by Peter Ralston
Clarifying Enlightenment—Sort Of
It’s a ridiculous idea that I, or anyone, could possibly convey what enlightenment really is. The most accurate relationship to the matter would demand that I just shut up. Although that leaves you with nothing, that’s actually the best thing to be left with. Of course, the problem is you aren’t really left with nothing—you’re left with everything you assume, have heard, or think you know. Because this is unfortunately so much less than nothing, I’ll try to provide a doorway to a better understanding of the matter. Even so, this “door” can only be discovered personally, by connecting the dots through multiple layers of disparate communications. Forgive me in advance for the presumptuousness of the attempt, and try to look beyond the words to grasp what’s really meant.
Many misconceptions and myths have been built up over time and we need to shake these off of the word “enlightenment.” In Chapter One we touched on some of the ideas and beliefs surrounding the word. You know that we’re not talking about a seventeenth century movement, a modern outlook, or being informed of something. Our focus is more akin to a Zen usage, referring to what’s thought of as a “spiritual” awakening of some sort. But even here, people are often misled to believe that becoming enlightened means transforming from an ordinary “caterpillar” of a human into the “butterfly” of a transcendent soul, or some such.
“When considering what enlightenment really is, it’s important to get beyond the word and hearsay, and to realize that this Consciousness is prior to any idea, image, term, or belief.”
Whatever methods may purport to achieve such an end—whether it’s to be highly disciplined and monk-like, sit endlessly in contemplation, or learn to surrender to a higher power—at some point we’re supposed to be rewarded with a dramatic change in state, experiencing something blissfully “transcendent.” The good news about this view is that it encourages personal participation, as opposed to merely asking one to believe in religious, spiritual, or even scientific assertions. The bad news is that it’s fundamentally a false view. A change in state is irrelevant to the truth. Freeing the term “enlightenment” from the baggage of rumor and myth is useful if our goal is to know what’s true about it. When considering what enlightenment really is, it’s important to get beyond the word and hearsay, and to realize that this Consciousness is prior to any idea, image, term, or belief.
Consider that at some point in human history, even after someone had already become deeply and directly conscious, there was no “enlightenment.” In other words, no one was seeking spiritual enlightenment; they were seeking the Truth. If the legend of Gautama Buddha is to be trusted, even he wasn’t searching for something called “enlightenment.” He was trying to become free, to completely understand and transcend life and death. This is a different focus.
Turns out, of course, that you can’t transcend anything without becoming fully conscious of what it is. Ultimately, spiritual enlightenment—knowing what is absolutely true about self and reality, life and death—must occur in order to achieve such freedom. But having one or two enlightenment experiences isn’t enough or Gautama would have stopped his search early on. He undoubtedly had a number of enlightenment experiences but knew that he still wasn’t completely free of life and death, and that an even deeper consciousness was necessary. He couldn’t have known whether it was possible, much less what it would be, only that it had to be whatever is really true about existence.
In the work of trying to personally understand what self, life, and reality are all about, “enlightenment” is a term used to indicate a direct-consciousness of the Absolute truth, whatever is absolutely true regarding what “is.” In the case of you, which is the primary subject for spiritual enlightenment, it is your true nature, what you really are, the absolute reality of your existence.