Meta Enlightenment

V. What Is Enlightenment?

By Alex Bunard, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

This most mysterious of all human concepts has often been described as "simply an absence of self". Most of the time, of course, it's been explained as "the inexplicable" and "the inconceivable". The inexplicable, inconceivable nature of enlightenment is a fair enough assessment, given that it is a non-dualistic experience which nevertheless encompasses the dualism of the subject/object combo. It is therefore an utterly contradictory state. Japanese Zen master, Dogen Zenji, said that "to study the self is to forget the self." Instead of having the experience of something, enlightenment is strictly the experiencing itself.

Now, in a state which is an absence of self, how can anyone be experiencing anything? This is an intellectual riddle. It's a paradox which cannot be solved by our rational mind alone. It is impossible to imagine how can a person be in a state without a self. But, once we open ourselves to enlightenment, we can clearly see that it is possible.

If we stop and consider our lives for a moment, we can easily recognize that there are areas in life where we feel comfortable, and then there are areas where we don't feel at ease at all. The proportion of the comfort area to the uncomfort area varies from person to person, and furthermore, varies for each person from moment to moment. Usually, the comfort zone tends to grow for a person with the passage of time, but quite often the opposite may also be true. There are periods in our lives when, as we get older, our comfort zone tends to shrink for a while.

With the experience that life brings we learn to recognize what seems to us as the favorable and the less favorable areas and circumstances. What used to frighten us can gradually turn into a familiar territory, and we may learn to embrace some of our original fears. But, as we have already noted, our comfort zone may not always expand with accumulated life experience. Often times we learn to contract from certain circumstances, thus enlarging our discomfort zone on account of our comfort zone.

However, at any given time, we can quite easily recognize the borders in our life -- each time we approach the border of our comfort zone, the feeling of upset surges within us, and we have the tendency to run away, back into our comfortable position.

Now, the enlightenment is a state where the whole world is our comfort zone. There are no boundaries. There cannot be an experience that will make us draw the line. This, then, is a non-dualistic something. Being non-dualistic, we can qualify that something equally well as nothing. Both something and nothing are inaccurate, because both imply the presence of something else (of an opposite, which is the essential ingredient of any dualistic view). But, in the state of enlightenment, there is nothing else. Nor is there anything to be found in the first place.

The immediate question we could pose is: can we imagine the process of expansion whereby we would eventually reach a state where we embrace everything? Formulated a bit differently, the same question may be: can we envision ourselves as being totally integrated with the reality? In pondering this question, I can reason for myself in this manner: I remember when I was young, and was about to get married. Naturally, I was against it, because I was sensing that many of my freedoms are soon going to vanish. My comfort zone at that time was very narrow; I could only tolerate spending time with other people occasionally. But, I finally started living with my wife, went through the more or less painful experience of adapting to the life of sharing everything, and am now aware that I am enjoying much greater freedom than I ever thought possible in my bachelor days.

So, based on this observation, I can ask myself: "Isn't it very possible that anything that is upsetting to me now may become my second nature sometime in the future, if only I'd be willing to work with it?" Surely, the common sense is telling me that it is not possible for me to ever achieve such a state, simply because it would mean that I would at some point have to work directly against myself. This, therefore, is the way I see reality through my common sense spectacles: there is myself, and then there is the outside world, the not-me. As I have had a chance to witness the workings of this not-me since my early childhood, I have accumulated plenty of evidence by now that it often has the tendency to operate clearly against me. There is an extremely simple fact that can confirm this theory: almost always when I wish to be comfortable and to feel life's pleasantness (which is pretty much all the time), the outside world, the not-me, is adamantly against it. It always finds innumerable ways to put me down. Either I'm too cold, or too hot, or hungry, or too full, or tired, or bored, or listless, or too excited, etc., etc. Now, in order for me to keep existing, I have to rely on many things. These things, however, do not seem to be very cooperative. No matter how much I try to please them, or to threaten them, or to pretend that they don't exist, the outside objects always succeed in showing me that my efforts are very futile. This is upsetting to me, and tends to keep me on my toes during my waking hours (and often in my dreams too).

So, to give in, to throw myself at the mercy of all these external things and events, would be utterly foolish. That would invariably mean my own annihilation, an almost certain suicide. My reasoning goes further like this: if I don't look out for myself, who else will? If I don't take care of my own affairs, nobody else will. Those external factors and forces are at best only neutral, disinterested as to what happens to me. It is, however, much more likely that they are quite malicious toward me, even to the point that they are strictly out to get me. Consequently, if I give up on this struggle for even one day, all my carefully planned affairs will unavoidably start crumbling. This will most certainly mean a disaster for me (c.f. the by now almost official slogan: "only the paranoid survive", that was introduced to the community at large by what appears to be a clique of certain business moguls).

The other side of the reasoning about my situation in general could be summed like this: why, if I am so certain that the forces of natural chaos are so totally against me, have I been proven wrong so many times? If everything about my situation is as clear as has been assessed above, why is my everyday experience disproving me so frequently? Going back to the example of my feelings as a bachelor versus my feelings as a married person, we can pose these questions in a more concrete manner: why was I so convinced that I will lose my freedoms if I agreed to get married, and why was I unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised that the marriage didn't bring such a disaster upon me? What is even more interesting, why have I refused to learn anything from such an important lesson that life has awarded me with?

Here is an intriguing situation where certain experiences tend to reinforce certain attitudes, while some other experiences do not manage to leave any trace in our lives. While I can definitely agree, on a rational level, that I was wrong in assuming that a joint life necessarily takes personal freedoms away, on a deeper, psycho-somatic level, that realization has had no effect whatsoever. This is manifested in the fact that each time I may have a similar experience (when I'd have to make a decision regarding my commitment to something or someone), I will repeat the same pattern of thinking that such and such a commitment is going to damage my liberties and my overall comfort. I don't seem to be very prone to learn from life's positive experiences. And as regards the negative ones, I am definitely going to embrace them and to file them away as a crucial reminder of how cruel and unfair life can be.

Seeing things this way, it follows that I am biased towards shrinking away from any real life situations. Overall, I'd rather be left alone, hidden in my safe spot, dodging the bullets of life, plotting on how to avoid the destiny that devours billions of other people. There is always in me this undying hope that somehow, thanks to some unprecedented blind luck, I alone will not have to go through the unavoidable. Somehow, I will manage not to get old, sick, and ultimately, not to die. This seems to be everybody's secret wish. Simply put, we wish we could cheat on life.

All of us feel that we are entitled to lead glorious, most fulfilling lives. We feel, unmistakably, that this is our true nature, that this should be within our capacity, within our reach. Our true calling is to live with abandon, with no fears, no regrets and no remorse. This we know for sure, deep in the heart of our hearts.

Our daily existence, however, seems particularly bent towards proving us wrong in our hunches. From the minute we open our eyes in the morning, our lives seem to be telling us: "No, you can't live as you please. You may try this, but it will sure as hell hurt!" It doesn't take long for us to be dragged from the Olympus' heights of our divine pretenses down to the sheer misery of our insignificant bodily lives. Positive thinking and any similar therapies are definitely not capable of resolving this dilemma.

There is only one solution to this age old impasse: the opening up of the enlightenment experience in us. This event, that has been given different names by different people, brings the cessation of the filtering of some of the life's experiences. No more "picking and choosing" means the disappearance of the boundaries and demarcation lines that we've mentioned earlier. An enlightened person can confidently agree with the Buddha's words: "The whole world are my children."

Previous -- The Power Of Imagination        Next -- What Makes Us Feel Distressed?

All original material in these web pages copyright © Alex Bunard.