Seeking Enlightenment? Inquire Within
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I spent quite a while reading up on Enlightenment. What is it? How do you get it? What’s it like? What do I need to do to become enlightened? And I discovered that according to several sources: I already am. Yeah, it’s sort of a let down. I thought it would involve more work. Here’s the real kicker: you all are already enlightened too. Well, maybe not all of you. But chances are pretty good that most of you are or at least will be by the time we’re done with this service. Of course, I’m not saying we’re all ‘fully enlightened.’ Apparently there is enlightenment and then there is enlightenment.
You see, there are at least two general schools of Enlightenment and therefore two different definitions of what it means to be enlightened. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, your affliction due to attachment and ignorance will successively be burned away through stages of enlightening experiences until the final stage when full enlightenment is achieved. At this point Nirvana has been reached and the material “world of Forms ceases to arise.” Which means a fully enlightened being will cease to exist from our perspective – and we will cease to ‘arise’ from their perspective. Only a very few can achieve this state. In this version of how it works, none of us here are ‘fully enlightened’ or anywhere close.
Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, is not interested in such a goal. Or, more specifically, the goal is seen as unachievable until all sentient beings are ready and we can all transcend together. However, the possibility of this being achieved by all sentient beings is, from our current perspective, so minimal that we can say this final goal is not really an attainable goal; therefore Mahayana Buddhism is not interested in such a goal. Instead we say enlightenment is ongoing; there is no final point when someone can say, “I am fully enlightened.” If you are enlightened, there will continue to be more breakthrough experiences because life is always evolving. Or, as philosopher Ken Wilbur says, “In this sense, you are never ‘fully’ enlightened, anymore than you could say that you are ‘fully educated.’ It has no meaning.” (Wilbur, Ken, A Brief History of Everything p216) And, this kind of Enlightenment depends primarily on noticing reality for what it is. And all of us can do that, and as I said earlier, quite likely have at one point or another.
Generally speaking most people speak of enlightenment as a process of awareness or of awakening. Thus the Buddha is the Awakened One. The encyclopedia tells us, “Enlightenment broadly means the acquisition of new wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perception.” This does not imply the need for ‘enlightenment’ to be a once-and-final state of perfection of perception. Yet that is the way it is used at times when we tell a story of “this person became enlightened.” Although at other times the story conveys the sense that the experience was one moment of enlightenment that subsequently faded and could be recalled. The basic definition says Enlightenment is the acquisition of new wisdom or understanding enabling clarity of perspective. This leaves room for both interpretations.
To add a layer of confusion, the encyclopedia continues saying,
However, the English word covers two concepts which can be quite distinct: religious or spiritual enlightenment and secular or intellectual enlightenment. This can cause confusion, since those who claim intellectual enlightenment often reject spiritual concepts altogether. (Wikipedia)
I have been heard to say, “Unitarian Universalism is the heir of the Enlightenment.” When I say this I am referring to the western ‘Age of Enlightenment.’ Intellectual enlightenment is the product of learning which can be achieved through reading books. Spiritual enlightenment is the product of wisdom which can be achieved through reading the book that is you. “Not an easy task at all, for every minute of the day brings a new edition of the book!” (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom p 177) The western and eastern versions of Enlightenment are not mutually exclusive, but they are arguably difficult to hold at the same time.
Usually when people look for an equivalent in the west for this eastern concept of enlightenment, we point toward “Salvation.” Salvation is the end-goal of Christian religion, while enlightenment is the end-goal of Buddhism. We can argue that generalization, but the perception is out there. The most obvious argument against the comparison of Salvation and Enlightenment is that to be Enlightened is to be awake and to be Saved is to be accepted. Being accepted and being awake are clearly two different things. Enlightenment actually fits better with the Christian concept of Epiphany, “an illuminating discovery often resulting in a personal feeling of elation.” It is a sudden moment of understanding and insight.
Have you ever had that happen to you? What was it like? What was the content of the experience for you? I could describe two or three such moments in my life, epiphanies or experiences of enlightenment, such as the story I’ve told of a stone in the woods that taught me of the interconnected oneness of everything. Buddhism is full of these stories. The Buddha, they say, practiced every form of asceticism known in India at the time in an effort to attain enlightenment. Finally, while sitting under a bodhi tree he was enlightened. The Buddha taught his disciples the secret of enlightenment saying,
When you draw in a deep breath, oh monks, be aware that you are drawing in a deep breath. And when you draw in a shallow breath, oh monks, be aware that you are drawing in a shallow breath. And when you draw in a medium-sized breath, oh monks, be aware that you are drawing in a medium-sized breath. (DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, p18)
For Jonathan Livingston Seagull it was found in his complete absorption into the task of learning to fly. Jonathan’s awareness was centered completely on learning the limits of his body and striving to overcome these limits.
Other stories illuminate the utter ordinariness of the trigger or tipping point into enlightenment. After years of training, the disciple begged his master to give him enlightenment. Then master led him to a bamboo grove and said, “See that bamboo, how tall it is? See that other one there, how short it is?” And the disciple was enlightened. (DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, p18)
Another time, a disciple asked for enlightenment and the Master smiled, “Tell me, my dear, when you were born did you come into the world like a star from the sky or out of it like a leaf from a tree?” All day long she pondered that strange question of the Master. Then she suddenly saw the answer and fell into Enlightenment. (DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom, p121)
Or I explain it with the shortest of the Buddha’s enlightening sermons: he had his disciples sitting around him; he reached down, plucked a flower and held it up. He didn’t say a word. One disciple was instantly enlightened. That story reminds me of one I read about Thich Nhat Hanh. He has walking across a collage campus with several people after a lecture. It was fall and many colored leaves were on the ground. Suddenly Thich Nhat Hanh stopped, pointed to a leaf and shouted, “You’re faking!” All of these stories of the moment of enlightenment hold a common element: the utter ordinariness of what caused the tipping point of awareness. The trick seems to simply be being fully aware of what is really there in front of you.
Total awareness and absorption into what is right in front of you is what you need. This level of absorption or attention is often noticed in a cat watching squirrels running to and fro just on the other side of the window glass; or in the play of small children. Jesus said you would need to be as a child to enter the kingdom. Give us the spirit of the child. “The child who trusts, the child who imagines, the child who sings; the child who receives without reservation, the child who gives without judgment. Give us a child’s heart, that we may be filled with wonder and delight.” (from responsive reading #664 in SLT hymnal)
They say that children, walking around the world with eyes of wonder, are already awakened. As you grow up, and in our modern western culture that seems to happen rather quickly, you take on attachments and worries. Jack Kornfield retells the story of American painter James McNeill Whistler from a hundred years ago and how he experience the worlds attempt to make us “grow up” and leave the innocence of childhood behind. Whistler was in an engineering class at West Point Military Academy.
The students were instructed to draw a careful study of a bridge, and Whistler submitted a beautifully detailed picturesque stone arch with children fishing from its top. The lieutenant in charge ordered, “This is a military exercise. Get those children off the bridge.” Whistler resubmitted the drawing with the two children now fishing from the side of the river. “I said get those children completely out of the picture,” said the angry lieutenant. So Whistler’s last version had the river, the bridge, and two small tombstones along its bank. (Kornfield, Jack, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, p10)
And we spend our lives trying to resurrect that spirit within us. We search for that essential innocent wonder from childhood when attachments and worries did not command such a hold on us. And yet younger and younger our children are subjected to the forces of our consumer culture that relies on instilling in us the drive to acquire and the desire to fill some assumed inner vacancy. We search through the personalities thrown at us on TV and the self-help books populating our bookshelves for answers. But the answer is not something that can be found out there. As the title says, “Seeking Enlightenment? Inquire Within.”
In Unitarian Universalist circles we often speak of spirituality as being a journey, an unfolding adventure of self-discovery. Here, we encourage each to find for themselves the path to understanding and enlightenment. This is something, then, that we share with the eastern religious quest for enlightenment. Your faith is not something that can be handed to you; you must uncover it for yourself. And the clues may be out there, but the actual discovery is within you. We gather as a community to encourage one another in deepening understanding.
William Houff’s book, Infinity in your Hand, begins with a one-panel cartoon of two monks sitting meditation, the older one saying to the younger, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”
Jack Kornfield reminds us: after enlightenment, the laundry. Being enlightened does not stop the world from being in need of peace and justice or you from being who you’ve always been. You are simply more aware, more awake. And thank goodness for that! It would be awful if the best and most enlightened among us grew unrecognizable and aloof after enlightenment. Instead, we remain ourselves and stuck with the same life we had prior to our new understanding. Except after enlightenment, we are better equipped to handle everything.
Anthony DeMello writes:
After enlightenment nothing really changes. The tree is still a tree; people are just what they were before and so are you. You may continue to be as moody or even-tempered, as wise or foolish. The one difference is that you see things with a different eye. You are more detached from it all now. And your heart is full of wonder. When the Zen master attained enlightenment he wrote the following lines to celebrate it: “Oh wondrous marvel: I chop wood! I draw water from the well!” (DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, p16)
Again we speak of wonder. How often are you struck by wonder? Is that still a part of your life? Can it be? We don’t need to go wandering off to Tibet or hide away in some cave to achieve enlightenment, to uncover again our sense of wonder and oneness with all that is. It does not involve a detachment from the woes and injustices of life. Indeed it is really being aware of what is really happening that we uncover the resources needed to be whole.
“There are three stages in one’s spiritual development,” said the Master. “The carnal, the spiritual, and the divine.”
“What is the carnal stage?” asked the eager disciples.
“That’s the stage when trees are seen as trees and mountains as mountains.”
“And the spiritual?”
“That’s when one looks more deeply into things – then trees are no longer trees and mountains no longer mountains.”
“And the divine?”
“Ah, that’s Enlightenment,” said the master with a chuckle, “when trees become trees again and mountains, mountains.”
(DeMello, Anthony, One Minute Wisdom p 47)
In a world without end
May it be so.