Why enlightenment?

Sakyamuni Buddha initially felt no one would comprehend what he had realized under the Bodhi tree. According to legend, he did not want to teach until the god Brahma convinced him that there are beings whose eyes had little dust and who would understand.

Enlightenment is not hard to get because it is foreign or complex. It is hard to understand only because it is so simple yet profound. It is like convincing a fish that it is in the water and it is mostly made of water. It is hard to see because it is so close and so present.

Because of its subtlety, some might even ask, what good is enlightenment anyway? Why should one try to realize enlightenment at all?

I think that Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths is an elegant, simple, and profound solution to this question. Buddha taught that there is suffering; there is a cause of suffering; there is an end to suffering; and there is a path. If you are dissatisfied, do not seek to end your dissatisfaction with a temporary patch. Liberate yourself from its inner root. Seek enlightenment.

Buddha identified a problem—dissatisfaction or suffering—and offered a solution. In that way, out of his great compassion, he made the purpose of liberation and the path to liberation accessible.

But—dare I say this?!—liberation has another meaning, beyond the end of dissatisfaction alone. Or perhaps I should say, calling it the end of dissatisfaction does not seem to do it complete justice, does not by itself give a sense of liberation’s fullness, and might even mislead one into thinking it is a state that is placid or numb.

Beyond the end of suffering, there is an ecstatic quality to liberation. It gives fullness, meaning and joy. It brings gratitude and love. It reveals the beauty and magic of the ordinary. It grants overwhelming wonder that there is anything rather than nothing at all. It shows the whole universe to be an amazing magic trick. In its wake comes immense satisfaction and well-being. It is like putting down a burden one has carried for a million years. Attaining it might even make one want to sing, shout and dance like a madman or a fool.

In the realm of liberation, the evocation of bliss found in the secret Tantra, or the love and ecstasy found in the poetry and song of a Hafiz or Rumi, might be closest to the truth.

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If you want liberation, a real teacher will find you

The strong and sincere desire for liberation will bring a real teacher of liberation to you. This is important, and, for most of us, necessary in order to realize our true nature.

Even though self-reliance in the end will reveal our true nature, most of us won’t recognize it without a teacher to point it out. Ignorance of our real nature creates such an all-pervading and beginningless sense of fragmentation, separation and lack that it usually takes someone else to both point out and confirm our true nature as unity, union and completion. The all-pervading nature of ignorance will make it difficult, if not impossible, to find, recognize and gain firm confidence in our true nature without guidance and help.

The desire to see your true face will meet with the teacher’s desire to be your mirror. Your desire for freedom will make you like dry tinder, and the teacher, seeing this, will throw you a lit match.

It is said that the coming together of 3 auspicious circumstances will make liberation likely. Those 3 are a teacher who has recognized their own true nature, a wisdom lineage and a devoted student. Here, devotion means only the sincere desire to be free and the willingness to let go and open. Just that much trust or devotion is necessary. Then, the power of the teachings of the wisdom lineage, as wielded by a teacher with self-recognition, can do its job and set one free.

Self-reliance is the best guru

The guru question is a tricky one and is fraught with controversy. But it does not have to be too confusing. For most of us, a guru—in the popular sense of an absolute spiritual authority or God man, demanding complete obedience, submission and devotion—is unnecessary and is not conducive to liberation.

Contrary to popular belief, the major Eastern wisdom traditions do not say otherwise. Guru is a Sanskrit word, from India, meaning “teacher.” In India, the word guru is used for almost any kind of teacher. If you study music, you have a music guru. If you study astrology, you have a jyotish guru. And so on. The word guru in common parlance in India does not necessarily imply complete obedience and submission.

In the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the guru is the one who gives you self-knowledge. While it would be natural to treat your guru with respect and gratitude, there is no requirement that you absolutely obey and submit to the guru’s authority. On the contrary, inquiry and questioning are a necessary part of the path of self-knowledge.

In the early Buddhist sutras, the word guru is never used. The Buddha is referred to with respect, as a teacher or a kalyanamitra, spiritual friend, but never as a guru. The same is true in the later Mahayana teachings. The exception is in the Vajrayana or tantric Buddhist teachings. In tantra, the latest form and a very specialized kind of Buddhist practice, absolute submission to a guru is required, due to the esoteric, complex and dangerous methods used. Some people may choose to engage in these kinds of secret practices, and if they do, they will be required to submit to a guru. The analogy is undergoing surgery—you don’t get off the operating table in the middle of a dangerous operation, or start arguing with your surgeon in the middle of surgery. But Vajrayana practices are neither necessary nor probably appropriate for most people. Finally, Zen is a special case, where obedience and submission to the master is often traditionally taught. But I think that is a product of the hierarchical cultures in which Zen flourished, rather than a necessity for enlightenment. In the West, that sort of hierarchical relationship is unnatural and often counter-productive. Many Zen teachers in the West are accordingly moderating the hierarchical nature of the Zen student-teacher relationship.

Buddha, when approaching his death, urged his followers to be “islands unto yourselves.” He always stressed that his words should not be believed based upon his authority, but should always be investigated and tested for yourself. In the end, a teacher can only point the way. Each individual must walk it on his own. Each person must discover her own true self within herself.  The true self is the ultimate guru. A teacher can help point you there, but in the end liberation is a condition of complete self-reliance.