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Lions Roar : May 2008
52 play the same role as terra incognita. It can serve as a blank slate for the most poignant, hopeful, and outrageous fantasies. We could think of all the good things we know about and aspire to, every quality we wish we had but don’t, and pile them together. If all those were realized, if our wish came true, would that be enlightenment? If we were perfect in every way, would that be enlightenment? If you close your eyes and free associate, what images come into your mind when you think of enlightenment? What comes up when you think of awake? When you cross the river and abandon the boat, where are you—and how does that relate to where you are just now? It is said that the Buddha attained unsurpassable complete great enlightenment, and that his virtues are inconceivable. They cannot be captured by words and thought. It is also said that for each eon, there is a Buddha; in our case, Gautama Shakyamuni. Is that it, only one? Or is it that the Buddha forges the way, alone and independent, scouting a path for the rest of us to follow—a path leading to the same destination? How are we to know? Some equate enlightenment with happiness. All beings seek hap- piness, but only enlightened ones know true happiness independent of the vagaries of favorable conditions. But how is it possible to attain happiness when there are suffering beings? A mother is said to be only as happy as her least happy child, so if we view all beings as a mother would her children, we can never be happy until all beings are enlightened. Compassion does not allow us to see happi- ness as an individual accomplishment, because our experience is so intimately interconnected with all living beings. The idea of enlightenment is tied up with our images of wise men and wise women. We have all sorts of preconceptions about how such wise beings are supposed to look, supposed to talk, and supposed to act. Maybe they have to be a certain gender or from a certain class. Maybe they need to wear robes or appear to be very pure. Perhaps they need to have a halo and radiate light. Maybe they are extraordinarily virtuous and kind, and smile beneficently at us. Based on our particular preconceived notions, we may try to sort out who among us is enlightened to greater or lesser de- grees. We would like to match what we see with whatever standard we have created. But in doing so, not only may we apply inadequate standards but we may also be fooled by trappings and popular acclaim. Enlightenment is not easy to pin down. Nevertheless, while our ideas of enlight- enment may be somewhat vague, and we may not know exactly how to describe it, we feel that we recognize it when we see it. SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2008 Maybe we don’t know exactly what we are seeking—we only know that we are seeking something. We might not want to deal with it, but we can’t get around the notion of enlightenment. Although we could pretend to be above it all, beyond striving and without am- bition, we cannot hide the fact that in the Buddhist tradition the attainment of enlightenment is the central goal. At the same time, it is considered unseemly to talk overly much about one’s own practice experiences, or to advertise one’s own enlightenment. It is felt that if you have to point it out, it isn’t happening. So it is better to be modest about one’s attainments, neither latching on to such experiences nor trying to explain or discuss them with others. The problem with that approach is that, since nobody talks about it, students may begin to wonder if awakening is simply out of reach, if enlightenment is a myth and a hoax. I was having brunch with an old friend of mine, and at one point he became very quiet and pensive and asked me, “After all these years of practice, do you think anyone in our sangha has actually attained enlightenment? Is there anyone who is truly accomplished?” There was an urgency in his voice, a doubt that enlightenment might even be a possibility. At another time, I overheard Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche remark that although he had all these monks in his monastery doing pujas, detailed ritual practices, all day long, he didn’t know why they kept doing it, because, basically, they weren’t accomplishing anything. And Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche went so far as to say that we should be inspired to continue on the path of dharma not because someone else got enlightened, but because someone did not get enlightened! The word “enlightenment” is so loaded at this point, so fraught with projections, that I wonder if it is more of a hin- drance than an inspiration. It is so colored by a feeling of dis- tance and unattainable perfection. Just think of all the cartoons in which spiritual seekers climb some special mountaintop on which sits a wise yogi who has all the answers and knows the secrets of the universe. Somehow that yogi is able to dispense this special knowledge, so if you manage to climb up and find him, he (always a “he” in the cartoons I have seen) may deign to lay it on you. It is clear—we don’t have it. It is far away in some exotic and remote mountaintop, so we have to go to the source and beg for it. The question arises as to whether we are practicing, seeking, and develop- ing devotion in order to get the prize, the big E, or whether it goes the other way around: that we practice, seek, and develop devotion as the expression of JUDITH LIEF is an acharya (senior teacher) in Shambhala Interna- tional and the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality. MAY 50-53.indd 52 MAY 50-53.indd 52 3/6/08 11:29:59 AM 3/6/08 11:29:59 AM