Mindfulness of Breathing II

Meditation on Perception (pp. 87-99)

What is Enlightenment Anyway?

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment

In the next talk, we will be exploring the seven factor of enlightenment. This is sometimes called the seven factors of awakening.

What is Enlightenment or Awakening? This is the great question to be explored first.

Enlightenment or Awakening

In Halfway Up the Mountain (Hohn Press, 1999), Mariana Caplan quotes many well-known spiritual teachers. Many of them would not directly talk about enlightenment because it is so easily misunderstood. It is much easier to say what it is not.

Caplan states: “The main difficulty with trying to define enlightenment is that we do so from the bleachers, and not from the playing field. The same person who watches a football game on television and says “If I were the quarterback, I would have made the touchdown,” is the one who cannot discipline himself to exercise three times a week and can’t throw a football five yards. We try to define enlightenment from a subjective and conceptual perspective, but it lacks any objective or experiential references. What we think of as “enlightenment: is an idea created by our imagination. Enlightenment is a fantasy.”

She goes on to note: “The most common, widely-held fantasy about enlightenment is that it is freedom from suffering, the transcendence of pain and struggle, the land of milk and honey, a state of perpetual love, bliss, and peace. Enlightenment represents the collectively-shared dream of an idealized and perfect world of pure beauty and joy. It is not only New Age fantasy, it is the secret wish of all people. It is our shared dream of salvation. But it is only a fantasy.”

While enlightenment may very well include some of these aforementioned elements. It is fantasy because we are wishing for a state of being in which our self can be present as well to know these elements. The mind cannot conceive of what enlightenment really is because it is beyond the mind.

So if enlightenment is a fantasy, 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.”” That why the term, awakening, may be a better description of the process. We awaken to the truth, to what is.

The Way of Mindfulness to Awakening

The Island is an anthology of the Buddha’s teachings on Nibbana (Englightenment) 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)


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  What does enlightenment mean to you?  What does awakening mean to you?


  • As you meditate, observe what arises when “enlightenment” or “awakening” comes to mind.  Is there any attachment such as in the form of fantasy that appears?  Can you see that whatever arises is a concept, an impermanent experience?

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