39 – What is Enlightenment?


What is enlightenment and how do we attain it? In this podcast episode, I will discuss the idea of enlightenment from the perspective of a Secular Buddhist teacher. The attainment of enlightenment/awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism, however, many people see it as a distant goal. Perhaps our concept of enlightenment is blinding us from experiencing it in the present moment, here and now.

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Transcription of the podcast episode

Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode number 39. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about enlightenment.
From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?

From the Buddhist perspective what is it and how do we attain it?
A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.

A while back, a friend of mine named Tanner posted a simple question on his Facebook page. He said, “How do you define love?” I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with an answer to that question. I mean, I know what I think love is but how do you actually define something that you experience without running the risk of making it a concept.
I’m not sure you can. St. Augustine was once asked about his understanding of time. When asked what is time? He said, “I know but when you ask me I don’t.” I believe I know what love is but the moment I try to define it it becomes fixed and permanent and when you get down to it, concepts, like love, or time, are not fixed nor are the permanent. I believe we run into the same problem when we try defining enlightenment.

Before I jump into that topic I want to remind you that this podcast is made possible by the Foundation for Mindful Living, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. This is my non-profit and I want to say thank you to everyone who has started becoming monthly donors or who’s made one time monthly donations since the last podcast episode.

I mentioned how I was reaching this crucial point with the podcast where I needed more support and a lot of you responded to that so I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for that because I couldn’t do this without your support. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Just $2 a month can make a big difference and any one time donations are appreciated as well. You can do that by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

Let’s jump back into this week’s topic, enlightenment. I posted on the Facebook study group, in fact if you’re not part of that group and you listen to the podcast regularly you may find that it’s beneficial to join the group because we try to continue the discussions after the topic is presented in the podcast, I try to make this so that you can carry on this discussion with me on Facebook. I know some of you aren’t on Facebook, eventually I will probably create another portal or platform. For now is just Facebook. If you go to secularbuddhism.com/Facebook you’ll see the link to be able to join that group.

On this topic of enlightenment I want to be clear about something … So what I was saying is that I posted on that group, “What are some of the topics that you would be interested in learning about on this podcast?” and I received a lot of responses, one of which was a request to discuss enlightenment from the secular Buddhist perspective. That’s what I want to talk about today, enlightenment. It’s a big word, it’s a common word in contemplative practices, especially in Buddhism. We say the Buddha attained enlightenment, but what does that mean? What does enlightenment mean?

I want to be clear that there’s enlightenment, whatever that is, and then there’s enlightenment what we think it is. In other words the concept of enlightenment. Those are two very different things. I think a lot of the problems we run into with words like enlightenment has to do with the concept that you hold of it. If you have an issue with this word I think you should ask yourself what do you think enlightenment is because that’s where you’ll find what the problem is. It’s a lot like love, you know, I mentioned earlier. You can think you know what love is but until you experience the feeling of love, it’s just a concept. I think enlightenment can never be understood conceptually it can only be understood experientially. In other words enlightenment is something that you want to seek to experience. Not to understand, not to have a conceptualization of it, but it’s something that you want to experience. That’s what I want to talk about today because it’s something that is experienced often in Buddhism and contemplative practices through meditation.

I think the conceptual understanding of enlightenment is like it’s this lofty thing and one day if you live in a cave for 20 years of your life and you’re meditating you might get enlightened. I don’t see it like that at all. I think it’s something that in your day to day practice, you know, it’s like a light bulb. It can turn on and suddenly you’re enlightened or you’re awakened.

Let’s look at this a little bit and explain what this means. I want to explain, first of all, the origin of a couple of words. In Pali, or Sanskrit, in both of these languages, these are the ancient languages of Buddhism, there’s this word budh, which means to awake to become aware or to understand. As you can imagine, this word budh is the route for the word Buddha, the awakened one, Buddha. It’s the root for the word bodhi and of course the root of the word Buddhism. Bodhi, in Buddhism, is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, someone who is awakened, regarding the true nature of things, which is that they are impermanent and interdependent. If you break this down it’s actually pretty simple.

It’s Bodhi, or enlightenment, Bodhi is the understanding that is possessed by somebody who is awakened regarding the true nature of things. Bodhi is commonly translated to enlightenment, but it’s also the word that’s translated to awakening. I think because of the root word, budh, meaning to awaken or to become aware, I think it’s more appropriately for us to use the word awakening when we’re discussing this concept of enlightenment. I’m going to use the words interchangeably.

The goal of awakening is at the very heart of Buddhism. It’s at the heart of what we study and practice. We’re trying to awaken to the fact that reality, as we perceive it, is not the same as reality as it is. I discuss this over and over throughout the podcast and any time I teach a workshop is that there’s reality as it is and then there’s reality as I think it should be. Those are two different things. One of the main areas where this happens is that we have the tendency to see things and ourselves as permanent and independent from all other things. I perceive that there’s me and there’s you, there’s self and then there’s other, you know, as separate entities.

What happens is, much like a wave perceiving itself as a wave, it fails to understand that while it is indeed a wave it is also the ocean. This was eloquently explained by Alan Watts when he says that, “You are something that the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” In other words, you cannot separate the way from the ocean and you cannot separate yourself from the universe. This idea of independence that I exist separate of everything else is a flawed sense of understanding. This is one of the core ways that we interact with life, with everything around us, as if we were separate from it all.

This is the fundamental shift that happens in our perception when we become awakened. We awaken to the reality that we are one with everything. It can be as simple as a shift in this perspective of, “Here I am, I came into this world,” versus, “Here I am I came out of this world.” You simply don’t exist without everything that allows you to exist. That’s what we start to wake up to.

When we talk about enlightenment, or awakening, in the Buddhist sense, we need to understand that it is very easy to make the mistake of confusing the concept of these words for the real thing. That’s what we need to be very careful of. In this sense, the real question of what is enlightenment I would say what is enlightenment for you? Because I have my idea of what I think it is. I have my experiential understanding of what it feels like to be awakened to the reality of things being interdependent and things being impermanent, but the real question here is what do you think it is? What do you think would happen if you dropped your concept of it? What if you just let that idea fall away? Whatever you think enlightenment is let it go, drop it. Then you’re left with the opportunity to just experience it without being blinded by the concept of what you think it is.

A lot like the story I tell over and over about meeting Chris and I thought Chris was a guy, so there was Chris the girl and I didn’t see her because I thought she was … I was expecting to see a guy named Chris. That’s kind of what happens with everything, right? That’s certainly what happens with a concept like enlightenment. You think it’s something, so that’s what you look for, and then you’ll never experience the actual thing even though it may have been right there in front of you all along. That’s something you want to be careful of. The way that you work with that, to be careful to not be trapped by the conceptual understanding of enlightenment, is ask yourself what is enlightenment to me? How do I define it? Because whatever you define it as, drop that. Try to drop that and just say, “I don’t know what it is. What if it isn’t anything? What if there’s no such thing?” Just drop the idea of it, because that, ironically, is when you experience it.

I’m gonna explain that a little bit more. Another thing I want to clarify about this concept of enlightenment or awareness is that no one can wake up or enlighten another. You experience it yourself by practicing mindfulness. It’s like you could try your hardest to explain to someone what it feels like to be in love. If they’ve never been in love all you’re doing is creating a concept for them. Now, that concept isn’t necessarily harmful because it could be a concept that points them in the right direction, but it may be that it blinds them, too. This is why in Buddhism we have the analogy of the finger that points at the moon is not the same thing as the moon. In Buddhism, we’re always reminding ourselves of this fact, that these things that we teach all point to one thing, to the experiential understanding of awakening. If you get caught up in the finger you’re not going to see the moon. It’s the same with all of these practices, with all of these concepts.

In Buddhism the path that’s known as the eightfold path is the path to enlightenment. This comprises of eight different aspects of your life in which you’re aspiring to practice having wise views, wise intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. I think at some point I’ll probably spend a whole podcast episode, or maybe several parts, dedicated to explaining this concept of the eightfold path with a little bit more detail.

It’s a path that one must walk oneself. I can’t push someone down this path, I can only practice it myself. That’s why we say that the Buddha taught the way or the path, but we have to walk the path on our own. This is where that Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open doors but you must enter by yourself.” I love that because that’s exactly how it is with these contemplative practices, with Buddhism specifically. You can work with a teacher and they point, they’re like the finger, they’re pointing at these things that you have to practice but then you see that you’re the one who sees it through an experiential understanding and then it starts to change the way that you see things.

I’m going to jump into this a little bit more. There’s this wonderful teaching in Buddhism called the Gateless Gate and I really like this. The idea is that you can enter this state of awareness, or this enlightenment, but you can only do that by entering through the Gateless Gate. You start to study Buddhism and you feel like, “Okay, I’m on the outside but then I learned that there’s this concept there was this thing enlightenment, so here I am and I’m trying to obtain it and it’s there. I don’t know where it is but it’s there somewhere.” Here I go and I’m on this journey and I try all these things. I try to start doing things, stop doing things. I’m seeking, after this state of awareness, this state of enlightenment. All along I view this as we’re separate, right? There’s me and then there’s it and I’m trying to get to it. Then when you finally attain it you realize that you’re inside it and there was never a gate. This is why it’s called the Gateless Gate. There is no outside or inside, there is just what is.
Reality is everything and it’s everywhere, so there is no gate to go through because you’re already in it and you have been all along. That’s what it means to enter the Gateless Gate. This teaching is trying to wake you up to the reality that there is nowhere to go, you’re already there. There is no one to be, you’re already you, and you’re already in it. You just don’t know it or you just don’t realize it and that’s the truth that you awaken to.

This is kind of the paradox with enlightenment is that you never attain enlightenment because you can’t attain something you already have. You just wake up to the realization that you’ve been in it all along. Not just you, but everyone else.
I’d like to explain this. I think we’ve all felt this feeling of looking for something like your keys or your sunglasses or your wallet and there you are frantically looking for them, running around, digging under things, moving stuff, and then somewhere in that process suddenly you realize, “Oh my wallet’s in my pocket, or my keys were in my pocket, or my sunglasses were on my head the whole time.” I’m sure you felt that at some point. What does that feel like? It’s almost comical because you think, “Well, here I’ve been like a fool searching for something that wasn’t there. I had it all along.” That is a lot like this process of awakening in Buddhism. You start learning Buddhism and you start seeking after something and then the more you study and the more you practice one day you realize there is nothing to seek and it’s like the sunglasses have been on my head all along. It’s almost comical how this happens.

This is the reality of life, right? That enlightenment is everyday life. It’s all of it. It’s the chaotic and the peaceful, it’s the beautiful and the ugly, it’s the happy and the sad, it’s all of it. It really depends on our own minds, our own minds are the ones making meaning of things. It’s understanding that our own reality is the reflection of our own minds. The key to being awakened is to see and understand things just as they are without the stories that we attach to them. Two of the biggest stories that we attach to things is that things are interdependent, and that things are permanent. We attach a sense of permanence to things, to ourselves, to situations we’re going through in life. And we treat things as separate. We don’t recognize that the true nature of things is that all things are impermanent, they are always changing, and all things are interdependent.

This is because that is and you cannot have this without that. You can look at this and you explore this with concepts and you realize how true that is. We can’t have winning without losing, so you would say then then it’s both. It’s not about winning, it cannot be about winning unless it’s also about losing because you cannot have both. You cannot be about life and death, one without the other, because you cannot have life and death separate from themselves. You cannot have black and white. What makes something black is that it’s not white. This is the duality of the conceptual way that we see the world and that’s exactly what we are trying to break out of is that dualistic way of viewing things. Thinking that I can have winning without losing. It’s like, “Well, there you go. You just set yourself up for all of the problems.” If you’re seeking to win and never lose then you don’t understand what winning means.

When they talk about the Buddha’s enlightenment … The story of the Buddha in a very small nutshell is that there was this there was a man named Siddhartha Gautama and he went out on this journey because it felt like something was missing. He did not like that by experiencing sickness, old age, and death … Why do we suffer? That was kind of at the root of his quest is why do we suffer and how can we end suffering? So he goes on this long journey and spends years meditating and trying all these different methods, but at the end of it all he was looking for ways to end suffering and he was looking outside himself to do that. “If I could just do this or if I could just avoid doing that.” That is the great transition in his spiritual journey is that the great transition of seeking something outside himself, to the discovery that the root of his suffering was within himself. The discovery that he was it, there was no separation from it. This was his great enlightenment. At that point that duality was transcended. There’s no more looking for anything external at that point. He was the root of his problems. He was also the solution to them.

This is the essence of what Buddhism teaches. It’s to realize that we are it, it’s just us. We have this concept of an angel and a demon on our shoulders and one’s telling us to be nice and the other one saying don’t be nice go do whatever you want. In cartoons, you always see this, in western thinking this is a popular way of kind of understanding that there’s this external force. One compels me to do kind and nice and good things and the other one compels me to do mean or evil things. We’ve bought into that, thinking that there is an inherent goodness or an inherent badness out there and here we are stuck in this position where it controls us. I’m seeking one and trying to avoid the other.

What Buddhism is saying is, “No, that that sense of those voices on your shoulder those are voices in your head. It’s you. It’s just you. If you view something one way, or justify one action over another, it has to do with you. With either how you were raised or a belief that you have or it’s something that, at its root, is found inside of you.” I think that’s really powerful. These are the things that we awaken to.

First there’s that you awaken to the reality that you are it. It’s all you. There’s no angel or demon on your shoulders tempting you to be mean or pushing you, compelling you to be kind. That’s you. It’s just you.

The other thing we awaken to is the uniqueness of each moment. We play this game in life where we’re always comparing. I think this kind of goes from that dualistic way of thinking in terms of good and bad. There’s this moment, this is a good moment. Then there’s that moment, no that one’s a bad moment because the other one was better. Now there we are comparing. What we fail to see when we’re in that mindset is the uniqueness of each moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pleasant or unpleasant moment, it’s unique. It’s a moment that has never existed the way it exists right now and it will never exist again the way that it exists right now in the present moment. That uniqueness can make it beautiful and for it to be beautiful doesn’t mean you have to like it. It doesn’t mean anything other than its beauty comes from its uniqueness. That’s the only moment. This is kind of that understanding of its always now, right? This is impermanence, which is the other big thing we awakened to. The nature of reality is that all things are impermanent and all things are interdependent. This is another really powerful thing to wake up to.

I talk about Thích Nhất Hạnh saying, “If you’ve ever seen a flower and all you’ve seen as the flower then you’ve never actually seen the flower.” What that means is that the deeper way of seeing things, through this lens of interdependence, is that you cannot see, truly see a flower, without also seeing the sun and the clouds and the rain and the soil and the temperature changes, all the things that it takes for that flower to exist.

When you really start to see something like that it changes, forever, the way that you see something. Suddenly it’s not just a flower, it’s everything. Everything in the universe exists, allows that flower to exist the way that it does and that’s incredible. That’s interdependence.

That’s one thing, right? You start to see things as interdependent. You can try this right now. You can look around you and pick something. Pick your shoe, or a watch, or the desk you’re sitting at, or a chair and try to deconstruct that into its parts. What all did it take for that thing to exist the way it exists.

If I am looking at my looking at my phone here on my desk it’s got plastic on it, it’s got glass, we know inside it’s got all kinds of other components, it’s got metal. You start to think of these things and think, “What did it take for that glass to exist?” Glass comes from is it like a sand or stone that’s superheated? Okay, now I’ve got … You start to scale this back into all of these elements that exist so that my phone isn’t just my phone, my phone is also part of a rock, and part of a mountain, and part of a metal that came from the depths of the earth and all these elements that allow my phone to exist the way that it does. That’s not even to say all the technology behind it, the towers that allow me to communicate, the websites that my phone connects to when I’m just turning it on and checking the weather, or checking Facebook. The different servers, and the electricity. I mean, really quickly it becomes incredibly complex and layered to where it takes everything for this to be exactly what it is right now.

That can be a really profound experience that you awaken to. This realization of the interdependence of things. I’ve done this exercise with something as simple as a table, a little coffee table made of wood. We’re talking about the glue and the nails and the wood itself and what it took to cut the wood and the chainsaw and the truck that moved the wood and the tires on that truck. You never end that game. Suddenly, what was once just this simple little wooden table in the room now comes alive because you realize it’s taken everything for that to exist the way that it does, right here in this one room, this one little wooden table.

Like I said, this is really powerful but if you want to take it to a whole new level you turn that towards yourself and you start to see yourself in that same light. The lens of impermanence and the lens of interdependence and that’s when you start to awaken to this sense of non-duality. Thích Nhất Hạnh says enlightenment is when the wave realizes that it’s the ocean. It’s that simple. Sure the wave exists, there’s such a thing as wave and waves are different. Some are tall, some are shorter, some are fast, some are slow. You’ve got all these different kinds of waves but the moment that wave realizes it’s the ocean, that’s what it is.

That’s what we’re trying to do. You’re not who you think you are. Seeing you, as a separate self, as a permanent self, that is the illusion. In this sense, enlightenment becomes this concept that is not about you, it’s not about me, it’s that dualistic view that there’s a you and a me that’s preventing me from the realization of enlightenment in the first place. You are everything. You’re it. You’re all of it. That flower that we talked about, that flower’s not what you think it is. That flower is one with everything, but by that same token, you are not who you think you are. You’re not who what others think you are, or who others think you are. You’re the totality of all of it. You’re the sum total of everything, everything just to be you.

To me, that’s a fascinating thing. You can grasp that intellectually, you can grasp that theoretically, but at some point, when you’re really sitting there you connect the dots and you have this tremendous aha moment when you realize your oneness with everything. It’s a really powerful thing.

This is the irony of all of this is that while the ultimate goal in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment, it’s only when we drop the idea of attaining it that it can naturally occur. It’s like you’re out in this field frantically chasing this butterfly and it just eludes you and it eludes you and you keep grasping at it to try to catch it and it’s when you’re so exhausted that you finally just quit trying to catch it that you collapse in the field it comes and land softly on your nose. This is what it’s like to seek enlightenment. I talked about that zen story of the monk who goes to his teacher and he says, “I want to attain enlightenment,” and the teacher says, “Oh you do?” “Yeah, yeah I do. What do I have to do?” He’s like, “Okay, I want you to hike to the top of that hill every day and you bring a rock and the day you bring me the right rock that’s the day you become enlightened.” This monk is really excited because that’s what he wants more than anything, anything. He wants to be enlightened, he wants to be awakened.

He starts bringing rocks. Every day he brings a rock and he climbs up the hill and this process goes on for days and weeks and years and at some point, the way the story goes, this monk is just getting fed up and he picks a really big heavy rock this day and he makes his way to the top of the hill and there’s his teacher and like every other day for years he just says, “Nope. That’s not the right rock.” At this point I can imagine the frustration this monk, who’s trying his hardest, gives up and he says, “This is ridiculous, this is stupid, there’s no such thing as the right rock.” And he just throws the rock off the hill. He gives up and that’s when the teacher turns to him and says, “And there you have it. You’ve attained enlightenment.”

I love hearing that story. I know it can sound like, “Oh no.” But there’s beauty in that, in that letting go. The problem with Enlightenment is that we want it. Why do we want it? Why are we seeking after it? That’s the moment that it can arise naturally is when I look at that and say, “Why do I feel that I even need it in the first place.” When I realize I don’t need it, that’s when I get it, that’s what I’m enlightened. That’s the beautiful irony of all of this. This is the paradox of Buddhism.

We can look at enlightenment as the opposite of ignorance. Our tendency, like I said earlier, is to look outside ourselves. We see what others are saying or what others are doing. What we’re trying to do is learn to look inward, look at ourselves. That’s when we can see, clearly, what we are, interdependent and impermanent, that we begin to understand ourselves and others very clearly. Enlightenment is not a concept, it can’t be conceptualized. It’s not something other than our daily lives. It’s the experience that we have of everything and we end up finding ourselves in it rather than it being something out there somewhere that we need to find. That’s when we awaken or enlighten.

Seeking enlightenment is seeking a life of awareness. Rather than thinking, “There’s this thing, enlightenment, and I want to find it, I want to attain it.” What we should think is, “I want to live a life that’s fully aware. I want to live a life where I see things that I didn’t see, where I experience what I didn’t know I have an experience, where I learn about the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know.” That’s the attitude and that takes a sense of curiosity, and it also takes a sense of doubt, right, of skepticism. I can’t think, “Oh I figured it out.” Because the moment I think I figured it out it’s like seeing Chris, right? Oh there’s Chris, Chris the guy, now I can’t see Chris, the real Chris, who was the girl. That’s where this healthy dose of curiosity or a healthy dose of skepticism really comes into play because I start to think, “Maybe it isn’t something that’s there to have in the first place.” There you go. There you’re on the right track.

It’s like these teachings, right? There are so many teachings in Buddhism around this concept. There’s the one of the monk sitting, meditating, on the river and there’s a traveler on the other side and he cannot figure out how to get to the other side so he finally yells out and he says, “Hey. How do I get to the other side?” And the monk just looks around and then replies, “You are on the other side.” That’s the essence of what Buddhism is teaching is these are concepts. You hold a concept, the concept of the other side. Well, guess what you are on the other side according to the other perspective, right.

This is another teaching of a zen koan that says, “Showing front, showing back, maple leaves fall.” This is another powerful teaching. It’s that when a leaf falls, you can picture this in your head, it kind of just floats, right? It floats like it’s showing one side and then it kind of floats showing the other side as it slowly makes its way down to the ground. It doesn’t just fall showing one side. The natural way of being is that it kind of flips and flops and shows there’s nothing to hide. That’s the teaching here.
We’re not like that. Naturally, we are the opposite of maple leaves falling. We’re saying, “Here’s the front, I’m going to show you this, and then there’s what’s in the back, I don’t want anyone to see that. That’s the me that only I know about, nobody else knows about.” This is saying … That’s dualistic, again. This goes back to it’s just me. What you see is what you get. I’m not hiding anything. I want to be like the maple leaf, right? Showing front, showing back.

Or this kind of goes to the Japanese teaching that the reverse side also has a reverse side. I love that because it’s true. It’s like you are on the other side, same concept, right? You look at something and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Then you look at the reverse side and say, “Well, what’s the reverse side.” Well, the reverse side also has a reverse side. You’re left with this idea of oneness. This idea of the way that we see things, our tendency is to conceptualize things. Concepts get us into trouble because concepts are always relative.

For example, we all know the famous question of looking at a cup, half water in there, and then the question is is this cup half full or is it half empty? There are entire presentations done around this. About the negativity of saying that it’s half empty versus half full, yeah. You get it.

Well, the Buddhist perspective on this question is the cup is always empty and it’s always full. It doesn’t matter what’s in there. If it’s half water well guess what, it’s still full, it’s half water half air. If it’s all empty, there’s no water, that’s still relative. The cup is empty relative to water, but the cup is full relative to air. This is why these concepts are always relative.
I like to say when someone says here you cup half empty or a cup half full type of person, to me the cup is always empty and it’s always full. That’s a non-dualistic way of viewing it. You can start to look in what other ways in your life do you see things through the relative conceptualizations. Empty of what? Full of what? You can’t answer that question just the way that it’s framed that way. We need to be careful of the danger of conceptualizations. We do this with concepts like perfection. What is perfection? Happiness. What is happiness? Like my friend’s post, love. What is love? There’s being in love and then there’s loving the idea of being in love, but those aren’t the same thing. We do this with everything, right?

This is where we want to obtain that freedom from the tyranny of our own concepts, of our ideas. The moment I attach to a conceptualization that I have created in my own mind, I’m a slave to it. I’m a slave to my concepts and my ideas. One of the big ones, a really really big one, is this idea of enlightenment. I seek after it as if it’s this thing out there that I can seek in the first place, but I can even define it much less attain it. How do I even define it? What is it? In the same way that something so common, like love, how do you actually define that? It can be very difficult.

That’s what we start to wake up to is the nature of reality that all things are impermanent, all things are interdependent, and what does that imply about me? What does this imply about you? This sense of self that you experience yourself as a permanent independent thing from everything else in the universe. What happens when you look and realize that, when it comes down to it, there is no independent you, there’s the interdependent you that exists as the sum total of all of the things that allow you to exist. The parts and the processes.

I remember my experience, I’ll call it my experience of this awakening, this awareness, was several years into my Buddhist studies. I was attending a presentation on the concept of emptiness and I had my notebook and I was taking notes and I was like, “I’m going to figure this out. This concept of emptiness. Things are inherently empty of meaning. I’m the one that assigns meaning.” Well what does that mean? And I’m taking notes and I felt like that person who is looking for his glasses. I’m like, “I know I left them here somewhere. They’re here.” Somewhere in the middle of that presentation it clicked for me. It clicked and I realized that I was trying to get it and there was nothing to get. It’s this incredible feeling and I remember I started to laugh. I remember putting down my notebook and putting down the pen and sitting back in the chair and it was just this incredible feeling of liberation like there’s nothing to figure out, there’s nothing to get. At that point, like, oh, I just get to live that’s it? I just get to experience this incredible phenomenon of being alive? That’s it? That was the point?

It was so liberating to arrive at that and that’s the irony of awakening. It’s like the moment you let it go is the moment that it arises naturally. It’s like now you’re awakened to the reality of things, which is that all things are impermanent, always changing, and all things are interdependent. I cannot say that enough, that’s what it is, over and over and over.

The Buddhist word of bodhi, which is you know what is commonly referred to as enlightenment or awareness, like I mentioned before, bodhi is the understanding possessed by a Buddha, which is someone who is awakened. It’s the understanding of an awakened person regarding the true nature of things. That they are impermanent and interdependent. When you really grasp the implication of what that means, specifically pointed towards you, the sense of self that you have, boom. Just like that a light bulb goes off and then you become aware or awakened. That’s it. I mean it’s not, like I mentioned, it’s not something out of the realm of the everyday or the ordinary.

In fact, there’s even a teaching, another zen teaching, where someone’s asking a monk, like, “How will I know when I come across someone who’s enlightened?” And the monk just says, “Oh, you’ll know because when they eat they eat, when they walk they walk, and when they sleep they sleep.” The person says “Well, anybody does that. Heck, I even do that.” He says, “No. But when they walk they just walk, when they eat they just eat, when they sleep they just sleep.” That’s the teaching he gives.

The idea behind that is this understanding that it’s that simple. They’re not walking and thinking, “I’m walking here but I really wish I was there,” or, “Here I am in my ordinary day to day life and I wish I was awakened.” They’re not playing that game of duality. They are perfectly content with where they are, doing what they’re doing, being who they are because at that point there’s nothing to chase after, right? There’s nothing there’s nothing to get so they drop the game of trying to get anything in the first place. There’s nothing to get. That’s the idea of enlightenment.

I hope that this presentation on enlightenment makes sense. I know it’s a difficult concept and there are books and books and books about this and talks and videos. I mean, you could research this all day long, but at the end of the day, if you really want to experience it, think of the analogy of the person carrying the rocks up the hill. It’s like, “Okay pick the right rock. Eventually you’ll get the right rock and then you’ll be awakened.” You’re gonna try and you’re going to try and you’re going to try and the moment you finally give up and realize, “You know what, this is stupid I’m never going to get this awareness enlightenment stuff,” so you give up, that’s the moment that it arises naturally. That’s the moment you become awake. It’s like with my notebook, the moment I realized, “Oh crap, there’s nothing to get.” It’s like ha ha ha, drop the notebook, this is silly. Here I was thinking I was going to figure it out there’s nothing to figure out and that’s when I figured it out. That’s what you figure out.

It’s a really neat feeling. It’s that sense of liberation that we always talk about in Buddhism. You become free from the trap of trying to be aware, trying to be enlightened. You become free from that. Happiness is the same, right? There’s a whole book and a whole psychological field called acceptance and commitment therapy that talks about this idea of happiness as the trap, the happiness trap. There was a book called that, The Happiness Trap. The idea is that happiness is something that you seek after and as long as you seek after it, you’re trapped by it. You’ll never actually get it because it’s like you’re in a hamster wheel chasing something that you cannot get. The moment you get out of the hamster wheel, you become free from the happiness trap and that’s when you experience happiness. It’s like the difference of the pursuit of happiness versus freedom from the pursuit of happiness. It’s like, why do you have to chase it? You get to experience it when you have it, because the causes and conditions are there, and when it’s not you don’t and it’s not a problem anymore. The problem was thinking that you should only have happiness and never have sadness, that’s the problem.

Awareness is similar, it’s very similar. I hope that with time, as you continue to study and read and become acquainted with these concepts, I really hope that everyone listening to this will experience that one day. That you’ll drop the game, that you’ll quit looking for it as if it’s this thing that’s out there, enlightenment. Drop the concept of enlightenment and then hope to experience the feeling of what it is to be enlightened in the same way that one day you experience what it is to fall in love. That’s the only time you’ll know what it is is when you experience it. Anything prior to that experiential understanding is just a concept and the concept can make things muddy.

I think this happens with love all the time, right? We’ve got these ideas of, “Here’s what love is.” Then it causes problems with relationships, because you’re living in this world of a conceptualization. Drop the concept. Drop the concept and see what happens. What is love if you don’t have a concept of what love is? What is enlightenment when you no longer have a concept of an enlightenment is? Try that with a lot of different things and what you’ll gain is this sense of freedom to experience something just the way that it is.

There’s a wonderful little poem that kind of sums this all up. It’s found in the book The Magic of Awareness by Anam Thubten and the poem says, “Wonder. Who has the magic to make the sun appear every morning? Who makes the bird on the elegant tree chirp? Breath, pulse, music, dew, sunset, the burning ambers of the fall. There is unfathomable joy in all that. Life is a stream. It flows on its own. No one knows why we are here. Stop trying to figure out the great mystery. The tea in front of you is getting cold. Drink it. Enjoy every drop of it and dance. Dance until there is no more dancer. It is the dance without dancer, this is how great mystics dance.”

That’s what I have that I want to share with you for this topic of what is enlightenment. I’m gonna be going through all the rest of the podcast topics that have been suggested and I’m going to continue doing this every week. Thanks to your support, for sharing, for listening. It really makes a difference with all of this. Your donations, of course, make a big difference.
If you enjoy this podcast, again, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, that really helps. It’s been, consistently, the number two podcast on iTunes, worldwide now, for Buddhism, which is a really exciting thing for me.
If you’re listening to this and you’re new to Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, start with the first five episodes of the podcast in order, one through five. Those are a summary of some of these key concepts taught in Buddhism.
Of course, you can always check out my book Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds. That’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. For more information and links you can visit secularbuddhism.com.
That’s all I have for now. I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.