Book Review of Dale Wright’s “What is Buddhist Enlightenment?”

Dale Wright’s What is Buddhist Enlightenment? (Oxford University Press, 2016) was published four years ago, but I’ve only gotten around to reading it now. I came across it thanks to Amod Lele, who recently  lumped me together with Wright as a fellow proponent of a modernist “eudaimonic Buddhism.” I’m glad he introduced me to Wright’s writing.

What is Buddhist Enlightenment? is one terrific book—well-written, erudite, humane, and engaging.  The book is divided into ten chapters. The first nine deal with specific individual Buddhist topics, including 1) explorations of the paradoxical nature of ethics, language, and textuality in Zen, 2) reinterpretations of karma, the Bodhisattva ideal, and Zen transmission, 3) explorations of the religious dimensions of experience vis-a-vis Secular Buddhism, 4) and the role of bodhicitta in Fazang’s Huayan Buddhism. All of these themes are considered through a modernist lens that views Buddhism as a character-building methodology designed to move us closer towards an ideal of human excellence. Wright historicizes that ideal, seeing it as necessarily co-evolving with newer cultural understandings. He also humanizes that ideal, de-mythologizing it and bringing it closer to the realm of genuine human possibility.

Wright’s final chapter outlines his conclusions concerning what “enlightenment” means for us today. He argues that enlightenment should no longer be thought of as a human ideal that is “fixed and unchanging for all human beings in all times,” adding that, “as human practices, capacities, needs, and interests change, so will the images of human excellence that we come to admire and pursue in our lives.” In this view, enlightenment isn’t a finally realized state of perfection, but a never-ending process of “expansion of horizons, and enlargement of vision in any and every sphere of human life.” This expansion notably includes engagement with and participation in the full range of human emotions, rather than a ridding oneself of them. It also entails gradual and sudden aspects: “Gradual development is the overall pattern of growth and evolution through practice, and sudden enlightenment is an occasional glimpse into the depth dimension of our world and ourselves.” True to his historicizing bent, he thinks that as our understanding of enlightenment evolves, our understanding of the role of meditation will co-evolve along with it. Finally, he believes that a more thoroughgoing understanding of emptiness entails that our current understanding of practice ought to focus less on individual self-actualization, and more on understanding our responsibilities to the larger whole.

There is a lot more to this book—Wright’s explorations of and insights into the specific Buddhist topics briefly outlined above are all excellent and well worth reading—but I just wanted to give potential readers the main drift of the book. While my own book, Buddhism and Human Flourishing, involves an Aristotelian take on enlightenment for our time, Wright takes a more Hegelian turn, thinking deeply about the ever-changing nature of enlightenment in every age and culture.  I am pleased we have  drawn very similar conclusions on how to transpose traditional Buddhist motifs into a modernist key. This is one more book pointing the way to the new emerging Western Buddhist modernism. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the future of Buddhism.