What Is It To Be Enlightened?

November 6, 2009 at 1:06 pm Leave a comment

In the beginning of his wonderful book on Buddhist practice, Working Towards Enlightenment, Master Nan Huai-Chin quotes a question from his old friend Mr. Xiao, a serious and long standing student of Buddhism. Mr. Xiao asked him, “Shakyamuni Buddha left home when we was 18, and finally- much later, after years of effort- lifted his head, saw a bright star, and was enlightened. What was it that he was enlightened to?”

This is a really good question, and one that I have been pondering for some time. The Buddha sat himself down under the Bodhi tree by the Ganges and said to himself, ‘I will not rise until I have achieved supreme perfect enlightenment.’ He then meditated for six days and nights and on the dawn of the seventh day he raised his head from meditation, opened his eyes, saw this bright star in the sky, and was awakened. Master Nan says that he answered Mr. Xiao by saying that the Buddha awoke to interdependent causation and inherent emptiness. Mr. Xiao was not impressed with this answer, and Master Nan admits this is just the dogma of Buddhism. Anyone reading a book on Buddhism will find these ‘truths’ of Buddhism written down, and so can learn them just like that. But the Buddha did not get these truths as ideas, did not read them in a book. He experienced something, after 12 years of practice, and that experience led him to think of the universe and all things in it as having been of interdependent causation and of being inherently empty. How much difference is there between having the experience which leads to the insight and just reading about it in a book.

The Buddha, the tree, the river and the star. What is the relationship between them? What is it that was going on in that dawn which zapped his mind and body with that insight? I used to think that enlightenment meant that you became aware that what happened to you in life was the same as what you did. That is, to lose the distinction between what you say and do, and what happens to you is to become enlightened to the situation you are really in. To only consider yourself as the sum of your thoughts and acts is to remain in an ego-driven world, whereas to widen it so that you are also what happens to you is to expand out of ego into a larger view of life.

But I don’t think this is what was happening to the Buddha. I think that he was entering into a wider experience still, one in which he could identify himself not just with the tree he sat under and the river that ran past him, but also with the stars twinkling in the lightening sky. This was an expanded view of himself as the universe, a view which showed him that although his existence as a human body was only temporary, which meant that it was empty of permanent existence and that this state also applied to the tree ,the river and the stars in the sky. Everything was in flux, change was the only constant, yet at that specific moment, like all the moments past and all of those to come, he was able to see that his life was as specific and real as could be, interwoven with all the other elements in the universe, and he had an existence that was expressed in each instant.

This is a feeling that we are all able to have, the idea of our destiny, in the sense that although I may not be sitting under a Bodhi tree meditating, but am sitting in my living room typing on a computer, still the moment that I am experiencing here, in this time and place, is the only existence that I have, and if I were to spend my time thinking about where else I would like to be, or what else I might like to be doing, or what parts of my life I would like to improve or change, then I am avoiding my destiny, my knowledge that I am in this place and this time, and all of the events in my life, all of my thoughts and actions, have brought me to this moment in time and place in space. If I fail to accept my situaqtion then I am truly unenlightened, whereas to accept that this is where I am is to live in and with my destiny and to flourish in each moment that arises. This is my take on enlightenment.

Entry filed under: Thoughts.

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Reflections on an age of anxiety.


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