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Enlightenment as Experience and as Non-experience

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 119: Enlightenment as Experience and as Non-Experience

Mr Humphreys and Friends Practically speaking, and we may say that Buddhism is nothing if not practical, practically speaking, Buddhism, as we call it in the West, or the Dharma, as we perhaps should more correctly call it, consists principally, one might even say essentially, of two things. It consists in the first place of a Path, a Way, and in the second place, it consists of a Goal, if you like an Objective. And the Path has been, can be, variously described. According to concepts, it is spoken of as the Noble or the Holy Eightfold Path, the Path not of eight stages, as sometimes the word is translated, but rather of eight members, eight factors. It's spoken of also as the Path of, sometimes, the Six or the Ten Perfections, Transcendences, or even Transcendental Virtues. And again, the Path, the Way is spoken of perhaps even more frequently as the Middle Way, the Middle Path between and above extremes. These are just some of the ways in which we speak of that Path. And then the Goal. The Goal is what we can only described in tentative words of human speech, as Buddhahood, Supreme Perfect Enlightenment. And Enlightenment itself can be thought of, can be envisaged, in various ways, in all sorts of ways: as Supreme Wisdom, as Absolute Gnosis, Insight into Things as They Really Are, also as Compassion, Infinite Compassion, the Plenitude of Compassion, Compassion that pours out in all directions simultaneously, on to all sentient beings. It can be spoken of, it can be thought of also in terms of Infinite spiritual even transcendental energy, radiating irresistably, in all directions. Also it can be spoken of, thought of, in terms of an utter, a complete purity, not as we understand purity, not just as purity in respect of evil, but even purity in respect of good. So in these ways, and in so many other ways too, can Enlightenment be thought of, can be spoken of . And we can think of it, we can speak of it, also as an experience. We can speak of it, think of it, as THE experience even, the culminating experience, the greatest of all experiences; if you like, as the experience to end all experiences. And it's with this that we're concerned tonight, with Enlightenment as Experience, and also as non-experience, which perhaps, you might be thinking, is something rather more mysterious, rather more recondite, even - and this is the sort of word that people love, and the sort of word that they expect - something esoteric. So what we're going to do in the course of the following hour and of course I mustn't forget our chairman's well-known love of punctuality, not only in beginning meetings, but also in concluding them, what we're going to consider in the course of the ensuing hour, is just some of the implications of thinking of Enlightenment in this way, thinking of it in terms of experience.

So first, what do we mean by experience? After all we use the term often enough. But what do we mean by experience? Usually experience is distinguished from thought, that is to say, from abstract thought, from conceptual thought, even though of course in a sense, thought itself is an experience. Now if we want to speak just very generally, basically, with regards to what experience is, we may say that experience is principally, is outstandingly, a matter of perception and feeling. Experience means the actual living through an event, not just looking at it, not just contemplating it, not just thinking about it, but actually living through that event, experiencing it, as we say. Experience also means, also suggests, real life as contrasted with the ideal life or the imaginary life or existence. So Enlightenment as experience means therefore Enlightenment as something which we actually perceive, which we actually feel, felt in the nerves and felt along the heart, felt in the blood, felt in the bone, not just something abstractly thought about or speculated about or imagined, or fantasised about, and something that we live through; enlightenment as experience is something that we live through. But when of course we experience enlightenment, we live through Enlightenment in a different way from the way we live through any other experience. In the case of other experiences, we as it were come out at the other end, intact, or modified, to some extent. But in the case of the experience of Enlightenment, we do not come out at the other end. There is no end. Maybe there's an end of us, but that is another matter. We do not come out at the other end. In fact we may say, Enlightenment is something which is at it were a continuing part of our life after we experience it, or rather our life becomes a continuing part of Enlightenment itself. But how did we come to think of Enlightenment in this way? How did we come to think of Enlightenment in terms of experience? We mustn't think that this is the natural, the inevitable, the only way of thinking about things, thinking about Enlightenment, thinking in terms of experience. It is, if you look at it, a rather odd way of thinking. We might have become used to it, but that simply means that we've become used to it. There are alternatives. But how did we come to think of Enlightenment in this way? How did we come to make this statement that Enlightenment is an experience? And probably that is a statement with which no one would wish to disagree, not without being rather pedantic perhaps. So this way of speaking, that is of Enlightenment as experience, is not an Indian way, not an Indian Buddhist way, to speak of Enlightenment as an experience. In the Pali scriptures that is to say, in the ancient scriptures of the Theravada school, some portions of which come very close to the Buddha's original teaching, in the Pali scriptures there's no reference to Enlightenment as experience. That's something perhaps to ponder upon. They get along, in the Pali scriptures, without the need of speaking of Enlightenment in terms of experience. The very early Buddhists it seems, as far as we know, didn't think of Enlightenment in precisely those terms. Perhaps experience was implied, but it was never stated in so many words; in that sort of word, or in equivalent words - Enlightenment as experience; that was not their mode of thought.

If we come on to, say, the Lankavatara Sutra, which as everybody knows, I'm sure, is one of the greatest of the Mahayana sutras; if we come on to the Lankavatara Sutra, we find that the Lankavatara Sutra speaks of something that it calls gatigocara. I'm not going to try to explain what gatigocara really means; it would take me much too far afield. But Suzuki does translate it as 'experience', which is very approximate indeed. I don't think that would get past a really strict scholar, not as an exact translation - gatigocara in the sense of as it were the 'experience' of aryajnana, that is to say, Noble Wisdom. And the Lankavatara also speaks of 'pratyatma gocara' which Suzuki translates as 'inner realisation', again a bit like, you could say, experience, but not very exactly so by any means. So even if we accept that the Lankavatara Sutra does in a way speak of Enlightenment in terms of experience, it's in a rather distant and almost equivocal sort of way; you could translate alternatively. And in any case the Lankavatara is quite a late sutra; in its present form it could not have been compiled more than, or less than, probably seven or eight hundred years after the time of Sakyamuni the Buddha. And we could even say perhaps that the Lankavatara, its teaching, its approach, its stress on what we call experience or on something corresponding to what we now call experience does reflect developments taking place in India analogous to developments taking place in the West very very much later. In Pali and Sanskrit, we can say, it's as difficult to speak of Enlightenment as experience, in our sense, as to say that all life is one. To say that all life is one maybe a justifiable or reinterpretation of Buddhist teaching, but you can't put it back into either Pali or Sanskrit. It represents a quite different mode of expression, a mode of expression which is a product of modern Western way of thinking. If we want to translate back into Pali or Sanskrit, 'Enlightenment is an experience' or 'all life is one', we can't do it, because we become involved not in translation but in re-interpretation, rethinking if you like even re-experiencing, making anew, which is of course one of the things you mustn't do according to some schools of Buddhism in the East; 'navakata'(?) as they call it, making new, is equivalent to heresy. But anyway we won't say any more about that at the moment.

So we may say that this particular kind of expression, speaking of Enlightenment as experience, is the product even of our own particular mode of experiencing, to use the word which is itself under discussion. It's part of the way in which we come to regard religion generally. We can even say it's part of the way in which we've come to regard life itself - thinking of it, speaking of it, in terms of experience, even stressing experience. Now how is this? I've no time for a detailed exposition; there must just be a few general points made, a few scattered hints, and no more. So let's take quite a broad view;let's have quite a broad sweep of history in Western Europe, and having that broad view, that broad sweep we can say that up to the time of the Reformation, religion in Christian Europe was a very, very much richer and more complex thing than it is today. Religion up to that time in the West - and I'm thinking of course mainly of the Christian religion which superceded earlier faiths - religion consisted of quite a number of different elements, quite a number of different aspects. For instance there was doctrine, theology, scholastic philosophy. There was ethics. There was ritual, sacraments, liturgy. There were great ...

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