticity.

    There is something highly paradoxical about the ‘lure of enlightenment’, when taken in the context of the Buddhist opinion about desire, in general. Which aspects of our language tend to exacerbate our passionate wanting, and self-forgetting? Stephen seemed to characterize it well in his opening paragraph concerning the dangled carrot. Which aspects of our language tend to instead promote a sober, solemn, yet freely open attitude? You will know the difference if you patiently monitor yourself. You will cultivate the ability to smell what is right both in the quality of the teachings you encounter and in the quality of your response to them. Both are important and are independent of each other. Deciding too quickly about something being correct or not is veering in the wrong direction, because it is building up the influence of your personality and egotism as a filter on top of your view of reality. What is spiritual inner work if not learning to listen past this initial illusion? Consider this: we are instinctively unhappy with the mushiness of terms like enlightenment, initiation, samadhi, and so on, and yet attracted somehow by certain colorations of thought we encounter in spiritual writings, in sayings of Buddha or other masters. Why this contradiction? Might it not be the case that we cannot fully understand what spiritual proponents say because spiritual advancement itself entails improving, even revolutionizing, our cognitive capacities? If true, this would be a big argument for more practice and less theorizing.

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