Enlightenment. It's an appealing notion.
There I am, clueless, ignorant, unsatisfied, then bingo!, an enlightenment switch is flipped. Now I know what life is all about. I go around with a Buddha-smile for the rest of my days, blissed out because I'm no longer floundering blindly in cold cosmic darkness, but rather am basking on the always-sunny beach of enlightenment.
Only problem is...some questions.
Does enlightenment exist? Could I tell if I've got it? Is it possible to know whether someone else is enlightened? Are there various types of enlightenment?
Short answer: nobody knows.
Opinions abound. Demonstrable evidence is lacking. However, some people are able to address those questions I asked better than others. David Chapman, for example. (I've blogged about Chapman's Buddhist'y writings before; the Great God Google will point you to my posts.)
A few weeks ago Chapman wrote about "Epistemology and Enlightenment." The entire piece is well worth reading. Here's some parts that particularly resonated with me.
Much of what we think we know must be wrong, because it changes so often. This is obviously true of factual knowledge; but perhaps more importantly of ethical knowledge. Within living memory, everyone knew that it was fine to dump rubbish in the ocean, and premarital sex was wrong. Now, everyone knows dumping rubbish in the ocean is wrong, and most people agree that premarital sex is fine.
Acting on mistaken “knowledge” often has bad results. Ways of sorting out what’s so are precious.
The great triumph of epistemology has been to point out that two traditional sources of knowledge—experts and holy books—are not necessarily reliable.
...Buddhism, and other religions, are attractive partly because they have supposed experts on meaning, who claim to have definitive answers.
Should we believe them? Why?
Buddhist answers usually involve “enlightenment,” or similar terms such as “bodhi,” “nirvana,” “kensho,” and so forth. I mostly find these answers unhelpfully abstract and theoretical. What can we know about enlightenment, and how?
...Different brands of Buddhism have stories about enlightenment that sound very different.
- How do we know which theory of enlightenment is right?
- Maybe none of them. Maybe there is no such thing! Most claims about enlightenment sound like silly spiritual fantasies—which is one reason many Westerners reject Buddhism.
- Maybe the theories only seem to disagree. Like the parable of the blind men, they are describing one elephant in different ways, or grasp different parts of the elephant.
- Maybe there are different, real things that different Buddhisms call “enlightenment.” Maybe they argue only because they don’t recognize they are using one word for more than one thing.
...Supposedly, only an enlightened person can say if someone else is enlightened. They have special magic insight. Ordinary people can’t tell. So how does that work?
A skeptical view is that a supposed enlightenment expert (such as a Zen master) will declare you to be enlightened if:
-- You have been practicing hard enough for long enough to get enlightened, according to the sect’s traditions
-- You can recite the sect’s dogmas as needed
-- You conform to the social norms of the sect
-- You show conspicuous loyalty to the sect vs. competing ones
-- You have some sort of odd experience which you describe using the sect’s jargon
...According to some Buddhist texts, and some supposed experts, enlightenment is unmistakable. If you experience it, you know it, and it removes all doubt.
This is particularly common in “experiencing Oneness” theories of enlightenment. When you first taste chocolate, you cannot doubt your own experience of it. You know what chocolate is like. Similarly, if you directly experience your Absolute Oneness With Everything, that is indisputable. You know The Ultimate Truth. No one can dispute this, because The Ultimate Truth is itself an experience, and like all experiences it is private and unmistakeable.
There’s a couple of problems with this. You can (apparently) be mistaken about what you have experienced, and (more importantly) you can be mistaken about what it means.
...Intense non-ordinary experiences often include what seem to be profound insights into the fundamental nature of reality. But the second problem is that those can be totally wrong.
...Buddhism is based on the dogmatic belief that:
There was this guy Gautama, who finally got it while sitting under a tree. He was totally transformed. Whatever he got is by definition the best thing you can get. He was as enlightened as it is possible to be.
There is zero evidence for this, and zero rational argument. It’s pure mythology.
In fact, it doesn’t matter whether there was such a guy, or whether he really got it. The important thing is that the myth hides the unexamined assumption that there is exactly one thing to get.
My guess is that some of the theories of enlightenment, told by different Buddhisms, describe real things—but they are about different things. That makes talk about “enlightenment” inherently confusing. It’s like a barroom debate about whether Spain’s La Roja or the New York Giants are the greatest football team, without anyone noticing that they play two completely different games that both happen to be called “football.”
...The most popular modern Buddhist theory of enlightenment is that you discover that All is One, so your True Self is in fact The Entire Universe. This is taught by many Zen masters and some prominent Theravadins. There is some basis for it in the Mahayana scriptures, but it totally contradicts traditional Theravada. It probably comes mainly from Western monist mysticism.
The theory is obviously false. All is not one; chalk is not cheddar. (Try making a melted chalk sandwich.) You are not the entire universe. You are about six feet tall, whereas the universe is about six hundred trillion miles across. Your mind is not the entire universe, either. You know nothing about most of it.
(I’ve written more about problems with monist mysticism here.)
...As it happens, I think the Oneness experience does contain an important insight. It’s just that mystics misunderstand it. What the experience actually points to is the fact that there is no objective separation between you and your immediate surroundings. That’s quite different from your being the same as the entire universe; and it stands up to rational scrutiny.
...Some neuroscientists have an interesting guess about the mystical “Oneness” experience. If you are a monkey swinging through dense jungle, it’s critical to keep track of where all your body parts are. You always need know where you end, and the air or branches begin. Otherwise, you’ll slam into something. So, probably there is an evolved brain mechanism that keeps track of the physical self/other boundary at all times. Maybe what happens in the Oneness experience is that it stops functioning. You misinterpret your inability to feel where your body ends as having melted into the entire universe.