For many of us, enlightenment is an inspiring but distant goal. Joan Sutherland explores what enlightenment is and isn’t and how we can actually experience it in our everyday lives.
At the very heart of Buddhism is the promise of enlightenment. It’s the bright flame illuminating the dharma, and the rich variety of practices developed in the traditions that make up Buddhism are all in some essential way in the service of that promise. For millennia, in response to the struggles and sorrows of life on this planet, and in honor of the breathtaking beauty of life on this planet, people have passed this flame from hand to hand, encouraging one another to take part in the agonizingly slow but impossibly tender awakening of our world as a whole.
In the West the idea of enlightenment has gotten a little bruised, in part because the intensity of our longings has made us so vulnerable to disappointment. Some of us don’t believe in it anymore, or think it’s the province of only a few special people. Some of us have misunderstood it as a self-actualization project, and so have missed its power not just to improve but to transform. What happens when we let our projections about enlightenment fall away? Can we find the place where wisdom born of generations of experience meets us where we, each of us, actually live? And could we risk taking on a day-to-day practice of enlightenment?
Here is the story passed on with the flame: Enlightenment is our true nature and our home, but the complexities of human life cause us to forget. That forgetting feels like exile, and we make elaborate structures of habit, conviction, and strategy to defend against its desolation. But this condition isn’t hopeless; it’s possible to dismantle those structures so we can return from an exile that was always illusory to a home that was always right under our feet.
For many of us, there is something that pushes us and something that pulls us. We’re pushed by our own pain and the pain we see in the world around us; we’re pulled by intimations that there’s something larger and more true than our ordinary self-oriented ways of experiencing life. Here’s a tradition that says, Yes, we understand that, and there are ways to make those intimations not simply a matter of random chance but readily and consistently present. It’s possible to make ourselves available, in all the hours of our days, to the grace we so long to be touched by, and to spread that grace to the world around us.
So we should pause to talk a little about what we’re talking about. The term “enlightenment” is used to translate a variety of words in various Asian languages that, while closely related, aren’t exactly identical. Most fundamentally, enlightenment refers to the Pali and Sanskrit word bodhi, which is more literally “awakening.”
Excerpted from the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.
Joan Sutherland, Roshi is a teacher in the Zen koan tradition and the founder of Awakened Life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is also a translator of Chinese and Japanese texts and is currently collaborating on a new translation of The Gateless Gate.
Illustration by Drolkar Tskeyi