At some point in my first year of University, during a particularly bleak mid-winter-hide-under-the-covers-for-two-days binge, I was linked to a video on YouTube that would change the course of my life. The clip, entitled “Alan Watts: Music and Life,” was only two minutes long, and was made up of a short animation by the South Park guys that was accompanied with a voice-over by a guy called Alan Watts. The two didn’t go together at all – Watts has a deep and soothingly English voice, while the animations only reminded me of that episode where Mr Mackey scissors all the lesbians. Nevertheless, watching that video under the sheets felt like I’d suddenly stepped out of a moving car: I had the peculiar sensation that life was moving along and I was standing still. I quickly went about making my way through 20 other Watts videos, and over the next few years followed many threads that came of him. I had embarked on my spiritual quest.
My questing, over the next couple of years, was quite a standard one. I began to meditate, at first by myself in my bedroom, and later in a group. I started experimenting with some pretty heavy psychedelics and stopped drinking. I took a class at university called Mysticism: Spiritual Maps and Reality, and, in second year, tore through about 50 different books that could all be grouped under New Age (yes, I tried The Secret, and no, it didn’t work out). I started eating organic, local foods; I bought a juicer; I became one of those yoga guys; and, during the course of this quest, I become very interested in the possibilities of “enlightenment.”
Enlightenment. Nirvana. Awakening. Attainment. The word, to me, brought about the image of some kind of Mr Miyagi character, small and very Japanese, sitting on a stool in a low-lit room with incense, smiling peacefully. Somewhere, in the distance, a triangle dings, and the man opens his eyes knowingly: he has become enlightened. I started reading more about it; I discovered that this kind of awakening has actually been the primary goal for Buddhists since the original Buddha reached it some 2,500 years ago. The experience frequently gets described as a complete dissolution of ego, a loss of attachments to everything, and the elimination of suffering – for the Buddhist, life is suffering and that suffering comes from our attachments to the world. If we can release all of our attachments and desires, we’ll be free. Admittedly, this does sound pretty good if you’re at all familiar with suffering.
Becoming enlightened is not an easy thing to do. For the Buddha, it took about 10,000 lives worth of reincarnations, which he spent tirelessly perfecting his virtues. When he was finally born as Siddhartha Gautama, it took six years of self-mortification, and then a meditation that lasted 49 days without break. For many, it requires a complete isolation from society – legend has it that the monk Bodhidharma, patriarch of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, spent nine years sitting in a cave, facing a wall, completely silent. When he decided to get up and leave, his legs were so atrophied that they fell off. In a more modern context, the Thai Forest tradition requires its monks to spend their nights meditating in the Thai forest, amongst tigers, snakes, and spiders. Many have been eaten.
Even if you’re good at enduring physical pain, you still have to get around some other serious obstacles – obstacles that, in my view, make the whole matter not even worth your time. These obstacles are:
1. Enlightenment is ineffable
2. Enlightenment is illogical
3. You are already enlightened
1. Enlightenment is ineffableIf we can consider the entire group of “enlightenment texts” – from Buddhist to Ayurvedic to New Age – as some kind of pan-religious genre, then one of the biggest and most clichéd tropes in it is the assertion that enlightenment is ineffable, or impossible to describe. “The dharma (meaning teachings or discourses),” goes the old Buddhist proverb, “is like a finger pointing at the moon.” The moon, in this expression, is like truth or illumination, and the fingers are like the words used to direct us there (meta, right?). If we spend all of our time with our heads down, focusing only on the words that we hear and tell ourselves, we will never look up and be able to see the big, real thing in the sky, which is quite different from any kind of description of it. Words fall short of reality – “big,” “round,” and “butter-coloured” can conjure up things like the moon, but they will never compare to the experience of actually seeing it. Likewise, any description of enlightenment will be bound to fall short of what it really is, because we need to take the big step of looking for ourselves. These words – so the argument goes – will not take you there. You need to look for yourself.
It gets even worse – not only can enlightenment not be described, it can’t even be imagined! The Zen school, in particular, constantly reiterates that enlightenment is not a “concept” which we can ever hope to comprehend. Instead, enlightenment is an experience. In Shinryu Suzuki’s classic treatise Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, the famed founder of the San Francisco Zen Centre explains that
“There is no need to intellectualise about what our pure original nature is, because it is beyond our understanding. And there is no need to appreciate it, because it is beyond our appreciation. So just to sit, without any idea of gain, and with the purest intention, to remain as quiet as our original nature – this is our practice.”
Or, the more you understand enlightenment, the less enlightened you are.
Of course, all of these claims lead to another, deeper paradox – the paradox that words like ineffable and incomprehensible are, in fact, tools we use to describe and understand what enlightenment is. Saying that something is impossible to understand is a method of understanding it – this whole section, by trying to outline how awakening is beyond the realm of description and conceptualisation is, indeed, a description and a conceptualisation of it. Suzuki’s warning against intellectualising is itself an intellectualisation, his wordlessness hopelessly wordy. As the reasoning doubles back on itself, we find ourselves in some kind of theological straightjacket where nothing we can say or do will make any sense. This is a problem that the sages deal with in the only way they can:
2. Enlightenment is illogicalOne of the quirkiest traits within the enlightenment genre is the sheer bizarreness of how some of the traditions address the experience (given the supposed ineffability of it all). The Zen tradition is the best for this – one collection of writings, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, contains some of the oddest spiritual tales you might hope to encounter. Here are some of my favourites:
“Everything is best”
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.
“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher.
“You cannot find any piece of meat here that is not the best.”
At these words Banzan became enlightened.
Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy would raise his finger.
Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.
These stories originally came from a book called the Shaseki-shu, and were written in Japan in the late thirteenth century. There are hundreds like them: other stories include dead cats, snakehead soup, and a certain enlightened tub-maker. For the student of Zen, these stories demonstrate another very important lesson about enlightenment – that enlightenment is illogical.
According to doctrine, our rational and judgmental minds are what are keeping us from becoming enlightened and, for the enlightened sage, the mind has been silenced completely. By silencing his mind, he removes the impediments of subjectivity that keep him from seeing things how they really are. Enlightenment is something that actively defies our powers of reason and logic; in order to see into the truth, those powers must be suspended. We cannot think our way there. This isn’t exactly “pre-rational,” but “trans-rational” (as Ken Wilber puts it) – a mode of experience that transcends our usual way of perceiving and processing the world. It is beyond thinking.
The story of Banzan and the butcher demonstrates this aptly. The butcher’s claim that causes Banzan to become enlightened is that “everything in my shop is best. You cannot find any piece of meat in here that is not the best.” On the surface, this is just a generic sales pitch for his meat – but on a deeper level, it’s seeking to short-circuit our rational frameworks of “good meat” and “bad meat.” By losing those categories, Banzan was able to see clearly the True Nature of things, freed from his own subjective and very biased lens. This is quite a radical action, considering how value-laden our lives usually are: bad apples, good weather, bad sex, good haircut. Judging things as good or bad is so integral to our lives that it seems strange to even point it out. Nevertheless, this is what Banzan comes to see: the butcher reveals to him an experience outside of the ordinary, subjective, and relative mode – a place where things are free from categorical judgment. And it’s at this moment that he becomes enlightened.
For a university student such as myself, steeped in a culture of rationality and reason, this is utterly baffling. How am I supposed to not make any judgments about things? Aren’t categories a good thing? Otherwise, how are we supposed to make any discernment about the things we want or don’t want, between things good and bad? Isn’t the “enlightenment experience” itself a category, just like all of the other “useless” categories? The sage’s answers to these are just as vexing as the questions themselves:
3. You are already enlightenedWhen Buddhism spread from India to China in the second century C.E., a very peculiar text called the Nirvana Sutra appeared. This text was peculiar because it was the first text we know of to describe what Mahayana Buddhists call “Buddha-nature,” which is the notion that every sentient being has within itself an intrinsic enlightenment, waiting to come out. Instead of attaining some extra-special state through years of intense meditation and willpower, we simply have to sit down and let the nature of our enlightenment come through. In fact, any kind of effort towards reaching enlightenment is antithetical to the project – efforts in any direction are getting away from “what is.” The real role of teachers and gurus, under this line of thinking, is not to take you anywhere new, but to return you to yourself.
If you’re anything like me then this news will probably strike you as incredibly dubious. I’m pretty confident that I’m unenlightened, and many people I know will back me up on that. If it’s really the case that everyone is intrinsically enlightened, then why does everybody seem so hurt, frightened, and lonely? The Nirvana Sutra has a beautiful story for explaining this, which begins with a man who had a very hard pearl between his eyes. One day, while wrestling, the pearl was pushed into the man’s skin without his noticing. When a boil started to develop, he called the doctor, and the doctor quickly recognised what had happened. The strong man didn’t believe the doctor, but when the doctor showed a bright mirror up to his face, the pearl appeared! The man was greatly surprised, and “a thought of wonder arose in his mind.” In just the same way, our “pearls” of enlightenment reside within, obscured by external boils and pus. To see it, all we need is a bright enough mirror.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, one of the great Indian gurus of the 20th Century, said it even more elegantly:
“Realisation is nothing to be gained anew ... Realisation consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realised.”
Our only problem is that we can’t see it: it’s buried down deep, but being born into a shit world and having to go through many shitty experiences has meant that the expression of it gets obscured. Giving up on achieving enlightenment, and simply being OK with how we are, is an intrinsic step on the path to enlightenment: the path is no path at all. Just like the iconic Zen circle, my quest had taken me right back to where I had began, before I had learned anything of the matter. To be truly awake, we need to forget any kind of goals to set, or places to be, or lessons to learn, or people to meet, or concepts to understand. The only way we can do this without making that a goal itself is this: