Enlightenment—What Is It Really?

Enlightenment is not something to be sought but rather something to be realized. It is a state of being which does not have to be experienced each moment of our existence. That would be overwhelming and could lead to schizophrenia and yet, it can be realized each moment of our life without harm. The key is not to attempt to hold on to that moment but to release it and to always live in the present now. “A glimpse is all we get,” most of the time and that one single glimpse can sustain us for the rest of our life. Unfortunately, when most of us experience clear vision or a sudden insight, we pass it off as an illusion or the effects of a migraine headache. It can be both that subtle and that overpowering.

We are each born enlightened. A baby sees everything as part of himself and not separate. He reaches out with his finger to touch the full moon shining outside his window and because of his awareness of everything as part of himself, he does. Everything is one until he learns to name things, to differentiate between his mother and father, a bird and a cat, and the parts of his own body. It is through the process of learning that he begins to separate things as being outside of himself and different from himself. The moon which he touched as a baby is now 200,000 miles away rather than on the tip of his pinky.I believe there are three key elements of enlightenment and I will refer to them as the three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance and Appreciation.

Awareness: What is awareness and what, you are probably asking, does it have to do with enlightenment? Everything, is my reply. Awareness is the foundation of enlightenment. The Buddha is recorded as saying, “I am awake” but he could have just as easily said, “I am aware” and the meaning would be the same. Awareness in English is the knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.(1) It is specific to a thing. In Japanese, awareness is an appreciation of the ephemeral beauty of the world. The change of seasons, the falling of the cherry blossoms, and the planting of the crops. Awareness in Japanese is “That poignant sensation one has of time passing, of the inevitable cycle of life and death.” From the noun comes the idiom mono-no-aware. Roughly translated as “enjoying the sadness of life.” (2)

Although spelled the same, the Japanese meaning and translation more closely resonates with my concept and understanding of awareness. When one is aware, one is cognizance of his surroundings, the changing patterns of day and night, the phases of the moon, the connectedness of all life and the inevitability if death. These things are accepted as the natural flow of nature. One is as aware of the importance of the honeybee in this flow of life as one is of his own place in the nature of things.

Acceptance: This doctrine is a most difficult one because of our nature to pass judgement. To see things in the duality of good/evil, right/wrong, or love/hate, we pass judgement not only with concepts but also with people and religions. Black people are…Italians are…Mexicans are…Jews are…Christians are…Muslems are…. According to the Bible stories I grew up with, no duality existed before Eve bit into the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She and Adam were unaware of their nakedness, unaware of opposites because no knowledge of duality existed in the garden. Everything was one.

I am not blaming Eve for the problems of mankind. I simply use this story as a metaphor to illustrate the nature of duality and why it has created this mountainous barrier to acceptance. An enlightened individual sees beyond the duality to the singularity and unity of all things as they are. He practices the doctrine of acceptance which Jesus spoke of in his Sermon on the Mount as did the Buddha and many others. Today the Dali Lama accepts those who destroyed his country, murdered his priests, ravaged his temples, and annihilated his culture as brothers. (3)

Siddhartha in the book of the same name by Herman Hesse uses these words to describe acceptance of the nature of duality to his friend Govinda.

The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment: every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people — eternal life. It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way: the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin. Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good, death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.

In following the doctrine of acceptance one doesn’t manipulate or interfere with another’s way of life or another’s beliefs even if he believes his motivation is from his highest spirit. He refrains from giving advice unless asked but is not indifferent to providing aid when needed or requested. He eliminates the fanatic in himself. He kills the one in himself who must change others to his beliefs, his way of life. He accepts the differences in the world without judgement and without the need to convert anyone or anything for any reason. The sole purpose of the enlightened individual is to live life each day totally aware that life is a blessing.Appreciation: Appreciation is akin to Gratitude which I previously addressed in other essays but when I think of appreciation in connection with enlightenment, I believe it goes a bit further than the virtue of gratitude. Appreciation is the complete understanding and acceptance of a situation like malice aforethought while still being able to give thanks to the universe for all that exists. It is the giving of grace for everything and every situation which exists including individual acts which one might deem cruel. In this way appreciation goes hand in hand with the other two points of my triumvirate, awareness and acceptance. They might be called absolutes although in philosophical circles they are not considered such.

Appreciation is the total surrender to the sublime in everything. The surrender to the excellence and beauty of all that exists, including death and destruction. It is the acknowledgement that in order there is chaos and in chaos there is order. It is the way things are. Appreciation of the way things are does not mean that one cannot fight for change but on the ultimate level of life it means one sees the whole picture and not the individual frames. It is the looking at life with a flood light instead of a spotlight. The monks who publicly set themselves ablaze in protest to the war in Viet Nam knew this. They appreciated life and wanted their deaths to stand for something more. I trust in the end their sacrifice had purpose.

There is obviously more to be said concerning Enlightenment but at least the three A’s — Awareness, Acceptance and Appreciation will give us a good place to start.

(1) New American Oxford Dictionary, Apple Digital Edition 2011.

(2) Metcalf, Alan A. The World In So Many Words. Boston, MA: Hough Mifflin, 1999

(3) Within the last decade, the Pope has apologized to the cultures and religions of the world that were destroyed or eliminated because of the acts of Catholic church in the attempted conversion of these cultures to Christianity. The governments of Australia and Germany have apologized for their treatment of the Aborigines and the Jews respectively for their government’s genocide and attempts at cultural cleansing. The United States however has never issued an apology or any acknowledgement of wrongdoing to the Native Americans for the ravage destruction and rape of their lands or to the Negro slaves for their brutal mistreatment, repeated lies of equality, or utter failure to incorporate people of color into mainstream American society. I still have not received the twenty acres and a mule promised my forefathers after the so called emancipation of slavery. Unlike the Dali Lama, I am not yet at a place where I can forgive America for the daily acts of violence and lies upon its own people and to the world. This is the difficulty of acceptance.