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What is Enlightenment?

What is Enlightenment?

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Published by Charles Day
A collection of thoughts about the nature and characteristics of that enigmatic and exalted experience called enlightenment.
A collection of thoughts about the nature and characteristics of that enigmatic and exalted experience called enlightenment.

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Published by: Charles Day on Feb 05, 2009
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04/12/2011

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?
Charles Day*
www.desmoinesmeditation.org & click above on \u201cMore from this Publisher\u201d

\u201cEight Mindful Steps to Happiness,\u201d by Bhante Henepola
Gunaratana, is a detailed how-to manual for implementing in
everyday life Buddha\u2019s 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\u2019t. 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\u2019d 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 these glimpses as reflecting our
enlightened nature 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 try to get 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 \u201cyes\u201d to all of life. This is done, not

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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
egoic effort to attain it, 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, and other 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
\u201cin a flash,\u201d and that in studying and working through stages \u201cyou will
have added nothing to it at all.\u201d 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, \u201cIf you can only rid
yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished
everything.\u201d (\u201cThe Zen Teaching of Huang Po,\u201d translated by John
Blofeld, pp 33-35).

It has been said that spiritual growth is a process of finding out not
who we are but who we are not and always thought ourselves to be.
Ordinarily we experience ourselves as a body/mind organism, as our
thoughts, feelings, and values, the roles we play, and our past
experiences and future aspirations. But these are not who we are.
They do comprise what we call our ego or sense of self, but this,
according to Buddha, is an illusion because it has no substantive

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reality, no independent and autonomous existence, and is always
changing.

Nothing, no thing, exists independent of anything else. And every
body, every mind, every thing is continuously changing. It is our
inability to recognize and accept the reality of selflessness and
impermanence that causes so much suffering and dissatisfaction.

Eckhart Tolle (\u201cPower of Now\u201d), Willigis Jager (\u201cMysticism for Modern
Times\u201d), and Bhante Gunaratana (\u201cEight Mindful Steps to
Happiness\u201d) all describe the ego as a convenient conceptual myth, as
an operating principle that facilitates functioning in the world of duality
or what we call commonly call \u201creality.\u201d

Momentary or sustained enlightenment happens when we transcend
and let go of our identification and attachment to the dualistic
attributes that constitute our ego or sense of self and realize that we
are instead the non-dualistic source, out of which these identifications
and all dualistic mental and physical phenomena arise. Buddhism
calls this the realization of \u201cemptiness.\u201d On the relative level of form,
emptiness refers to the reality that all form is interconnected and thus
empty of an independent self. And on an absolute level, it refers to
the emptiness even of form, to the pure consciousness or awareness
out of which dualistic space, time, and form arise. The paradox
inherent in conceptualizing dualism and non-dualism, form and
formlessness, is captured exquisitely by the common Zen expression:
\u201cEmptiness is form and form is emptiness.\u201d

Enlightenment is living fully and mindfully in the present moment,
realizing that the present moment is all there ever was, is, or will be.
It is the experience of the present moment as perfect, not in any
judgmental sense, but because it is the inevitable result of the
interaction of all previous causes and conditions and could be no
other way. The past and future are just thoughts in the mind,
occasionally very useful and practical, but generally redundant,
unnecessary, and all too often lead to destructive actions.

Enlightenment has also been described as realizing that all
experience happens, not only in the present moment, but that it
happens only in the abstract, insubstantial mind.

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