Some years ago I noticed an odd thing; a lot of the Buddhists I knew (including myself) didn’t talk much about getting enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what, specifically, we were doing in order to get enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what enlightenment was. And this was not just my impression. I asked other people whether this was what was going on, and they all agreed: enlightenment was not on our radar. And this is very odd, since the only reason that Buddhism exists is to help get us enlightened. The Dharma is nothing but the Way to enlightenment. And it seemed few of us were interested in going all the Way. So what were we interested in?
When think about what we’re doing in our Buddhist practice, we often think in worldly terms. We think about becoming a better person, about being kinder and more content. We think about how the Dharma can help us with specific problems we have. We think about being happier. These are all very good aims, and I’m not going to knock them. But Buddhism’s about much more than becoming more positive. It’s about transforming, on a very deep level, the way we see the world.
So I made it a project to be more concerned with enlightenment and how to get there. I made a point to make this concern more central in my life, to reflect on what enlightenment means, and what I should be doing to get there. And that brings us on to insight meditation, or vipassana. Vipassana is the next step beyond being more positive, which is a samatha activity. Vipassana is the practice of looking closely at your experience in order to recognize that everything constituting that experience is constantly changing. This what we call the “mark” or impermanence, or anicca. When we recognize the impermanence of our experiences, on deeper and deeper levels, this leads to us recognizing that there’s nothing in our experience worth grasping on to; after all, if our experiences are all constantly changing, then none of them can be the basis of lasting happiness. That’s the mark of unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha. And an awareness of impermanence, applied to ourselves, drums in the fact that there is no permanent self here to do any grasping. This is the mark of anatta, or not-self. These are the three marks. This is what vipassana is about. It’s about recognizing these three marks. It’s not just about intellectually understanding them, although some intellectual engagement is necessary, but about seeing their truth in our own experience.
Vipassana is an activity that we can do in any meditation practice. It’s not a special kind of meditation. So we can do it in the mindfulness of breathing practice, the metta bhavana, or just sitting. There are practices in which vipassana is more explicit, however, such as the six element practice, but this isn’t an exception. We could do the six element practice as a samatha (calming) practice, but as a matter of course we include insight reflections: “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this.”
We can do vipassana reflections outside of meditation as well — when walking, taking the bus, having a conversation, cooking — although activities in which there’s some mental quiet are more conducive to this kind of reflection. And to reiterate an important point, vipassana is not opposed to samatha. What we’re meant to do is to calm and concentrate the mind, and then to take that calm, focused mind, and apply it to investigating the existential issues of the three marks. Samatha and vipasssana are like two wings, and we need both if we want to go the way to enlightenment.
Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away.
Now, how far away is enlightenment? We generally think of it as being very remote, which is perhaps why we don’t think about it very much. But as Hakuin said:
Not knowing how near the Truth is,
People seek it far away. What a pity!
I think there are a number of reasons why we think Enlightenment is far away, when it’s actually close by — right under our noses, or even closer than that.
Some of the perspectives of the Mahāyāna don’t help. In early days, when the Buddha’s feet were walking India’s dusty soil, people often got enlightened immediately. Many, many people seem to have had a radical shift of consciousness just upon hearing the Buddha speak for the first time. It just took a slight reorientation of the way they saw things, and bam! they were awakened. This didn’t happen to everybody, of course. Obviously some people had to practice for years. But many of them became awakened in this lifetime. Now the later Mahāyāna tradition, starting from about 500 years after the Buddha, were keen to build up the status of the Buddha. Presumably they were playing the game of “our teacher is the best.” So they built up the goal of Buddhism. Buddhists were now seeking enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, not just in our world but throughout the entire universe. And achieving this task would take countless lifetimes. Countless lifetimes, needless to say, is a long time. Elevating the status of the Buddha and of enlightenment in this way may have been very inspiring, but it also made the goal seem very remote. And those ideas still linger and influence us.
It’s interesting to note that although many contemporary schools call themselves Mahāyāna, few if any of them still emphasize these cosmic timescales. The Zen schools focus on awakening right here, right now. The Theravadin schools emphasize awakening in this life. The Pure Land schools are slightly different, because they emphasize awakening after death: we die and, through the grace of Amida Buddha, we are reborn in his Pure Land paradise, Sukhāvati, where we are assured enlightenment. So even there we’re aiming for enlightenment just after this very lifetime — not countless lifetimes from now. The Tibetan schools, or at least most of them, emphasize the possibility of awakening in this life. I think we need to embrace the notion of enlightenment in this lifetime, and not be overly swayed by this Mahāyāna perspective.
Another reason we think of enlightenment as being far away is because of a lack of self-worth. We think we have so many problems. We’re unworthy! We’re often very aware of our flaws. And then what do we not know about ourselves? Freud gave us this idea what there’s all this nastiness under the surface. I remember a scene from the comedy movie The Front Page where a Viennese Freudian psychoanalyst asks a condemned murderer about his childhood. The murderer replies that he had a perfectly normal childhood, to which the shrink replies, “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with your mother.” So this is quite literally what Freud thought a “normal” person was like — a incestuous parricide kept in check by the super-ego. We’ve been affected by these ideas and we fear that there is unknown emotional baggage holding us back from enlightenment.
And I think we fear enlightenment. Being fully enlightened would surely involve a big change. What would it be like? Would I be a different person? Would I still have my life. What about all my likes and dislikes? We like our attachments! We fear that there might in fact be so much change that enlightenment would be a kind of death. So this is scary. We might fear that we’re going to lose ourselves, and our individuality. I remember having this thought once, that if Buddhas are all perfect, then are they all the same? They’re clearly not, but we can fear that our personalities are going to be erased.
The models and language we use — even very traditional language and models — can be unhelpful. The Buddhist tradition has tended to talk in terms of exalted states of consciousness. We think of the jhānas. There are these four jhānas, and most of us have only limited experience of these. And then the commentaries take another set of four meditative states — the formless spheres, or ayātanas, and pile them on top of the jhānas. So there’s now this towering skyscraper that we might thing of as ever-more blissful states of consciousness, disappearing up into the sky. And we might think of enlightenment as being piled on top of all that. And here we are on the ground, or maybe, if we’re lucky, on the first floor from time to time. If even the jhānas are hard to get into, then enlightenment must be quite literally unattainable for us!
But this way of looking at enlightenment is inaccurate. Enlightenment is not a meditative state similar to the jhānas. It’s a way of looking at the world. We need some jhānic experience to prepare ourselves for having a breakthrough into insight, but we don’t need to have experienced all of the jhānas to have insight, and we don’t go through all the jhānas and find enlightenment awaiting us at the top. Enlightenment is more likely to happen at a time of crisis, or during a conversation, than during meditation. Many people, according to the Pāli scriptures, got enlightened when they were depressed and suicidal, or when they heard a teaching and had a “holy crap!” moment.
Another aspect of language that can mislead is when we talk about the “path” from saṃsāra to Nirvāṇa. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this language, but we often take it too literally and slip into thinking that saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are almost literally like separate places, geographically isolated from each other. We think of the path as disappearing somewhere over the horizon, vanishing goodness-knows where. And then we think that this isn’t the place, this is not the life, in which we’re going to get enlightened. We may think that on some level we have to move away from this life in order to get to this “place” called enlightenment.
But saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are not separate places. They’re not even places — they’re states of mind. The way to nirvāna is by looking closely at your samsāric mind. It’s not by getting away from where you are now, but by totally being where you are and getting to know that place intimately. We need to look at how we structure our experience into self and other. We need to question our assumptions and come to see how we misinterpret our experience. We need to look at things we think are permanent and come to see them as they are. We need to look at things we think are sources of lasting happiness and realize that actually they aren’t, and can’t be, sources of lasting happiness. We need to look at what we take to be a permanent and substantial self and to see that there’s no self like that to be found.
This is the place where we get enlightened. Awakening is just a shift in perspective away. So I suggest adopting the perspective that awakening is not far, but is right here. And when you make that shift in perspective, one of the first things that’s going to strike you is, “Why did it take me so long to see something so obvious?”