Enlightenment Is Real

In Buddhism we have a very useful but tricky concept called, alternatively, Enlightenment, Nirvana, Liberation or Awakening (in addition to countless other terms and phrases, like seeing your own Buddha-nature).

As a practitioner or investigator of Buddhism, you probably find the concept of Enlightenment enticing, confusing, troubling or irrelevant – or some combination of those. You may believe Enlightenment is real and possible, and you work diligently at your spiritual practice inspired by the hope – or driven by the longing – that you can experience it for yourself. You may believe Enlightenment is real and possible, but is way beyond your understanding or attainment. You may doubt there is such a thing as Enlightenment, and you may wonder why Buddhism would include a concept that gets people all riled up and grasping after an elusive goal. Or you may have come to the conclusion that Enlightenment is nothing other those little everyday moments of satisfaction, so you know it’s nothing to get worked up about.

All four of these views of Enlightenment hold a piece of the truth and also miss something. The concept of Enlightenment is a frustratingly brilliant one, always keeping you on your spiritual toes; it creates a dynamic tension in our spiritual practice that never lets you settle comfortably into one view for long. When you think Enlightenment is real and possible and outside yourself (whether or not you think you can attain it), a good teacher will remind you that the concept of Enlightenment is nothing but a concept, and the whole point of it is that nothing is separate from you. When you doubt Enlightenment is real and possible, or you think that you’ve already got it, a good teacher pokes you in the ribs and asks, “What about this?” And some part of you responds, or wants to respond, because, deep inside, you long for that freedom, confidence, playfulness, strength, authenticity and intimacy that you know are rightfully yours.

There is something to be attained and realized, even if it is just knowing that there is nothing else you need. Life is different before and after you see your own Buddha-nature, even though it doesn’t involve finding something, it involves recognizing what was before your eyes all the time. It is rather like working to paint the inside of someone else’s house, and then later finding out that the house has belonged in your family for a long time and has just become yours. Same house, drastically different relationship to it. 

In the course of diligent spiritual practice, the path from before to after Enlightenment can be long or short, but it is equally transformative. When the transformation is sudden,  which is uncommon but not rare, we are reminded of just how amazing a transformation we are talking about. People drop to their knees and shed copious tears or laugh uproariously with the shock of such a sudden change in view. When the transformation is gradual it is not so dramatic, but result is the same.

While it is true that Enlightenment is real, as soon as we start talking about it this way – “before,” “after,” “attained” – we step into a trap because of the limitations of language and concepts. We start building an idea of Enlightenment in which it is a definable state or experience – as if we could divide people into two categories, enlightened and unenlightened. This is a perversion of the whole nature of Enlightenment, which is unbounded and free of discrimination.

Enlightenment is nothing other than those little everyday moments of satisfaction; grand ideas about transcendent states and permanent moral purity are tremendous obstacles in practice. However, if this thought lulls us into complacency (ah, Enlightenment is just appreciating the good things in your life), we are missing the fact that from the Enlightened point of view, there’s nothing “little” about any everyday moment. They are all infinite and luminous. And even though you don’t “attain” Enlightenment and stay there, an Enlightenment experience changes you forever. As my Dharma grandmother used to say, if you see a ghost, you can never again be someone who has never seen a ghost.

So, if you are longing for Enlightenment, realize you already have everything you need. On the other hand, if you’re ready to write off the concept of Enlightenment, you would do well to let it kick you in the ass, because there is always more you haven’t seen. In any case, as long as Enlightenment is bugging you, as a concept it is doing a great job helping you along in your spiritual practice.

 

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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