In today’s meditation, we explore the idea of enlightenment: whether it’s possible, whether its seed is already within us, and even whether it’s any fun. If enlightenment is transcending a narrow, separate sense of self, what might a taste of that expansive self feel like?
The ideal of enlightenment in Buddhism is a state in which our minds rise beyond fear and anger and selfishness to an enduring state of openness, altruism, and joy. The word Nirvana is sometimes synonymous with enlightenment, and some people talk about it as if it’s a place, but Nirvana isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.
Something I heard early on studying Buddhism is that Buddhism doesn’t promise that you’ll ever be free of problems – even once you attain enlightenment – it only promises that your problems won’t bother you anymore. As your mind opens, you see start to see problems as the naturally occurring impermanence and suffering that is the nature of reality itself. It doesn’t mean that you lean back, blissed out, and accept injustice and suffering in the world. It means that your mind remains at peace with even the most difficult external problems, even as you do your best to help solve them.
As I’ve studied Tibetan Buddhism and also gotten to know Buddhist practitioners from many other traditions, I’ve learned that even to Buddhists, the term enlightenment has many different meanings. You may have heard some of the profound questions about enlightenment, such as whether enlightenment is something that is already within us, waiting to be awakened; or whether it’s something we gradually attain in measured steps.
I used to think there might be an answer to questions like these, but I’ve learned that many Buddhist debates have different answers depending on the Buddhist tradition, between Theravada and Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and even among different sects within these traditions.
So I wanted to offer a meditation that explores the idea of enlightenment: whether it’s possible; whether its seed is within us right now, and even whether it’s any fun. If enlightenment is transcending a narrow, separate sense of self, what might a taste of that expansive self feel like? One that’s less identified with our attachments and dislikes, our wins and losses? Is enlightenment an endpoint, or is it the beginning of a new altruistic adventure? Obviously, I’m not enlightened or anywhere close to it. But it’s okay to talk about enlightenment and be curious about it together; and to want to learn more about it experientially in meditation, and not just from reading or listening to lectures. So join me now for this meditation where we explore enlightenment together.
Settle yourself into meditation posture, cross-legged on the floor sitting on a cushion, or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands in your lap, palms-up with thumbs touching. Straighten your back, relax your shoulders, your face, and the rest of your body. Slightly tilt down your head and half-close your eyes.
Our motivation today is to explore the idea of enlightenment with curiosity and openness; not merely as an interesting, cool experience, but as a doorway that might open up our being to become the greatest benefit to the people and creatures and world around us.
We can appreciate that there are beings who are closer to enlightenment than we are. That there are beings who may even be enlightened right now: people like the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or Pope Francis; or a compassionate nurse in a hospital somewhere right now tenderly caring for someone who’s going to die today. People like these show us that it is possible to strengthen and maybe even perfect our capacity for altruistic good, that it’s possible to stay open and tender and effective even in the face of great difficulty.
Some people really do deserve our respect. And what’s wonderful is that these more evolved people consistently tell us is that what they possess is not innate, but teachable, learnable, maybe even part of our very nature, waiting to be awakened.
For a moment, focus on your breath, to stabilize your mind. As the breath comes in and out of your nostrils, as it causes your chest to rise and fall, put all your attention there to become fixed in the present, in your life and awareness. It’s okay if other thoughts and feelings appear as you try and focus on your breath. But just let them pass by without pulling them forward and without pushing them away, bringing your attention back to your breath for one minute.
(Meditate on the breath for one minute)
Enlightenment is open and present
The mindfulness we’ve cultivated on our breath is part of our path to enlightenment. Great teachers instruct us that mindfulness – nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings and perceptions – is the gateway to the openness that, perfected, eventually leads to enlightenment.
In this open-minded state, we aren’t trying to get rid of disturbing thoughts and emotions. We simply let them pass by without allowing them to take over our mind, seeing that we are not our thoughts.
It’s said that even highly realized bodhisattvas still have disturbing thoughts that arise—feelings of anger or sadness or shame—but they no longer identify with these thoughts. They let these thoughts pass through them, without letting the thoughts take hold of their body and mind.
Enlightenment is the subtlest nature of our mind
Beneath thoughts and feelings, we can find a subtler way that we exist; beneath our preferences, beneath our personality. This clarity and awareness of mind isn’t generic, but specific, and changing all the time. For a minute, let your mind look at itself. Probe beneath your thoughts and feelings to the subtler nature of the mind that they say is the seed of our enlightenment; a potential already there that, if we could only see it and identify more with this luminous awareness, we might ourselves become enlightened and realize our highest potential.
So probe the nature of consciousness, awareness, mind. What do you see when the mind looks at the mind?
Is the mind spacious or small?
Is the mind bright or dim?
Does the mind reflect what appears to it, or, like a black hole, does it absorb light instead?
With curiosity, look single-pointedly at the nature of consciousness, awareness, mind.
Luminous, reflective, clear, knowing: this space that some call God, some call the dharmakaya, some call your Buddha nature, a space that’s always been there inside yourself waiting to be discovered.
(Meditate for one minute on the nature of the mind)
Enlightenment is interdependence
Now as you look at your mind, see that it isn’t something independent from everything else. As sights, sounds, thoughts, and memories appear within the mind, they don’t appear without a cause. Some come from phenomena outside the mind: your body’s senses and their interaction with matter and beings outside your body. Others come from the mind itself, triggered by memories, thoughts, feelings, habits, training.
You may be alone right now. But everything you think and feel is conditioned by everyone you’ve ever known, everything you’ve ever learned. See how your brain, your body in which these thoughts stir, how all of it came from things outside you: your meals, the air you breathe, your parents, evolution, stardust, the history of the whole universe. Your body and mind are even right now in dynamic interdependence with all of reality.
Enlightenment is acceptance
When we look at all conditioned reality with wisdom, we discover that some things are true. These are the things are true: that nothing lasts, that everything changes, that problems inevitably occur; that we aren’t in control of the world and the beings around us, but that we only control our mind and how it reacts to the little part of the universe right around us that we can sometimes change, and sometimes can’t.
One aspect of enlightenment is accepting of reality as it is, rather than wanting it to be different, to bend reality to our will, wanting only good things to happen to us and no bad things to occur. Of course it’s natural and reasonable to want happiness and avoid suffering, and to wish these for everyone else.
But the logic of reality shows us that impermanence, change, suffering, and death are natural parts of reality. Accepting these inevitable parts of reality is part of enlightenment too, and, strangely, that acceptance can lead to happiness.
Because the Buddhist view is that unhappiness comes simply from having a mind misaligned with reality, misaligned with how things really are.
Enlightenment is love
We can see that these things that are true for us – impermanence, change, interdependence; wishing happiness and wanting to avoid suffering – we can see that these are true not just for ourselves but for everyone else too. No one wants to suffer. Everyone wants to be happy. Not just people but cats and cows and even ants and amoebas too want happiness and want to avoid suffering. They are repelled from the unpleasant and seek the pleasant in whatever way their senses tell them.
In this way I and all beings are the same. And love, the greatest form of love, is recognizing that all these other people and creatures are like me. And realizing our common cause, our common rights as living beings, we wish for all beings to have happiness and not to suffer.
When we feel this strongly, we go beyond a wish to actually do whatever we can to be a cause for their happiness and their freedom from suffering. And with some deep contemplation, you may come to the conclusion that the best way to genuinely help others is to develop your qualities of kindness, generosity, patience, and wisdom to their ultimate perfection; that to be enlightened would mean to expand your love to its greatest capacity, without bias, without exhaustion, without fear. Love is wanting others to be happy, and doing our best, when we can, to offer them the causes of happiness.
Is Enlightenment any fun?
When you contemplate enlightenment, is the idea of enlightenment frightening to you? Does enlightenment seem like any fun? Do we even want to be free of our suffering? Would life be meaningful if we didn’t get angry, if we didn’t feel compulsive addictive desire? If we lived our lives to benefit others just as much as ourselves?
Without shirking away from the idea, explore this question openly, without being biased toward acceptance or rejection, think it through.
Imagine, what would your day look like if you were enlightened?
What would a slice of cake taste like if you were enlightened?
What would making love feel like if you were enlightened?
The Mahayana Buddhist view is that each of these activities, all our activities, can become ways to benefit others if we approach them with mindful open presence, if we give the people we are with our unbiased kindness and love and affection. If, as we enjoy something wonderful, we imagine universalizing it: that everyone deserves such pleasures and we imagine sharing them with everyone.
And as bad things happen, we imagine that we take away the similar suffering of others, so that our misfortune can become a cause for compassion, wanting to take away the suffering of others, a further step toward enlightenment.
Do you lose yourself in enlightenment?
In such a state, though, do we lose ourselves? Are we obliterated if we no longer have anger, and craving, and jealousy, and pride?
Imagine yourself for a minute in such a perfected state of altruistic love and compassion and kindness and see what you find.
It might be scary, or it might be liberating.
The Dalai Lama once said that everyone becomes enlightened in their own way.
And we can see from his example and that of other highly realized beings, that they each still have plenty of personality. They have close friends, they have arguments, they share jokes, they genuinely enjoy life and they feel real sorrow.
So with that example, imagine yourself in a more highly evolved form, imagine your love and compassion and wisdom of the interdependent nature of reality evolved way beyond your present understanding. And yet still see yourself with the personality and predispositions of this particular life. Without changing your job or your family and friends, imagine just embodying by everyday example love and compassion and the deepest understanding of reality without outwardly changing at all, keeping your inner evolution a quiet secret that manifests only as joy and presence and generosity and attention for all the people around you.
Being of benefit, not blissed out
This state is highly engaged, it’s not only inner development. Enlightenment, it’s said, is being of benefit and not just blissed out. It’s not another cool experience to seek out, but inner development that manifests in outer good. So imagine this now, enlightenment as engaged and connected with others, not some detached blissed out state.
Is enlightenment an end or a beginning?
And then is enlightenment an end? Is it a finish line? Do you become like a god when you become enlightened? In some Buddhist teachings they say that enlightenment is omniscience, becoming aware of everything at once; but it’s not omnipotence, having power over everything.
Yet this may not be true either. Perhaps the idea of enlightened omniscience is a kind of myth that only suits certain minds at certain times, and not a universal truth.
The Japanese Buddhist view of enlightenment, satori, says that enlightenment is a beginning. The point where you become rooted in present awareness, love, and compassion, and in your deepest nature and capacity for open, present love. It’s a state where you begin to see reality. It’s a state where you keep growing, maybe forever.
So rest now in imagining this state, this idea of enlightenment as just the beginning of an altruistic adventure that we each take in our own unique way with openness, love, curiosity, and joyful presence.
As we come out of this journey of the imagination into enlightenment, dedicate the fruits of this meditative adventure to continue curiously exploring this idea of enlightenment.
If it feels right to you, be open to the idea of enlightenment, of moving toward your greatest capacity for good, discovering it inside yourself, and measuring progress not by the number of minutes you can sit on the cushion, or the clarity of your visualization, but by your capacity to pay attention to the people around you, to see impermanence and change and interdependence as the natural way of being, to rest in the present and be content with the uncertainty and even chaos of reality. And be okay with that.
Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Art Group X, Altarpieces, Nos. 1–3 (1915) by Hilma af Klint