Ah, the impossible theme. how to do justice to a subject that is indescribable, ineffable, unformed, unconditioned, taintless, ever-lasting, undisintegrating, invisible and—otherwise, by many other names—beyond our comprehension?! ENLIGHTENMENT.
The Buddha himself made long lists of terms in order to corral this elusive concept for the people in the street. Buddhists have most often talked about it by identifying what it is not. You cut away all the conditions, hindrances, bad behavior, unclean thoughts, obstructive inklings, after which something else will arise that we call liberation. But what is that?
When asked to contribute her thoughts to this issue, the Venerable Tenzin Palmo replied, “Enlightenment is of course an intriguing subject about which probably most—if not all—of your contributors will wax eloquent while actually knowing nothing (or little) from direct experience. Rather like the discussions on the nature of God among theologians. Or a deaf person discussing Mozart. So I also would have nothing useful to contribute to a fairly futile (though fascinating) topic.” This eloquent refusal caused me to think we might instead title the issue “Deaf Persons Discussing Mozart.”
Actually, I loved her response, as it so accurately points to the difficulty of approaching the topic of enlightenment. In talking about it we’re essentially circling around the thing itself, never quite getting there, because if we did, we would have nothing to say. Yet I disagree with Tenzin Palmo that it is a futile topic. Grappling with our concepts of enlightenment is far from a useless activity, I think you will realize, as you read the excellent commentary and opinions in the following pages.
The rich mix of voices you will encounter includes some classic texts, an expansive overview of enlightenment experiences, a closely reasoned argument that our clinging to gender sabotages our path, a hilarious parody of a game show, an examination of liberation from the perspective of Burmese Samatha Buddhism, a paean to motherhood with its opportunities to go past the self, and an examination of social engagement as the enlightened path, as well as other distinct views and comments. This variety reflects the many-faceted perspectives in our American Buddhism.
I hope the articles and features in their “circling around” the topic of enlightenment will inspire us to trust that we can be liberated from our suffering, experiencing freedom even within the pesky conditions of our lives. May it motivate us to commit to more diligent practice toward that (goal-less) goal.
—Sandy Boucher, Guest Editor
Seeking enlightenment? Senior Dharma teacher Jack Kornfield might ask, “And what kind of enlightenment would you prefer?” In this article, Kornfield explores several different expressions of the ultimate goal of Dharma practice.
Just Another Word
Answers and nonanswers to the question, “What does enlightenment mean?” Contributors include Pema Chödrön, Ajahn Brahm, Spring Washam, Sarah Weintraub, Adyashanti, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Lama Surya Das and Susan Moon (aka Tofu Roshi).
Escalator to Enlightenment
Revealing a path that is little known in the West, Burmese teacher, mother and physician Dr. Thynn Thynn describes her Samatha lineage, with its potent psychic practices.
Free at Last
Writer and teacher Sandy Boucher savors gritty stories and poems from the ancient verses of Buddhism’s earliest enlightened sons and daughters.
How Clinging to Gender Subverts Enlightenment
Preeminent Buddhist-feminist scholar of religion Rita M. Gross confronts the contradiction between no-self and gender.
Western Buddhism’s reigning skeptic Stephen Batchelor calls for a scientific worldview that illuminates ancient doctrines and revitalizes our understanding of the Buddha’s radical teachings.
New mom and mindfulness teacher Diana Winston finds her views turned upside-down thanks to the arrival of her baby daughter.
Noun, Adjective or Verb?
What do the scriptures have to say about nirvana? Buddhist scholars Joanna Macy and Gil Fronsdal uncover the nuances that are often lost in translation.
Is That So?
“Little shot” Barbara Gates’s forty-seventh school reunion—and the childhood memories it stirs up—help her see through lifelong views she’s held on identity.
A Monk in America
Leaving California after fourteen years, Ajahn Amaro shares his observations of American Buddhists and describes the greatest gift he received.
Practice: Recollection of the Buddha
Scholar and translator Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi offers instructions on one of the most popular meditations in the Buddhist tradition.
The Dharma & The Drama
Wes Nisker reveals the causes and conditions that have led to this very moment of your experience, starting with the creation of the universe.