My Problem With Enlightenment

Sensei tells me to believe in Enlightenment.

“It’s real,” he says.  “Trust me.”

“I can’t,” I reply.

Sensei is a lovely man: charming, warm, direct.  He gives a great dharma talk.

But I’m a wary customer.  I’m incapable of belief without evidence.

When I first went searching for a teacher, I was attracted to Toni Packer.  When Toni was asked if all this sitting ever got us anywhere, she responded “why not try it and find out.”  I liked her because she never asked me to believe her, but invited me to see for myself.  (A few year later I asked Toni privately whether all that sitting had gotten her anywhere.  She replied it had.  She said she spent many hours each day in a state of undivided awareness, and when she was kicked out of it she found it easy to resume. I had no reason to doubt her.)

But Enlightenment? With a capital “E?”  What am I being asked to believe?

The words awakening or enlightenment mean different things within different Buddhist traditions.  A non-exhaustive list of various meanings might include 1) a permanent end to the arising of states of desire, aversion, and ignorance, 2) an end to rebirth, 3) the realization of emptiness, and 4) the attainment of (depending on your tradition) either arhathood or Buddhahood.

I have never seen any persuasive evidence for believing in reincarnation.  From what I understand about the human central nervous system, I find it difficult to believe that human beings can completely cease having desires.  I also have never, to my knowledge, met a living Buddha or arhat.  Lots of wonderful, inspiring spiritual teachers… but no fully Enlightened beings.

So I guess I can’t really believe in Enlightenment with a capital “E.”

That’s not to say Enlightenment doesn’t exist.  Just that I’m indisposed to believe in it.

Is there something enlightenment-like that I can believe in?

I can believe in awakening as a gradual process with Enlightenment as its hypothetical end-point: a far horizon aimed for but never reached.

I can believe in increasingly developing our capacity for mindfulness, compassion, lovingkindness, and equanimity through continued practice.

I can believe in learning to become less self-centered.

I can believe in becoming less reflexively attached to our personal narratives of who we are.

I can believe in striving to increase who we include in our circle of caring.

I can believe in striving to become more ethical in our dealings with others.

I can believe in consolidating and integrating these attainments so that they become increasingly manifested in our behavior across situations and domains.

Is this Enlightenment-Lite®?

Is it enough?  Am I aiming too low?

Others might argue that big goals bring big attainment, small goals, small attainment.

Without the goal of unexcelled and complete awakening am I cheating myself out of what I’m really capable of?  William James argued in The Will to Believe that there are cases where “a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.”   Ajahn Jayasaro argued in his dharma talk Faith in the Quest that “Nobody can prove that there is such a thing as enlightenment but if we don’t have faith that there is, our practice is unlikely to go very far.”


But I can only do what I can do.  I can only believe what I can believe.

Unlike the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, I can’t believe six impossible things before breakfast.

It seems to me, however, that the gradual process of awakening, the one that I can believe in, the one without a perfect achievable endpoint, is good enough.

It gets me to continue my practice.

It will have to do.


For now.

(Many thanks to Brooke Schedneck’s post “Lacking Faith in the Western Buddhist Communities” in Wandering Dhamma for making me aware of the Ajahn Jayasaro quote.)

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Repetitive Thought Patterns

If we make meditation a daily part of our lives, if we set aside a half-hour or hour every day to sit and watch the contents of our experience, we begin to notice certain regularities in the way our minds function.  Certain thoughts return again and again, certain themes come up again and again.  We get lost in fantasizing and daydreaming instead of paying attention, and if we catch these fantasies and daydreams and reflect on them, we can see there is a certain unnerving regularity to them.  They often relate, for example, to unfulfilled desires for love, respect, admiration, power, status, or accomplishment.  We may drift into imagining that we are doing great things, saying great things, or obtaining great things.  Maybe we are defending ourselves and our actions and beliefs before an imaginary audience.  Maybe we are reacting to some almost insignificant slight, or some small crumb of craved for recognition and acknowledgment.  The Self is consumed with aggrandizing itself, defending itself, justifying itself, looking good in the estimation of others, satisfying itself.  Or conversely, the Self is an anxious Self, anticipating all the ways that what it craves will be taken away, and restlessly thinking about how to avoid this loss or that loss, this danger or that danger.  The unrelenting focus of the anxious Self is on safety and self-preservation.

When one gets to watch this same routinized narcissistic or anxious pattern over and over again day in and day out in meditation practice, one wearies of it.  We want it to change and be different.  We want to have selfless thoughts, prettier thoughts, thoughts that will win approval for us as wise and virtuous beings.  But wait a minute!  This is just another form of wanting to be better, wanting approval for the Self.  It’s the same old trap again!  Maybe when we see this we laugh a bit and chuckle to ourselves. We’ve caught ourselves in the act of being ourselves once again!  We begin to appreciate that this is who we are and will seemingly always be.  We cannot transform ourselves into another kind of being.

At this point there can be a moment of acceptance of ourselves, seeing ourselves as we are and  seeing through ourselves.  We can take ourselves more lightly.  We can momentarily experience our familiar obsessions with greater humor and compassion.  This is a true moment of self-transcendence and liberation.  The sweetness of the moment doesn’t last very long, however.  A few moments later our minds are caught again in the usual ruts, fueled by the same self-absorbed obsessions.  But for a moment we have had a delicious taste of freedom.  If we continue to meditate month in and month out, those moments of liberation can become a more regular part of the fabric of our existence.  This is the nature of gradually awakening to ourselves.

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