Friday, November 27, 2009

What is enlightenment? ooops i did it again

reading the following piece of art answers many questions yet at the same time leaves these questions unanswered :) map and territory no longer is important.

hmmm i like the article also cos some parts relates to the title of this blog. absolute being akin to unconditional and relative being akin to conditional. one definitely doesnt get any more delusional than this isnt it? hahaha

oh yeah, today is hari raya haji. here's wishing all muslims a happy and merry hari raya haji. i also better get out of this empty office now :P

taken from

Am I Enlightened?

Realization is nothing to be gained anew....Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized.

--Ramana Maharshi

That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.

--Huang Po

Whatever needs change is a thought, an idea, a phantom....Even though you're full of desire to improve or change, really see that there is not now, nor will there ever be, a way out of what you are. You can never become what you already are!

--Karl Renz

Like the worms in the cow dung, the moment the cow dung dries they are finished, however much progress they have made.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.


The discovery of truth is in the discernment of the false. You can know what is not. What is -- you can only be.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

Enlightenment is not like a sudden realization of something mysterious. Enlightenment is nothing but awakening from illusions and returning to the reality of life.


If you believe that there is something lacking, it is not quite so. But if you think there is nothing to do, nothing needed, that is not quite so.

--Zen teacher Elihu Genmyo Smith

Enlightenment see ourselves not as separate, not as lacking, not as in charge, not as weak and helpless.

--Zen teacher Steve Hagen

The surprise within the surprise of every new discovery is that there is ever more to be discovered.

--Brother David Steindl-Rast, Catholic monk

Many people who come to this web site are trying hard to become enlightened or to have some kind of awakening, and many teachers continue to buy into and perpetuate the myth of permanently enlightened people. Many so-called “seekers“ are wondering who is really awake and who isn’t. Sometimes I am asked, “Are you enlightened?”

If I say yes, will that mean I am? If I say no, can you be sure I’m not? Where does this question come from? If I’m enlightened, will you then believe that everything I say is true? If I’m not, will you automatically discount whatever I say? If we believe that someone is enlightened, are we hoping to imitate this person’s lifestyle, replicate this person’s experiences, or maybe get energetically zapped by the enlightened one in some magical way? Where does this question about whether someone is enlightened come from? What are we really looking for?

This word “enlightenment” gets used in so many different ways by different teachers. What does it really mean? What does it mean to you? What do you imagine enlightenment to be? What are you seeking?

Some say enlightenment is the absence of suffering, some say it is the absence of non-functional thinking, some say it is the end of identification with the thinking mind, some say it is the absence of ego or the dissolution of the separate self, some say it is the absence of any sense of agency or of being the author of the thoughts and actions that arise. Some say it is the realization of Oneness, others describe it as the merging of difference and unity. Some compare enlightenment to lucid dreaming in the waking state and say that it is the abiding realization that all of consciousness is a dream state, including the entire movie of waking life and the whole spiritual search. Some insist that enlightenment manifests only as saintly behavior and is characterized by being soft-spoken, generous, kind, vegetarian and pacifist, while others insist you can be enlightened and still be an alcoholic, a meat-eater, a womanizer, a thief, a warrior, or someone prone to angry outbursts. Some say enlightenment happens suddenly and irrevocably at a particular time on a particular day, and that it is a permanent, final shift; others describe it as a gradual unfolding; and some say that it only ever happens Now and that it never happens to somebody. Some say it is an energetic shift, some call it a felt-sense, others say it is about seeing clearly, some describe it as an understanding or an apperception, some say it is an embodied realization or actualization, others insist it is always already the case. Some imagine it to be a state of perpetual bliss, while others say it includes and transcends every state. Some distinguish between “enlightenment,” “awakening,” “liberation,” “kensho,” “satori,” “mukti,” and host of other terms, and others use all these words more or less synonymously and interchangeably. Who has it right? Who is really enlightened?

Are there “enlightened people” whose every moment is entirely free from suffering, or from delusion, or from the sense of self, or from the idea of individual authorship, or from all egoic thoughts and behaviors? Are there “unenlightened people” whose every moment is totally consumed by these delusions and sufferings? Is this very idea of “enlightened people” and “unenlightened people” (or of solid, persisting “people” of any kind) perhaps an example of unenlightened (or deluded) thinking? Who (or what) is it, exactly, that would be enlightened or unenlightened?

I’m not trying to evade the question. But we talk glibly about enlightenment without really knowing what we’re even talking about. We seek it without ever stopping to really examine closely what it is we think we’re seeking.

I would not say that I am enlightened, nor would I say that I am not enlightened. I don’t find any solid, persisting, independent entity here to be one way or the other. Sometimes there is enlightenment here and sometimes there is delusion here. Of course, in some sense, enlightenment is always here, if by enlightenment we simply mean the boundless actuality of Here and Now, that which never comes and never goes. Some teachers, like Ramana Maharshi, speak only as this ever-present Absolute, the One Self or Big Mind, and never as apparent individuals. So as Ramana was dying, he told his followers something like, “I am always here, where could I go?” He wasn't speaking as the apparent individual, who was obviously dying, but rather as the Totality, the One Self. Other teachers, like Nisargadatta Maharaj, shift back and forth between speaking as the person and speaking as the One Self. And some teachers never speak as the One Self in the way that Ramana and Nisargadatta did. Needless to say, all of these different ways of talking and of using the word “I” in different ways, can easily create confusion and misunderstanding. Also, some teachers will say that enlightenment is permanent or that you never come out of enlightenment, and in saying such things, they are pointing to what is always here, the One Self, the ever-present Here and Now. But when people hear these statements, they often misunderstand and assume the teacher is saying that the person is completely and permanently beyond delusion.

Boundlessness (the Absolute Self) is always here, realizing itself in every possible form and every possible experience. All experiences (everything perceivable and conceivable), including all transformations, awakenings, delusions, and differences, are all within the dream-like appearance. Within the dream, it can certainly seem as if being awake comes and goes. And relatively speaking, we can certainly say that Ramana Maharshi was an enlightened sage and that Adolph Hitler was a deluded madman. But enlightenment sees Ramana and Hitler as two sides of a single coin, different but seamless and inseparable. And this coin is itself only a dream object. Enlightenment is not about “me” getting from one side of the imaginary coin to the other side and then staying there forever. Enlightenment is not the permanent absence of everything that is considered spiritually negative (pain, suffering, confusion, doubt, anger, addiction, the sense of individuality, and so forth), but rather, enlightenment is the absence of the one who cares about being enlightened.

Does enlightenment happen suddenly and irrevocably, or does it come and go?

Enlightenment doesn't “happen.“ It is. It is neither gradual nor sudden, and what is realized is both ever-present and ever-fresh. It can appear gradual in the story where it seems (in retrospect) that awakening was a shift that unfolded slowly over time—that which is false was seen through ever-more clearly, ever-more deeply, ever-more subtly, ever-more often, ever-more completely. It seems to be an unfolding process, somewhat akin to a photograph slowly appearing in the developing tray, or like getting gradually wet while walking in a mist, or like a puddle slowly evaporating, or like an ice cube gradually melting until nothing is left. The illusory overlay gets more and more transparent, more easily seen through. The aliveness of the present moment becomes more vivid and more simple: the sounds of rain and traffic, the rise and fall of breathing, the smell of coffee, the gratuitous beauty of a flower, the horror and sorrow of a bombing attack, the awareness beholding it all, the groundlessness of being that is all of it.

It becomes clear that any experience of awakening or enlightenment is a scene in a movie, an event in a dream. No one wakes up. Nothing changes. There is only Now. ”Transformation” is a thought-created story that involves imagination, memory, the concept of time, and above all, the illusory “me“ who is seemingly being transformed. But in fact, the ever-present Now is timeless, and there is no “one” who is evaporating or disappearing or getting clearer or more developed or more focused or more (or less) enlightened – this “one” is always only a mirage – it is an optical illusion produced by thoughts, memory and imagination accompanied by sensations and stories about those sensations – nothing solid, separate and persisting is really ever here to be enlightened or unenlightened or to evaporate or transform. And in that realization, the shifting experiences no longer seem personally owned, and they no longer seem to mean anything about “me” and whether or not “I” am enlightened or deluded. There is always only the emptiness of Here and Now, sometimes realized as such, and sometimes ignored and overlaid with the story of separation and solidity. But even in the story of separation and solidity, the emptiness remains empty. The problem is always imaginary.

So “enlightenment,” as I would use the word, is not an event or a special state or an experience that lasts forever, but rather, the word points to this ever-present, ever-changing, boundless Here and Now that is all-inclusive, and that is endlessly realizing itself in everything, and from which nothing is left out and nothing stands apart. This is not something “I” can possess or lack.

Most of spirituality is a response to suffering, an attempt to wake up from the story of separation. We long for a way out of suffering and imperfection. But ultimately, there is no way out and no need for a way out. The manifestation will always include both light and dark, expansion and contraction. They go together. The capacity for delusion and the capacity for waking up are both aspects of Totality, like the two sides of a single coin. In struggling to escape from suffering and delusion, we confirm the imaginary problem and the apparent reality of the one who appears to have this problem. The very idea that there are “enlightened people” who are totally beyond all of this only fuels the imaginary treadmill of dissatisfaction and seeking.

In the dream-like movie of waking life, there is the appearance of separate people, but it is only an appearance, momentary shapes of emptiness. Consciousness is thinking or imagining that it is a fragment in a world of separate pieces. This imagination—all the characters and events that seem to be happening---are all shapes that boundlessness (the Single Reality) is momentarily assuming. It’s like a dream – it has no substance. Nothing real is ever being created or destroyed. Human behavior is impersonal and beyond control, like the weather – and as with the weather, nothing is really unnatural or bad even if we don’t like it.

Enlightenment is the openness that includes contraction, the wholeness that includes division, the oneness that includes multiplicity, the absolute that includes the relative. It is that which is always already the case. Whatever can be attained can also be lost again and is always only a dream event.

Enlightenment is not about denying relative reality. In the absolute sense, there are no mistakes and everything is perfect just as it is. But relatively speaking, if I back my car into a post, this is clearly a mistake, and hopefully, I can learn to correct it in the future. In the absolute sense, there is no chooser and no choice, no cause and no effect. But relatively speaking, if my tooth hurts, I can apparently decide to go to the dentist, and this will be much more likely to fix my tooth than going to the auto mechanic. When we confuse the relative and the absolute, we get very mixed up. We end up thinking there is no reason to go to the dentist since everything is an illusion, or that we are supposed to sit on the sofa forever “doing nothing.”

There’s an old Zen story that many people know. It goes something like this: Before I took up Zen, there were mountains and valleys. After I began the practice of Zen, there were no mountains and no valleys. With enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys. And of course, in reality, this isn’t a linear journey with such clearly delineated stages, and there is no one taking this journey, so don’t take this story too literally.

The first “stage” is ordinary consciousness – the world as we think it is, “out there” and full of separate things, one of these “things” being “me” who is “in here” looking out, “me” on my way to enlightenment.

The second “stage” of no mountains and valleys is the discovery that there is no actual boundary between “in here” and “out there,” that everything is one inseparable whole, that there is no “me.” From here, it is seen that Hitler and Ramana are aspects of One Being, one seamless whole, like the two sides of one coin. This is the realization of what is the same in every different experience. This is the Absolute, the realization that All is One.

But in the beautiful words of the Hsin-hsin Ming:

When such dualities cease to exist

Oneness itself cannot exist.

To this ultimate state

no law or description applies.

With true enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys again. There are infinite experiences, including the experience of being “me,” and they all make no difference for the emptiness that is everything and nothing. There is no one left who needs to cling to the absolute or avoid and deny the relative world of ordinary life. Hitler and Ramana are aspects of one inseparable whole and we can discern a huge difference between them. There is only the timeless, ever-present Now and there is history, evolution, and planning for the future. I am boundless awareness and I am Joan. Both sides of the coin are true. Zen masters have called this "leaping clear of the many and the One" or “the merging of difference and unity.” The Absolute is not a rejection of the relative world. The Absolute includes the relative but isn’t bound by it.

In enlightenment, there is no need to assert that mountains and valleys are One. It is clearly seen that they are “not one, not two.” There is simply Reality, as it is, without the need to grasp it with a concept. There is no longer a need to make sure that “I” am continually identified as “Awareness” and not as the character in the story. There is no “I” to be identified as either one. There is the freedom to be no-thing and everything. And this freedom is not a permanent state that a particular “person” is always “in” for all time. That very idea is delusion.

Many teachers are in love with the story that they are enlightened, and they love to tell the story again and again. Enlightenment is portrayed as some magical line in the sand that a person crosses, after which they no longer have any questions or delusions or messy emotions or any more sense of being “me.” Yes, in the dream-like movie of waking life, some characters do report sudden and dramatic transformations, and some characters are exceptionally clear and free of delusion, but true enlightenment points to the boundlessness that has no owner, and this can never be lost or gained. There's nothing wrong with respecting, revering and deeply appreciating a teacher who has great clarity, but if they are truly clear in this moment, they will not be telling you their enlightenment story or encouraging you to idolize or idealize them, but rather, they will be pulling every rug you try to stand on out from under you. Putting people up on pedestals is a way of seeking comfort, security and false certainty. Awakening has no beginning and no ending. There is no finish line. It is always Now.

Even after the rope is clearly seen to be a rope and not a snake, it can—in another moment—be mistaken again for a snake, and when that happens, the body responds automatically with fear, contraction and recoil. The snake is never real, but it can momentarily seem real, just as the “I” is never real but can momentarily seem real. Does there come a time when this mistake has been so fully exposed that it can never again occur in any way, ever? For whom does this question and this concern arise? Is there someone who makes this mistake and who longs to stop being a fool? We don’t know what the next moment may bring. In any given moment, the mirage of separation may occur. But what can perhaps fall away is the need for this never to happen again.

For who is this “me” who must reach a state where the rope would never again be mistaken for a snake, where “I” would never again forget that there is “only boundlessness” and instead imagine that “I” am a separate somebody? If the boundlessness is momentarily forgotten and overlaid with a sense of “me” as a separate somebody, who cares? Can it be seen that there is no owner of this experience, that it is boundlessness itself appearing as this mirage of separation and encapsulation? Or does another story begin running, a story about the first story, taking delivery of it, as Nisargadatta used to say, thinking that, “I’ve lost the boundlessness and I have to get it back,” or, “I want to be done with this delusion forever.” Who is it whose self-image would be damaged if the story or the entrancement were to show up again? Who imagines that “I” could ever be perfect while “the rest of the world” is still deluded? Enlightenment is a great story, but in truly waking up, the dream characters and their dramas dissolve completely, or more accurately, it is clear that they never existed in the first place!

But that doesn't mean all dreaming ceases. Dreaming is what consciousness does. And in the dream, the drama often seems real. Every imaginable feeling can arise in the dream. Who needs it to be any different?

There are certainly many characters in the movie of waking life who experience or manifest less stormy weather than the Joan character -- less anger, less depression, less compulsive behavior, less upset. Many characters seem more generous, more balanced and stable, less reactive, and better able to deal with stress than Joan is. Of course, the opposite is also true. Many characters have more anger, more depression, more confusion, more greed, and less equanimity than Joan does. Such differences have little to do with enlightenment and everything to do with neurochemistry, brain function, hormone levels, early childhood and lifelong conditioning. Some bodyminds have stormier weather just as some cities have stormier weather. It’s not personal. And what I’ve noticed is that I can’t really find this “Joan Tollifson” character. All I find is a bunch of ever-changing mental images (some positive, some negative) appearing and disappearing in the mirror of awareness. When I look for where the actuality of this bodymind called “Joan Tollifson” begins and ends, I find no beginning and no ending. When I try to grasp or pin down this “person,” I find only continuous change. So what exactly is this supposed entity who would be enlightened or unenlightened?

There no longer seems to be a story here that “I” am going back and forth between “getting it” and then “losing it,” not because different experiences don’t continue to happen, because they do, but simply because the sense of personal ownership seems to have diminished or fallen away and there no longer seems to be any particular “it” that must be gained or lost. It’s very clear that the One Reality is right Here, right Now, and that all experiences, by their very nature, come and go. I’m no longer chasing any particular experience, or trying to “stop thinking” and “be aware” all the time. I’m not looking for something to save me in the way I once was (the right teacher, the perfect place to live, final enlightenment, the ultimate answer to how the universe works, the final disappearance of anything), but there can certainly still be many moments of unease when the bodymind begins scrambling for something. Shunryu Suzuki once described the Zen life as “one continuous mistake,” and I can definitely relate to that. And while some people seem to have the idea that awakening means detachment, I find that I often have passionate opinions about political issues. I love books and movies and people and trees and clouds and cities and “the whole catastrophe,” as Zorba called it. Yes, it's a dream-like appearance without substance and it's the Holy Reality.

I have no way of knowing how "my" experience compares to "anyone else’s" experience – but all experiences are fleeting. To say, “I am enlightened and it happened on May 2nd at two o’clock in the afternoon,” sounds to my ear like a good story. To say that “I am not enlightened yet, but maybe someday I will be,” sounds like a different story. Both stories refer to a “somebody” that I have been unable to actually find, a “somebody” that is the bottomline myth or idea (the snake in the rope).

One teacher points to this realization in one way, another in a different way. They sound different and even contradictory, but they may be saying the same thing. Or, maybe they aren’t saying the same thing. There’s a great deal of nonsense, pretense and self-delusion in the spiritual world as in any other world.

One of the things I love about Toni Packer, who was my main teacher for many years, is that you can ask her a question and she will sometimes spend the next day or two living with that question, really looking and listening and exploring it -- rather than just dispensing "the answer" that she already "knows." She has a remarkable willingness to look anew. Toni once said that her talks are "something to be considered, questioned, wondered about, taken further." That kind of genuinely open spirit is rare amongst those who give talks and write books. We humans seem to have a deep craving for authority - wanting to have an authority who can tell us how it is, and wanting to be an authority who has the answers. But when all the answers drop away, the jewel is revealed. Being enlightened is not about being perfect and special and having all the answers. It is about not needing to be perfect or special or all-knowing. It is the open space of not-knowing, always ready to see something new.

Ultimately, the only reality is Here Now. As Ramana Maharshi expressed it so beautifully: “Experience takes place only in the present, and beyond and apart from experience nothing exists.”

Here and Now, there is no enlightenment, no delusion, no person to be found. There is only boundless being. That is your actual experience right now before you think about it. There is no end to this boundlessness, and no end to this unfolding Self-realization.

Rather than trying to figure out if we are enlightened or if someone else is enlightened, rather than idealizing people or turning them into infallible authorities, and rather than trying to duplicate anyone else's supposed enlightenment experience, I would suggest investigating what it is we are looking for, and whether it is actually absent here and now, and who or what would find it or possess it or lack it.

----copyright Joan Tollifson 2009----

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