What is Enlightenment?

Published | Updated June 30, 2019

What is Enlightenment?
“As soon as the mouth is opened, evils spring forth. People either neglect the root and speak of the branches, or neglect the reality of the ‘illusory’ world and speak only of Enlightenment. Or else they chatter of cosmic activities leading to transformations, while neglecting the Substance from which they spring. Indeed, there is never any profit in discussion. “

—Huang Po
From On the transmission of mind.

To understand what Enlightenment is, I believe that we first need to know why we would want Enlightenment. And after answering that question, I think it will be easier to tell what-it-is.

Now, to me it seems we want Enlightenment because we assume or hope it will bring us the end of our suffering, clear insight in the mechanisms of life, and by all that, everlasting, radiating happiness, and maybe even—immortality.

One of the mainstream ideas is that Enlightenment is some kind of natural, necessary, and logical next step evolutionary development of the human race. Something like gradually progressing through various stages of transformation departing from “the material plane” and then—by following a certain set of intermediate steps—finally reaching “the spiritual plane.”

Enlightenment is often regarded as something we can get or reach. It’s some sort of becoming. Becoming something else, that is… “something better” than we are now. It’s supposed to be an improvement of ourselves.

Contrasting this camp however, are alternatively those who claim we can not get or reach Enlightenment or anything like it, because Enlightenment totally “transcends becoming.”

Others say it takes a long and extremely difficult road, with lots of preparation, but then some claim there’s most certainly no “road” at all, rather a kind of “sudden jump” invoked by illuminating Insight or Understanding. But then, often also… what exactly that Insight or Understanding is, or how it comes about, is heavily disputed.

We have those who say we should do specific things, like for instance: meditation, prayer, diets, ethical conduct, and even rebirths if you are into that, and again others who say we should certainly not do, that one cannot do, and does not need to do anything at all because that would obstruct the whole enterprise.

Others believe that “getting or not getting Enlightened” is shaped by our Karma, but then again some claim it’s the destiny of the soul, or even the opposite: a matter of coincidence.

There are who maintain that we are in fact already Enlightened, but that we just don’t know we are i.e. we only need to recognize it. And then there are those who claim that yes, we are, but we can never ever know or experience it i.e. there’s no point in wanting or doing anything, and so on.

We have developed Yoga, religions, selfless work, devotion and prayer, Zen, Buddhism, Taoism and Daoism, Hare Krishnas, Advaita Vedanta and many, many other systems, methods and techniques to reach Enlightenment, and it seems we’ll invent many, many more in years to come.

We also have the Anti-Enlightenists who say it’s all hocus-pocus and a big bunch of crap, but again others who try desperately to reform the whole idea giving it a more rational stance and now call it Personal Development or Inner Work.

Sometimes it’s said one can only get Enlightenment with the help of a Guru or Master, but others claim you do not necessarily need one or even emphasize to stay far away of them, and there are who declare that everything in life is our Guru.

But whatever may be, if we would accept (for the moment anyway), that there is really a thing called Enlightenment, we would of course want to know how to get it and maybe even more important— we’d want to know how to recognize or identify it when we’ve finally got it.

This “recognize it” part is surely as much as interesting as the “how to get it” part. Here also, we will come to see that just as becoming Enlightened, it is not very clear how to identify “being Enlightened.”

The claimants (those who state they are Enlightened) say you can’t know or see if someone is Enlightened because Enlightenment surpasses the intellectual and phenomenal sphere and is by its essence a vast and unbounded modality. Well… and because of this, as Enlightenment has no limits, it expresses itself (through human beings) in an infinite number of ways, characteristics, and personalities.

But to know if we are ourselves Enlightened, that’s another issue. I think in this case we should again consider our reasons for wanting Enlightenment because when we come to feel or experience the end of our suffering, absolute insight in the workings of life and radiating happiness, well, then we have probably reached Enlightenment. Haven’t we?

The problem however is, that we don’t know (and in fact cannot know) if it will all be lasting. Will we have doubts again? Will we maybe suffer again one day? And also—are we not fooling ourselves about our “Insights in the workings of Life?” Are our findings really true?

So naturally, the new question that arises is how to be sure that we are Enlightened? As said, the answer to that is: we can’t! We can’t for we can’t know if there will be a regression. In contrast, when a regression manifests, we’ll surely know that we weren’t Enlightened at all. That we fooled ourselves. That seems perhaps the only real certainty we can get.

With regard to this, many theories have developed of which most look for—physical signs or marks. Some say our cell-structures change, others that we get blue-encircled eyes or a little aureole above our heads, or become very calm and peaceful.

We look for hot and cold, chakras, colors, auras, magnetic fields and psychic powers and—we’ve developed all sorts of high-tech equipment to measure and catch these phenomena. But also here—opinions vary significantly on what are exactly the “genuine signs” of “being Enlightened,” not to speak about the validity of the equipment we use.

In our days, Enlightenment, New Age, New Meaning, Personal Development, and Spirituality in general, have become big, big business. It’s a grown-up, multi-billion industry. We already had plenty spiritual and religious books, holy scriptures, and philosophical works, but I think we effortlessly doubled or tripled the amount of material available in only the last thirty years.

And it’s not only about books. There are many who have made themselves a versatile job out of this. There are professional Gurus, teachers, speakers and Messiahs, all dressed up with their own unique way of “bringing the message.” Some have worldwide organizations and agendas, shops, websites and blogs, (on-line) meetings, retreats and ashrams and they sell state-of-the-art how-to-guides, DVDs, CDs, live-chats, webinars, and streaming video.

Now of course, I don’t know if they are or were genuine, authentic, or truthful, but we cannot always avoid the suspicion that at least some of them either did or do it for-the-money or just didn’t or don’t know what they were or are talking about.

But that’s not really what this essay is about, so I’ll skip the money-thing and the credentials. And besides that, I don’t have a clue of what exactly Enlightenment is (i.e. I’m not qualified), so when it comes to that—how can I judge anyway?

But let’s go back now to our initial question: “What is Enlightenment?”

Today, after more than thirty years of research, reading, searching, visiting Gurus and the like, I must admit I have failed to definitely answer the question satisfactorily. Nevertheless, I did find some interesting pointers.

First of all we can see that there are many Enlightenment systems and methods. That’s a fact. And most of those simply contradict each other. That’s a fact also. And… there seems to be no way of knowing which approach is good, true, or best, because…

… secondly, we have no objective means of proving our own or others’ state of “enduring Enlightenment.”

Hence, it looks like this: we don’t know what it is, we don’t know how to get it, and we don’t know how to recognize that we’ve really got it. And worse… this last fact, obstructs the initial ones.

What is certain however, is that Enlightenment is a wish for an enduring state of happiness, the end of our suffering, and truthful, persistent insight in the workings of life. Enlightenment is thereby—wishful thinking.

But it seems to me, and I tend to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein on this one, that “… about what we cannot speak, we should keep our silence.”


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