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Introduction to this issue

What Is Enlightenment?
Does Anybody Know What They're Talking About?
by Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen

We are living in interesting times. Over the past several years there appears to have been literally an explosion of interest in all matters spiritual. It's now no longer embarrassing to admit to having spiritual interests or feelings. For more and more people these days it has become acceptable to begin to speak openly about some of the most fundamental spiritual questions, questions such as: Who am I? and How shall I live? Even the word "enlightenment" is becoming popularized as a legitimate concept that is no longer completely foreign to our Western ears.

Enlightenment, in the East, has always referred to the goal of all spiritual striving—the very pinnacle of spiritual attainment. And as Eastern mysticism and spirituality slowly but surely infiltrate and put down roots in the West, their philosophy and terminology have entered our worldview. We believe, therefore, that at this time when our psychological and spiritual perspectives are being influenced by these new and potent concepts, it is important to pause and consider carefully what these words that we are beginning to feel comfortable using actually mean.

While it's true that "enlightenment," or the final goal of all spiritual striving, has always referred to an experiential recognition of that which is absolute by nature, what that absolute actually is, and what it may have to do with human life, always has been and continues to be up to this day quite ambiguous. The more we have looked, the more fascinated we have become to discover the enormity of diverging views about this most challenging concept.

Shankara, the celebrated eighth century Indian teacher and founder of Vedantic nondualism or Advaita (not two) philosophy, from which many of the main currents of modern Indian thought are derived, referred to that which is absolute as "pure consciousness" or "fullness." Yet Gautama the Buddha is famous for declaring that that which is absolute is "emptiness" or "voidness." The question of what enlightenment is and what it has to do with human life is a dizzying business to try to understand because when one begins to look beyond the superficial, it soon becomes apparent that even the most respected authorities seem to disagree on the most fundamental of matters. And if two of the most respected authorities in Indian spiritual philosophy seem to disagree on the most fundamental definition of that which is absolute, the experiential discovery of which is supposed to be "enlightenment," then what are we to do? If in fact Shankara and the Vedantic philosophers are correct in their declaration that that which is ultimate, and therefore absolute, is fullness or pure consciousness, then should this lead us to conclude that enlightenment is the experiential discovery of what is referred to in the West as "God" or "Love" or "Christ-consciousness"? Does that mean that ultimately there is something, the realization of which will set us free? If Gautama the Buddha was truly the Enlightened One, then does that mean that his doctrine of emptiness, stating that the absolute nature of all things is emptiness or voidness, implies that God does not exist? Does the experiential discovery of emptiness reveal to us that there is ultimately nothing, and will that discovery set us free?

These are very important questions to go into if we are seriously interested in coming to some real understanding of what enlightenment actually is and what it may have to do with the reality of human life. And it will become obvious when we begin to look closely at the actuality of our fundamental relationship to life that the issue of what is absolute soon reveals itself to be much more relevant than we may have previously imagined. Why? Because for most of us, our fundamental convictions about the ultimate nature of reality tend to have a profound influence on our relationship to life. For example, those among us who are convinced that there is ultimately a thing that is absolute (God) tend to display a conviction that life is inherently positive and meaningful. Those among us who are convinced that ultimately there is no thing usually are not quite so fervent in their conviction that life is inherently a good thing or that it has any meaning at all. It is because these questions have such a big influence upon our relationship to life, even if we are not aware of it, that a serious inquiry into them is so essential.

The main issue, of course, is that the answers to these perplexing questions always have been and continue to be the most challenging to find. The one who has the rare fortune to actually discover directly for him- or herself what those answers are has traditionally been the one who has become "enlightened." But the enormous challenge that needs to be faced in order to find those answers for oneself seems to be, for most, the greatest obstacle to enlightenment itself. And what is that challenge? The absolute nature of the questions themselves—because any question that is absolute automatically forces a human being to confront the meaning of life and death in a way that is ultimately challenging.

And what makes matters even more complex is the fact that whenever human beings have dared to ask questions that are absolute, there have always been those who have been more than willing to impose the answers that they have found upon others. The big problem is that inherent in any conclusion about the nature of life and death that is absolute is the great danger of missing the mark, of being mistaken, of making the biggest error that it is possible to make: believing without any doubt that one has found that which is absolute—when in fact, one has found nothing more than one's own desire for absolute certainty.

Finally—and most ironic of all—unless we are willing to ask the questions that are absolute and in doing so actually dare to find the answers, the enlightenment and its liberating understanding that has been promised to us by the greatest realizers throughout history will never be ours.

In this issue of What Is Enlightenment? we have endeavored to ask the question, "What is enlightenment?" to two of the world's foremost enlightenment traditions—Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism—in the hope of finding some answers to the confusing array of questions that seems to arise whenever anyone sincerely asks the question: What is enlightenment?


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This article is from
Our Advaita and Buddhism Issue


More articles and interviews about similar subjects:
Spiritual Awakening

Spiritual Inquiry