How To Recognize Enlightenment

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

Copyright © by Alex Bunard. All rights reserved. To obtain the written permission for using or reprinting the portion of the material found in here, please write to the author: Alex Bunard.

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I have originally posted the following article on June 24 1998 to the alt.zen newsgroup (after reading numerous discussions related to the possibility of recognizing this most uncontrollable experience). There is quite a number of people today who seem to distrust any spiritual authorities (and in a way, it's hard to blame them). The pressing question nowadays is: since I don't want to subject myself to the potential brain-washing and mind-controlling personality cultists, how can I know if I'm on the right track?

It is important to remember that it was the historical Buddha himself who left us the simple, sincere message: be the lamp unto yourself; personally examine and verify by experience anything that a spiritual authority (a guru) may tell you. And also, in the spirit of authentic Zen: do not confuse the finger with the moon that the finger is pointing at!

I am re-posting the original article here because I think it may be useful for clarifying the overall discussion on Reality.

At the very outset, this question (How can one recognize enlightenment?) may be meaningless to the core. However, repeatedly we come across people who ask such questions, and it really doesn't help if we try our best to enshroud this issue in the cloud of ineffability. The experience of enlightenment may be incommunicable, but the "finger pointing at the moon" may, in some circumstances, make all the difference in the world. Also, Katsuki Sekida (in his book "Zen Training") expressed his unwavering faith that one day, a zen genius will appear who will be able to elevate the practice to even higher grounds and to tear asunder some widely accepted barriers. This proposal sounds very reasonable to me, although, as of this moment, no such geniuses have made themselves known to us.

With this in mind, let us first dismiss with some of the cliché answers. Like, the perennial one: "if you have to ask for clarification or verification, then you certainly don't have it", or the other answer that is a staple of all spiritual debates: "it is self-validating beyond the trace of a doubt", etc.

The fact of the matter is that the experience of enlightenment is so overwhelmingly rich and devastatingly fulfilling that it takes a lifetime to digest, incorporate and integrate into one's everyday life. It is a small wonder, then, that volumes have been filled with the afterthoughts.

Let us start with one thought from Bhagavad Gita; in it, Krishna says to Arjuna: "What is day for me is night for all beings, and what is night for me is day for all beings." In my view, this is the best description of the enlightened mind in everyday terms. It is extremely difficult, though, to understand it thoroughly. People don't like that quote. People frown when you bring it up. It goes against the grain, and it undermines the very fabric, the very root of human existence.

However, human beings who have reached the other shore and returned to the source (that is, to everyday life) all testify that this is true. Still, it is very hard to grasp, and it's even harder to embrace it.

Consider this: in our everyday state of consciousness, we regard our body to be extremely limited. What's more, we feel that this body is the major source of all our sufferings -- the feelings of pain arise in the body, the fear of illnesses and death are intimately connected to the body, etc. On the other hand, we think bright, encouraging thoughts about our minds, and our imaginative capabilities. Whilst the body is weak, limited and prone to breaking down easily, the mind is sovereign, it is our sanctuary and can give us a glimpse of the victory over our humiliating conditions. Our conscious thoughts seemingly know no bounds -- we can fantasize to our hearts content about ideal conditions, distant lands, nice, heartwarming events and circumstances. We can easily imagine pigs with wings -- something that's impossible for the nature itself to accomplish. What can possibly stop our imagination? And look, it's not only idle daydreaming -- all the achievements that the science, technology, art and philosophy can boast of, all have their origin in our imagination.

Well, the experience of enlightenment changes all that. Strictly speaking, it turns things on their heads. Upon opening our mind's eye, we see that it is our conscious mind that is extremely limited, feeble, and prone to easily break down. Our body, which we have despised so much, turns out to be the wondrous limitless reality -- we can go anywhere, climb any mountain and hill. Our body enables us to truly live. With this provisional introduction, I'd like now to briefly outline some of the characteristics of the experience of enlightenment that are hard to find in other areas of our existence:

1. The experience of nothingness.

2. Everybody else is also enlightened

3. Immediate welcome

4. No need to talk about it

5. The profound body of spiritual literature falls short of capturing it

6. The realization of the sublime cosmic joke

7. All the questions have been answered and exhausted


Yours in faith,

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