What Is Enlightenment?

by Charles Day*

“Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness,” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, is a detailed how-to manual for implementing in everyday life Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the path to the end of suffering, the path to enlightenment. Buddha said he taught only the causes of suffering and how to end it, how to realize our already innate enlightened nature. And he cautioned that his teachings should be considered guidelines, not commandments, to be tried and used, if they worked, and discarded, if they didn’t. In that spirit, if what is said hereafter is useful, fine; if not, discard it.

This essay is not about the many practices that can be done to facilitate spiritual growth or to elaborate on the Eightfold Path to realizing enlightenment. Bhante Gunaratana does an unparalleled job of that. What I’d like to share are some random thoughts about that enigmatic and exalted state of experience called enlightenment.

We all occasionally have glimpses and experiences of enlightenment, experiences of awe and grandeur in observing a sunset or listening to a symphony, of unconditional love for a partner or newborn baby, of gratitude in surviving an illness or accident, and of pure joy in just being alive. But we rarely recognize them as such because our illusory ego, which is what we have been socialized and conditioned to identify with, takes credit for them. And the experiences are so wonderful that we’d like to have them again on a more sustained and even permanent basis. The irony, from a Buddhist perspective, is that our efforts to become enlightened only impede the realization that we already are.

So, what is enlightenment? It is, according to Buddha, the end of suffering. Physical pain is still experienced but it is no longer compounded by worries and fears, by mental suffering, which has ended. Enlightenment is the ability to see things as they really are, to accept that what is is, and to say “yes” to all of life. This is done, not out of naivete or denial, but out of a profound realization of the selfless, interconnected, interdependent unity and oneness of all mental and physical phenomena, of all experience.

For most of us full enlightenment comes gradually as a developmental and cumulative process of growing spiritually through steps and stages. And it happens through grace, rather than by any efforting of the ego or sense of self, because it involves transcendence, surrender, and ultimate dissolution of the ego in order to realize it.

Mystics and masters of all religions agree, however, that we can set up conditions that open us to the probability of realizing enlightenment or union with God. We do this through meditation, prayer, various spiritual practices, study of scriptures, associating with respected teachers and with other spiritual seekers, and living a moral, mindful life.

There are examples of an instantaneous and radical transformation into full enlightenment, such as that reported by Eckhart Tolle, but they are relatively rare. The iconoclastic eighth century Chinese Zen Buddhist Huang Po taught that full enlightenment, in fact, comes only “in a flash,” and that in studying and working through stages “you will have added nothing to it at all.” Gradual approaches involving rites, rituals, and study, he maintains, while they may have value intellectually, only perpetuate the desire to attain something we already are, thus reinforcing our ignorance and delusion and impeding the realization of our already enlightened nature.

Expressing the essence of Zen, he said, “If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything.” (“The Zen Teaching of Huang Po,” translated by John Blofeld, pp 33-35)....(continued)...

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