we who have any interest in eastern philosophy or religion have probably heard the term ‘enlightenment’, and may have a vague idea of what it could mean. i find it’s hard, perhaps impossible, to find a single definition that applies to all spiritual paths.
so if we are interested in experiencing ‘it’ we are basically left to our own intuition to choose a spiritual path that defines enlightenment in a way that resonates with us and makes sense. but even within particular paths there can be much disagreement about a clear definition and what it looks like when manifested by those who attain it.
i believe we all have personal, subjective definitions of enlightenment in the front, or back, of our minds and i believe it makes sense that we wind up judging ourselves and our actions based on these definitions.
i started zen practice thinking that enlightenment must mean being completely fulfilled, perfectly happy, always at ease, humble, beyond self-doubt and never being judgmental, etc. I find many people also have such ideas about what enlightenment is or should be like.
we all seem to define enlightenment somehow. the issue i see is that most people are defining enlightenment in a way that makes it impossible for them to attain, just like i did when i started. i say impossible because no human is beyond self-doubt, or beyond being judgmental, or beyond being miserable and egotistical, even, perhaps especially, zen teachers. it’s nowhere in the definition of what a human being is to be beyond these difficulties, and it’s not supposed to be.
so my question here is; how do you define enlightenment to exclude yourself?
any zen teacher will tell you that enlightenment includes everything; bad people, good people, pain, joy, love, hate, delusion, clarity, etc. and also includes everyone, all beings have the same enlightenment as the Buddha in their true nature, and we only need to realize this to appreciate and believe it.
so why do we not believe teachers when they say this?
well, if we define enlightenment to exclude our own bad behavior, our own angry outbursts, judgements and egos, then we cannot possibly reconcile our teachers definition with our own.
my challenge to anyone who is interested is to re-define enlightenment to include all the parts of yourself you think cannot possibly be enlightened. now, this is actually pretty easy to do intellectually. i can just say that now my bad behavior is enlightened and bam, it’s done, i’m bad and enlightened. but this rational process will not mean anything until we are able to feel it. we must feel the peace, freedom and relaxation that goes with truly not beating ourselves up when we are bad.
this means ‘feeling the truth’ about ourselves is more important than understanding the truth. if i don’t believe i am a good person, then no one can tell me anything that will convince me to feel otherwise. the deep feelings we have about ourselves and our lives can only change when we are willing to let them change. this usually takes a lot of hard work and self reflection and practice to change how we feel about ourselves. it cannot be logically proven in a formula or argument.
we feel the truth about ourselves, for better or worse, and then we define who and what we are based on this feeling.
so the trick in zen is to practice accepting how we feel about ourselves, accept all our faults, and at the same time let go of our judgements about these parts of us and redefine enlightenment to include all of ourselves, even the not so pretty or happy parts.
one might say that the difference between a zen teacher and a zen student is that the teacher has opened up their definition of enlightenment wide enough to include everything, while the student leaves out the parts that don’t fit right. but the truth is that there are no parts that don’t fit right, and everything is always in it’s right place, perhaps for reasons we can’t or don’t need to understand.
if we allow our idea of what does not fit into ‘enlightenment’ to open up and expand to the very edge, we will watch it turn itself upside down and flip around and become just the opposite of what we thought it was. for example, if i think I’m bad when i am angry, and then i allow myself to be angry, and further accept my anger, soon i realize that being angry has actually protected me most of my life.
i might also realize that being angry is often a very good signal for me that i’m not safe. Or maybe that i am usually angry for good reasons and that having anger as part of my personality is a wonderful way to express myself, once i learn to do it appropriately. once this expansive idea of what my anger is opens up i find my ‘unenlightened’ anger has just become one of my greatest assets. but it needs to be accepted, worked on and supported to be used appropriately. once this happens we can feel the freedom that comes with using anger appropriately. we can relax and find peace, even within our anger.
practicing with this shift can start with very simple, ordinary examples in our life. maybe i will decide to not yell at the driver who cuts me off today, and consider including them into my definition of enlightenment. perhaps i will not feel as much fear when i need to let my partner down today because i made other plans, i will include the guilt i feel afterwards into my new definition of enlightenment. i’m even going to allow myself to be angry and judgmental all day, and repeat to myself; “i am an angry judgmental jerk…and this is enlightened, believe it or not!”
if we make a conscious decision to redefine enlightenment to include everything we are, even when we don’t feel like it, we are on the road to ‘feeling the truth’ that the Buddha realized, and passed down for 2500 years to share with us.
we are all always enlightened, and accepting this is the fastest way to start changing the parts of ourselves we don’t like, paradoxically.