Buddhist enlightenment or realization, the major theme of my book Don’t Give Up Until You Do: From Mindfulness to Realization on the Buddhist Path, is complete insight into the true nature of mind. The true nature or enlightened aspects of that mind, simply stated, are emptiness and awareness. Awareness is the more apparent of the two, since through its auspices we experience the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches, thoughts, and emotions of our everyday world. Because of those experiences, we know that awareness exists and we know what it does, but what we don’t know is what it is. When we find that out, we will see it is empty (the second component of enlightened mind) and self-existing. By empty, we mean that it is without the characteristics of a thing, such as size, shape, color, or place. In other words, awareness exists, but not as a material entity. Awareness is also self-existing, meaning that no one or thing, whether our self or any other being, creates or controls it. It is beholden only to itself.
Although we use mind all the time, few of us take the time to examine it; it is like we owned a car that took us great distances at speed but did not know that it had an engine. If we are willing to inspect mind using meditation, however, we will see it isn’t enlightened at all, but filled with thoughts and emotions that cloud its empty, aware nature. Furthermore, it possesses more basic and deeply-rooted obscurations that most of us never notice. One is a belief in a self, ego, or central entity that runs our life. Another is our feeling that the world is substantially real, and the last is our sense that we are separate from the world and it from us. These assumptions present serious obstacles in the quest for the true nature of mind, and only after learning about them and realizing they have tricked us does enlightened mind reveal itself.
Although we all have enlightened mind, we will have difficulty finding it without help. For example, we will need to be taught about it, as in this essay, since we might not know its qualities or even that it exists. Also, since enlightenment involves mind, it only makes sense for us to spend time with it, something accomplished in meditation. By sitting quietly and observing mind we begin to see it more clearly—or, more to the point, it begins to see itself. After hours of practice, especially solitary retreats, obscurations to mind lessen and it becomes more apparent. Then, it takes but a second for us to appreciate its nature and attain enlightenment. Once seen, mind can never be forgotten. One look is all it takes, so even though the practice may be long, we have the support of knowing any moment can be the moment of discovery. At some point, we will need as well an enlightened teacher to guide us, someone who experiences mind’s true nature and has the know-how to lead us past the obstacles concealing it. Such teachers also embody enlightenment and can serve as our first clue to its existence, an excellent motivating factor and a major reason for finding enlightened teachers.
The final aid to enlightenment is life. I have heard reputable people say that all people experience realization at some time in their lives, but because their mind is untrained, karma and the vicissitudes of living cover it up before they recognize what has happened. It is more accurate to say, therefore, that life, in the presence of a properly prepared mind, is an aid to enlightenment. To the right mind, the aspect of life that most effectively reveals our true nature is disappointment. Nothing outdoes disappointment in uncovering mind, especially mind’s emptiness. When a crushing disappointment strikes a prepared mind and heartbreak ensues, we are on the threshold of real understanding. When we have set our mind on something that suddenly and completely fails, and we give up completely, in that moment of surrender resides the possibility to relinquish all our attachment to a self and the world and to see what remains: the nothingness or emptiness that is the basis of mind and reality. For that reason, life’s disappointments are the fastest and most effective method for attaining enlightenment.
We have read what enlightenment is and how we can attain it, but not why it is worth doing. Since most of us will spend thousands of hours meditating, studying, and placing ourselves at the whim of a teacher on the path to enlightenment, such an expenditure of time and effort deserves critical scrutiny. Fortunately, the reasons to attain enlightenment are persuasive. First, without realization we will never know who we and the world really are. Fooled by our sense of a self, a real world, and the difference we have created between them, we will spend our life ensnared in ignorance. As a result, we will never realize the complete freedom and attendant joy of a mind unfettered by mistaken beliefs. Without insight, the limitless space of mind will be constricted into a constantly needy self and a heavily real, meaningful world, as well as the painful interactions between the two. With enlightenment, however, the confusion transforms into a limitless mental space filled with the bliss of unrestricted freedom. Finally, and most importantly, the pleasure of such freedom encourages us to share it with others. As a result, our attention turns from our ego-centered concerns to caring for the world, and we become practitioners of selfless compassion. For these reasons, it is safe to say that enlightenment is worth the effort.
Finally, we should know that enlightenment is not only for those with robes and lofty titles, but for all of us. It is our birthright. We all have a mind and the awareness it needs to discover itself. With the requisite effort, we can see what must be seen in this lifetime; and when we do, we will understand the full meaning of our human existence.