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What is Enlightenment? with Dr. Jan Willis

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Is enlightenment really possible for people like you and me? Do we lose ourselves when we become enlightened? Are there people on earth who are enlightened right now? Buddhist scholar Dr. Jan Willis answers these questions and more as we explore what enlightenment (or awakening) really means.

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I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. One of the world’s foremost Buddhist scholars and teachers, Dr. Jan Willis, joins us this week to address the almost impossible question “What is Enlightenment?” 

Dr. Jan Willis Bio

Dr. Willis has a distinguished career as a scholar and teacher of Buddhism that spans fifty years. She first met Tibetan Buddhists in India and Nepal when she was nineteen and went on to earn degrees in Philosophy and Indic and Buddhist Studies from Cornell and Columbia Universities.

Dr. Willis has taught Buddhist Studies and Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz, the University of Virginia and Wesleyan University. Now in retirement, she teaches part-time at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and leads workshops exploring race and racism through a Buddhist Lens.

In her academic and popular books and essays, Dr. Willis writes with moving precision on Tibetan Buddhism, the lives of Buddhist saints, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race. Her latest book is the compelling essay collection Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra. Dr. Willis’ unique personal story is captured in her memoir Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey.

She joined us previously for Episode 33: Be Willing to Get Woke.

What is Enlightenment?

Scott Snibbe: It’s an honor to have a chance to speak to you again, Dr. Willis. I think you have a conference with the Dalai Lama coming up next month, so thank you for making the time to talk with A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

[00:02:15] Dr. Jan Willis: It’s great pleasure.

[00:02:17] Scott Snibbe: You’ve kindly agreed to talk about enlightenment today, a concept that I think is foreign and confusing to a lot of people, even some longtime Buddhists and especially Western Buddhists. So I’d like to just start with that big question, What is enlightenment? And then I’ll lean back and listen to your wisdom for a little while. 

[00:02:38] Dr. Jan Willis: Thanks so much. From the moment I got your email with the suggestion that we have another conversation, and maybe this time it might be something like, what is enlightenment? The moment I saw that I thought, wow, I know this is something one can’t talk about, but it’s just such a juicy topic. Let’s give it a try. So the question was just wonderful. 

We have to begin with this caveat: We’re going to be talking about something that can’t properly be talked about. That is, language doesn’t capture it. Language doesn’t really touch it. In Buddhism, there’s no way language touches it. But similarly, there’s no way language really touches very deep emotions or our very deep insights. We know this from all traditions. People have visions, there are mystical encounters. The fact is we’re talking about experience, so it doesn’t readily lend itself to discursive thought and to language, but it’s fun. It’s juicy. We’re going to be talking about something that can’t properly be talked about. Fun! If we hold that in our minds and we’re not trying to come up with something definitive, here’s enlightenment! Here it is! 

I want to read now this small account of after the Buddha’s enlightenment and we’re really going to have to go into these words, enlightenment, awakening and so forth, but this will get us started.

The Buddha’s Enlightenment

Soon after the Buddha was enlightened, he apparently was walking and another person saw him. Now we can imagine, having attained enlightenment, the Buddha must have appeared quite different, his countenance radiant. So, he’s walking along the road and this person sees him. “My friend, my friend, what are you?” he asked the Buddha. “Are you a God?” “No,” answered the Buddha. “Are you some kind of magician?” “No,” the Buddha answered again. “Are you a man?” “No,” the Buddha answered. Hmm… tantalizing.

“Well, my friend then, what are you?” To which the Buddha replied, “I am awake.” Marvelous. I am buddho. I am awake. So, something had happened.

He was Siddhartha Gautama. He meditated for six years, rigorous meditation, ate two rice grains a day, three sesame seeds a day. He was determined, and something happened that completely transformed him. His description of it to that person who asked was, “I am awake.”

Now there’s a Zen saying, “If you see the Buddha, kill him!”

So, what’s going on there? Lots and lots of things. Lots of commentary on it. If you see a Buddha, you don’t have much wisdom. Huh? Some texts say, Why is that? Because you’ve got a fixed idea of what a Buddha must be like. And if you have a fixed idea, you don’t get it. In a passage of the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says, 

“Those who by my form did see me, and those who followed me by my voice, wrong the actions they engaged; me those ones will never see. From the dharma should one see me, from the dharmakayas comes beings’ guidance. Yet dharma’s true nature cannot be discerned, and no one can be conscious of it as an object.”

The Buddha and universe - highlighting the non-duality of enlightenment.

If you see the Buddha kill him. Kill him quick! Because you’ve got some frozen idea. You don’t clearly understand impermanence because you formed these fixed ideas.

Also in the Zen tradition, a further commentary says, “Why are you mistaken? Because you see two separate things.” You see the Buddha apart from yourself. You see the Buddha out there when the Buddha is always in here. It is your Buddha nature. So if you see the Buddha on the road, check yourself.

I love these stories. 

Reality is fluid. It’s impermanent. It’s not fixed. Nagarjuna said it’s precisely because things are void that they have utility. Things are not as we “see” them. So, I like that the Zen folk, the Zen Buddhists, have these stories about killing the Buddha if you see him.

So, as we’ve said, nothing in words captures it. And I think that’s because enlightenment is an experience. 

Now, Buddhism privileges experience. In this regard it’s unlike all the other world religious traditions that ask us to accept a creed, ask us to accept a certain dogma and belief.

What did the Buddha say? “Ehi passika.” “Come and see for yourself.” It’s about your own experience. I’m not telling you this is the way it is.

I’m telling you to come; and as my teacher, Lama Yeshe, would say,

Check up, see for yourself. My teacher, Lama Yeshe would say that. Check up, dear. See for yourself. 

Photo of Jan Willis and her teacher Lama Yeshe (Photo Credit: FPMT)
Photo of Jan Willis and her teacher Lama Yeshe (Photo Credit: FPMT)

Enlightenment, or Awakening?

So, it’s bound to be hard to talk about this “enlightenment.” And now I think many more people – Buddhist practitioners and Buddhist scholars – are wrestling with this idea.

Should we keep the term “enlightenment,” or should we use the word “awakening?” The Buddha awakened. Well, that’s what he said. He said, “I am buddho. I am awakened.” They have different flavors, these words, the term “enlightenment,” and the term “awakening.” Enlightenment is static. It’s like a state. He reached enlightenment. It feels final. Where’s the fluidity that? 

Whereas awakening is more a process. Most of my training has been in Tibetan Buddhism, but I go back to Zen stories often because that was my first encounter with Buddhism. I note that Zen talks about satori and kensho, I think this is correct because once satori is reached, then it’s to be deepened. Once you have that insight, then you continue to work. 

It’s not like, Okay, I got it. I can leave the zendo now. Success was attained! No. We have a glimpse of our Buddha nature. We have a glimpse of our basic goodness. We have a glimpse of our minds, our true nature. And then we have to keep working. 

[00:11:20] Scott Snibbe: And can you say what satori is. Does that mean enlightenment in the Japanese tradition or does it have different flavor?

[00:11:27] Dr. Jan Willis: It has a flavor like “awakening.” They are commonly used as synonyms kensho and satori. Kensho: ken means “seeing,” and sho means “nature or essence.” So, “seeing the essence” is the meaning of kensho, Satori means “awakening, understanding.” It’s derived from the verb satoru. Satori and kensho, both in the Zen tradition, are considered first steps towards enlightenment.

[00:12:09] Scott Snibbe: I want to ask you about what you’re saying about satori; what you said about it not being an end, but a beginning, that it’s something you achieve and then you deepen it. I’m surely mistaken when I think that enlightenment is a kind of finish line; that it’s something you attain and then we’re taught that you’re omniscient, you’re aware of all beings’ thoughts and actions and all knowledge and experience in the universe throughout all time. It’s quite a superhero type explanation.

And that explanation, I always scratched my head a little bit. Because if knowledge is infinite, how can you really have infinite knowledge? Can you talk a little bit about that? I really love this idea that enlightenment might be something more like a beginning point and that there’s growth within the experience of enlightenment.

[00:12:58] Dr. Jan Willis: Like we said at the beginning, we’re just talking, right? 

[00:13:00] Scott Snibbe: Yes, of course. We’re talking about something that can’t be talked about.

[00:13:05] Dr. Jan Willis: So I think that satori and kensho – remember, I was talking to you about that happened to me in Thailand – I think these experiences, at least that some of us had, they are just the beginning, assurances that this is really your mind. This is what you’re not experiencing day to day, but it is you and it’s in you. This is your nature: clean, clear, perfect, infinite, shining. I think once you’ve tasted that, it’s like having an initiation. But then, you have to go and practice, right? If you want to taste that again.

[00:13:51] Scott Snibbe: One question, I think also for a lot of people, is whether enlightenment is really possible? I certainly know a lot of Buddhists who have just completely set that aside for maybe more practical, everyday practice.

[00:14:04] Dr. Jan Willis: When you say people have set it aside and are going to deal with more of the day to day and keep meditating, that’s the point: keep meditating now. I think that’s why it is good to say “awakening” rather than enlightenment. It’s not a final state. It’s something that you experience and then you deepen. Satori is supposed to be deepened. You get a taste and then you continue to practice. So I think it’s ongoing. I also want to tell you a bit about Stephen Batchelor’s take on the Buddha’s experience. 

What is enlightenment to Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs?

[00:14:45] Scott Snibbe: What is the secular view of Stephen Batchelor? What does he say in Buddhism Without Beliefs? What’s his take?

[00:14:52] Dr. Jan Willis: Well he talks about the Buddha’s enlightenment experience in another book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. He says that we should do away with mythologizing about Buddha’s life and the Buddha’s own experience. We should do away with that and see what really happened.

He talks in his book a lot about the historical and societal goings on at the time of the Buddha. At a certain point, though, he gets to the Buddha’s own experience. And while he’s put aside things like karma and rebirth, he thinks, I do believe, and Stephen and I are okay (friends), so I guess he won’t mind too much my saying this, but I think when he tries to describe the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, to me, it gets a little weird. He’s one of those people who uses “awakening,” but he actually thinks he can describe the Buddha’s experience. 

Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Bachelor where he discusses what enlightenment is to him.

[00:15:58] Dr. Jan Willis: On page 129 in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist Stephen writes: “Gautama’s awakening involved a radical shift of perspective rather than the gaining of privileged knowledge into some higher truth. He did not use the words know and truth to describe it. He spoke only of waking up to a contingent ground. This conditionality, conditioned arising, that until then had been obscured by his attachment to the fixed position.

“While such an awakening is bound to lead to a reconsideration of what one knows, the awakening itself is not primarily a cognitive act. It is an existential readjustment, a seismic shift in the core of oneself and one’s relationship to others and to the world. Rather than providing Gautama with a set of ready-made answers to life’s biggest questions, it allowed him to respond to those questions from an entirely new perspective.”

Absolutely agreed. I agree with every word of it. Then he takes us up to the moment. There’s Gautama sitting under the tree. And Stephen describes it. To me it’s quite scary, but here it is: 

“Gautama’s quest has led him to abandon everything: his kingdom, his homeland and social standing. Life is groundless ground. No sooner does it appear, then it disappears only to renew itself then immediately break up and vanish again. It pours forth endlessly. If you try to grasp it, it slips away between your fingers.”

Here’s his description: “This groundless ground is not the absence of support. It supports you in a different way. Whereas a place can tie you down and close you off this ground, lets you go and opens you up. It does not stand still for a moment to be supported by it. You have to be with it in a different way. Instead of standing firmly on your feet and holding on tight with both hands in order to feel secure in your place, here, you have to dart across its liquid shimmering surface like a long-legged fly. Swim with this current, like a fast-moving fish, Gautama compared the experience to entering the stream.”

Now it’s poetic. And yet, what Stephen is arguing there in that chapter is that the Buddha’s seeing impermanence and dependent origination means, and his awakening, means that he saw those happenings for everything all at once! Therefore, he calls it entering the stream. Now for me—what do you think?—if you saw dependent origination for each and every thing all at once? What would that feel like? 

[00:19:34] Scott Snibbe: Obviously it’s difficult to put into words, but I think I get what you’re saying because that description at the end is somewhat dualistic. There’s a thing and you’re riding that thing. But what you’re saying is that you see the interrelationship of all phenomena, so there’s no thing relating to another thing. It’s everything interdependent. Is that what you’re saying?

[00:19:54] Dr. Jan Willis: I think Stephen was saying that. But when he says it that way it’s sounds to me like a bad acid trip. I think it’s just as Nagarjuna said, “Between samsara and nirvana, there is not the slightest thread of difference.” The only difference is our view, ita wa in Tibetan. 

If I look at this very same thing, all these things, with attachment, I’m in samsara. But if I can look at them freed of attachment, free from positing or projecting that “I,” and then becoming attached to it, (that is, projecting a false “me,” “mine,”) then it’s nirvana. 

In other words, nirvana is not a place one goes to. For fifty years I’ve tried to tell my students. It’s not as though you’ll disappear. It’s not as though you won’t be there for mom and special others to love. You don’t cease to exist. 

The only thing that ceases to exist is the false way you saw things prior. To me, that’s still clear, but in Stephen’s description he tries to say that the Buddha experiences dependent origination of all things all at once. And I think that would drive one nuts. 

It’s not like that, I don’t think that. It’s understanding that there are these things—whether we’re talking about concrete dharmas in the world, or we’re talking about our inner feelings and our emotions, inner dharmas—and we know that those things are arising dependently. I don’t think it’s as though we’re being pelted by them! Entering the stream is so fluid an image, but I don’t think it’s like that. It’s an understanding about things.

(Do you still want me to talk about Thailand?)

Jan Willis’s Personal Glimpse

[00:22:11] Scott Snibbe: Oh, I would love you to, yes. Because, as you’ve said, enlightenment is an experience, it’s not a place to go. And what you just said about it being so potentially accessible. Lama Zopa Rinpoche sometimes says, “enlightenment is on the tip of a wish,” which I find very inspiring; that it’s right here. It’s very close. It’s a way of changing the way you look at reality. It’s not a place up in the sky or space or in another galaxy or planet. 

[00:22:41] Dr. Jan Willis: We see these Tibetan drawings, where a tantric deity has a certain twist around, or at, the waist. You know that gesture. And that gesture, I think in some explanations, is to indicate that it’s just a slight change in the mind. It’s just a slight change in the view and everything changes.

[00:23:05] Scott Snibbe: It sounds like if you could straighten your posture the right way, you can just maybe get to enlightenment!

[00:23:09] Dr. Jan Willis: You could practice zazen.

[00:23:12] Scott Snibbe: They do say posture is a big part of meditation. You know what you said though, about enlightenment being scary? I think that resonates with a lot of people including myself. Robert Thurman has described enlightenment as being in everyone’s head at once and hearing all their thoughts and it doesn’t bother you. That last part, I’m not sure. 

[00:23:29] Dr. Jan Willis: Maybe it doesn’t bother him!

[00:23:31] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

[00:23:31] Dr. Jan Willis: So, Thailand. So, it’s because I am shy about it I guess.

[00:23:37] Scott Snibbe: I know it’s a personal story. I appreciated you sharing it before when we were preparing for this episode.

[00:23:41] Dr. Jan Willis: Let me frame it in terms of a teacher’s blessings. So I’ve been practicing a long time, on and off. I’m not a great meditator at all. But my father died. My mother had passed away years before, but when my father passed away – and he was a good buddy of mine, supportive; called me “daughter.” (You know Lama Yeshe called me “daughter.” Well, my father called me “daughter” too. But I didn’t hear my father’s calling me “daughter” until I’d been with Lama Yeshe for all those years.)

So, my father passed away and I was feeling adrift. After my father’s funeral, I sent a lot of emails to friends around the world that said my father passed and I’m sort of at loose ends and that I don’t know what I’ll do.

And from the Venerable Dhammananda, who I had known when she taught Women’s Studies and History at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and she’s now Abbess at a nunnery outside of Bangkok, I sent her an email and I got back from her a short email saying, “Most welcome, do come.”

And the next week, I got on a plane and I went to her nunnery. And she’s the only one who speaks English there. Everybody else speaks Thai. That’s fine. They do their chanting in Pali. I can read Pali, so I could chant with them. I was there for about seven weeks. 

When we first met there, Dhammananda she said, “Jan, you know you’re so welcome here. The nuns will take good care of you. But I’m going to be in and out. I’ll be traveling. I’ve got these talks to give. But I’ll be back usually on the weekends.

So, she left and when she left, I thought, Well I don’t speak Thai. What will I do? Everyone was kind. There were 12 or so nuns there. So we would meet early in the morning, 4:30 till 5:30 for the morning chants. But when they would announce, in Thai, what we were going to do and what pages, I didn’t know. But if somebody pointed out the pages I could read along in Pali.

So, I was tender. Maybe I should’ve just said that.

On one of the weekends, maybe two or three weekends in, Venerable Dhammananda gave a talk on meditation. And that talk answered what I had been after with Vipassana mindfulness meditation and the Thai tradition for a long time. For example, I had heard these overly generalized instructions like, “look within.” What the heck does that mean?

So Dhammananda gives this meditation talk. She says the instructions are these: You’re looking outward. “Turn your eyes inward, go in about two inches and drop your vision to the pit of your stomach.”

I go, Whoa! So, this is what they mean by “Look within,” you know like Forest tradition meditation. I knew there was more to it than just “look within.” Then, she went away.

When she came back the next week, she said, “Everyone to the gompa.” We all went over to the gompa. She said, “Do the meditation I described last week.”

So, I’m working on it. We were there meditating and then… dazzling, clear light, not grayish or foggy, but bright yellowish white, like a lamp infinitely bright, no in, no up, no down. Just pure joy. Incredible!

Whoa, no words. Just, whoa! Wow. But no words. I must have at some point said, “Wow!” aloud because the next thing I experienced was Venerable Dhammananda’s voice was saying to another nun to “Please take Jan, help Jan.” She knew something. She saw something. 

And then, by that point I’d grasped onto something. And I said something. I may have said, “Wow,” and clinging came come back.

But it was incredibly blissful, joyous, grateful, that whole thing. I don’t think I cried, but something physical, something external happened that Venerable Dhammananda saw. 

And then afterwards, you know I tried to catch up with her and she didn’t talk about that, so I shouldn’t even be talking about it, but I was blissed out. 

Now, was that 40 years of Tibetan Tantric practice? Was it that that tender spot? Was that being open? Was that being adrift from my dad? Was that Venerable Dhammananda’s blessing? 

It was probably all of the above. But it was powerful, blissful, calm. Oh, but I can’t express it because it wasn’t emotional. Nothing about it was secular in a way you can express. It was just beautiful. No top, no bottom, infinite your mind. Lama Yeshe always always said, “Your mind is pure, infinite, clean, clear.”

So, the teacher’s blessings make these things possible. And I think when you touch it, then you have to practice. Of course, I didn’t.

[00:29:45] Scott Snibbe: Has that experience stuck with you and informed your practice and your being? It certainly appears that way, just as a friend talking to you.

[00:29:53] Dr. Jan Willis: I don’t know. I think I remember it. I think. No, it was great to taste it. I think for me it was an assurance. It’s good to know that your true nature is there, that this is an accessible practice. 

Do we really want to be enlightened?

[00:30:15] Scott Snibbe: It’s very encouraging because one of the questions I had for you is whether it’s any fun to be enlightened, that it sounds maybe boring to be happy and blissful all the time. Although the experience you just described, I think helps dispel that a little. But what would you say to someone who says. Is enlightenment any fun? Is that a way we’d want to live? Like, do we really want to be enlightened and never be sad anymore? 

[00:30:39] Dr. Jan Willis: I don’t know, I hope I didn’t give you the wrong impression. I don’t think we should want to be blissed out all the time. I don’t think that’s a goal. 

No, we want to relate with others and the idea is not happiness so much as we want to be able to help. You want to be able to help others, right? You want to be able to relieve suffering.

I think some people may like this rush. I remember in 1970 when we were taking the Kalachakra initiation in Dharamsala and they were telling us, “You don’t want these things just for a blissful trip!” (Because half the Westerners there were high!) “Meditation teaches you how to control the mind. It’s not just that you want to be blissed out. You can’t do that every time you sit down. You aren’t trained, you know.”

But the thing about meditation is that it trains you for another end. And that’s what I think we might bring in before our time runs out is that not only did the Buddha say, “I am awake.” What is nirvana? That’s what the Buddha says when gives his First Discourse. That doing practices—the Middle Way, 8-Fold Path, these Four Truths. And I checked on them this way. And when I checked on all these ways, and saw that they were true, then I call them truths.

Okay. So, he says this practice “leads to vision leads to insight, leads to wisdom, leads to nirvana.” That’s the end state, nirvana is attainable on your cushion for anybody. It’s an individual liberation. In the mind we are concerned about all the others who still suffer.

So, what is nirvana? The Buddha says practice in this way leads to vision. It gives knowledge, it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to nirvana.

So, he makes nirvana the ultimate thing! Well, what is it? The Third Noble Truth says, “The noble truth of the cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, it’s the giving up of it, the renouncing of it, the emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.” From what? From thirst. 

So, the Third Noble Truth is dukkha-nirodha. The ending, the cessation of suffering. That’s Nirvana, the ending of suffering!

The Buddha said, after teaching for 45 years, “I’ve taught on two things: suffering and its cessation.”

Nirvana is the cessation of suffering, for me, as an individual. And what do bodhisattvas do? They vow “not to enter nirvana until all beings enter nirvana.” (Not to enter individual nirvana until all beings are freed from their suffering.)

That’s the only trick. I’m going to postpone my nirvana until all beings experience their nirvana. The ultimate wish is for all beings to be freed from their suffering.

So it’s not about us having a good time; it’s about us being freed from suffering. 

[00:34:21] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And to help everyone else be freed from suffering. 

And what about this fear, supposedly, as you say you lose – you get rid of suffering and you lose your delusions and you lose the other sources of pain, but do you lose yourself? I think that’s a fear a lot of people have: If I get enlightened, it’s like merging into this infinite oneness. Do I give up everything? Am I no longer an individual? 

Do you lose yourself as an individual in enlightenment?

[00:34:44] Dr. Jan Willis: That harkens back for me to Steve’s description. But anyway, No, you don’t lose yourself! You lose the false notion you had about how your self exists. It’s not that you don’t exist. This is really the heart of all my intro to Buddhism classes. Students fear that: Am I going to lose myself? 

No, your self is pretty unique. It’s relative, but it’s pretty unique. you don’t become a zombie. You’re not like everyone else. You and you alone had your parents in this life. You and you alone have had these days of your life, you have attended this school. You are unique.

But you exist relatively. You know this because you know that you were a baby once, and you didn’t have this body once. And there’ve been these changes.

(But the sense of “I” is strong!) It’s not vague. It’s uppermost, front and center. We believe it. We grab onto it. And Buddhist psychology says, From the moment there is “I,” there comes immediately on that, “me” and “mine.”

Piaget wasn’t the first one to say that: Babies know that! “Mama it’s me! See about me! And mama, you belong to me, you’re mine, so come see about me!”

Buddhism says nothing is lost, but what is false! So, you don’t lose yourself. You lose only a false idea about how you existed. That’s all, dear. 

[00:36:45] Scott Snibbe: And His Holiness Dalai Lama also said something encouraging once, that I heard, he said everyone becomes enlightened in their own way.

[00:36:53] Dr. Jan Willis: Oh, nice. Nice. 

[00:36:56] Scott Snibbe: That really encouraged me thinking, Okay, we still have our unique ways of contributing and experiencing reality. 

[00:37:04] Dr. Jan Willis: We do. Thank you, Scott. 

[00:37:06] Scott Snibbe: Okay. Last question for you – Are there people on earth who are enlightened right now? 

Are there enlightened beings on earth right now?

[00:37:13] Dr. Jan Willis: Of course. Because enlightenment means they’ve given up attachment to self, they’ve given up a false notion, they have gained insight into the way the “I” exist.

And so it dissipates that thought, all the emotions. You know? And so, it dissipates that thought, and all the emotions. that idea creates. You know? Somebody said something about me? They said it about me, and I didn’t like it, so it’s negative, right?” The I becomes solid. “I” was attacked. All this stuff dissipates. If you don’t make that “I” so concrete, then when somebody says something, you can let it go. You don’t have to build up anger and resentment and all those things because of those stories we weave because we’re operating from this position of I,” “self,” “me,” “mine.” You give that up. And still, you can be unique, you can still operate in the world. I don’t know do we buy it?

[00:38:24] Scott Snibbe: Well then, for someone who’s looking, how will they spot those enlightened beings around them? Or on Zoom! 

[00:38:32] Dr. Jan Willis: I think you see their kindness. You know His Holiness says, “You should be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” You can tell when you see it, not someone talking with you or at you or to you, but how they relate with others.

We’ve seen that. A teacher has 200 people in the room, is giving a talk that day, everyone leaves satisfied. Everyone says he was talking just to them. Why? Because he wasn’t holding to himself. He’s relaxed, she’s relaxed, and that shows. Buddhism says each time a person wakes up to the fact that they’re selfless and all dharmas are empty of self as well, they are freed and they have won through.

How does it say in the Third Noble Truth again? That being freed of self instantly frees us of craving. And the cessation of craving is the experience of nirvana. So, I try to tell my students, I know you’re worried. I know why you’re worried. But you’ll be okay! 

[00:40:18] Scott Snibbe: That was fantastic. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up? Anything else you’d like to say about enlightenment? 

[00:40:24] Dr. Jan Willis: It is possible. Is enlightenment possible? My answer is, of course, dear. It’s the very basis of Buddhism, right? I’ve taught suffering and its cessation. It’s what the Buddha taught: An end to suffering. That’s nirvana. 

One other thing I wanted to add: Westerners got early on this idea that nirvana meant an extinction of self. So, our students, they come by it legitimately. They’ve read tons of things that say, Oh, Buddhism is very pessimistic and advocates the extinction of the self. Buddhism never said that. 

There’s the extinction of a false idea. But you’d be surprised: getting rid of that doesn’t do anything. It was just false.! Not real, not true. Put it aside. You won’t feel it. It’s a false notion. 

But actually, nirvana means cooling off.,” or “cooling down.” That’s why so many of the nuns in the Therigatha speak of their enlightenment as “their cooling off” “It’s like being in India on the hot plains and, far in the distance, seeing the rain come. You see it coming and you’re in the midst of this feeling like you’ve been in an oven, for weeks! And then the monsoon rains finally comes. It’s that kind of joy, that wondrous cooling offof the heat of thirst, the heat of desire, the heat of hatred. It’s a welcomed and joyous thing.

It’s not an extinction”! It’s a blowing out of the candle, a cooling off of its the heat.

[00:42:14] Scott Snibbe: Oh, very beautiful. Thanks so much, Dr. Willis. This was an extraordinary conversation. I really appreciate your time and also the time I know you put into preparing this. You’re an extraordinary scholar so I’m very grateful for all you put into this conversation and giving us some of your precious time. Thank you.

[00:42:33] Dr. Jan Willis: Scott. You posed the (great) question. I’m thrilled and thankful to you! It’s a pleasure. 


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Digital Production by Jason Waterman


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