How We Approach Enlightenment and Why it Matters
Wed, Apr 23, 2008
It’s often recognized by meditation teachers that the notion of enlightenment carries with it a whole host of misconceptions and unhelpful interpretations. In Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, Theravada teacher Daniel Ingram writes about this at length in his section on the models of enlightenment. He describes and distinguishes between the many different models we have for what enlightenment bestows on the individual, including things having to do with emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual perfection. He also points out how dangerous some of these models can be, as they do at least two things: First, they make enlightenment appear to be completely impossible as most of the models people have, and especially when you combine several of them, are largely unattainable. Secondly, they take the focus off of what enlightenment is really about, the realization of non-duality, or “those models having to do with eliminating or seeing through the sense that there is a fundamentally separate or continuous center-point, agent, watcher, doer, perceiver, subject, observer or similar entity.”
These Non-Duality models, Daniel claims, are the only models that one can trust from the beginning of the path, until the very end. Judith Lief, a Shambhala acharaya, puts it this way:
The idea of enlightenment is tied up with our images of wise men and wise women. We have all sorts of preconceptions about how such wise beings are supposed to look, supposed to talk, and supposed to act [Action Models]. Maybe they have be a certain gender or from a certain class. Maybe they need to wear robes or appear to be very pure [Purity Models]. Perhaps they need to have a halo and radiate light [Radiance Models]. Maybe they are extraordinarily virtuous [Saintly Models] and kind, and smile beneficently at us [Love Models]. Based on our particular preconceived notions, we may try to sort out who among us is enlightened to greater or lesser degrees. We would like to match what we see with whatever standard we have created. But in doing so, not only may we apply inadequate standards but we may also be fooled by trappings and popular acclaim.
What I’d like to explore in this article, aren’t the models themselves, but rather the different ways that individual practitioners, teachers, and communities tend to work with the models. Do they let them run rampant, do they de-emphasize enlightenment altogether as a way of avoiding the whole issue, do the talk about enlightenment as something that is always present, do they have a developmental & technical approach to the path, or do they attack the least helpful of the models head-on?
1. Allow the Models to Run Rampant – The first and most obvious response to the models of enlightenment is to just let them run rampant, or to pick and choose (perhaps unconsciously) which one’s we prefer. This, I would suggest, is the most common relationship most teachers & communities have with the ideals surrounding enlightenment. In fact, it’s nearly impossible not to walk into a dharma center anywhere in the world and not see at least several different, and sometimes wacky, frameworks operating about what the enlightened state is. Why it happens isn’t entirely clear, but it’s not hard to see that people get all sorts of benefits from projecting perfection onto other people and themselves. Having unrealistic models of enlightenment, which makes it largely unattainable also can have a certain relieving effect on practitioner, where they will feel a little less pressured to try and wake up. The irony is that the pressure comes from having unrealistic notions about what one is trying to attain, not from the task itself.
An interesting thing that happens in these sorts of communities is that you find almost no one who is willing to claim full enlightenment, or if they are claiming it then you find all sorts of personality worship, and strange interpersonal issues. You also tend to get beliefs that enlightenment can or will be achieved in some future time, perhaps in the next lifetime.
This can all become extremely confusing, as the techniques and teachings being given oftentimes contain extremely valuable pieces, which if followed will lead to varying degress of awakening. What you then end up with are a bunch of people displaying real, and sometimes eloquent, descriptions of awakening but hopelessly mixing them with other unattainable models concerning human perfection.
Where seen: Theravada 10 fetters model, Tibetan Bhumis, Richard Baker Roshi’s introduction to Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, and almost all the models of Buddhahood.
2. De-emphasize Enlightenment – One obvious way of dealing with all of people’s misconceptions about enlightenment is to simply de-emphasize it, or in some cases completely ignore the concept altogether. This is the hallmark of the Soto Zen tradition, and can also be seen in many other teachings. Certainly it’s one way of dealing with the problem, and is probably helpful for some people, but one can’t help comparing this approach to someone who wants to get rid of a mess but ends up simply sweeping the dirt under the rug. Judith Lief, from the same article quoted earlier, describes the shadow-side of this approach:
Although we could pretend to be above it all, beyond striving and without ambition, we cannot hide the fact that in the Buddhist tradition the attainment of enlightenment is the central goal. At the same time, it is considered unseemly to talk overly much about one’s own practice experiences, or to advertise one’s own enlightenment. It is felt that if you have to point it out, it isn’t happening. So it is better to be modest about one’s attainments, neither latching on to such experiences nor trying to explain or discuss them with others. The problem with that approach is that, since nobody talks about it, students may begin to wonder if awakening is simply out of reach, if enlightenment is a myth and a hoax.
Where seen: Soto Zen, Suzuki Roshi, Brad Warner, Advaita Vedanta, U.G. Krishnamurti
3. Emphasize Awakening as a Temporary State or As Something that’s Always Present – Another way that enlightenment is dealt with is by pointing out that awakening is a condition which has always been present, and which can be experienced or glimpsed at any moment. This approach is extremely helpful as it brings things back to a direct exploration of the nature of reality, and points out the highest teachings. The problem with this approach is that giving a practice instruction is different from achieving the full fruits of the practice, and while those that have awakened themselves can speak about the “always already” nature of awakening, they can do so only because they have gone through a radical transformative process that left them with a deep and abiding understanding of what they speak about (assuming they are indeed awake). For those that don’t understand, no matter how obvious it is to the teacher, it will take a real transformation in their own experience. If they confuse the practice instruction of exploring freedom here and now, with their own current deluded understanding, then they can easily be fooled into thinking they are done, when in fact they are not.
Where seen: Parts of Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings, Soto Zen, Eckhart Tolle
4. Adopt a Developmental Perspective w/ More Technical Language – Many teachers will try to be more clear about what enlightenment is about, by adopting technical language that can describe particular experiences and progressions as one practices. The emphasis becomes on the practices and the very specific, mappable, and repeatable results of these practices. This kind of precision doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for many of the perfection models, though it can lend itself to “specific knowledge models” and “thought models” in which one can becomes caught up with certain esoteric knowledge that they have regarding the path. This can lead to the trap of confusing the map with the territory, and thinking that one’s conceptual understanding of the path is directly related to one’s degree of enlightenment, or if someone can’t describe their experience adequately that they aren’t enlightened.
That being said, having an accurate and useful map can be way better than having a map based on some of the other unattainable ideals of perfection.
Where seen: The Buddha’s 3 trainings model, Daniel Ingram, B. Alan Wallace, Mahasi Sayadaw’s progress of insight [Guenka Vipassana] & parts of the Tibetan 5-Path Model
5. Attack the Models Head-On
Perfection enlightenment appears in many texts, but amid all the Western masters and teachers I know, such utter perfection is not apparent. Times of great wisdom, deep compassion, and a real knowing of freedom alternate with periods of fear, confusion, neurosis, and struggle. Most teachers will readily admit this truth. – Jack Kornfield
Another approach, which can meld well with some of the other approaches, is to identify, and debunk the “perfection enlightenment” models. This approach does its best to demystify enlightenment, make it more accessible, and eminently more attainable. The focus here is on sorting out what’s what in spiritual practice. When we compare the obvious achievements (and shortcomings) of dedicated practitioners with the models that we have, than the unrealistic expectations we have surrounding enlightenment become fairly clear. From here we often see that it is not we the practitioners who are unenlightened and haven’t achieved the fruit of the spiritual path, but rather the ideals, which have shortcomings.
Where seen: Judith Lief’s article, Daniel Ingram, Adyashanti, Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, The Laundry, Stuart Lachs
Models within Models within Models
I hope what becomes obvious in reading about these different approaches is that in the realm of “right view” we are always trying to make sense of our aims, intentions, and goals. In the Buddhist tradition where “enlightenment” is one of the central goals we will always have ideas about what it is, about what it looks like from the outside, how important it is, etc. We can’t escape adopting some (or even several) of these different approaches. The key is to take the one’s that allow for a more full flourishing of wisdom at the appropriate times and in the appropriate contexts. Put another way, use the approaches consciously and see them as such, as strategies for supporting the development of awakening.
This post was written by:
Vince Horn – who has written 807 posts on Numinous Nonsense.
Vince Horn lives as a modern monk. He spends part of his year in silence, meditating, introspecting, and developing spiritually. The rest of the time he spends engaged in the world, where he produces and hosts the popular show, Buddhist Geeks, works in the production department of the spiritual publishing company Sounds True, and writes for various publications—including on his personal blog Numinous Nonsense—and enjoys living in Boulder, Colorado with his wife Emily. Read his full bio here.
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