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unpacking en-light-en-ment


For many people who identify as Buddhist, "enlightenment" is their holy grail. But there are several definitions of enlightenment, and several opinions regarding whether attaining enlightenment is possible (or even desirable) for the average human.

From my viewpoint, enlightenment is dangled in front of laypersons and aspiring Buddhists like a carrot in front of a horse, an enticement to begin work and continue working toward progress along the spiritual path. Some spiritual leaders offer their followers a chance for enlightenment in the future, if they come along and follow all the rules. Whatever those rules might be. From whomever they might come. Good luck with that!

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The root of this word is "light". Immediately we see that enlightenment is not a literal term, but a figurative one. Buddhists are not seeking light, they are seeking truth. They are seeking to see their surroundings and themselves as they truly are. A better way to describe this goal would be entruthenment, but that word sounds clumsy in English ;-)

Described this way, Buddhism isn't anything special, you'd think that everybody wants to see the truth, no matter their choice of (or lack of) religion. And in my experience: Buddhism doesn't have a monopoly on truth, and plenty of Buddhists get caught up in illusions. Perhaps the biggest illusions that Buddhists fall for are: the illusion that truth is secret, special, or difficult to find; the illusion that Buddhism is a better path to truth than other religions (or no religion); and the most grand illusion that knowing the truth will somehow make things better ... or set you free.

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Many artists have equated enlightenment with madness. Many a fictional protagonist has searched for enlightenment, only to destroy himself after finding it.

Many philosophers have speculated that the universe is merely a maze for Goddess to lose herself inside, to temporarily forget who she is, so she can play with her imaginary friends and enemies.

I've had some personal experience with these views. And I'm not alone. Many people who have pursued Buddhism to discover enlightenment have ended up ... going back home, hugging their families & friends, resuming their careers, and doing their chores.

Their reason: seeing the truth of the universe doesn't change anything. You are still you, the maze is still the maze, and you are still in the maze.

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Many people who set out on spiritual journeys are hoping to make things better. Typical motivations for seekers include life-threatening illnesses, death of a loved one, losing a job, personal bankruptcy, substance addiction, and imprisonment. A great source of suffering motivates the seeker to find a spiritual solution, a way to make the universe a kinder place.

But walking a spiritual path does not remove the suffering, it simply changes the scenery. Discovering the truth of the universe does not remove the suffering, it simply removes the scenery. The only way to make the universe a kinder place is to become a kinder person yourself. The only way to become a kinder person is to act more kindly yourself.

Eventually you discover this: You don't get to change the universe, but you do get to change your own act.


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