The Nature of Enlightenment

October 9, 2013

What is enlightenment?

The Buddha defined it as:

It is the Unformed, the Unconditioned, the End,

the Truth, the Other Shore, the Subtle,

the Everlasting, the Invisible, the Undiversified,

Peace, the Deathless, the Blest, Safety,

the Wonderful, the Marvelous,

Nibbæna, Purity, Freedom,

the Island,

the Refuge, the Beyond.

~ S 43.1-44

There is really no definition because words cannot describe its meaning.  This raises the question….what is the relationship of meditation to enlightenment?

Why do we practice?  You may often hear people talk about meditation as the path to enlightenment—that they hope to attain something.  Yet, according the Ajahn Chah in his book Food for the Heart, the answer to “What are we practicing for?” is NOT to gain something (e.g enlightenment).  He says we practice in order to relinquish, not to gain.  A woman told him that she was suffering.  When he asked her what she wanted, she said that she wanted to be enlightened. “As long as you want to be enlightened,” he replied, ‘you will never become enlightened.  Don’t want anything.””

The Island is an anthology of the Buddha’s teachings on Nibbana (written by Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro.)  In the introduction by Ajahn Sumedo, he states “In meditation classes, people often start with a basic delusion that they never challenge, the idea that “I’m someone who grasps and has a lot of desires, and I have to practice in order to get rid of these desires and to stop grasping and clinging to things.  I shouldn’t cling to anything.”….So we start our practice from this basis and, many times, the result is disillusionment and disappointment, because our practice is based on the grasping of an idea”. The idea that we are now grasping is “I shouldn’t cling to anything.”  Any time the word “should” is used, we are grasping onto an idea.  Non-attachment means letting go of these ideas as well.  So in meditation, we practice the way of mindfulness.

“The way of mindfulness is the way of recognizing conditions just as they are.  We simply recognize and acknowledge their presence, without blaming them or judging them or criticizing them or praising them.  We allow them to be, the positive and the negative both.  And, as we trust in this way of mindfulness more and more, we begin to realize the reality of “The Island that you cannot go beyond”.

What is this island?  In one of the Buddha’s teachings, he is asked a question by the Brahmin student Kappa:

“Sir,” he said, “there are people stuck midstream in the terror and the fear of the rush of the river of being, and death and decay overwhelm them. For their sakes, Sir, tell me where to find an island, tell me where there is solid ground beyond the reach of all this pain.”
“Kappa,” said the Master, “for the sake of those people stuck in the middle of the river of being, overwhelmed by death and decay, I will tell you where to find solid ground.
“There is an island, an island which you cannot go beyond. It is a place of nothingness, a place of non-possession and of non-attachment. It is the total end of death and decay, and this is why I call it Nibbana [the extinguished, the cool].
“There are people who, in mindfulness, have realized this and are completely cooled here and now. They do not become slaves working for Mara, for Death; they cannot fall into his power.”

~ SN 1092–5 (translated by Ven. Saddhatissa)

Nibbana is a reality that each one of us can know for ourselves—once we recognize nonattachment and realize the reality of nongrasping.  What does the Buddha mean by the “island which you cannot go beyond?  The island represents the totality, the absolute and because it is everything, you cannot go beyond it.  In fact, you are already there.  It is because of the attachment and grasping that you can’t realize it.

As Ajahn Chah noted “This is the nature of enlightenment; it’s the extinguishing of fire, the cooling of that which was hot. This is peace.  This is the end of samsara (suffering), the cycle of birth and death. When you arrive at enlightenment, this is how it is.  It’s an ending of the ever turning and ever changing; an ending of greed, hatred, and delusion in our minds. We talk about it in terms of happiness because this is how worldly people understand the ideal to be, but in reality it has gone beyond both happiness and suffering.  It is perfect peace.”

Here is a poem that beautifully expresses the illusion of death and the oneness in the terms that the Buddha spoke of above.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

Mary Frye 1932