What is Enlightenment

Years ago I interviewed the Dalai Lama for my book, The Ecstatic Journey, Walking the Mystical Path in Everyday Life. The book is about what happens when you have a spiritual experience and what happens afterwards, and it was written out of my own need for such a guide after having had some dramatic spiritual experiences. (We all have them; why don’t people talk about it?) The interview took place in Dharmashala, India, and it was life-transforming. Yet now, years later, I think of questions I didn’t ask. I wish I had the chance to do it over again. And yet, it was extraordinary. First, I was bowled over by his greeting. He saw me walking down the colonnade of his office and living quarters, turned and strode forward, hands out, his face wrinkling with smiles. Holding my hand, he led me into his office, directed me to a couch. “Sit here,” he said, “What can I do to help you?” Wow! That’s how I want to be greeted. What’s with this English reserve I learned while growing up? Why didn’t I ever express such joy at seeing someone? Why didn’t I make them comfortable like that? Right there, my trip to India paid for itself! Second was the depth of the interview. “When I was young,” he told me, “I used to think I could attain enlightenment.Now I know I have only this much.” He illustrated with thumb and forefinger only ¼ inch apart.
I left and went to lunch with the friend who had accompanied me on this trip. And then (sitting in a sweet Tibetan restaurant with its laminated tables and straight-backed chairs), I began to shake with energy that rippled up my spine and out my fingertips, inchoate whirling and swirling through me. Tears poured down my face, and all I wanted with all my heart and humbled soul was to bring enlightenment—surcease of suffering— to all sentient beings, everywhere, in every age, right down to the ants and spiders skittering in the dust. I was filled with exquisite agony. My friend was shocked. “Stop it,” he hissed. “Get control of yourself.” I did. To this day I regret it. What would have happened if I had sent him off to hike while I integrated whatever the Dalai Lama had given me? What if? If only! I know enough to know that the experience itself is not the important event but rather how it affects your life. It is not the moment but the fruits that indicate the depth of spirituality. Did your epiphany make you kinder, more tolerant, peaceful, loving, caring, compassionate, generous, good-hearted, more aware, awake? In the words of Micah, did you“ love mercy, walk humbly with your god?” Or did you revert after a while to old behavior and critical ways? Which brings me to a young guru I read about recently who claims to have reached enlightenment at such and such a date and time. He is now teaching over the internet, and I wonder again about this word enlightenment or awakening.   All the wisdom texts indicate that enlightenment is an incremental process, not an event, but a life-long deepening. True, the Shakyamuni Buddha, having rejected ascetic practices, sat meditating under the pipal tree and attained three vidhya or insights:

  • into his past lives
  • into the workings of karma and reincarnation
  • into the Four Noble Truths. These are that:

. All life is suffering . Suffering is caused by desire or craving (either for pleasure or release from pain) . The cessation of suffering comes through the release of craving . Release is achieved through the noble eightfold path: right thoughts, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.   These insights brought the Buddha straight to enlightenment or “awakening.” But was that all? It seems not. We are told that the Buddha, already fully awakened, spent two hours a day practicing the Metta prayer of forgiveness. Two hours daily he spent forgiving himself for any offenses caused accidentally or deliberately and praying for all beings, visible and invisible, to forgive and be forgiven for offenses they had committed by thought word and deed. Maybe it’s a simple as that: not a state or ecstasy, not a single spiritual Revelation or Epiphany, but just a continual opening of the heart more and more, the constant practice of detaching from desire while simultaneously feeling the suffering of others: It is a limitless endeavor, and probably never fully attained. But how do you eliminate all desire? The Buddha, poisoned by a mushroom at the age of eighty, is said on his deathbed to have said, “The unconditioned consciousness has been attained, and every kind of craving has been uprooted and destroyed.” I’m not enlightened. I have a friend grieving at the death of his beloved wife. It seems appropriate. Even the Tibetan sage Mileropa wept on the death of his son. The tears of grief and desire in such conditions—not quiet detachment—seem to me to BE “right thought,” “right action.” I’d like to ask the Dalai Lama more about enlightenment.


9 thoughts on “What is Enlightenment

  1. Sophy, I have learned that suffering is optional. None of our stressful thoughts are true for us, Let us question them and then go and have a wonderful life.

    • Dear Ruarbabe (the very name makes me smile), You are truly my spiritual sister, and I too am clairvoyant and sometimes give readings to people and I too believe that our lives (and lessons) can be done through joy, though as I look about me, my heart twists at the suffering and pain. Thank you so much for your wonderful words. I’d like to meet you any time you are in Washington DC. I need all the compassion and kindness around me I can get. Sometimes I think how important it is to forgive ourselves and others, and like the monk in the Brothers Karamozov, I want to ask the very birds and trees to forgive us, and the animals we let down. Sometimes I’m tossed with joy on solar winds, and other times my heart is breaking at the beauty of it all, which beauty curiously contains and includes the pain (but not the horror: horror is another matter, isn’t it?)
      I have just come out with a very limited edition of 26 of my poems. I would love to offer you one, as a felow traveler. I call it “Falling: Love-Struck” and subtitled, “The God poems.”
      Stay well. Thank you for writing. Tell others about The Ecstatic Journey. There are many of us out there pouring forth love.

      • I thank you for your offer of poems! I live in Arizona and haven’t been to DC for several years though that doesn’t rule out a future visit. I’ll be flying to Maine for Christmas and I’ll see if a detour to DC is economically feasible. If not, that is ok. Spiritual Sisters connect across the physical miles which don’t even really exist. 🙂

        How do I receive your poems? I can download them on IBooks or on Nook or give you my snailmail address. Whichever is best for you is best for me. 🙂

      • They really aren’t “published” (yet) except by me for a few friends, but I can send you an email of my booklet if you would like. I ought to investiate iBooks or nook or whatever. Or, sendmy your snail mail address.

      • One of my favorite poets, YES YES to Mary Oliver. I had the pleasure of hearing her read once. What a beautiful soul she is! LIKE LIKE LIKE

  2. Sophy, I had a very big “Burning Bush” kind of spiritual event when I was 14. The only people I could relate to who had an experience similar to mine were some of the mystically-oriented Catholic saints (I was raised Catholic though no longer am a part of the Church). I knew no one personally who had ever had a similar experience and I felt so lonely in this way for years. As I grew older I read of the great mystics throughout the ages and felt better just by reading their writings and vowed to live as they did in humility and simplicity. And then I read your book, The Ecstatic Journey and knew there were many others around me and I didn’t need to feel lonely at all. Thank you for this book!!!

    Today I have learned much of compassion and kindness and have a strong desire to be of service to others. I have recalled numerous other lives and I am clairvoyant and a medical intuitive. In spite of all these wonderful gifts and a profound yearning to be one with All That Is, I still don’t have a clue as to what enlightenment means. And while I have had several bad times in my life, I have had more good and profoundly joyful ones that sustain me. I do not believe our lives must be of suffering though we do seem to learn quicker through pain. Learning through joy is an option, however, and living in this physical world can and should be a happy and challenging experience. Just my dos centavos, for what it’s worth. 🙂

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