Enlightenment vs. Flourishing


There are three problems with how Buddhist enlightenment is traditionally understood. The first is enlightenment’s non-naturalistic aspects, for example, the idea of enlightenment as an end to rebirth. The idea of rebirth is inconsistent with the way most modern Westerners understand how the world works. The second is Enlightenment’s absolutism: the idea that enlightenment is a complete and permanent end to greed, hatred, delusion, and attachment, beyond which there is nothing more to accomplish. I don’t think such a state is humanly possible and I’ve never met anyone—be they monk, lama, or Zen master—who has attained it.

We could remedy these problems by treating the non-naturalistic aspects as metaphors and by thinking of enlightenment, not as an attainable destination, but as a horizon one orients toward — a kind of north star guiding us on our journey. With sufficient practice we can become increasingly mindful and beneficent, but we can never reach a permanent state of perfect mindfulness, equanimity, and compassion. Our practice is a journey without end.

The third problem—and I think the most problematic one— is that this north star I am describing doesn’t really point in the direction I want to go.  I don’t really aspire to Nirvana — to end desire and attachment and live a life of unending peace, tranquility, and bliss. What I really aspire to is a flourishing life — a life that is meaningful, psychologically rich, emotionally fulfilling, and alive to the ethical and aesthetic possibilities of each moment.  

What does flourishing entail? First flourishing entails cultivating a set of virtues — ones that are uniquely Buddhist (mindfulness and loving-kindness) one’s that are Greco-Roman (courage and justice) and ones common to both traditions (equanimity, truthfulness, and temperance).

Flourishing doesn’t mean putting an end to desire, aversion, and attachment, but of cultivating right desire, right aversion, and right attachment mediated by what Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom. Mindfulness allows up to discern which desires, aversions, and attachments are concordant with our highest values and which are detrimental to them—those that are skillful to cultivate, and those that should be  rightly abandoned.

Flourishing also means finding fulfilment in relationships, accomplishments, and aesthetics. It means living with immediacy, intimacy, and presence. It means radically accepting circumstances that can’t be changed. It means manifesting our values in every sphere of our lives rather than compartmentalizing them.

Flourishing also means cultivating a wisdom that recognizes truth is multi-perspectival, includes the wisdom of the body and mindfulness of mental states, maintains an attitude of open-inquiry, and views everything as processual and pan-relational— everything is process, and everything exists in interrelationship with everything else.

Finally, flourishing means grounding virtue and wisdom in the attitude Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life,” and John Dewey called “natural piety”— an abiding sense of connection to, caring for, and cherishing of all beings.

Buddhist practice enhances flourishing in four major ways. First, the Buddhist teaching that everything is process and interrelationship all the way down counterbalances the Western over-emphasis on individuality—the reified, separate self. Western individualism developed slowly over the last half-millennium, culminating in what Charles Taylor calls “the modern moral order of enlightened self-interest” as typified in John Locke’s social contract theory. It has its good points: the uniqueness of each individual and his or her path in life, inherent individual rights, and of the importance of individual conscience.  It has protected us and continues to protect us against the unbridled state power of totalitarian experiments, both left and right.

But once one conceives of oneself as an individual self, life becomes a process of trying to master, control, and dominate whatever lies outside the self for the purpose of self-enhancement—whether that means dominating and controlling resources, people, nations, or Nature.  And we know where that leads—to imperialism, colonialism, wars of conquest, vast economic inequality, and ecocide.

The corrective to individualism is the sense that we are all in this together, that we are families and communities before we are individuals, that our well-being entails living in a healthy society—one that maximizes everyone’s flourishing within a healthy, sustainable ecosystem. This is the vision of relatedness we find in the Flower Garland Sutra imagery of Indra’s Web, or in Shantideva’s bodhisattva aspirations to be a lamp to all who need light and a boat to all who would cross the river.

The second thing Buddhist practice contributes to flourishing is awareness of our embodiment.  The history of the Western philosophy is by-and-large the history of valorizing logical reasoning over and above all other ways of interacting with the world.  Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics considered reason to be the faculty we share with Divinity—one that is separate from the heart and our animal selves. Kant saw morality as purely a matter of reason and will. In this schema, the head ought to rule the heart, and reason ought to rule feeling life.

This emphasis on logico-deductive thinking has led to important advancements in mathematics, medicine, technology, and the natural sciences, but it has also alienated us from our wholeness—the kind of wholeness pointed to by the Chinese word “xīn” (心)  which is often translated as “heart/mind”—the harmony of intellect and feeling. There are ways our entire embodied organisms know things our disembodied minds do not. Eugene Gendlin emphasizes this in his work on experiencing, focusing, and direct referents.  We ought to cultivate the wisdom of the body as well as our powers of logical reasoning, and this is one thing meditation helps us to get better at. Unaided reason cannot tell us the nature of the good life or what we ought to strive for.  As the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out, reason is only the handmaiden of “the sentiments.” The things we value—health, friendship, well-being—we value not because reason tells us they are good—but because, first and foremost, they feel good—it’s the way we happen to be wired.  As John Dewey pointed out, values emerge from two processes: valuing and evaluation. Valuing is the non-logical process of discovering what we like and dislike based on how it makes us feel. Evaluation is process of evaluating whether what we like or dislike is genuinely good for us.  We need both.

The third thing Buddhist practice does is enhance our ability to be intimately present—to potentially experience an “I-Thou” non-instrumental relationship with everything we encounter. This is capacity that grows out of our formal and informal meditation practice as we learn to cultivate a one-minded presence that enriches our lives and our relationships.

Fourth, Buddhism provides us with methodologies for cultivating right desire, right aversion, and right attachment, and the attitudes of lovingkindness, acceptance, equanimity, and compassion. It is one thing to conceptually understand the importance of these things, and another to learn how to embody and manifest them. Mindfulness, lovingkindness, and compassion meditations are training grounds for cultivating these virtues.

The Confucian philosopher Mencius wrote about a child falling into a well.  Anyone observing this, he wrote, would feel alarm and distress and the impulse to help. Mencius taught we are all born with the seed of humaneness—the virtue the Confucians called “ren” (仁) — but it’s up to us (and circumstances) whether we cultivate it further or allow it to wither. Mencius’s seeds of virtue have something in common with the Chinese Buddhist idea of having an innate Buddha nature.

 A century later, however, the Confucian philosopher Xunzi taught the exact opposite — that human nature is (depending how you translate  “è” [惡]) — “bad,” “evil” or “foul.”  We are all driven by self-centered desires. 

Who was right—Mencius or Xunzi?

There is a way in which they were both right. We are endowed with competing intuitions about humaneness. We can feel a natural empathy for anyone in desperate straits or harm’s way, but we also feel a loyalty to ourselves, families, and kinsman first. When times are flush, we are happy to be generous with everyone; when times are tough, we circle the wagons and say, “family and friends first!”  This is our divided original nature.

But it’s possible to cultivate a second nature that extends our good will to ever wider circles under ever wider sets of circumstances.  I use the agricultural metaphor of “cultivation” deliberately  because cultivation involves sometimes watering plants and sometimes pulling weeds. The Buddhist word for meditation is bhavana, or cultivation, and as Voltaire concludes in Candide, life is all about cultivating our gardens.

Buddhism can provide us with invaluable tools to help us cultivate our gardens and enhance our personal and collective well-being, but only if we have cleansed it of supernaturalism and absolutism and placed it in service of human flourishing. Otherwise, it is in danger of setting us off on the impossible, and ultimately self-defeating path of struggling to cut off our desires and rid ourselves of our attachments. Our attachments enrich our lives—if they are the right sort of attachments and we attach to them in the right sort of way—and our desires are constructive when they are in accord with our highest values and pursued in the right sort of way.  The fact that the people and things we desire and attach to are impermanent lends them a kind of poignancy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth desiring and attaching to. The suffering that comes from mourning their loss is worth the price of having them in our lives for the while they lasted.  A life of non-desiring and non-attachment as a means of avoiding the suffering of loss does not sound like one worth living. A flourishing life is not one that successfully avoids suffering, but that, in the fullness of living, courageously and creatively addresses it.


11 Replies to “Enlightenment vs. Flourishing”

  1. Hi Seth, thanks for an interesting post and I enjoy your take on Buddhism and philosophy etc
    Apart from ‘enlightenment’ which Aitken Roshi called a word he found to grand and as you say the problem of enlightenments absolutism.
    My question/interest is about ‘Awakening’ which seems to be what Buddhism offers or at least to my understanding what Mahayana Buddhism has to offer. Not awakening as a one off ‘complete and permanent’ end to out sufferings and problems, but more an incremental awakening of insight and joy.
    Basically I’m speaking of Kensho as defined in Zen or more specifically Rinzai Zen.
    How do you see this as fitting in or playing out in to long term Practice? While I like the idea of flourishing and being able to deal and work on our problems and living a joyful and ethical life, these are also achievable in other realms (to some degree) most obviously Psychotherapy and Philosophy.
    So, is awakening as known in the Zen tradition (a) achievable or more to the point achievable for all? And is it desirable outcome? i.e. do you place any importance on it in ongoing Zen Buddhist practice?
    Traditionally, awakening has come about by the study and practice of koans in the Zen tradition, generally under the guidance of a trained Koan teacher.
    Soto Zen may also put some emphasis on awakening or Kensho, though this might depend on the particular teacher.
    to sum up, is awakening in Buddhist practice still a noble pursuit in out difficult and perplexing world? and what Buddhism (and perhaps some other religious/spiritual traditions) uniquely offers. Or are the character aspects of a good ethically lived life, the answering of some philosophical conundrums actually enough to devote our lives to the Buddhadharma?

    1. Interesting question, Greg! Your question stirs many thoughts! First let’s note that “awakening” is a contemporary English translation of the Pali “bodhi” which has recently tended to replace Max Mueller’s older English translation of “Enlightenment.” Awakening has tended to catch on for reasons that you touch on, among others. On the other hand Pali scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi recently wrote that the word “bodhi” is not related to cognate Pali terms denoting waking up or sleeping, whereas a better case can be made for it being more related to words having to do with “light.” My main point here is that there is no distinction between “enlightenment” and “awakening” in Pali or Sanskrit. “Kensho,” on the other hand refers to “seeing one’s nature” rather than “awakening”. Your main question is what do I see as the role of kensho in the kind of naturalistic-eudaimonic form of Buddhism I have been advoating. How important is it? (We might also ask, what is the relationship between kensho and bodhi?) There are many subtle questions here.

      There is a difference between having an “enlightenment,” “awakening,” or “kensho” experience and living an awakened (or flourishing) life. To the extent that a form of Zen emphasizes gaining a certain experience as opposed to living an awakened life, I think that is a mistake.There are people who have had many kenshos but are not people I would choose to be associated with, and there are others who have had no such sudden awakenings who live admirable lives. That doesn’t mean “openings” are unimportant—-they are welcome when they come and can be life changing events-—but I don’t see the as being the main event. Let’s also add that different people have different temperaments-—some are succeptable to religious experiences and some are not-—and while kensho may be an important route for development for some Zen practitioners, it may not be for all.

      I also have some questions about whether kensho is one thing—-whether all the Zen ancestors’ awakenings were the same kind of awakening—-or whether it is a very individual thing and may take many forms. Writers like William James and Steven Katz have emphasized the diversity of “mystical” experiences, and that the form they take tends to be different for persons practicing in different relgious traditions. In a religious tradition that emphasizes having a certain type of experience concordant with certain teachings and assigns a higher social status within the tradition for people who have had that experience, there is a lot of pressure on members to have a certain type of experience–one that is approved of by the teacher. How much does that shape the form that kensho takes? One can imagine many Christian, Jewish, and Islamic believers having very different kinds of religious experiences more in line with their doctrines and teachings. The perennial philosophical belief that, at base, all mystical experiences are essentially the same is very much open to debate.

      Maybe this is my Soto background, but I would urge Zen practitioners to just focus on zazen and the precepts and not pursue special experiences. What comes up when you sit shows you exactly what you need to do in this very moment to further your growth. If kensho comes, great, if it doesn’t, also great. You are doing just what you need to do. Everyone’s path is different, and every step of the path is just this step right now.

      Lastly, my model points to more than just “the character aspects of the ethically lived life.” For example, it also points to cultivating a wisdom that is processual, pan-relational, multi-perspectival, and embodied, and to living in a fully attentive to each moment. It means living a life that is more connected to the body, to others, and to nature. It is a whole different way to live– not just more ethical, but also more alive, more fulfilling, and more meaningful. For me, that is more than enough.

      1. Thank you for your reply Seth.
        I thought I’d add a few thoughts of my own around the idea of awakening/kensho.
        You bring up some salient points around this topic and I find myself in agreement in the main.
        I’ve often thought of the analogy between a Kensho ‘experience’ and winning the lottery. As you point out some have ’em, others don’t. And it’s not the end of the story by any means. Even if one has an opening of this type. One still has to continue to practice and continue to practice and follow the precepts as you point out.
        I’ve often thought discussions or literature around awakening/kensho nebulous or opaque. It seems to bring up more questions than it answers. Perhaps it’s best to see it as an accidental outcome, something not strived for or earned but something some practitioners maybe susceptible to.
        These are some random thoughts that I have on this issue.
        Lastly, an interesting read on this subject is a book called ‘One blade of grass’ by Henry Shukman. Henry is a Zen practitioner who has had numerous opening experiences and towards the end of the book has a profound Kensho ‘great death’ worthy of Hakuin.
        It’s a well written, interesting read and I would recommend it if anyone has a particular interest on this topic.

  2. The Buddhists don’t have a monopoly on mindfulness. The Stoics claim that mindfulness is a part of their tradition. Their term for it is “prosochē”. The Pyrrhonists also claim it, under the term “skepsis.”

    The Buddhists don’t have a monopoly on loving-kindness, either. The Greeks thought that the study of philosophy produced gentleness. The Pyrrhonists were particularly noted for cultivating this characteristic. The Stoics were particularly noted for their circles of concern, which is a form of loving kindness.

    1. Welcome Doug! I guess when I called mindfulness a “uniquely Buddhist” virtue I may have been overstating my case. It certainly isn’t an Aristoteliean or Confucian one. On the other hand, there are questions about whether the Stoic “prosochē” is really an equivalent term to Buddhist “mindfulness.” On that matter, see: https://modernstoicism.com/sati-prosoche-buddhist-vs-stoic-mindfulness-compared-by-greg-lopez/ About Pyrrho, I will defer to you.

  3. Hello, Seth. First of all, let me thank you for your entries on this blog. I have been looking for an approach integrating Western philosophy concepts and Buddhism for a long time and this seems to be a truly interesting attempt.

    Over time I’ve devoted some thought to how desirable giving up on all attachments really is, and it’s quite difficult to come to a conclusion. I would say that however you make up your mind depends on the deeper understanding of existence you have; if you assume that all we experience is a mere illusion beneath which lies a genuine reality (or emptiness!), then you are indeed justified in wanting to avoid all suffering because pleasure is nothing more than a passing appearance which ends up in suffering. For that matter, one could also question whether suffering is real. Alternatively, if you believe that all we have is our present life, an attitude more akin to flourishing without renunciation seems more reasonable, and striking a balance between both tendencies (one’s interest and kindness towards all other elements of this world) sounds indeed desirable.

    On an interview some years ago, Bhikkhu Bodhi replied to the criticism of whether being a Buddhist equalled turning into a vegetable by saying that all his feelings and sensorial activities had not vanished, but rather he felt them more strongly. I guess the matter is, as you pointed out, that yet a person is to be known that has attained such a blissful and detached state.

    Thank you again for your texts and I hope to hear from you.

    1. Welcome, Eduard. I don’t think its useful to dismiss our experiences and our suffering as “illusions.” True, we can only experience things from our limited human perspective–the ways things are for creatures such as us with our particular sense organs and the particular ways we can’t help but organize perception (in the ways Kant or the Gestalt psychologists write about)—-and granted this isn’t the way some imagined god might see things–but our experience is all we have and there is no way for us get to some transcendent viewpoint beyond or outside it. My own experience agrees with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s: Buddhist practice has helped me to be more present with my emotions and has given me skillful ways to not blow them out of proportion—-not blissful detachment—-but healthy engagement moderated by practical wisdom—-and I also agree with the research Robert Waldinger has conducted that shows that the happiest people are those with the best relationships. Healthy attachments are associated with higher levels of wellbeing and not Stoic or Buddhist detachment. But of course, healthy attachment means attaching to the right sort of people and things and attaching to them in the right sort of way. This means living virtuously, associating with virtuous partners and peers, and accepting nothing is permanent and unchanging.

  4. Hi Seth and thanks for another opportunity to question and to think about our practice.

    Attaining any sublime state of spirit has never been my goal> my practice is simply to follow the breath and try to follow the precepts. The precepts guided me to my current work with abandonned cats and as an aside feeding local squirrels. ” Beings are numberless, I vow to free them ” as we say in the four vows.
    Thanks for your contribution about flourishing and Kensho.
    You do not mention our trying to encounter our own Buddhanature. That is a notion that comes naturally to me since my Quaker days where we believed in “that of God in evryone.” We have access to the Buddha within thru our meditation. And we can then apply our practice to everything we do In our daily

    1. Thanks, Galia! Following the breath and the precepts sounds just about right. I didn’t mention encountering our Buddha-nature because I am never quite sure what to say about that——I think that word means different things to different people. As I mentioned in the post, I think we are born with the seeds of goodness (as Mencius says) but also the seeds of selfishness (as Xunzi says). I don’t think we are good at our very core from the outset, but that we have potentials for goodness that we can access and develop. If that is what you mean by Buddha-nature, I’m all with you. More than that-—how Buddha-Nature might relate to the larger universe we are an integral part of —— or to what people mean when they say the word “God”——I am really quite agnostic about that. But if these Quaker ideas about the “God in everyone” help you in your daily practice, please continue to use them. I am very pragmatic about Buddhism. Whatever works!

  5. So, that “flourishing” of yours, if analyzed, does not lead to abandonment of attachment, does not lead to the cessation of suffering, does not lead to Nibbana.
    Hence anyone, who strives to it while calling themselves a “buddhist”, is clearly practicing wrongly, attached to the wrong view.

    1. You’re right on three counts, Adam. It doesn’t lead to abandonment of attachment, the cessation of suffering, nor to complete, final, and perfect nibanna. For me, this is a feature and not a bug. The path I describe only leads to the moderation of desire and attachment through wisdom and to a full, meaningful, and ethical life.

      Good luck to you on your path. If you attain non-attachment, nibanna, and the complete cessation of suffering, drop me a line and let me know.

Leave a Reply

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