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 Dewy 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.