On the pavement thinking about enlightenment
~ by Winton Higgins • wintonhiggins.org
Mature meditators meditate in order to meditate. Not as a means to an end. Meditation gives the mind peace and space it probably won’t otherwise get. In that time and space, wisdom and creativity can arise. Meditators are reflective people: they lead examined lives, something the best of our western culture has prized since ancient Greece.
Meditation goes well with other contemplative practices, such as keeping a diary of one’s inner life, reading poetry, dharma, and good fiction, and taking in other forms of art that move the heart and mind. Meditation thus contributes to a fully-lived, reflective life.
But I think most Buddhist meditators have one or two ill-defined ends or goals that spur on their practice. The shiniest of these is enlightenment, aka ‘awakening’ or ‘realisation’. It’s the object of much breathless idealism and secret spiritual ambition.
In some versions of religious (or popular) Buddhism, such as the Theravada, enlightenment is a terminal epiphany. You slog away, year after year, perhaps lifetime after lifetime, and then you arrive! Suddenly you’re utterly free of suffering for ever more, you soar clear of samsara – this otherwise eternal round of suffering, birth and death. You can relax back now, nothing and no-one can touch you.
Enlightenment is a process, not a status
In popular Buddhism, then, enlightenment is an irreversible status. Once enlightened, always enlightened. Quite an accolade, if you can convince your fellow battlers that you’ve actually arrived.
But the meaning of enlightenment has been contested for a very long time. After all, the Buddha never used this rather melodramatic metaphor, about the darkness of ignorance being irrevocably pierced with light. He used another metaphor: awakening. ‘Buddha’ literally means someone who’s awake. This more homely metaphor refers to something we all do at least once every 24 hours (twice, if you’re sensible and take a nap in the early afternoon). This metaphor leaves open the possibility of falling asleep again.
The Buddha experienced his formative awakening under the bodhi tree at 35 years of age. Does he relax back and enjoy his supposed status after that? He actually does the opposite – practises like the clappers, meditating and teaching, for the next 45 years. Once, when the Buddha is very old, Mara (another metaphor, the personification of ignorance disguised as a helpful stranger) comes and tells him that, now he’s an old man, he ought to give himself a break and take it easy. As usual, the Buddha sees through Mara’s disguise, and replies: You should practise as if your hair was on fire!
Hold that thought. And also hold this question: come to think of it, what’s Mara doing in the Buddha’s post-awakening life story anyway? He keeps popping up until the very end. In popular Buddhism, Mara meets his Waterloo on that famous occasion under the bodhi tree, and that’s supposed to be the end of him.
In the wider Buddhist tradition we find quite another notion of enlightenment, best exemplified by Zen. In its annals we find a student asking a Zen master: ‘What is enlightenment?’ The master replies: ‘Flypaper!’ (Some of you may be too young to have encountered flypaper, it predates insect repellant and wire screens. It consisted of smelly, sticky strips of paper hanging from the ceiling, ones that flies, mozzies, bits of airborne fluff etc would land on and get trapped.)
The master was succinctly delivering two messages to the student: (a) stop fantasising and get back to work! and (b) whatever enlightenment is about, it’s crucially about clearing the mind of bugs and fluff (idealisations and self-deception).
Hold that thought, too.
In Zen (and other more earthy Buddhist traditions, perhaps), ‘enlightenment’ (or awakening) does not refer to a status, but rather to a process. Zen, too has its epiphanies, its peak experiences – the top one being kensho, a life-changing awakening experience. But so what? seems to be the Zen attitude.
One of its best-known sayings goes: ‘Before enlightenment – hewing wood and drawing water; after enlightenment – hewing wood and drawing water. Nothing special.’ The crucial, positive point is that, kensho or no kensho, you’ll need the rest of your life to integrate and deepen into whatever insight you’ve gained, living each day a little more creatively and spontaneously. But slacken off, and you’ll regress. Life-long learning-by-doing, baby!
Look out for cultural biases
How on earth did two such divergent ideas of enlightenment come about? In a book he edited Psychoanalysis and Buddhism (Boston: Wisdom, 2003), Jeremy Safran (a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner) comes up with a compelling answer: they arise out of contrasting cultural matrices. As he puts it:
Ancient Indian culture tended to prize abstract philosophical thought and metaphysical speculation. It tended to have a world-weary quality…In Upanishadic thinking, life is suffering, and the goal is to seek liberation from the endless round of rebirth by seeing through the illusion of one’s individuality. Ancient Chinese thinking had a more optimistic, humanistic, and earthy flavor to it…
Although the Buddha originally served as a model for the way in which all human beings could become enlightened through their own efforts, subsequent developments in Indian Buddhism tended to present enlightenment as a more and more extraordinary, rarefied, and otherworldly state, available to only the few. Zen tends to bring enlightenment down to earth, as it were, and to demystify and demythologize it.
Judging by the Buddha’s own post-awakening choices, he’d probably learn Chinese and become a zennie if he were to come back to life today. But after the Buddha distanced himself from the dominant Indian mindset, his Indian (Theravadin) heirs seem to have slumped back into their cultural understandings of transcending life on earth – saying ‘no’ to this life, and especially normal lay life.
The ‘no’ takes the form of idealising renunciation as the one true path, and emotionally dissociating. The Theravada is often accused of triumphalism, and it presents enlightenment as a silver bullet that cures, once and for all, all one’s defilements and forms of self-generated suffering.
We’ve inherited this orientation from the Greeks, with their this-worldly concept of eudaimonia. An essential dimension of this central idea of ‘the good life’ is leading an examined life in which one is constantly realising and extending one’s own wisdom, capacities, relationships and virtues. That was the Greeks’ resounding ‘yes’ to this life.
Turning one’s back on this (admittedly roller-coaster) earthly life in order to put an end to suffering seems a very high price to pay. The ‘cure’ seems worse than the disease! It also amounts to a peculiar reading of the third great task, about stopping and savouring the cessation of suffering. Barry Magid (a zennie) puts the matter right in a crucial passage in his book Ending the pursuit of happiness: a Zen guide (Boston: Wisdom, 2008):
‘suffering doesn’t disappear from our life, but into our life. When we live our life as a whole, there is no longer an aspect that gets singled out as “suffering”.’
The allure of the silver bullet
From a pre-modern or non-western perspective, we modern westerners ‘have it all’ in a material sense. We live like kings. But we also live in a hell realm all of our own, to judge by our rates of suicide, depression, aggression, addiction (including workaholism), mental illness in general, and downright joylessness. No wonder we’re constantly falling for existential snake-oil merchants and purveyors of silver bullets who seem to have the secret for lifting all these woes off our shoulders in one fell swoop! And as silver bullets go, the other-worldly idea of enlightenment fairly gleams.
Most if not all westerners who start meditating engage in what Barry Magid calls their ‘secret practice’. Deep down they’re nurturing ‘curative fantasies’. They think they’re sick, and that meditation will cure them, make them better. Permanently better, if only they can ‘attain’ enlightenment. But however long they meditate, they don’t get better, but rather intensify their lack of self-acceptance, their self-hate, their inner conflict.
The radical truth is that meditation won’t cure them of anything, because there’s nothing wrong with them in the first place.
‘You’re all perfect just as you are,’ Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once announced to his startled American students. ‘And you could all do with a little improvement.’ Hold that thought, too. The ‘little improvement’ might start with seeing through the curative fantasies. In other words, it might start with a little enlightenment, a few strips of flypaper to clear the air.
One of the reasons we westerners are so unhappy is because we’re so alone in our own hearts and minds. We’re already dissociated – it’s an aspect of our affliction, not our salvation. We belong to an intensely sociable species genetically programmed to thrive on connection and intimacy, yet we stupefy ourselves with ideals of rugged independence, self-sufficiency, invulnerability.
‘I touch no one and no one touches me!’ Simon and Garfunkel famously sang in the 1970s. We (and especially we blokes) then become terrified of intimacy and commitment, because they really hurt some of the time, and reveal our true nature. ‘Let’s not go there!’
And we don’t have to go there, because our culture of narcissism (exemplified by New Age ‘spirituality’) will keep us safe by making our emotional dissociation absolute. It dresses dissociation up for us as a spiritual ideal. Let’s call that ideal ‘enlightenment’. The ancient, other-worldly, renunciatory ideal of enlightenment is right there for the taking (and repackaging). It is quite magical.
The veteran insight-meditation teacher (and psychoanalyst), Jack Engler describes a depressingly oft-recurring pattern in western spiritual life thus:
The enlightenment ideal itself can be cathected [emotionally charged] narcissistically as a version – the mother of all versions! – of the grandiose self: as the acme of personal perfection, with all mental defilements (kilesas) and fetters (samyojanas) eradicated – the achievement of a purified state of complete self-sufficiency and personal purity from which all badness has been removed, which will be admired by others, and which will be invulnerable to further injury or disappointment…
Spiritual practice also offers the possibility of establishing a mirroring or idealizing type of selfobject transference with teachers that remains impermeable to reality-testing for far too long…In their unique presence one can feel special oneself, thereby masking actual feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, and shame or, even worse, feelings of being defective or flawed at the core…
[N]arcissistic vulnerabilities aren’t unique to a specific character disorder…If anything, narcissistic dynamics are probably far more intertwined with everyone’s spiritual practice than I originally thought…[T]here is no way to practice meditation that is immune from the anxieties, needs, cognitive-emotional styles, and dynamics of our own character structure. Spiritual practice, like psychotherapy itself, can serve defensive ends.
In Engler’s view – which I agree with – western culture has generated, over several centuries, a set of problematic and intensely lived self-understandings that have led to the rise of what he calls ‘the psychological self’. The dissociative enlightenment ideal beckons because it seems to be a way to tiptoe past this awkward customer.
But if we’re going to follow the Buddha’s way, we can’t do that – we have to bring her/him along with us, along with the rest of our baggage, and shine a little enlightening light into every dark corner we possess. That’s the only way we’ll get to flourish.
Enlightenment magical and real
The magical enlightenment ideal always has a dissociative edge; it doesn’t engage with real psychological attachments, losses and conflicts. It promises eternal peace while impoverishing our inner and relational lives. In contrast, real enlightenment is about flourishing in all our human capacities; it brings nirvana into alignment with samsara.
• With apologies to Bob Dylan for paraphrasing two lines from ‘Subterranean homesick blues’, this talk was given to Beaches Sangha and Golden Wattle Sangha in Sydney in August and September 2009. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.