About Enlightenment

Ducks on Clear Lake“You hear a lot of talk about enlightenment… I’m asking the Bums to describe it, and what you would know when you attain it.”

Bear with me.

Gautama the Shakyan described “action” as action out of determinate thought:

… I say that determinate thought is action. When one determines, one acts by deed, word, or thought.

(AN III 415, Pali Text Society Vol III pg 294)

Gautama taught the cessation of “action”, first with regard to speech, then with regard to the body, and finally with regard to the mind.  He spoke of “the cessation of inhalation and exhalation” (action of the body) and “the cessation of perceiving and feeling” (action of the mind)–that’s shorthand for “the cessation of (determinate thought in) inhalation and exhalation” and “the cessation of (determinate thought in) perceiving and feeling”.

Gautama described the experience he associated with enlightenment, “the cessation of perceiving and feeling”:

… [an individual] comprehends thus, ‘This concentration of mind … is effected and thought out. But whatever is effected and thought out, that is impermanent, it is liable to stopping.’ When [the individual] knows this thus, sees this thus, [their] mind is freed from the canker of sense-pleasures and [their] mind is freed from the canker of becoming and [their] mind is freed from the canker of ignorance. In freedom is the knowledge that [one] is freed and [one] comprehends: “Destroyed is birth, brought to a close the (holy)-faring, done is what was to be done, there is no more of being such or so’. [They] comprehend thus: “The disturbances there might be resulting from the canker of sense-pleasures do not exist here; the disturbances there might be resulting from the canker of becoming do not exist here; the disturbances there might be resulting from the canker of ignorance do not exist here. And there is only this degree of disturbance, that is to say the six sensory fields that, conditioned by life, are grounded on this body itself.”

(MN III 108-109, Pali Text Society Vol III pg 151-152)

The six sensory fields he referred to are the usual five plus the mind, as the organ of perceiving and feeling.

That was the experience Gautama associated with his enlightenment.  The substance of his enlightenment was his insight into the chain of events that leads to suffering.  Here’s one of his descriptions of that chain of events:

That which we will…, and that which we intend to do and that wherewithal we are occupied:–this becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being there, there comes to be a station of consciousness. Consciousness being stationed and growing, rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and here from birth, decay, and death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow, and despair come to pass. Such is the uprising of this mass of ill.

Even if we do not will, or intend to do, and yet are occupied with something, this too becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness… whence birth… takes place.

But if we neither will, nor intend to do, nor are occupied about something, there is no becoming of an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being absent, there comes to be no station of consciousness. Consciousness not being stationed and growing, no rebirth of renewed existence takes place in the future, and herefrom birth, decay-and-death, grief, lamenting, suffering, sorrow and despair cease. Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of ill.

(SN II 65, Pali Text Society SN Vol II pg 45)

Gautama sometimes abbreviated “ill” as “the five groups based on grasping”:

Birth is anguish, old age and decay, sickness, death, sorrow, grief, woe, lamentation, and despair are ill. Not to get what one desires is ill. In short, the five groups based on grasping are ill.

(AN I 176, Pali Text Society Vol I pg 160)

“The five groups based on grasping” refers to grasping after a sense of self with respect to either form, feeling, mind, habitual tendency, or state of mind.

Here’s the insight that was Gautama’s enlightenment, restated with “the five groups” in place of “ill”:

That which we will…, and that which we intend to do and that wherewithal we are occupied:–this becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being there, there comes to be a station of consciousness. Consciousness being stationed and growing, rebirth of renewed existence (of consciousness) takes place in the future, and herefrom (the five groups based on grasping come to be).

Even if we do not will, or intend to do, and yet are occupied with something, this too becomes an object for the persistance of consciousness… whence (arises the five groups of grasping).

But if we neither will, nor intend to do, nor are occupied about something, there is no becoming of an object for the persistance of consciousness. The object being absent, there comes to be no station of consciousness. Consciousness not being stationed and growing, no rebirth of renewed existence (of consciousness) takes place in the future, and herefrom (no arising of the five groups takes place). Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of ill.

What I have recounted in the above quotations is a particular thread in the teachings, a thread that doesn’t involve reincarnation or multiple lives to explain the cause and effect of suffering, but only the phenomena of consciousness and the senses at hand.  Indeed, in one lecture Gautama offers a version of the eight-fold path (leading to the end of suffering) based entirely on consciousness and the senses:

(A person)…knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes… visual consciousness… impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye—neither to that is (such a one) attached. …(Such a one’s) physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments… and mental torments… and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. (Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).

Whatever is the view of what really is, that for (such a one) is right view; whatever is aspiration for what really is, that for (such a one) is right aspiration; whatever is endeavour for what really is, that is for (such a one) right endeavour; whatever is mindfulness of what really is, that is for (such a one) right mindfulness; whatever is concentration on what really is, that is for (such a one) right concentration. And (such a one’s) past acts of body, acts of speech, and mode of livelihood have been well purified.

(Majjhima-Nikaya, Pali Text Society Vol. 3 pg 337-338)

The eight-fold path is right view, right aspiration, right endeavor, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right concentration, and in the above lecture Gautama made clear that the path can be a matter of experience in the present, rather than of moral judgements about what constitutes “right”.

In at least one sermon in the Pali volumes, Gautama forsook the direct admonition of the pursuit of enlightenment, and instead advised his followers to adopt the practice of mindfulness that he described as his own. He said that the practice was his way of living before his enlightenment (when he “was yet a Bodhisattva”, SN V 317), as well as after (“the Tathagatha’s way of life”, ibid 326), and that it was the “best of ways” (ibid).  Moreover, he declared the practice to be a gateway to all the antecedents of enlightenment, and to the release and freedom that constituted enlightenment (ibid 328).

I think most of the teachers regarded as enlightened since Gautama have an intimate familiarity with the elements of mindfulness in Gautama’s way of living, whether they understand those elements through the teachings of Gautama or otherwise, and they have faith that the rhythm of those elements in daily life is the path.

At the same time, I think there are teachers out there, especially American-born Zen teachers, who are only intimately familiar with the elements of Gautama’s way of living when it comes to sitting still.

Apparently I’m not the only one—construction on a Zen center is underway in Lake County, California, a Zen center intended as a finishing school for American Zen teachers. I don’t think the school will specialize in how to copy scriptures while sitting seiza on a wood floor, or in the ceremony Zen teachers perform at the altar. Maybe the idea is to teach American Zen teachers to survive on 2000 calories a day while sitting in 100 degree heat and 30 degree cold, as they do in Japan–Lake County would be good for that.

My guess is that they would be looking to impart insight into the saying of Nan-Yueh Hwai-Jang (Ta-hui):

If you’re studying seated meditation, meditation is not sitting still.

(“Dogen’s Meditation Manuals”, Bielefeldt, UC Press 1st edition, p 195)

 

 

 

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