BY JUDY LIEF| SEPTEMBER 4, 2019
Awakening is the central goal of the Buddhist tradition. Buddha means “awake,” and the Buddha is said to be the enlightened one. But what does that mean? What exactly is the goal? And where does it all start?
We could think of all the good things we know about and aspire to and pile them all together, every quality we wish we had but we don’t. If all of those were realized, if our wish came true, would that be enlightenment? If we were perfect in every way, would that be enlightenment? If you close your eyes and free associate, what images come into your mind when you think of enlightenment? What comes up when you think of awake?
The idea of enlightenment is tied up with our images of wise men or wise women. We have all sorts of preconceptions as to how such wise beings are supposed to look, supposed to talk, and supposed to act. Maybe they have to be a certain gender or a certain class. Maybe they need to wear robes or appear to be very pure. Perhaps they need to have a halo and radiate light. Maybe they are extraordinarily virtuous and kindly, and smile beneficently at us.
Enlightenment is not easy to pin down. Nevertheless, while our ideas of enlightenment may be somewhat vague, and we may not know exactly how to describe it, we feel that we recognize it when we see it. Maybe we don’t know exactly what we are seeking—we only know that we are seeking something.
Although we could pretend to be above it all, beyond striving and without ambition, we cannot hide the fact that in the Buddhist tradition the attainment of enlightenment is the central goal. Paradoxically, although we are on a search for enlightenment, following a path designed to bring us to that point, enlightenment is said to be inherent, our very nature. Many traditions have a version of the parable in which a poor person spends years and years looking for buried treasure here, there, and everywhere else, eventually discovering that he has had the treasure all along, buried under the floor of his own home. We may keep looking and looking for something and not see a thing, but when we finally do see it, it is completely obvious. It is hard to believe we missed it.
Although enlightenment can seem to be a totally unreachable goal, in fact we know exactly what it is and have glimpses of awakening all the time. The only problem is that our glimpses of awakening are brief, hit and miss, and cannot be sustained for any length of time. In ordinary life, there are times when you have a breakthrough and finally understand something—you’ve got it—and when that happens, you cannot then dis-understand it. In fact, sometimes you discover something you wish you had not known; nonetheless, once you know, you know.
Enlightenment cannot be produced. No matter how many mantras we recite, no matter how many teachers we serve or meditation retreats we do, we cannot force it to occur. Enlightenment is not a thought; it is not an attainment. It is inherent.
Yet glimpses of enlightenment crop up all the time—in the in-between spaces or gaps. In my own experience, I find that over and over again fresh insights keep poking through the thickness of my habitual mental and emotional patterns. But then I notice those insights, and with the noticing comes commentary, and with the commentary comes the desire to hold on to them as highlights or credentials.
What was a fresh insight is no longer fresh, nor an insight. It is no longer a gap in ego fixation, but instead a further means of holding it together. And so it goes. What at one moment is a breakthrough, a gap, is quickly co-opted by ego, so that by the next moment, it has itself become an obstacle to be broken through.
You could say that the path is a continual softening process. The moment we solidify our experience, we have lost its freshness, its inherent awakened quality. We can actually perceive that razor-thin boundary between awake and asleep. The instant we make a subtle decision to grasp, we can sense the constriction. We know the moment we have lost it, and each time that happens, we are softened. We realize how hard it is to change that basic pattern of backing away from our own insight. At the same time, we realize how thin the membrane is that separates us from the reality of awakening.
In the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment comes first—confusion is an afterthought. Our experience often seems to be just the opposite—confusion is obvious and enlightenment is the afterthought. Not only is confusion most obvious, it is our familiar ground, where our allegiance lies. It is simple: we are being asked to shift our allegiance, so it is scary. With enlightenment front and center, we are provoked constantly with the possibility of awakening. What is the hesitation? What is holding us back? Why not wake up?
While we keep plugging along, painstakingly unraveling our personal obstacles, it is important not to lose sight of the very real possibility that at any moment we have the potential of seeing our world entirely differently. At any moment, we have the possibility of awakening.