What Is Enlightenment?

Nancy Thompson.

You know how it’s said that the Native People in the northern climates – in my childhood we called them Eskimos – have 
50 words for snow?  It’s very important to them to know the condition of the snow to make their plans for the day or the month, so they developed lots of descriptive words to note subtle differences.
For Buddhists, the word “enlightenment” is kind of like that. Enlightenment is the promise of the Buddhist path, and it has many synonyms – grace, basic goodness, awakening, buddhanature, ground of being, original mind. The Buddha didn’t call himself enlightened.



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How to Act Like an Enlightened Being

Nancy Thompson.  

Buddhist teacher Noah Levine says that everyone has buddhanature – but few choose to do the work to awaken.  And it is work. We have those glimpses of our enlightened nature all the time, but we don’t live from there.
Much of Buddhist practice – from the simplicity of zazen, or Zen Buddhist meditation, to the elaborate bells and drums and thangka paintings used by Tibetan Buddhists – is designed to help us get in touch with our awakened nature for longer stretches of time and to develop familiarity with that feeling – to “bake it into the bones,” as one of my teachers says – so that it becomes our default setting and we go there more easily during our ordinary lives.

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Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Boston Tragedy

As I sat down to write my column for the church’s May newsletter, my dad called to tell me about bombs exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Very soon after I learned of a distant relation (my brother’s brother-in-law) who was at the finish line. He escaped unharmed, but his friend was injured. Then I learned that my other brother, who was running the Marathon, is OK. Then my wife sent a Skype video message. She’s traveling with a group of exchange students in Italy, and heard about the bombing from a waiter in a restaurant in Rome. Already my colleague, the Rev. Lynn Ungar, has written a grounded, comforting piece in response to the tragedy. At least for me, her words say exactly what needs to be said in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this:

We don’t know, and we can’t imagine. And maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to sit with those two facts. We don’t know. And so it does no good to speculate about foreign terrorists or domestic terrorists or mental illness or right-wing or left-wing conspiracies. We don’t know. Maybe by the time you read this, we will. But for the meantime we just have to live with horrible suffering for no known reason….

However many of these horrible, heart-wrenching events happen, they will only be perpetrated by the most infinitesimal fraction of the population, while the rest of us watch and pray and donate blood and do whatever we can to hold safe not only our children and our friends, but also complete strangers whose suffering we can, alas, imagine. I can’t say whether it’s enough, but it’s how we live in this world.

I was originally going to share a few thoughts on enlightenment in my newsletter column. Enlightenment is our ministry theme for May. I was wondering whether I should address the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or offer a few reminders about the influence of the European Enlightenment on Unitarian Universalism. But not now. After listening to the news; after watching the footage of carnage and chaos on Boylston Street in downtown Boston; after connecting with friends and family who live in Boston; and after explaining once again to my boys that “something bad” happened, that someone set off a bomb in Boston (my boys love Boston), that I wanted them to hear it from me and not someone else, and that we are safe (how many times can I keep assuring them of this before they start to doubt my words?)—after all this I am reminded that whatever degree of enlightenment we’ve attained in our lives, however spiritually advanced we are, there are moments in which, as Rev. Ungar says, “we don’t know, and we can’t imagine.”

This is one of those moments. How to understand it? How to explain it? Yes, there will be answers. The authorities will likely figure out who did this and why. The perpetrators will likely “feel the full weight of justice,” as the President said in his remarks about the bombing. But how can we ever fully understand what goes through the mind of someone or someones intent on wreaking this kind of havoc? How can we ever fully understand what drives someone or someones to carry out this kind of violence? What could have possibly broken them so much that they would feel so driven to break others in this merciless way?

Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

At the time of the Newtown shooting I counseled our congregation that in the wake of tragedy we are required to do three things: ground ourselves; attend to the suffering, whatever form it takes; and then enter into the work of repairing the world. This same advice applies now. I think it’s the right pastoral advice. But I admit it feels like a lot in the sense that so many people are still working through the trauma of Newtown. “Now we must add the trauma of Boston?” asked one of my parishioners on the phone.  ”Yes, I think we must,” I said. “Whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready or not, what choice do we have?”

We may not be ready. But life has taken a tragic turn. My prayer for us is that we may turn with life into this tragedy and respond to it in all the ways it asks us to respond. My prayer is that we may respond to it with all the grace and dignity we can muster.