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.
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.