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.)

4 Replies to “My Problem With Enlightenment”

  1. You don’t accept reincarnation or rebirth? There is a difference.

    The comment by Toni Packer “when she was kicked out of it she found it easy to resume,” reminds me of once when I was having a casual conversation with an American monk in the Theravada tradition, and he remarked that he found it rare to run across someone who had a strong practice. I asked him what he considered a strong practice, and he mentioned being able to go from having to conversation to sitting in meditation with relative ease. For me at the time that was a new way of thinking about practice.

  2. David, I don’t accept either concept, except rebirth as a metaphor for how one moment of consciousness leads to another within one lifetime. For one thing, I am unsure as to what is supposed to get reborn. Is it a subtle consciousness which has cognition and volition, as in the Bardo Thodol? Is it a rebirth-linking consciousness (patisandhi) as in Buddhaghosa? Is it not a consciousness at all, but one’s karmic formations (sankharas)? What is the “mechanism” by which any of these psychical entities interacts with a physical entity, namely, an impregnated ovum at the moment of conception? What is the evidence in favor of rebirth that would compel me to believe in it? I can’t claim rebirth doesn’t exist. I’m merely an agnostic when it comes to it.

  3. I’m not really sure what it is either, or if it is. I am better at explaining what it isn’t. The idea of a cycle of birth and death, apparent creation and destruction and whatever-it-is being recycled, sounds fairly reasonable, and the process does seem to be played out throughout the universe in various ways. The notion of some kind of continuum of some form of consciousness also sounds reasonable, which I guess is some kind of vagueness on my part. Anyway, I don’t close my mind to it.

    I do know it’s not reincarnation. The Buddha never taught that.

  4. Well written blog, and resonates with my own attitude – try to keep it up.

    I did not believe in the big E before reading Daniel Ingram’s book. It felt authentic and rebellious enough that I became convinced, although there were parts in the story, primarily the psychic powers and the highly detailed structure of the path, cycles and all, that left me confused.

    Now a couple of years have passed and I know more about buddhism, and don’t know anymore what to think of E.

    But still, apparently, as a result of intensive training of years, some meditators experience fundamental subjective shifts that are permanent, at least as an ability to activate the new perspective at will.

    Of the question is the uniqueness of these perspective changes. Are they similar, or varying across practitioners. If they are varying, E is not well defined. This is a hard research subject, so we may never know. Some become convinced of the uniqueness, by their own experience. But there are other kind of religious conversions that are equally convincing except for the subject matter.

    It is dangerous to talk of E with limited meditation experience, but for some reason I have thought of it as a logical end of noting practice, of “that’s not me”, where nothing is “me” anymore. Desires are there and they have their effects on the behavior and thinking, but the observer becomes a bystander who does not identify with parts of the process, or ultimately does not care. It is like building an empty mirror identity through practice, then identifying with it.

    It is unclear how the subjective feeling of identity or “me” is related to various mental functions. The idea of mirror thought is also somewhat contradictory to non-dualism, for a new kind of dualism here emerges, between the free and empty observer and what previously were the mental processes and outside world, now somehow observed as unified.

    But a process of this flavor does not sound a priori impossible, in neural or psychological sense. Its effects would not be supernatural or anything, in fact, they would be primarily subjective, with all observable effects becoming secondary.

    The secondary effects could include some of what you listed, such as decrease in anxiety, increase in compassion, etc. And for sure meditation has direct effects on those objective aspects of development as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *