The Stumbling Block of Enlightenment

As stated in my previous post on the subject, what Buddhists refer to as enlightenment is nothing other than a profound realization of the most fundamental truth regarding the emptiness of all things (sunyata in Sanskrit). Myriad other Buddhist teachings can be understood as various facets of this diamond-like truth. For example, it is emptiness that has us speaking in terms of dependent origination, interbeing, and the non-dual; and it is emptiness that has us speaking of the three marks of existence: the impermanence of all things, the lack of inherent selfhood of all things, and the unsatisfactory nature of all things. The last of these, by the way, is merely the first noble truth – the truth of suffering – viewed from a slightly different angle.

However, it is the second noble truth that points to the fundamental difficulty of human existence: our almost unrelenting tendency to overlay the infinite potential inherent in the emptiness of all things with our own finite and often downright fanciful ideas and conceptualizations. If we could only just see things as they are, and accept things as they are, we wouldn’t experience suffering as we do. Unfortunately, what glimpses we might catch from time to time of such an enlightened way of seeing are as fleeting as any other phenomena. And so we’re left speculating as to what the perfect, universal, and lasting enlightenment of the buddhas might be like – anuttara-samyaksambodhi. Especially insidious, though, is our tendency to overlay the clear seeing of enlightenment itself with fantastical ideas about it conjured up in our imaginations, or in the imaginations of others.

For example, I read a story some years ago of a Buddhist monk who discovered that he was coming down with something – a cold or the flu, nothing too serious.  It threw him for a loop, though, because he’d come to think of himself as enlightened, and enlightened individuals don’t get sick! Now, I don’t recall, if indeed the story conveyed, what made this person think that he was enlightened. Perhaps he’d had a so-called enlightenment experience of some kind, or solved a series of koans, or been recognized as a recipient of something called mind to mind transmission from one who’d received it from someone else, and so on. At any rate, whatever enlightenment this monk had “attained” couldn’t liberate him from the suffering caused by his own overvalued (superstitious?) ideas of what enlightenment actually is.

But how did such fantastical ideas get all tangled up in our thinking about enlightenment in the first place? One possible answer is that the Buddha was way ahead of his time, speaking of a truth that few of his followers could comprehend. Thus, when the Buddha’s teachings began to actually be recorded hundreds of years later, all manner of misconceptions and cultural baggage got thrown into the mix as well. A teaching became a religion; and what would a religion be without a hero of some sort, replete with special powers. Christianity has the risen Christ, Islam has the miracles of The Prophet, and Buddhism, in the minds of many, has supernatural powers attributed to the Awakened One. Another possibility is that our collective understanding of emptiness is evolving along with the practice of Buddhism. Perhaps the Buddha nudged humanity’s collective understanding toward a blossoming of emptiness that is underway even as we speak – furthered by the meditative practice of uncounted individuals. Thus, part of our enlightened activity is to weigh myth and experience, and continue blossoming forth. Which reminds me of another story.

I attended a talk once given by a Western Zen teacher. He was a very down to earth and affable guy, entertaining and insightful all at once. One profound thing that he said has stayed with me for well over a decade now: “Zazen has its own built-in bullshit detector.” In other words, the process of seated meditation is a purifying one. Like sitting in a crucible, the impurity of delusory thought is boiled away. What’s funny, though, is that he also told a story of an event that punctuated his monastic training. He’d received word that his mother was ailing and proceeded to ask his teacher during a private interview whether he could and should go visit her. As the story goes, prior to giving his permission, the teacher proceeded to “channel” the ailing mother somehow, imitating the demeanor and mannerisms of a sick and depleted old woman. Apparently, in this monk’s view, the realization of the emptiness of all things encompasses some manner of omniscience or telepathy that allowed him to check out the seriousness of the woman’s situation prior to granting permission for his charge to take leave of his training. By the way, that teacher (Joshu Sasaki) who “channeled” the ailing old woman would later die in disgrace (sort of) at the ripe old age of 107 after being accused of sexual misconduct by many of his students.

And that brings up an interesting reality for us mere mortals to be aware of as we stumble our way “toward” enlightenment. Namely, that we’re all a tangled knot of wisdom and delusion. We can see clearly one minute, then have our vision obscured by dense fog in the next, without ever even noticing the difference. As such, one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard said about enlightenment is that “strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity” (Shunryu Suzuki, as quoted in Kornfield, 2001). Why, then, do we continue this pretense that certain individuals are the embodiment of enlightenment – as the Buddha himself purportedly was? It’s as if we so long for transcendence that we can’t help but project our mythical thinking about it onto those teachers and figureheads that seem to “fit the bill” in some way, shape, or form.

Unfortunately, such a view is predicated on a dualistic way of looking at the world that runs counter to the true nature of emptiness. When we say that this person is enlightened, but that one is not, we’re overlaying the fundamentally empty nature of reality with our own conceptual framework. We’ve torn away a piece from an otherwise seamless fabric. When we think in terms of an individual moving from the ranks of the unenlightened to the ranks of the enlightened, we’re thinking in terms of them having gained something, and “gaining something” is contrary to the fundamentally empty nature of reality as well.

But let’s step out of the clouds, so to speak, and return to the world of conventional reality – that place where “the self that is not other” must make decisions about how to live his or her life. It does us a disservice to locate enlightenment someplace outside of ourselves. It fosters systems in which we allow ourselves to be led around by those who look at our lives in merely theoretical terms, without really knowing what our lives are all about. Why should a grown man have to ask permission to visit his ailing mother? And yet so many in Buddhist communities seem to relish living life in such a parent/child dynamic. Of course, such parent/child relationships also harbor the potential for egregious abuse, as we all now know – or should.

But even more important, with respect to the liberative quality of Buddhist teachings, is the fact that locating enlightenment outside of “the self that is not other” artificially cleaves us from that which is our birthright. Nirvana and samsara are inseparable from each other, and we are inseparable from them. In fact nirvana and samsara are one and the same in the subsequently evolved Madhyamika view of emptiness. Thus, look for enlightenment in the "nooks and crannies" of your everyday life. Look for clear seeing to arise spontaneously as the fog clears for a time before obscuring things once again. You’ll overlook such occurrences in your day to day existence if you keep clinging to deluded ideas of what enlightenment is all about.


Kornfield, J. (2001). After the ecstasy, the laundry: How the heart grows wise on the spiritual path. Bantam Books.

Image Credits

Heavy Mist Over Lake Kaviskis courtesy of Arz, via:

Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank


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