Friday, September 16, 2011

Ideas About Enlightenment

There must be something wrong with our ideas of enlightenment if we think that it must mean an end to so much of the richness and pleasure of life. (Probably much of the problem is simply that we have ideas about enlightenment). As an old master once said:

“Thirty years ago, before I had studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. And then later, when I had more intimate knowledge, I came to see mountains not as mountains and rivers not as rivers. But now that I have attained the substance, I again see mountains just as mountains, and rivers just as rivers.”

Who could not love Zen, if only for little gems like these? One interpretation or understanding is this: at first, we see only our idea of mountains, a symbol or abstraction. As we study and learn, we realize our error, but it's a while before we actually get to the third phase, enlightenment: that mountains are mountains. Seeing the real itself, rather than the idea of it. Or, as Dogen cryptically puts it: “The meaning of these words is not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains.”

In the discussion on my previous post, it seems we're all seeing mountains as mountains, or, mountains as idea-mountains, word-mountains. We get in our own way, like having a cataract: you don't see the world, you see your own eye. We don't know enlightenment or true clarity of mind, so we theorize about it. Ignorance.

We don't really know what it's like to encounter the world free of that ignorance. Or, if we do, it's mainly in tiny glimpses, soon overcome by mind and ideas, thought about, commented on, and analyzed back into ignorance. So though I don't know what it would be like living as an enlightened man, and though this is just more ignorance talking, I just can't believe that enlightenment (or whatever you want to call it) means getting rid of all the ups and downs. The Eagles sang about it in "Desperado," when they sang, "you're losin' all your highs and lows, ain't it funny how the feeling goes away..." And it's a tragic song; this is not something to be sought. No one wants that kind of numbness.

So, I'm wary when all this talk about ending desire and suffering, about detachment and dispassionate awareness comes up. I am beginning to think of that as metaphorical language, or as meaning something I can't quite grasp. I consider such notions, embraced literally, as confused and wrong, even if I can offer no alternative. Call this itself ignorant faith, but bland serenity being the highest attainment, simply doesn't ring true. It's not human. And not inhuman as in, not Homo sapiens, but as in... there's no heart.

I think what I was trying to say in the last post was that there's something somehow beautiful about getting wrapped up and absorbed in something, be it football, political activism, a TV show, a love relationship, a job, a hobby, anything. I sometimes think that a serene, detached viewpoint would turn the world into a sort of dictionary. But what we all want is a story, man... drama. A romance, an adventure, a mystery; hell, for some of us, even a self-help book will do, a way of editing of our own story. We all choose sides somewhere, and any enlightenment worth my time must play to that as well. Balance and moderation in all things, including balance and moderation, eh?


  1. There was once a cosmetics company that advertised its bath rpoducts (for men, I think) with the slogan, "When a man is tired of pleasure, he is tired of living."

    The problem is thinking that pleasure can be bought, and (as in my own slovenly bathroom) accumulated. You should enjoy the bath, not the product.

  2. "We don't know enlightenment or true clarity of mind, so we theorize about it. Ignorance."

    I'm not an enlightened person, I still have a long ways to go, but I do experience momentary glimpses of deep clarity and insight, and based on this my opinion of enlightenment is that it is characterized by a deep sense of clarity, calm, and an expansiveness of knowing that goes beyond words, that can only be directly experienced, and whenever you attempt to describe it to others you will always miss the mark.

    In other words, writing about enlightenment is like trying to describe a scent to someone who never smelled it before, where words are pretty much useless, because the only way they will ever know the scent is if they actually smell it for themselves.

    Nothing wrong with theorizing though, as what would blogs be without it? There is a lot of stuff I know that I cannot put into words, and whenever I attempt it, it just does not come out right. But I like words. I enjoy theorizing, but I also understand the limitations words put on things. They are abstractions, but they are necessary abstractions, as without them how else would we communicate?

    Words are a lot like maps, they are useful tools that help you find your way from point a to point b, but the real traveling takes place off the maps in the real world, not in some two dimensional mental abstraction.

  3. Baroness, as usual, you come through with words of clarity and simplicity.

    Cym, you're right, I was going to write something about the ineffable nature of those moments of clarity, where it all comes out wrong. But I was trying to keep this relatively short. It still ended up a far longer post than I intended. Oh well.

    As for liking words and blogging, clearly I do too. Sometimes, it's like a certain haiku poet wrote, I forget which one. To paraphrase, he lamented that he could have been a far more advanced Zen monk, if not for his love of and life of writing poetry.