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.)