On the way home I was thinking about definitions of enlightenment:
1: the act or means of enlightening : the state of being enlightened
2 capitalized: a philosophic movement of the 18th century marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism —used with the
3 Buddhism: a final blessed state marked by the absence of desire or suffering
Classical Buddhist enlightenment is seeing the true nature of one’s self.
In the Mahayana this extrapolates into understanding the essential nature of existence itself, which generates compassionate action towards beings who are subject to suffering relative to their distorted perception.
Enlightenment is definitely an actual experience, subjective though it maybe, it is no less “real” than falling in love. As to the objective truth of said experience(s)… well…
In a nutshell, it is pretty easy to describe:
You are a creation of certain causes and conditions, (Interdependence.) As causes and conditions are constantly changing, so are you, (Impermanence.) Without said causes and conditions, you do not exist and therefore have no fundamentally existing self, (Anatta.) Becoming “awake” (Buddhi) to this leads to the cessation of the unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha) which surrounds the maintenance of this illusion.
This is a view currently being reinforced by modern neuroscience, to quote Dan Dennett:
"What we are, what each of us is — what you are, what I am — is approximately 100 trillion little cellular robots. That’s what we’re made of, no other ingredients at all. We’re just made of cells, about 100 trillion of them. Not a single one of those cells is conscious; not a single one of those cells knows who you are, or cares. Somehow, we have to explain how when you put together teams, armies, battalions of hundreds of millions of little robotic unconscious cells — not so different really from a bacterium, each one of them — the result is this. I mean, just look at it. The content — there’s color, there’s ideas, there’s memories, there’s history. And somehow all that content of consciousness is accomplished by the busy activity of those hoards of neurons.”
- The Illusion of Consciousness - TED
"A good theory of consciousness should make a conscious mind look like an abandoned factory, full of humming machinery and nobody home to supervise it, or enjoy it, or witness it.”
- As quoted in a review of Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness and preceded in the review by:
"The supposed loss of the continuous and unitary Self is disturbing to many since on Dennett’s account the work done by the imagined homunculi in the Cartesian Theatre is distributed amongst various lesser agencies in the brain, none of which is conscious.”
(Seriously though… watch the TED talk if you haven’t already.)
In Buddhism enlightenment is simply, but irrevocably, directly/subjectively having/living with this insight.
There can be moments of enlightenment along the way and afterwards, but “Buddha’s Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree” means this one irrevocable explosion of realization. Which we can all have.
Consciousness itself, or being conscious, is not an illusion. In fact the illusion of “a fundamentally existing self” is caused precisely by our being conscious and it’s refraction into subject/object.
Poison to the ignorant and Soma to the wise.
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