Why I am Not Enlightened

Age_of_Enlightenment_by_giladBy Eliezer Sobel

I finally figured out why I’m not enlightened. Over 30 years ago, when I had just made the proverbial first step on a “journey of a thousand miles” I heard the following well-known tale: A man approaches a Zen Master and asks to be shown the path to enlightenment. The Master replies, “Okay, follow me,” stands up, and walks the man to a nearby river and into the water. Without warning, the Master forces the man’s head under the water and holds it there as he struggles violently for his life, until he is nearly dead. At last the Master pulls the man up, gasping for air, and says, “When you want to be enlightened as badly as you wanted to take your next breath just now, come back and see me.”

At the time, as a youthful spiritual adventurer, the story inspired me and got me fired up, and fueled the years of seeking, meditating, and exotic travels to distant lands that followed. Yet now, looking back, I’m wondering if I could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I simply answered the question implied by that story honestly: No. No I do not want to get enlightened more than life itself, more than I would crave my next breath in that situation.

Again and again in the spiritual literature, and particularly in the fierce world of Zen, we come across stories that are similar. In ancient China, it is said that Hui-ka came to Bodhidharma’s cave and waited for the monk to accept him. After standing there for days with no sign of the teacher coming out to greet him, it began snowing. When the snow had reached to Hui’s waist, Bodhidharma finally came out and asked,

” What is it you want?”
“My mind is not at ease,” Hui replied.
“The Way is long and difficult,” said Bodhi, dismissing him.

Hui took out his sword and chopped off his left arm and handed it to the Master, and was accepted.

Another tale tells of the Zen master who was once threatened by a gruff Samurai holding a sword over him, saying, “Don’t you know who I am? I am someone who could cut your head off without a second thought or batting an eye,” to which the Master replied, “And don’t you know who I am? I am someone who could offer you his head to cut off without a second thought or batting an eye.” In one of his previous incarnations, the Buddha is said to have offered his body as food for a hungry tiger.

And so forth and so on; the message seems to be that enlightenment, or the realization of Truth, is not a casual affair for mere spiritual tourists, but only for the very rare individual willing to sacrifice any and everything, including his or her very life, in its pursuit.

Alas, most of us, myself included, are merely in search of, at best, “feeling better,” while possibly surrounding ourselves with consoling aphorisms and beliefs, incense, and countless books on esoteric subjects written by others who themselves have not made the final cut, so to speak. (The late Douglas Harding, one of the few who seemed to know of what he spoke, titled one of his books, On Having No Head.) But let’s face it: of all the people that you and I know who have spent a good deal of their lives sitting on meditation cushions, chanting in Sanskrit, gulping psychedelics like M & Ms, and subscribing to The Yoga Journal, how many have achieved the pinnacle of human possibility that all of the great spiritual teachings insist is available to anyone, if only we wanted it as badly as air and life itself?

It would mean putting enlightenment at the top of our To-Do list and priorities, ahead of career, family, comfort and security, things which, speaking for myself, actually comprise some of my favorite parts of being alive. In the Christian world, of course, Jesus was a “fisher of men” and told them to put down their nets right then and there and “follow me.” Like the Moonies in the early days, those who joined up never even called home or checked in with their parents. (Perhaps today the families of Peter, Judas and the rest would kidnap them and deliver them to a deprogrammer). Same for the monks who divested themselves of all worldly goods and personal attachments to traipse through the forest with the Buddha. The Jews, naturally, didn’t have much choice. Following Moses into the desert for 40 years seemed at first as if it would definitely be a step up from brutal slavery, but a lot of them bitched and moaned about it anyway. Even they didn’t always want their freedom more than the familiarity of the less than optimal life they knew.

Read the entire Huffington Post article.

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9 Responses to Why I am Not Enlightened

  1. What a mind-expanding article this is? It drove home a few home truths I can immediately identify with, as I felt that virtually all of the post fitted my own particular case to the hilt.

    Does spiritual progress represent the pre-eminent life concern of mine? I don’t even have to make an effort to be honest in order to answer that; the plain truth is that it just doesn’t. When I ruminate upon what drives my actions to the largest degree, the things that heave into sight (well) before the desire for enlightenment remain, as they have been, the quest to make more money, acquire some more land, perhaps someday own a bigger, more luxurious residence, purchase an upmarket, more expensive car, replace my LCD TV set with a larger Plasma screen, etc etc

    Now, I’m wondering whether the effect that reading this had on my psyche will succeed in causing me to revisit my priorities. As of the moment at which I’m penning this comment, I simply know that it won’t. Yet, I’m thankful for the article, as it surely did provide me with some food for thought.

  2. Great article! I think for Gaudiya Vaisnavas it is important to remain in the association of advanced bhaktas who have enough genuine spiritual experience to actually feel like this. They are the ones who see material attachments for what they are: distractions with no root in reality.

    Intense spiritual longing may seem like madness to a materialist but compared to the prospect presented by scripture and the example set by sadhus, it would be mad not to pursue the path wholeheartedly.

  3. Thanks to the infinite and tender mercy of Lord Caitanya, of Lord Nityananda, of Srila Prabhupada, of one’s most beloved guru, and the whole line of Vaisnava saints, that which appears almost impossible, as described in the article, is made available to all. Krsna’s Holy Name gives Himself through the agency of the disciplic line captivating us, and forcing us with delight and an irresistible invitation to take up the Sankirtana cause. How much do we want to become lovers of Krsna? Not so much, perhaps? But we no longer have a choice in the matter. Once we have joined the Holy Name, it will happen.

  4. It is indeed true that the realization of Truth is not a casual affair for mere spiritual tourists–“Die to live.” But one thing the article fails to mention is the essential necessity for the association of people who have such a die-to-live commitment to enlightenment. At least in Gaudiya Vaisnavism that is really the only way to get such an attitude, at least for the vast majority of practitioners. Without such association, before such urgency arises one could easily spend a lifetime doing all the practices of bhakti and pretty much go nowhere. We need meaningful service to a sadhu who will challenge us and cause us to stretch beyond our comfort zone otherwise can never realistically hope to approach enlightenment.

  5. I think what I like most about this article is how it conveys the progression (at least in my experience) of the urgency of the pursuit of enlightenment from an external one to an internal state. As Erhard in Sobel’s “opposing view” at the end of the article says “You can’t get enlightened. But you can be enlightened.” – This really rings true to me in the history of the K.C. movement and also in my own however meager progress in spiritual discipline. I see this correlation more so than the first 3/4’s of the article describing the more casual “enlightenment is cool but I just don’t want it that bad” sector.

    Many people who joined the temples or lived amongst devotees, or took initiation seem to feel the seriousness of pursuit of their spiritual prayojana. We have plenty of our own scriptural anecdotes urging us forward. But I also see a setback as described in that “opposing view”. There was a time when I gave up everyTHING, when so many of us did give up everything in our pursuit of the pancama purusartha – or in another perspective, the order of the guru and the service of the mission. It seems that this urgency to be “enlightened now”, to “die to live” immediately in a suicidal way without balanced consideration of where one is truly at has also been a disservice to sadhakas. I think there is something to be said for satisfaction… balanced with a dose of progressive goal setting. A good sadhu’s association is essential to be prodding us in the rear at times and holding a stop sign in our face at others. I really believe some of this balance has been missing and I find wisdom in the sadhus who recognize this paradox and can assist practitioners in balancing their spiritual practice in order to maximize the “speed” to enlightenment. As one such sadhu (Swami Tripurari) has put it: if you want to ascend the Himalayas, you have to go through the foothills leading up. You are gaining elevation all the way, getting closer and closer, but sometimes you are going up a hill and sometimes down. Sometimes it looks like we are losing “ground” in our progress, going downhill, but in perspective we are consistently moving towards the goal and gaining elevation.
    Too many people have become neurotic in their giving up of everything and not experiencing immediate results. Again, I like that “BE” part.

    In summary: I think the balance is right smack in the middle of these two opposing viewpoints. A sadhaka should cultivate an inner urgency that equates with a willingness to give up their “arms and legs”, while simultaneously cultivating and culturing the “pain” of staying in external situations which bring out that inner enlightenment so that it becomes independent of the situation.

  6. Last night during a Gita class Guru Maharaj said a similar thing. He said we shouldn’t try to go to the spiritual world but that we should be there. Thats why he is manifesting places like Audarya and Madhuvan.

  7. Well said Madan Gopal–you’ve done a great job pointing out that we need balance, and that too much complacency OR urgency can be equally detrimental to one’s progress. Bhakti is the Middle Way, or perhaps in familiar Western terms, the Way of Goldilocks: not too much and not too little–juuuust right!

    • I have to say I’m more into the full speed ahead/burn out-program.
      The art of it is to go almost full throtle all the time and just as your engine is about to explode, you pull over and take a 15-minute nap. Then back on the road again!

      • Nistha, I can totally relate to what you are saying. Both approaches have potential drawbacks. While I’m in a stage that I feel most comfortable in the “Goldilocks” marga (good one C.H.!) I see (and experience) that the danger for that can be in becoming spiritually lazy.
        There is great value in a spiritual marathon, using up all of one’s resources in the fire of seva and then almost starting anew (after a short break), feeling refreshed. I am lucky to get that opportunity somewhat regularly to keep me on track.
        Again, as you know, expert guidance is undoubtedly the key to safety from pitfalls in either approach. Sri Guru is expert in knowing when to turn up the fire or simmer us. Full faith in Sri Guru makes whatever flame we’re on feel just right. I’m grateful to have such guidance, as well as the association of friends like you who exemplify and indeed have developed an art of guru-seva-nistha.

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