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The Ideal of Human Enlightenment

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 120 :The Ideal of Human Enlightenment (120) - Edited Version

When a Buddhist thinks about Buddhism - about what Buddhists call the Dharma - usually the first thing of which he thinks is the Buddha, `the Enlightened One'. Strangely enough, the first thing of which the non-Buddhist too usually thinks is the Buddha. We may not know anything at all about the teachings of Buddhism, but we will at least have seen an image or picture of the Buddha, and may even be quite familiar with it, even have a definite feeling for it. What, then, does that image or picture show? It shows a man in the prime of life, well built and handsome. He is seated cross-legged beneath a tree. His eyes are half closed and there is a smile on his lips. Looking at the figure we feel that, as a whole, it conveys an impression of solidity and stability, as well as of strength. It conveys an impression of absolute calm, absolute repose. But what attracts us most of all, more even than the total figure itself, is the face, because this conveys something which it is very difficult indeed to put into words. As we look at it, perhaps even concentrate on it, we see that the face is alive, that it is alight, and in that light we see reflected an unfathomable knowledge, a boundless compassion, and an ineffable joy. This, then, is the figure, this the image or the picture, of the Buddha, the Enlightened One. Usually it represents the historical Gautama the Buddha, the `founder' of Buddhism, represents, that is to say, the great Indian teacher who lived approximately 500 years before Christ. But the figure also possesses a wider significance. It represents the subject of this lecture. In other words, it represents The Ideal of Human Enlightenment.

Human Enlightenment is the central theme, the central preoccupation, of Buddhism. It is what Buddhism is basically concerned with, both theoretically and practically. Indeed, it is what the Buddhist himself is basically concerned with. In the course of this lecture, therefore, we shall be trying to understand what is meant by Enlightenment in general and, in particular, by `human Enlightenment'.

Before going into this subject, however, I want to say a few words about the third item in our title. I want to examine the word `ideal'. We speak of `The Ideal of Human Enlightenment', but what does the word mean? I do not want to go into the dictionary definitions, much less still into what are really philosophical questions. For the purpose of our present discussion we shall confine ourselves to the ordinary, everyday usage of the word.

In the first place, the word means `the best imaginable of its kind'. For instance, in London, every summer, there is a famous exhibition known as the Ideal Home Exhibition. Every year thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people visit it and look around the different sections. There they see ideal kitchens, ideal bathrooms, ideal garages, ideal shaving mirrors, ideal bread knives, ideal refrigerators, ideal lawnmowers, ideal armchairs, and even ideal egg-whisks! They see hundreds of different items, each of them claiming to be `ideal', the best imaginable of its kind (though, of course, different manufacturers may have different ideas as to what actually is the `best'). Each of them, it is claimed, fulfils its function in the best possible way, and all of these things add up to the `ideal home', add up, in other words, to the best imaginable home, the home that perfectly fulfils the function of a home, the home that everybody would like to live in - if only they could afford it.

In the same way we speak of various other things. We speak of the ideal wife, which is to say the wife who is a good cook and manager, who keeps the ideal home in perfect order, who drives her husband to work every morning, who never asks him for extra housekeeping money, and who laughs at all his jokes. We even speak of the ideal husband, though he is of course much rarer. Similarly we speak of the ideal couple, the ideal holiday, ideal weather, ideal arrangements, the ideal job, the ideal employer, the ideal employee, and so on. In other words we speak of something as being the best imaginable of its kind, as best fulfilling its natural function or what is believed to be its natural function. This is the first usage of the term.

In the second place, the word `ideal' means a model or pattern: something that can be taken as an example, and imitated or copied. Nowadays this usage is less common than the first, although it overlaps it to some extent. According to this usage, we see that the ideal home is not merely the best imaginable home but also the model, or pattern, for all homes. It is what you should try to make your own home look like, at least to some extent. Thus this usage would suggest that the ideal is a model. It implies a sort of comparison between the ideal, on the one hand, and the actual on the other, in this case between the real home that we actually have and the ideal home that we would like to have if we could afford it.

There is, however, a third usage of the term. For example, suppose you ask a friend what he would like to do when he retires. He might say that what he would really like to do is to go away to some beautiful tropical island with a marvellous climate, with beautiful sunshine, beautiful beaches, beautiful sea, beautiful surf, and just live there for the rest of his life, just to get away from it all. But then perhaps he says, `Ah well, I don't suppose I ever shall. It's just an ideal.' In this instance the word `ideal' represents a state of affairs that is regarded as highly desirable, which is certainly imaginable - which you can certainly conceive, even quite clearly - but which is regarded, for some reason or other, as impossible of attainment. These, then, are the three different ways in which we use the word `ideal'.

Having gained some understanding of how we use the word `ideal', we come on to a very important question, and with this question we start to approach the heart of our present subject. We have spoken of the ideal home, and we can all understand what that might be. We have mentioned the ideal wife, the ideal husband, the ideal job - even the ideal egg-whisk. But we have forgotten perhaps one thing. What about the person who uses all these articles, who enters into all these relationships? What about the individual human being? We seem to have lost sight of him, or of her - as so easily happens in the midst of the complexities of modern life. The question that we are really asking is, `What is the ideal man?' We all think we know what is meant by the ideal home, the ideal wife, or the ideal husband, but have we ever considered the question, `What is the best imaginable kind of human being?' Not just the best kind of employee, or the best kind of citizen, or the best kind of member of a particular social group, or a particular age group, but the best kind of man per se, the best kind of man as man. Because we are men, and this question very seriously concerns us. What is the ideal for our lives? The Buddhist answer to this question comes clearly, categorically, and unambiguously. The ideal man is the Enlightened man. The ideal man is the Buddha. That is to say, the ideal for humanity - the ideal for individual human beings - is Enlightenment. The ideal is Buddhahood.

Now this raises three questions, and with each question we have to deal in turn. The three questions are, firstly, `What is Enlightenment, or Buddhahood?' Secondly, `How do we know that this state which we call Enlightenment is the ideal for man?' Thirdly, `Where does this ideal of Enlightenment come from? Whence do we derive it? Whence does it originate?' Once these three questions are answered we shall have, perhaps, quite a good idea - or at least a general idea - of what is meant by `The Ideal of Human Enlightenment'.

What is Enlightenment? Buddhist tradition, of all schools, speaks of Enlightenment as comprising mainly three things. To begin with, Enlightenment is spoken of as a state of pure, clear - even radiant - awareness. Some schools go so far as to say that in this state of awareness the subject/object duality is no longer experienced. There is no `out there', no `in here'. That distinction, that subject/object distinction as we usually call it, is entirely transcended. There is only one continuous, pure, clear awareness, extending as it were in all directions, pure and homogeneous. It is, moreover, an awareness of things as they really are, which is, of course, not things in the sense of objects, but things as, so to speak, transcending the duality of subject and object.

Hence this pure, clear awareness is also spoken of as an awareness of Reality, and therefore also as a state of knowledge. This knowledge is not knowledge in the ordinary sense - not the knowledge which functions within the framework of the subject/object duality - but rather a state of direct, unmediated spiritual vision that sees all things directly, clearly, vividly, and truly. It is a spiritual vision - even a Transcendental vision - which is free from all delusion, all misconception, all wrong, crooked thinking, all vagueness, all obscurity, all mental conditioning, all prejudice. First of all, then, Enlightenment is this state of pure, clear awareness, this state of knowledge or vision. Secondly, and no less importantly, Enlightenment is spoken of as a state of intense, profound, overflowing love and compassion. Sometimes this love is compared to the love of a mother for her only child. This comparison occurs, for instance, in a very famous Buddhist text called the Metta Sutta, the `Discourse of Loving Kindness'. In this discourse the Buddha says, `Just as a mother protects her only son even at the cost of her own life, so should one develop a mind of all-embracing love towards all living beings.' This is the sort of feeling, ...

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