A Humanist Perspective
By Jerry Lusa, Sunday Services Committee
Maybe it’s the new job. I feel like Gimli standing in front of the Dark Door at the end of the Dimholt road. Him, a dwarf hesitant to go underground, and me a Humanist / Taoist / Zen Buddhist hesitant to dive into either enlightenment or The Enlightenment. Both enlightenments are the rock on which I stand, the air which I breathe, and yet I stare into a void. Ah, well, here goes…
The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was the time between 1650 and 1800 when the thinkers of the day got free from the stultifying oppression of ecclesiastical authority that had held back the general progress of European society for a millennium. The sciences and philosophies they developed have blossomed to free us from tyranny, toil, plague and parasite. And it keeps getting better. The number of people dying from violence is steadily decreasing. Diseases are overcome faster than new ones arrive. The number of children starving to death or dying from preventable illnesses each day is dwindling (a big shout-out to Bill and Melinda Gates!) Intolerance is fading, though mostly in places that have embraced the principles which emerged in The Enlightenment. I’m feeling upbeat here.
So what could this possibly have to do with the small-e enlightenment discovered by Guatama Buddha two thousand four hundred years ago, you ask? The Enlightenment has certainly reduced many kinds of human suffering, which is also what the Buddha sought. How many of us know the physical suffering of the raw, organic human existence that the Buddha’s contemporaries knew? We may fantasize about a noble past, but would we want to go back to lice and flees and tapeworms, and tigers dragging people into the night? Would we want to go back in time as servants to brutes, them taking our sons for their armies and our daughters for their palaces? Thanks to the discoveries and the ideas of The Enlightenment, we are largely free of those kinds of suffering – and it keeps getting better!
And yet we suffer: some of it real, some of it of our own making. We all know real suffering. I won’t dwell on that. But the human mind evolved to be ever alert to danger, the snap of a twig or a scent on the breeze. Sitting at our desks and in our kitchens and our living rooms we are divorced from the reality for which we evolved; we know this now, thanks again to the Age of Enlightenment. We know that our minds will find phantoms where there are none. We perceive threats and problems where none are present. We fret over wants when our cupboards are full. Here is where the Buddha’s ancient wisdom still holds true. We still suffer when we need not.
Big-E and little-e enlightenment are very similar in a way. The little-e kind requires us to abandon our preconceptions of the world and of ourselves. The big-E kind, if we want to not just take advantage of it but actually know it, requires us to abandon wanting the world to be the way we might want it. The laws of physics describe all of what we perceive, and evolutionary psychology can answer our questions about ourselves, but it takes a bit of work to get there, the work of adding knowledge to our minds. Little-e enlightenment also takes work, but in a subtractive way, shedding that to which we cling.
By Nancy Thompson, UUS:E Buddhist Group
Enlightenment is at the heart of the Buddhist path; it’s what Buddhists aspire to achieve — for themselves, for all beings, for society — by practicing Buddhism. But enlightenment, or nirvana, is not a place that we get to, like heaven; it’s a state of mind that we bring to whatever circumstances arise. Noah Levine, a contemporary teacher in Buddhism’s oldest tradition, the Thai Forest tradition, says the Pali word for nirvana, nibanna, is a cooking term that literally means “no boil,” or to remove from heat. The person who has achieved enlightenment is able to be in the world with wisdom and compassion, fully awake to the world’s suffering but not drawn into it. That’s how a buddha or bodhisattva — those who vow not to attain enlightenment until they have led all other beings there– are able to be of help in the world, by seeing needs and responding compassionately.
The later schools of Buddhism say that we already are enlightened, we already have the innate wisdom and compassion of a buddha, but it’s covered up by fear, anger, confusion, and conditioning. The path, then, is not about becoming enlightened but unpeeling the layers that cover up our true nature. It’s about awakening to our inherent worth and dignity and seeing it in others. We all have moments of enlightenment. For a lot of people, they come in nature. When we lose ourselves in a leaf or feel the rhythms of the ocean’s waves or gaze in wonder at a sunset, we feel that connection to something larger, something that is beyond words or thought. something that is, simply, enough without any embellishment.
Discovering that connection to the inherent web of all existence is the aim of Buddhist meditation techniques. The thought is that if you can connect to it in meditation, you can begin to bring it into the world with you. And when you see the world and act in the world from that larger view, you discover the compassionate wisdom to see things as they are and the skillful methods to work toward making them better.
Enlightenment is possible, Jack Kornfield says, describing it as “unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace.” But those moments don’t last. “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance. In spiritual life, it is no different: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.”
For more, come to the May 26th service: “How to Act Like an Enlightened Being.” Check the Sunday Services page for more information.