By Alex Chong Do Thompson
Enlightenment is one of the great mysteries of spiritual practice.
Do we attain enlightenment or do we realize it? Is it a higher plane of existence or a deeper understanding of our ordinary existence? More importantly, how do you know if a teacher is truly enlightened? These are all questions that I’ve wrestled with throughout my time as a meditation practitioner.
Different traditions answer these questions in different ways, so I doubt a final consensus will ever be found. As a result, I’ve come to think of enlightenment as just another concept that we scared, frail humans use to try and make sense of world that seems cold and unappealing at times.
For my part, I’ve practiced in Zen centers where even mentioning the world enlightenment was forbidden. In contrast, I’ve also been told that realizing enlightenment is as easy as going to the movies. I’ve even read a book by one teacher who was insistent that there is no such thing as enlightenment, and Zen is a waste of time! Naturally, he followed up this proclamation by stating that we should practice hard in order to realize enlightenment in this lifetime.
I believe that all of these contradictions are the result of human beings attempting to describe something that is “beyond name and form.” It’s like trying to explain the color red to someone. There’s no real way to put a color into words. The best you can do is point at something that’s red and hope they get the idea. With this in mind, I’ve arrived at my own definition of enlightenment which I believe is helpful to Zen practitioners who are following the householder path.
Simply put, enlightenment is the ability to accept the world exactly as it is, while simultaneously working to make it better. I like this definition because it’s extremely practical and has applications in everyday life.
I remember when I first started practicing I had some concerns about how I would be able to live an ordinarily life once I realized enlightenment, which at the time I envisioned as a near-constant, blissed-out meditative state. However, if we define enlightenment as being able to live 100% in the present moment then that’s no longer a concern. Suddenly, enlightenment is the mother who focuses with rapt attention as she feeds her baby, or the father who gets up early each morning without fail to provide for his family. In short, enlightenment becomes a state of being which allows us to be completely open to the world and what it gives us while continuing our work to save all sentient beings from suffering. Simple.
That being said, there is a part of me—my ego—that rebels against this idea. I don’t want enlightenment to be simple and ordinary. I want it to be exotic. I want the enlightenment that requires you to climb mountains in Nepal and learn secret breathing techniques that have been passed down for 1,000 years. I want enlightenment on par with the movie Dr. Strange which opens my mind to the existence of parallel universes and magic talismans.
My ego doesn’t want to live fully in this ordinary existence so much as it wants to escape it. And it secretly hopes that if I can learn to be ordinary enough, then one day something extraordinary will happen.
I guess this is why practice is so important; it teaches us to experience the world exactly as it is while quieting the mind that thinks this world isn’t good enough. Thus, while my definition of enlightenment is simple, it’s also very difficult to accept.
Perhaps I need to realize enlightenment before I can truly be enlightened.
Editor: Dana Gornall