What does the word enlightenment mean to you? Do you have experiences you would characterize as enlightened? ls enlightenment a goal of the practice? We posed these questions to a variety of Western teachers and practitioners. The harvest of our effort spans the spectrum—from an acclaimed Tibetan Buddhist nun to a witty Theravada monk, a feisty lama to an earnest activist, a pioneering young urban meditation teacher to a grandmotherly Zen abbess. . . . May one of these short reflections send a sliver of light into the dark interior of your mind. —The Editors
Probably, being awake means that your mind and your heart are completely open. I don’t think it means that you no longer have emotions or moods. You definitely have a strong personality, like people I’ve met who have a vibe that makes me feel very good to be around them. I don’t know about this word enlightenment, but I know what this “vibe” feels like. It’s not some kind of mushy thing; it’s a very, very flexible heart, a flexible mind. Or maybe it means an appetite that never ceases or curiosity that’s limitless—and complete interest in other people, wanting to help other people. One can only guess.
I’ll bet there are degrees and degrees of it too. I think the only problem is that people idealize. They have this ideal that you’re supposed to measure up to, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with measuring up to anything that other people want from you. And it benefits others. That’s the thing that always strikes me. The people that I really trust—it doesn’t have to do with how they measure up to my ideals, it’s that they definitely want to benefit others. I see that again and again. That’s what impresses me. And their sense of humor.
A very common, familiar analogy for being awake is the sun that is always shining behind the clouds. The clouds cover the sun, but the sun is still there. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said that meditation and the teachings are all instructions for “poking holes in the clouds,” so that you can again and again realize that the sun is always there. It’s a great description of why we meditate or why we live according to the teachings—why we bring them in to educate our life and make our life a path to enlightenment instead of a path to more neurosis.
This precious, unique moment is always here, always accessible to us. It never went anywhere. But we spend so much time pushing it away and resisting it and not liking the form in which it’s happening, that we miss it. This is like the clouds coming in. We identify more with the clouds of our nature than with the sun. Pretty much, that happens again and again for us. What’s always available to us— which we can come back to, to connect with—is the vastness and openness of our heart and mind in any moment of time.
Another way to describe this staying present, being awake, being right here connecting with the immediacy of our experience is, to use another of Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrases: “connecting with your basic goodness.” Longchenpa, a Tibetan teacher from the fourteenth century, said that people doubt they have the capacity to relate with their basic goodness. He said that doubting this, doubting that we have what Trungpa Rinpoche called “enlightened genes”—that we are already awake and just have to use our life as a training ground for recovering this basic goodness, this direct immediate experience of our reality—is like doubting that the sun is shining just because the clouds are covering it.
In response to a question about enlightenment, Suzuki Roshi once said, “Well, you know, some of you may be enlightened some day, and you might not like it.”
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. Today on ABC-TV (American Buddhist Channel) we present the final of “Who Wants to Be Enlightened?” This show is proudly sponsored by Samadhi Meditation Cushions, the only company that promises: “If you’re not enlightened using our cushions in this life, we’ll give you your money back in your next life!”
Now, with a great pleasure that I am not attached to, I introduce our finalists: Ayya Anna Gami; Geshe Bo De’sattva; Roshi Sid Arthur; and renowned American lay meditation teacher, psychotherapist and gay rights activist, Ms. Amy Tabha. Please welcome them with a “Sadhu,” “Om” or “Mu”!
For new viewers of the program, here are the rules again. There will be three elimination rounds in which each of their holinesses will be tested on their achievement of enlightenment. One finalist will be eliminated and sent back to the source after each round.
The first round is a question: Describe what Enlightenment means to you?
Anna: “Having no self. In fact, as the only Theravadin following the original teachings of the Buddha, I am the purest and most enlightened. I say that if you have realized no-self, then be proud and tell everyone!”
Bo: “Being so compassionate that I intentionally get angry at my disciples so that they don’t feel so miserably inferior in my presence.”
Sid: “Having no attachments. I am so detached that I am not even attached to detachment, hence my cool new Rolex. Awesome, isn’t it?!”
Amy: “Having great sex without the delusion of a self that has to feel guilty about anything.”
Thank you, Your Emptinesses, for your unfathomable wisdom. And the first off the wheel and off the show is . . . Anna! And don’t ever come back, Anna Gami.
The test for the second round is who can sit in meditation for the longest time. So, Your Ineffables, after the gong, meditate! Gonggg . . .
[After two minutes, Amy opens her eyes and checks her mobile for texts. Sid lasts a whole hour. But Bo sits still for so long that the medics on the show decide he is dead and cremate him.]
Bo, gone to suchness. A big round of “Om, sweet Om” for Bo, please. Now only Sid and Amy remain.
It’s time for the final round—isn’t this exciting?—that will decide the winner of “Who Wants to Be Enlightened?” Sid and Amy, I now want you to demonstrate on live TV a psychic power.
[Sid closes his eyes, focuses deep within, and with a rush of piti (ecstasy), floats up into the air like a feather on the breeze. Higher and higher, Sid levitates above the stage until the awestruck audience bursts into thunderous applause. So loud is their cheering that it interrupts Sid’s concentration, destroying his psychic power and causing him to come crashing back down onto the stage. Breaking his neck, he dies instantly. Many in the audience gain satori, Sid returns to the ground of all being, and a new koan is born.]
As the only contestant remaining, Ms. Amy Tabha, famous lay meditation teacher, psychotherapist and gay rights activist, is winner of “Who Wants to Be Enlightened?”! We present you with a special limited-edition solid-gold meditation cushion—hell to sit on, but impressive to look at—with GPS to navigate through and beyond all the hindrances. You are the only one found wanting. Congratulations!
NOTE: If this bit of fun destroys some readers’ craving to attain, or exposes the fraudulence of anyone who publicly claims to be enlightened, or vacuums up some of the cultural dust that has covered up enlightenment to the point of obfuscation, then it was well worth the writing.
For me enlightenment really suggests freedom, a sense of being free in every moment. The first time it dawned on me was during a workshop with Advaita teacher Byron Katie. I spent nine days examining the truthfulness of every belief, every thought, every story about myself and the world: My body should look like this, I should have more money, I should have a partner or shouldn’t have a partner, and the world is a scary, dangerous place. After many days of questioning—Is this even true? No, it’s not! Can I know that this is accurate? No!—all my beliefs and assumptions were up for grabs. I started to break out of my tiny, confining and painful box of beliefs into an open state where I didn’t have anything to hold on to. All the stress and suffering I carried fell away as my mind rested in the present moment. In that openness, there was a lightness of being. Even in the word enlightenment, there’s the word lighten. I really got a sense, Oh, this must be what an enlightened person feels like, free in each moment. That was a taste, and there have been others, both on retreat and in my daily life.
Another time, camping with a friend, I had a huge opening, this same freedom, a feeling of letting go of everything. But this time it was through a deep insight into impermanence. We were doing our practice together, sitting and walking. I saw my friend walking by on a deck, and it came to me: Hello, goodbye. I started to see, This is my friend, but one day we will part. It was a powerful insight that every moment is “hello” and then “goodbye.” It was hello, goodbye, hello, goodbye.
For days after that I was like one of those mystics wandering around with tears on my cheeks. Even when I saw a flower, I would say, “Hello, goodbye.” A cat walking by, “Hello, goodbye.” The sun, “Hello, goodbye.” I was saying “hello, goodbye” to everything, and appreciating it even when it was painful. I remember even calling my mother, saying, “Hello, goodbye.” I tried to explain to her that everything is impermanent, that she had to understand “hello, goodbye,” that everyone had to understand this! She just laughed at me, of course.
“Hello, goodbye” was the same feeling as with Byron Katie. It was the deep understanding that we’re here and then we disappear. So there’s no identification and no clinging to things. That led to a letting go, which I think is key to enlightenment. This profound opening showed me another way to live, and it has had a lasting impact on my mind. The inner doors opened, and I saw something that I didn’t see before. The truth revealed itself, yet it had been there all along.
“Nirvana is the complete silencing of concepts.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
This is the kind of enlightenment I believe in: a moment-to-moment remembering of the truth of interconnectedness and a moment-to-moment expression of that truth through specific responses to specific situations. The masters may be able to remember for longer stretches, and our practices and the teachings help us remember. To me, it’s just that, and it comes and goes. (And kensho, the Zen name for an experience of sudden enlightenment moves me about as much as crucifixion and resurrection—culturally interesting but not touching my heart.)
Constantin Stanislavski, great actor and director of the Russian theater, said, “If you feel it, you show it. And if you show it, you feel it.” We don’t have to wait to feel it first; we can show it first. So I try to lead an upright life, try to act as if I am enlightened, try to manifest in each moment my connection to all things. But just as we don’t wait for a perfect understanding before acting, we do not plunge forward without paying attention.
Enlightenment isn’t any other time or any other place. It isn’t a great plane that one reaches in some future time, a state of mind, a glorious field. Enlightenment is enlightened activity in this moment; it is the complete alignment of intention and action based on our faith in interdependence. What is the appropriate and skillful response now to this constantly changing world, including me as a changing part of it?
Sometimes we take a nap, because no one ever said we had to save all beings, except this one. Sometimes we bring our bodies to a protest where we stand up against the hidden war in Colombia and the U.S.’s role in that, and sometimes we raise our voices in song to raise money for the tragedy on the Gulf Coast. Sometimes our enlightened action in the world is to train to be a priest—to hold with care and love the forms and ceremonies of our tradition and offer them to weary protesters, mothers, Colombians, singers, students, lonely people and whoever else comes by.
We live in a beautiful and broken world, and our actions are the ground on which we stand. When we act from this ground, we are living our practice, we are living in enlightenment. Right here.
“I will give my report on enlightenment when I am enlightened; until then, I will practice Dharma, patience, generosity and the dignity of no-self.” —Ruth Denison
After a sesshin that I sat many years ago, I had an eye-opening and in some ways sobering and chilling moment. At the end of the retreat, people were having breakfast and talking. I overheard a group of old-time students who’d been at this twenty, thirty—a couple of them—forty years. They were remembering when they were young, first getting involved in Buddhism; they wanted enlightenment and to awaken. Now that they’d been doing it for thirty or forty years, they said they’d kind of just let go of that motivation. They hadn’t really found out exactly what this “enlightenment” thing was about, but they’d found peace with not finding out. Well maybe it’s not going to happen, but it’s okay.
I could see that for them it was okay. But for me, at twenty-three years old, I suddenly looked over at them and thought, “That could be me in forty years! I could be sitting there saying, ‘Well, the enlightenment thing didn’t really work out, but, you know, I’m really at peace with that.’” I literally dug my teeth into my bottom lip, otherwise I would have screamed out this huge, “No! It cannot end that way. That’s not acceptable.” It was fine for them, but it scared the hell out of me.
What I was really confronted with was the thought, “Not only do I not know what enlightenment is, but I don’t even know if there is such a thing. Maybe we’re all just deluding ourselves. Maybe this is just a pipe dream.” Up until that point, I couldn’t even ask myself that question. It was too scary. But as soon as I could admit that fear, it frightened me into clarity. I thought, “Well, I have to find out then, don’t I?” I felt a real aloneness, a very stark energy that, okay, I’ve got to find this out for myself.
When I look back many, many years later, I see that moment as one of the most significant in my entire spiritual-seeking days. It was the day I stopped accepting anything simply because somebody said it, including the Buddha. That’s the day when I thought, “Okay, that’s it. I’m on my own. Because I realized that if you just follow the tradition—just doing what you’re told because someone says that’s the way to do it and that’s the way they’ve always done it—it might not work out.” I thought, “I don’t have that luxury. I’ve got to prove everything true or false for myself; it’s up to me.”
I didn’t leave my teachers, I didn’t leave my tradition, and I didn’t stop meditating. But my internal relationship shifted. I didn’t throw out what anybody said, but I realized that until I proved enlightenment to be true in myself, I wouldn’t actually know whether it was true or not.
Adapted from the podcast “I’m Not Babysitting Your Ego,” Buddhist Geeks 165, March 2010, www.buddhistgeeks.com. Republished by permission.
Is enlightenment the goal of practice? A good question. As I understand it, bodhicitta, the altruistic thought of enlightenment, means wanting to be fully awake in order to know how to actually be helpful. You want to benefit all beings, but what is really beneficial? So therefore, you want to be awake to know what is beneficial and what is not.
Suzuki Roshi used to warn us not to practice with a goal-seeking mind or with a gaining idea. A gaining idea is a false premise: it implies that you don’t already have Buddhanature, that you need to “get” it. But Buddha’s teaching is that we are all of the nature of awakening and that it’s simply clouded over by a delusion of the separate self, by self-clinging, by attachment to outcomes, by our addiction to self.
At the same time he warned against a gaining idea, Suzuki Roshi said, “Zen is making your best effort, each moment, forever.” This felt like a contradiction to me. I thought, I don’t think I’ve ever made an effort without a gaining idea. I’ve always wanted to get a result when I made an effort. How do I make an effort with no gaining idea? That became my big koan.
Perhaps my first experience of the kind one might call enlightenment was during the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University. This was before I had encountered Buddhism. After some violence on the first day of the strike, a civil rights leader invited people from the community to interpose themselves between police and students to prevent further violence. So I went out to the campus. At one point a phalanx of riot squad policemen headed toward the students. Billy clubs were out and beginning to swing. I found myself stepping forward and ducking under the hands of the people in front of me. There I was, face-to-face with a policeman in full riot gear. We made eye contact. At that moment, I had an experience of identity with this riot squad policeman, who until that time had epitomized everything I thought I was against.
In that moment facing the policeman, there was no thought—just the experience itself and a kind of expansive boundary-less feeling that included everything. I had never read anything that would have prepared me for that experience, such as “self and other are not two.” I knew nothing of Buddhism. But I simply had an experience: this is how things are. That’s a way to see enlightenment. It’s like being in a dark room and flipping on a light. Even when you turn it off again, you remember the layout of the room.
In a famous koan, a monk asked Yun Men, “What are the teachings of the Buddha’s whole lifetime?” Yun Men said, “An appropriate response.” I think the actual words were “each meets each” or “one meets one,” meaning meet what is in front of you directly. I think that Suzuki Roshi did that with us. I will always remember the first time I had dokusan (a private interview) with him. At the end of the interview, the proper form or protocol is to get up and fluff your cushion, step back behind it, and bow to the teacher. I started to do that, but I didn’t want to bow with that cushion between us. Without any thought, I went around the cushion altogether, and I bowed with my head almost touching his left knee. When I lifted my head, he had jumped up and was bowing head-to-head with me spontaneously. He responded to my spontaneity by spontaneously meeting me with that bow. Afterwards, a friend told me, “That was just Buddha bowing to Buddha.” Just meeting what was in front of him. This would also be a way to describe enlightenment: simply meeting what occurs as best you can and as directly as you can.