In the Buddha’s day, many people got enlightened quickly. Some people would say this is because the Buddha was such a great teacher, and to some extent that’s got to be true. What better than to have an expert around? But most of the monks and nuns and householders would have had very little contact with the Buddha. After all, he couldn’t be everywhere!
What they did have, that was every bit as helpful as the presence of the Buddha, was the belief that enlightenment was possible. Having the Buddha around was helpful, perhaps, not so much because he was a “personal trainer” who was around to say just the right thing. It was more that he was a living example of what was possible. And as a result of the confidence this brought about, people awakened.
Even when people at the time of the Buddha talked about getting awakened in future lives, they didn’t talk in terms of the “countless lifetimes” that the Mahayana later came to regard as being necessary. They usually expected to get enlightened very soon, perhaps in the very next life. But the focus was very much on awakening here and now.
Nor did people at the time of the Buddha talk about deferring their own awakening until all others were awakened. This is another peculiar Mahayana idea that I believe makes enlightenment seem further away. It in fact makes enlightenment impossible. You just have to look at the Buddha’s own life to see how hollow this concept is; after all, the Buddha didn’t defer his own awakening! It might sound very noble and compassionate to say that we won’t get enlightened before others do, but surely the most compassionate thing we can do is to wake up right now, so that we can help others free themselves from suffering.
Now the first stage of enlightenment is traditionally held to be not far away from where we are. This use of “stages” of enlightenment can be confusing for people. We don’t always know there are stages to awakening. We think it’s all or nothing. Once I was teaching a class and I mentioned the traditional stages of awakening, and someone said, “Can you be a bit awakened? Isn’t being a bit awakened like being a little bit pregnant?” Actually, pregnancy’s a good metaphor. There is a big difference between having just conceived and being nine months pregnant, and between that and giving birth, and between that and having a toddler or a teenager. In other words, just as having a child is a process, so too awakening is a process. We’re all involved in this process of conceiving Buddhas, in giving birth to Buddhas, in giving birth to our own awakened selves.
So there are these stages in the process of awakening, of which the first stage is called “stream entry.” Like getting pregnant, this first stage, stream entry, is not that difficult. Well, stream entry is a bit more difficult than getting pregnant, at least for most people. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, encourages us to take stream entry as a “doable” goal for this life. It’s a significant goal because it’s irreversible. Up until stream entry our movement in the direction of awakening is reversible. We make progress, and then we fall back. We begin to wake up, and then we fall back into a sleep. Perhaps the dreams are interesting! But at stream entry there’s an unstoppable momentum behind the change, because you’ve really seen the truth of the marks for yourself. You’ve seen something, and you can never unsee it.
We’re all, I’d say, half way to that point of no return. Stream entry is a doable goal. It’s quite concrete, and quite achievable. Even non-Buddhists seem to be able to attain this.
Now people still try to see stream entry as being more distant than it is! It’s quite extraordinary how we try so hard to make goals unattainable. Some people take the idea of stream entry and raise it up to a kind of perfection. They imagine the stream entrant as being close to perfect: not capable of being unethical, never getting into bad moods, never getting anxious, never annoying anybody, never having cravings. But that description is more like full Buddhahood (with the exception of annoying people — the Buddha really annoyed a lot of people). To get to full awakening, we have to break ten fetters, and these include ill will and craving, and those are going to be there for two out of the four stages of awakening. To get to stream entry we only have to break three fetters, so we still have greed, hatred, and a lot of delusion to overcome.
At a guess I’d say a reasonably diligent practitioner — not a monk, but someone with a job and family, for example — could go all the way to stream entry in 15 to 20 years. Some people think that’s a long time and get demoralized. But what are you going to do with your life anyway? And it might take much less time. Insight can come out of the blue. It involves a slight shift of consciousness. It could happen right now, right this very moment!
Although meditating is important, awakening probably won’t happen for you when you’re meditating. It’s more likely to happen when your mind is wandering, or when you drop something, or when you hear something and suddenly you see things in a different way. In the scriptures it’s recorded that some people awoke when they were depressed, or even on the point of suicide. For me it happened when I was putting my daughter to bed.
I think it’s supremely important to believe that enlightenment is possible for us, and that it’s not too far away. If you believe something’s impossible for you, it effectively becomes impossible. Once awakening happens, the thing that strikes you most about it is how easy it all was. Once it’s happened — once you’ve seen the truth that your “self” is not a “thing,” but a beautifully unfolding process — you wonder why it took you so long. The truth was sitting there in plain view the whole time, but for some reason you never looked.
So I’d urge you to open to the idea that awakening could happen anytime. That it’s just around the corner. That it’s a slight shift in perspective away. Once you accept that, anything can happen.