Monday September 12, 2005
Some time ago, I realised that I had given up almost entirely on thoughts of enlightenment as, in any sense, a goal. It was not a conscious decision: it was just that I found that I no longer thought in such terms. The whole business of enlightenment as an end towards which I should be striving no longer seemed urgent to me.
Part of the problem was that it became clear to me that nobody was quite sure what they were talking about when they talked about enlightenment. Or, perhaps more to the point, everybody was all too sure what they were talking about, but they all seemed to be talking about different things.
In his book The New Buddhism, David Brazier explores this, by listing eight different views of enlightenment drawn from the various traditions of Buddhism. They are as follows:
- Enlightenment as escape (Stop the world, I want to get off!)
- Enlightenment as emptiness (Things are not what they seem…)
- Enlightenment as eternal life (Ah! The absolute! The eternal!)
- Tantric Enlightenment (You may think I’m being unethical, but I’m actually transmuting base metal into gold…)
- Enlightenment as realisation of Buddha Nature (I’m OK just as I am, thank you very much.)
- Enlightenment as non-duality (I am one with my cat. I am one with the world.)
- Enlightenment as Impassivity (Was that a bomb going off? I didn’t notice)
- Enlightenment as Faith (Oh, to be in the Pure Land…)
It is clear, glancing down this list, that these eight different flavours of enlightenment are not at all the same as each other; in fact, if they hadn’t all been called ‘enlightenment’ we would have taken them to be utterly different things. So the question arises: who is right? Which is the authentic enlightenment?
Brazier makes a judicious move in response to this question. It is, he claims, the wrong question. What is needed instead is that we should ask “What is enlightenment for?” What is the point of all this effort? Why bother? The answer I would give is that enlightenment is for bringing about the end of our hopeless cravings, our irrational aversions, our deep anxieties and confusions. In some traditional formulations, eradication of greed, hatred and delusion is the means to enlightenment. I would reverse this. Enlightenments or awakenings to the truth of things are the means of eradicating greeds, hatreds and delusions.
This turns enlightenment from being a kind of far goal that exists somewhere at the end of the world into something that may have value within the world.
I am not sure that it is possible to ever entirely eradicate greed, hatred and delusion, so I prefer to speak in plurals. Not awakening, but awakenings; not greed, but greeds. Awakening then is no longer a state of being or a cataclysmic event that might overtake us one day, if we are diligent enough in our practice of Buddhism. Instead, it is more like a continually rediscovered process of reawakening (because there is no guarantee that, once awake, will will not fall asleep again).
Seen from this point of view, the ideas of being enlightened, of attaining enlightenment or of striving to become enlightened no longer make any sense at all. Such ideas, as Brazier says, are “simply a chasing after experience and as such… self-seeking” (p. 118) It is not a question of awakening to One Big Truth, somewhere several lifetimes away; but instead of awakening to the many small truths that make up our lives and our world, so that we might live more effectively and more kindly, here and now, in relation to others.
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