Buddhism is rapidly becoming widely accepted in the West as a credible spiritual path. As a matter of fact, of all the spiritual philosophies that have infiltrated our collective consciousness from the East, it is the teachings of the Buddha that seem to be having the greatest impact on the Western psyche. From the Dalai Lama's passionate exhortation for us all to be more compassionate with each other to the phenomenal rise of interest in Buddhist "mindfulness" meditation—as a means not only to help us become more aware of what we are doing, but also as a way to confront the physical pain of life-threatening disease—Buddhism's growing influence can be felt all around us. And as an ever greater number of people discover the profound wisdom of the Buddha's teaching, the aura of "strange" and "mystical" is slowly but surely being replaced by a recognition of the profound rationality and liberating clarity in its view of the human condition.
For this issue of What Is Enlightenment?,
looking into the postmodern state of Buddhism in the West from the point of view of "Does anybody know what they're talking about?"
was a very provocative question. Why? Because the question, "What is enlightenment?" is most pertinent in relationship to Buddhism—after all, the word "enlightenment" is used to describe the Buddha's awakening. And what has been most intriguing about this whole question has been the discovery that, first, within the many different schools of Buddhist thought there seems to be considerable disagreement as to what enlightenment actually is
. And second, it appears that there are few postmodern Western Buddhists who take the possibility of enlightenment seriously!
It would seem that Buddhism's growing appeal is based to a large degree on its appearance as a rationalistic philosophy of self-endeavor that is free from any notion of a godhead or absolute. The often quoted last words of the Buddha, "Be a light unto yourself," strikes a resounding "yes"
in the hearts and minds of so many who are uncomfortable with the notion of a Judeo-Christian God that often inspires guilt, shame and fear, and condemns those who are unable to believe
wholeheartedly and uncritically. Indeed, the possibility of having to believe in nothing
in order to experience spirituality is often seen as a welcome relief. And the opportunity to find out for oneself
what the Buddha meant when he said, "I am awake," is very compelling.
The Buddha described his enlightenment as the end of craving or wanting, and simply and succinctly stated that it was through the cessation of craving or wanting that enlightenment could be won. "I am an All-transcender, a All-knower, unsullied in all ideas, renouncing all, by craving's ceasing freed. And this I owe to my own wit. To whom should I concede it? . . . I am the Teacher in the world, without a peer, accomplished too, and I alone am quite enlightened, quenched, whose fires are all extinct." Along with his teaching that desire alone is the cause of all ignorance (which he called "The Law"), he laid out a concise spiritual path consisting of eight injunctions, which he called "The Noble Eightfold Path." Those injunctions are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
While in Buddhism there is no godhead—as all Buddhists emphatically stress the fact that there is no self
, personal or
absolute—in the place of god or an absolute
principle, Buddhism tells us that the ultimate nature of everything, manifest and unmanifest, seen and unseen, is emptiness
. "Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form," the Buddha declared to his assembly on Vulture's Peak. This fact—that emptiness, or nothingness,
is what lies at the very core of being or existence—is one of the significant distinguishing features of Buddhist doctrine. For it is said that through the direct realization of the empty nature of all phenomena, liberation from conditioned existence can be attained. Nirvana,
which has now become a household word representing heaven or a state of perfect happiness, is supposed to be the state in which the enlightened one abides. That state has been called "the unconditioned," or "the Deathless."
Interestingly enough, when looking into the question, "What is enlightenment? Does anybody know what they're talking about?"
in Buddhism, we found that there are profoundly contrasting views as to the actual nature of the "ultimate" state of being. For example, even within Tibetan Buddhism alone, there are some schools that state that "emptiness" implies a transcendent absolute reality that inherently exists, while others emphatically declare that nothing whatsoever
inherently exists. From the perspective of attempting to come to some understanding of what enlightenment actually is, these are not small matters! The attainment of enlightenment implies a profound and permanent shift in human consciousness that is dramatic in its contrast to unenlightenment. What that shift is actually based on, therefore, is very relevant, and makes the whole question of what enlightenment is, and what those who know about it have to say, very important.
As a result of the widespread disillusionment in politics and religion, we live in a time when there is an almost inherent fear and skepticism of anything
that presents itself as being absolute. For many, contemporary Buddhism provides an avenue of profound self-discovery that would seem to avoid that kind of extreme. But does it really? After all, the very Buddhist
notion of enlightenment automatically
implies an absolute, simply because someone is either enlightened or they're not—they're not slightly
In the recent upsurge of interest in Buddhism in the West, there has been what Helen Tworkov, founder of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle,
calls a "secularization of the [Buddhist] teaching." "There are very few people who want to go the distance with living a truly mature, authentic, nondualistic or autonomous life," she says. "Very few people are interested in getting enlightened, very few people are interested in waking themselves up, very few people are interested in truly living in a nondualistic view. So when you talk about 'enlightenment,' you're talking about only a handful of people. Meanwhile, you've got all the rest of humanity suffering, and you try to do what you can to create an environment or an awareness that helps to alleviate that." Indeed, it is significant to note that the Buddhism that twenty years ago was recognized by many young Westerners to be an authentic path to enlightenment has gradually become a primarily secularized form of spirituality that tends to emphasize ethical development and personal fulfillment over ego death and world transcendence. Seen only a short time ago as a profoundly liberating alternative to the suffocating influence of Judeo-Christian dogma, Buddhism, as a religion, has now come to serve the very same function for many in the West as it does for millions in the East.
The heart of Buddhism has always been the enlightenment
of the Buddha, yet what may be the case is that his attainment—which set the dharma
wheel in motion—is being forgotten. Once again, a big part of the appeal that the Buddha Dharma
holds for the Western mind is its profound rationality and emphasis on self-endeavor
—and because of this, it could appear to many that what the Buddha taught poses no threat whatsoever to our liberal, egalitarian ideals. And yet, the absolute
implications of the Buddha's own enlightenment would seem to have to somehow
threaten our fundamental worldview. If that is not
the case, then has the very heart of the Buddha's teaching been taken out—leaving us a body and mind separated from its source? Or is Buddhism's move to the West, as some would tell us, merely another original and creative expression of the Buddha's teaching as it adapts itself to ever new and changing circumstances?
We spoke to some of the brightest thinkers in Buddhism today in order to find the answers to some of these very provocative questions.