One of my students said that the least interesting thing to her in the study of Buddhism is enlightenment. ‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘because that’s exactly what I planned to talk about today.’ But maybe not the enlightenment she was imagining. If we think of enlightenment as some goal of miraculous transformation, I agree with her, because focusing on ‘achieving enlightenment’ sabotages our practice. A practice that enlightens us!
In class and in these blog posts we’ve been exploring the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening or Enlightenment. The factors are Mindfulness, Investigation, Energy/effort, Joy, Concentration, Tranquility and Equanimity. Each factor is full of potential for rich inner discovery. Speaking of enlightenment, I feel lighter for having explored them. In the process there’s been a lot of letting go, Ahh! And in the lightening up, there has been a lot of gratitude. I hope if you have been following along and doing a regular meditation practice that you have found some benefits as well.
What does ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’ actually mean?
For many it is seen as a means of escaping the difficulties of life, the ‘rat race’, ‘emotional roller coaster’ or however we want to describe the suffering we experience. But is enlightenment just another version of a beach hut on Bora Bora with a Mai Tai? There are plenty of shows you can watch that let you tag along as people, mostly overworked but highly paid executives, pursue just such a getaway. There’s even one where you can buy a whole island, just for you. Given global warming, these multi-million dollar purchases seem like a poor bet. But an equally poor bet is believing that escaping is the way to happiness. Because once the initial euphoria wears off, our patterns resurface and we’re back where we started, just thousands of miles away from what we thought was the source of our suffering. Hopefully we realize that, just like Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are.
As uncomfortable as it may be to recognize that suffering travels with us, it’s enlightening to see that we are the ones who are cultivating suffering. We’re not helpless and there’s nothing wrong with us. We’ve just been barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. This recognition empowers us to try out new more wholesome ways of being in relationship to all that arises in our experience. That’s the heart of our practice.
Another book title, Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, reminds us that it is skillful to stop thinking this (whatever ‘this’ is for each of us) is something we have to get away from. Of course, there are certain situations — abusive relationships, for example — where it is skillful to leave and to notice the patterns of excuses we make that deter us from doing so. But if we are beating ourselves up about, say, not having the funds, the smarts, the talent, the luck, etc. to buy an island or our dream home, or a perfect job, body, family, life, etc. — or we blame the world, our parents, the system, etc. and let that pattern of blaming sabotage us into inaction — then coming home to this moment, just as it is, and finding compassion for ourselves and all beings is the absolute best thing we can do.
With wise intention and wise effort and the help of the wisdom teachings we can gently cultivate awakening, which the Buddha defined as the end of the three causes of suffering: greed, aversion and delusion (which I think of as Yum! Yuck! and Huh?)
Since greed, aversion and delusion are the ways we habitually react to our experience, this is indeed a challenge. But being present to notice what’s arising, not running away from it, but allowing ourselves to be curious, aware and compassionate, is a more wholesome way of relating to all that arises. Daily practice for even ten to twenty minutes can make a world of difference to our whole lives. Add in a weekly class and an occasional retreat, and you’ll be amazed at how much clearer, kinder and lighter you feel!
Spirit Rock Meditation Center co-founder and author Jack Kornfield in an article titled ‘Enlightenments’ (in the Fall 2010 issue of Inquiring Mind, recently republished by Tricycle’s ‘Trike Daily’) suggested that there is more than one kind of enlightenment. Under his teachers Ajahn Chah in Thailand and Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, he was given two very different means of awakening. With Sayadaw he was taught complete ongoing immersion into the retreat experience of sensory moment-to-moment awareness. When after a year he returned to study again with Ajahn Chah, he shared all the wondrous meditative experiences he had. Ajahn Chah nodded and appreciated all he had shared, and then said ‘Just one more thing to let go of.’
Ajahn Chah taught simply notice all that arises moment to moment in this daily life just as it is. Both of these ways are in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and we have the opportunity to do both practices, as one supports the other. But attaching too much importance to going on retreat in order to experience the factors of awakening can undermine our understanding that awakening is available in every moment. There’s no place we have to go to ‘get’ it.
That said, given the opportunity to go on retreat, take it! It’s much easier to practice when that’s all that is asked of you and you are completely supported by all around you. Certainly some of the deepest insights that stay with me came to me when I was on retreat, and I am so grateful to have had those opportunities. It is relatively recently that we in the West have had retreats to go on, and it’s important to value and support the centers that provide them. That said, the most awake I ever felt and the deepest insights I ever had came from a period of dedicated meditation on my own, when, due to illness, I had a choice of going mindless watching endless television or taking a weekly meditation class and doing the practice extensively on my own. This was back when classes were rare and retreat centers unavailable.
Whether on retreat or in daily meditation practice, we set the intention to be fully present and compassionate with all that arises in every moment of our lives. That seed of intention planted firmly blooms into wise effort and mindfulness throughout the rest of our lives.
With that intention and effort, the Seven Factors of Awakening bloom within us. They are qualities we cultivate and states we experience more and more through our practice. Each Factor supports and enhances the others. There is a dependent co-arising of awakening.
Since we have recently looked at how language shapes our inner landscape, we might look at the traditional translations of the teachings of the definition of enlightenment: ‘extinguishing’ or ‘getting rid of’ greed, aversion and delusion. Do these verbs put us in a combative relationship with greed, aversion and delusion? Another word that is often used is ‘cessation’ that seems less combative, and then there’s the very simple word ‘end’ that for me seems relatively neutral. The overall term for greed, aversion and delusion is the Three Poisons. I think that’s a good description because dealing skillfully with poison is first a matter of noticing it, being aware of its toxicity, and then not swallowing it! The process of recognizing that these are indeed poisons could take some time. But noticing that they exist and then noticing how they cause suffering in our lives is central to our practice. If we are really looking, we can see how the endless desires and cravings make us unhappy. We can look at our judgments, annoyances and anger and see how they make us miserable. It’s harder to look at delusion, but we can often see it after the fact and we can let that awareness be a reminder of the likelihood of its presence in our lives.
Here is a practice that cultivates light:
- Notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise in your experience.
- Sense how they feel in the body, how tightness and tension arises.
- Breathe more spaciousness to be able to stay present with the greed, aversion or delusion.
- Cultivate compassion and clarity to dissipate fear and bring understanding.
- Investigate instead of judging whatever arises; see the pattern and maybe the source.
- Release with lovingkindness and loving intention whatever is passing away.
- Notice whatever arises now with a sense of friendliness and gentle curiosity.
- Let go of the goal of enlightenment, and let the light in. Let it fill you to overflowing.
- Radiate infinite light!
I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Click on ‘leave a reply’ above the post.