Calling Bullshit on Enlightenment: A Polemic

(This writing, at least the tone and title, is inspired by Laura Kipnis’ wonderful and salty little book, Against Love, A Polemic.  As Kipnis writes, who, after all, could really be against love?  Just so, of course, no spiritual seeker could really call bullshit on enlightenment.  Least of all me.  I am merely inviting the reader to consider what would happen if one behaved as if one did.  HD)

1. The Philological Background

The word “enlightenment” is a translation of the German aufklärung, literally “up-clearing.”  For scholars, these words (both German and English) are effectively synonymous with the 18th Century, the “Age of Reason.” The metaphor of clarification or aufklärung was used by intellectuals of that time to describe their own project, of clearing away superstition to make room for scientific liberal democracy.  

How then did “enlightenment” become a topic of discussion for yogis, Buddhists, and spiritual seekers?

The answer lies in the pioneering work of Max Müller (1823-1900), among the first translators of Sanskrit texts into European languages and, more importantly, one of the first to take the Sanskrit intellectual tradition seriously.

In translations of the Rig Veda and several Upanishads, Müller uses the English “enlightenment” to render both Sanskrit mokṣa (मोक्ष), “liberation,” and bodhi (बोधि), “awakening.”  His choice of word is interesting, and not without intention.

Among Müller’s other works was a translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into English.  In the preface, Müller writes:

“While in Veda we may study the childhood, we may study in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the perfect manhood of the Aryan mind.”

We should not be distracted by the word “Aryan” here — Müller strongly disagreed with racial interpretations of this word.  His intention was to associate Kant, his intellectual hero, with the Indian tradition stretching from the Rig Veda through the Upanishads and Buddhism — and to suggest that the whole tradition stood as an alternative to Christianity.

Kant, of course, was one of the great theorists of the historical Enlightenment.  In his Answering the Question:  What is Enlightenment? (Beantwortung der Frage:  Was ist Aufklärung?) he provides its most memorable definition.  (He defines it as having the courage to think for oneself.)  Realizing this, Müller’s idiosyncratic choice of words to translate bodhi and mokṣa begins to make more sense.  Müller understood the Vedas as a record of “natural religion,” and thus as implicit predecessors of Naturphilosophie and scientific reductionism; again, a counter-tradition, an escape from Christian superstition, a natural ally for the Age of Reason.

Already at this point in our exploration, multiple fissures and ironies leap out at us.  Bodhi and mokṣa (probably) don’t mean the same thing at all; the Rig Veda and Kant’s Critique now seem very far from one another in outlook; and, despite Müller’s best efforts, Indian tradition has been very firmly claimed by the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements, arch-foes of the historical Enlightenment, for the last 100 years or so.  “Spiritual enlightenment” and the “Age of Reason” seem almost opposed to one another from a contemporary perspective.

Müller may have been on the right side of history, but he was on the wrong side of philology.
For a vast semantic drift took place following Müller’s translations.  The word “enlightenment,” once accepted by linguists and scholars of comparative religion, was forced into service to render a heterogeneous collection of untranslatables in several languages; and meanwhile the implicit meaning, to English speaking ears, was shifted far from Kant’s self-reliant rationalism.

For the change in meaning, we can mainly blame the Theosophists — who, as it happened, were another group willing to take Indian tradition on its own terms, as long as it seemed to confirm their biases.  (They were also, incidentally, enamored of the word “Aryan.”)  From H P Blavatsky’s occult reading of folktales about the siddha tradition — figures like Matsyendranath in India and Milarepa in Tibet — sprang the figure of the “enlightened master,” or “secret chief,” a person who, through austerities and diligent study of arcane philosophy, has attained immortality, the ability to fly, and various other magic powers.  (Tracing the genealogy of this figure is a story for another time; but practitioners of 21st Century Transnational Postural Yoga might want to look into it, as his story is, in many ways, their own.)While the meaning of the word was drifting toward those associated, in Sanskrit, with the words siddha ( िसद्ध), “perfected one,” or jīvanmukti (जिवन्मुक्ति) “one liberated while still alive,” the word itself was being used to translate other words, deriving from very different contexts and traditions.  A non-comprehensive list:  Sanskrit bodhi (बोिध) “awakening,” mokṣa  (मोक्ष) “liberation,” jǹāna (ज्ञान) “knowledge,” prajǹā (प्रज्ञा) “wisdom,” nirvāna (नवार्ण) “extinguishment,” śunyatā (शुन्यता) “emptiness”; Chinese fó xìng (佛性) “awakened nature”; Japanese kensho (見性) (seeing one’s nature) and satori(悟り) “understanding.”

Fascinating as it would be, space does not allow us to sort through the manifold similarities and contradictions among these terms.  Suffice it to say, the single English word “enlightenment” has been used to translate a very wide array of technical terms, each with their own histories and meanings that have changed over time, used in extremely divergent contexts over some 3000 years and counting.  For our purposes here we will observe that the word “enlightened” is used in common parlance to mean something like Sanskrit mukti, “liberated one,” understood in the early Medieval sense of a jivanmukti or one “liberated while alive,” a sense wholly alien to the Upanishadic mokṣa; and the word “enlightenment” to mean something closest to Japanese kenshō or “seeing [one’s] nature,” understood as in the Rinzai Zen tradition as a sudden flash of insight from which one never really recovers.  (I suspect this use of “enlightenment” in common parlance can be largely laid at the door of D T Suzuki, a mid-twentieth century popularizer of Zen.)  And let us emphasize, though it shouldn’t need it, that, not only are these two meanings incommensurable, being separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, they are also not commensurable with the other words on the list.

What now?  With all respect to Max Müller, we should obviously stop using the word immediately.  But what of the concept?  Obviously, all those Sanskrit and Japanese words mean something important — don’t they?  Other phrases are used in English, “awakening” for instance, and “liberating insight” seems to be getting some traction, at least in scholarly circles.

The prudent course is to use the words in their original languages untranslated, along with a clear sense of their (changing) meaning and context.  But this is not enough.  To really call bullshit on enlightenment, we must do so from within, not from without.  We must rehabilitate it, inhabit it, kill it, as it were, with kindness — and then we will have some kind of ground to stand on.  We must, in other words, first become enlightened.  We must examine the notion of enlightenment from the enlightened perspective, tracing, from that outlook, its internal
contradictions.  We must discover the delusion hidden within it, thereby hopefully to also discover the enlightenment hidden within that delusion.  We will begin by becoming enlightened together; and then we will ask two simple questions:  when does enlightenment occur, and to whom does it occur.

2.  Tearing it Down from Within

2a. Temporality

Enlightenment, whatever it may or may not be, is in the present moment.  This present moment.  That is the only time it can happen.

So, no enlightenment experience you may have had in the past (now resident in memory) can help you now.  Any enlightenment or delusion must be made manifest in the moment, in the specific interaction that is transpiring now.

Thus there cannot be an “enlightened person.”  There are only enlightened interactions.  And any enlightened interaction or experience of insight that may have happened in the past is only a memory now.  To “be” enlightened you must be it now.  You must make it real, must stand naked before the world.  The marvelous feats, the blinding flashes of wisdom that occurred yesterday or 20 years ago are meaningless; no one cares, they cannot help you now.

By the same argument, no future enlightenment can help you now either.  So it is useless to strive toward some goal.  Whatever degree of enlightenment is available to you now, it must suffice.  You must, in each moment, make do with what you have, however meager.  To do so is the enlightened way.  It is a distraction and a waste to compare your present to an imaginary future, and find your present wanting.  Thus, enlightenment cannot be a goal of practice.  Enlightenment can only be a practice, in the here and now.  The future is going to have to take care of itself; and you are going to have to take care of yourself, in this moment, without appealing to some imaginary future awakening to guide you.

2b.  Beings

Enlightenment is the unmediated non-discursive revelation of nonduality.  I will just put it boldly; here, in the middle of the essay, most people are skimming.  Only you and I are here, together, and we can speak freely for a time.

Enlightenment, then, is the unmediated non-discursive revelation of nonduality, and as such, it can only happen to all beings simultaneously.

No one can be enlightened on their own.

No one can be any more enlightened than anyone else.

It takes a while for that to sink in, but it is so.  It is either all of us or none.  And “all of us,” here, includes Dōgen’s “trees, grass, stones, tiles”; when you are enlightened, they share in your enlightenment, they come forward, confirming your awakening, they are preaching the dharma you are responding to in an enlightened manner.  This is the only way it can be.

Enlightenment cannot be anyone’s personal property.  It is not a wisdom, knowledge, or characteristic of an individual, or a subset of individuals.  Anyone who says to you, “that person is enlightened,” must mean something else — or possibly they don't know what they are talking about.  Time to set them straight.  Enlightenment is the property of an interaction; it is co-created by the participants in that interaction; and all of them, and we as well, participate in the enlightenment that arises.  Enlightenment is no one’s possession.

3.  The Bodhisattva Vow

Fortunately for us, many, many years in the past our ancestors in India and China propounded a teaching to save us from the parasites that cling to the concept of enlightenment like blood-gorged plague fleas.  This vow says:  “I vow to help all other beings to attain enlightenment before I do.”

Let us take this vow together.  “I vow to help all other beings to attain enlightenment before I do.”

This means that henceforth, whenever experiences of insight, non-thought states, blazing kenshos, deep samadhis, or unmediated nondiscursive revelations of nonduality may transpire; whatever wise words may fall from our lips, whatever enlightened moment we may participate fully in; we vow to immediately let go, to walk away, to deliberately and actively become deluded again, to welcome back our own neuroses, our baggage, our karma, the demons that gnaw us from within.  We vow to rejoin the world of suffering and delusion, again and again, as if nothing had happened.

We do this, because without our delusions we have nothing to practice with.  But more importantly, we do this in the faith that now there is a breadcrumb trail, an Ariadne’s thread, which will lead us, when necessary, back out of the labyrinth, and with us our deluded suffering fellow beings.  We do this in the knowledge that nirvana is only found in the midst of samsara, that enlightened moments occur only in delusion.

It is like the Twelve Step parable:  A man falls in a hole.  He sees a priest pass by and asks the priest to pull him out.  The priest says “I’m sorry; I can’t reach you.”  A policemen walks by and the same interaction unfolds.  An enlightened teacher happens along; the man asks for help, the enlightened teacher offers to sell him a ticket to an initiatory weekend retreat upstate.  Finally the man’s friend walks by, and seeing his old drinking buddy down in a hole, without hesitation he jumps in with him.  The man says, “Well hey, it’s nice to see you — but this is no help, now we’re both stuck in this hole!”  His friend replies, “Yes, but I’ve been here before; and I know the way out.”

That is a truly enlightened interaction, and it proceeds directly from the abandonment of enlightenment.

However, this vow we have taken is not only good for our suffering friends; it is good for us.  It is a specific antidote for our poison.  It is is a cure for our grasping after future enlightenment, for our clinging to past enlightenment.  It is a corrective for our false conception that enlightenment can be one person’s possession or characteristic.

When we cling to it, when we imagine it “has happened” or “will happen,” we are as far from it as can be.  The more we cling, the more we grasp, the more we try to convince others of our wisdom, the more we drive it away from us, and from our friends (and everybody).  It is when we let it arise; when we turn away from awakening and knowingly become our best deluded selves, do the best that we can within delusion, that awakening has a chance to flower in our lives.

4.  The Targets of this Polemic

4a.  Yoga

21st Century Transnational Postural Yoga is not, by and large, concerned with enlightenment.  It may be that is a good thing.  Though the materialistic and misguided cultivation of beautiful physique, of ill-defined qualities like “health” and “well-being,” are clearly forms of bondage, at least they do not heap suffering on suffering by beguiling people
with “enlightenment,” like wanderers dying of thirst in the desert, desperately crawling toward an ever-receding mirage.  Unfortunately, once “Yoga philosophy” enters the room, wild and unexamined notions of “enlightenment,” “enlightened masters,” “liberation,” “self-realization,” “attaining samadhi,” “ceasing the turnings of the conscious mind” and so forth are all smuggled in, with the lack of intellectual rigor that characterizes the milieu.  Help me somebody!  Bullshit abounds.

Yogis and yoginis seeking to deepen their practice might do well to face the concept squarely, and if not call bullshit, at least ask for very precise definitions from anyone who refers to enlightenment, or any of the above related concepts — or, what is more likely, hints at them.  My observation has been that enlightenment haunts the shadows at the edges of most yoga studios like an unquiet ghost — neither fully acknowledged nor exorcised.  Breathe life into it or put it to rest; deepen your practice to the point where all beings are practicing with you or dispense with the whole concept of “depth,” practice shallowly, and live happily ever after.

4b.  Buddhism

Contemporary American Buddhism, au contraire, has almost a taboo against mentioning enlightenment.  Buddhists “practice,” but what they are practicing for (a pie-eating contest perhaps?) is left strategically unsaid.  But rest assured, spiritual materialism is not dead among the practitioners.

In Buddhist countries, temples perform services — mostly funerary — for the local population.   This is how they pay the bills.  This small business is passed down by way of succession from one head priest to the next, a process called “dharma transmission.”  In Japan, source of many American Buddhist traditions, monks marry and have (publicly acknowledged) children, and the first-born son is normally the dharma heir.  In other Buddhist countries, monks are supposedly celibate (though mistresses outside the temple walls are an open secret), and sons are not openly handed the keys.  Either way, this “dharma transmission” is a politico-economic transaction.

In America, Buddhist priests make money by leading workshops, not by chanting sutras for the dead.  Receiving dharma transmission from your teacher is no guarantee of a livelihood; you must advertise to conquer market share, and competition is fierce in saturated urban markets.  Since nothing material is passed on with the dharma — no properties, no population of tithing peasants — it is not obvious that it is a political act.  American Buddhists often assume , though their cultural norms do not allow them to say aloud, that this dharma transmission is an imprimatur, a verification by the teacher of a student’s enlightenment.  Since the word is not spoken, it remains undefined, of course, but whatever it is, it is regarded as a special state of some kind.

It might be salutary for American Buddhists to consider the possibility that there is a politico-economic aspect to their succession procedures.  In certain ways, it resembles a teaching credential.  Granted a credential that requires decades of study to attain!  Hardly a good return on investment when you think about it like that.  They might even consider calling bullshit on enlightenment — but they would have to say the word out loud, and many would balk.Enlightened interactions, of course, may occur among those who have been transmitted the dharma.  Perhaps they are even more common than among those who have not.  This does not mean such interactions become the possession of a certain class of people.  They are not.

4c.  Neo-Advaita

Finally, there exist in contemporary society a motley but influential group sometimes called “neo-advaitins,” though they mainly refer to themselves simply as “spiritual teachers.”  These persons have in common that their business is “spiritual teaching,” that they belong to no traditional lineage, and that their teaching consists of a patchwork of warmed-over Krishnamurti lectures, sometimes with some pop psychology or Rumi tacked on.

While these people rarely make the kind of wild claims familiar from great gurus of decades past — no Rolls Royces and few sex scandals bedevil the movement, and they do not usually claim to levitate or perform other unlikely feats — scratch the surface and another similarity between them appears.  They, or their handlers, always seem to present a narrative in which the future teacher, paralyzed by depression, is visited by an “experience,” after which, depression lifted, he or she commences to teach.  Sometimes — in the case of “Adyashanti,” say, or Andrew Cohen — these people are presented as spiritual seekers who unmoored themselves from the traditions in which they studied and struck out on their own, sometimes — in the case of Oprah’s other guests Byron Katie and Eckhardt Tolle, for instance — they are presented as normal folk, who suddenly change career.  In either case, a certain powerful experience is the cause — and, by implication, it is just such an experience that they offer their students and the readers of their books.

And these are the most sympathetic examples.  Walk the dingy halls of neo-advaitin “satsang culture” and you will hear the term enlightenment bandied about with the utmost sang-froid, as if one were overhearing, say, a horny troop of Boy Scouts speculating about female celebrities:  who does and who doesn’t, who has it and who has lost it, who got it from whom, long into the weary night.  It is all so cynical and mercantile that frankly anyone who does not call bullshit sooner or later must simply not be paying attention.

So, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it:  Enlightenment is not a mood-stabilizing medication, nor is it an alteration akin to breast implants.  It does not have a time, nor does it have a location.  If you are a seeker, it is not what you are seeking for; if you are a teacher, it is not what you are teaching.  Cease this yammering!  The beautiful world is all around you.  Crack a smile, crack a beer, crack a joke.  Leave enlightenment in the 18th century, where it belongs.  The world does not need a single additional enlightened master.  Rather, we need humble, compassionate interactions — and most of all, we need to be strong enough to tell the truth about our own mistakes, climb down off our high horses, and sincerely acknowledge our contribution to the mess.  A little more of that, and a little less seeking after or claiming of “enlightenment,” wisdom, or spiritual depth, would go a long way to making life mutually bearable; and that is the most enlightened thing that one could wish, by any definition.  

On 7 March, 2017, Halliday Dresser wrote these words out of his infinite grandmotherly kindness, to free enlightened beings from the pit of Hell into which they have sadly fallen, and unenlightened beings from their deluded striving.


Halliday Dresser

Halliday Dresser

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