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The Ideal of Human Enlightenment

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by Sangharakshita

... the sort of attitude, that we must cultivate. You notice that the Buddha does not just talk about all human beings, but all living beings: all that lives, all that breathes, all that moves, all that is sentient. This is how the Enlightened mind feels. And that love and compassion consists, we are further told, in a heartfelt desire - a deep, burning desire - for their well-being, for their happiness: a desire that all beings should be set free from suffering, from all difficulties, that they should grow and develop, and that ultimately they should gain Enlightenment. Love and compassion of this kind - love infinite, overflowing, boundless, directed towards all living beings - this too is part of Enlightenment.

Thirdly, Enlightenment consists in a state, or experience, of inexhaustible mental and spiritual energy. We see this very well exemplified by an incident in the life of the Buddha himself. As you may know, he gained Enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, and he continued teaching and communicating with others until the ripe old age of eighty, although his physical body eventually became very frail. On one occasion he said, `My body is just like an old, broken-down cart, which has been repaired many times. It has been kept going with bits of string, as it were. But my mind is as vigorous as ever. Even if I had to be carried from place to place on a litter, if anyone came to me, I would still be able to answer his questions, I would still be able to teach him. My intellectual and spiritual vigour is undiminished, despite the enfeebled state of my body.' So energy is characteristic of the state of Enlightenment. We could say that the state of Enlightenment is one of tremendous energy, of absolute spontaneity, continually bubbling forth: a state of uninterrupted creativity. In a nutshell, we may say that the state of Enlightenment is a state of perfect, unconditioned freedom from all subjective limitations.

This, then, is what is meant by Enlightenment, as it is understood in the Buddhist tradition - so far, at least, as Enlightenment can be described, so far as its different aspects can be tabulated in this way. What really happens is that knowledge passes into love and compassion, love and compassion into energy, energy into knowledge, and so on. We cannot really split any one aspect off from the others. Nonetheless, we are traditionally given this `tabulated' account of Enlightenment, just to convey some hint of the experience, just to give some little idea, or feeling, of what it is like. If we want to have a better idea than this, then we shall have to read, perhaps, some more extended, poetic account, preferably one found in the Buddhist scriptures; or we shall have to take up the practice of meditation, and try to get at least a glimpse of the state of Enlightenment as we meditate. So when Buddhism speaks of Enlightenment, of Buddhahood or Nirvana, this is what it means: it means a state of supreme knowledge, love and compassion, and energy.

How do we know that this state of Enlightenment is the ideal for man? Before attempting to answer this question, we shall have to distinguish between two kinds of ideal. There are no actual terms for them in circulation, but we can call them `natural ideals' and `artificial ideals'. A natural ideal, we may say, is an ideal which takes into consideration the nature of the thing or the person for which it is an ideal. The artificial ideal, on the other hand, does not do this. The artificial ideal imposes itself from the outside, in an artificial manner. For instance, if we go back to our ideal home, then however beautiful, however luxurious, however convenient it may be in many ways, it would not be an ideal home for a crippled person if it contained several flights of steep stairs. In the same way the life of a Henry Ford would not be an ideal for someone who was, by temperament, an artist.

Using this distinction, we may say that Enlightenment is not an artificial ideal. It is not something imposed on man from outside, something that does not belong to him or accord with his nature. Enlightenment is a natural ideal for man, or even, we may say, the natural ideal. There is nothing artificial about it, nothing arbitrary. It is an ideal that corresponds to man's nature, and to his needs. We know this in two ways. I have spoken about the nature of Enlightenment, and obviously it has seemed, though intelligible, something very, very rarified indeed, something very remote, even, from our present experience. But the qualities that constitute Enlightenment are, in fact, already found in man, in germinal form. They are not completely foreign to him. They are, in a sense, natural to man. In every man, in every woman, and even in every child, there is some knowledge - some experience - of Reality, however remote and far removed, some feeling of love and compassion, however limited and exclusive, and some energy, however gross and unrefined - however conditioned and unspontaneous. All these qualities are already there, to some extent. It is, in fact, these qualities that distinguish man from the animal. But in the state of Enlightenment these qualities are fully and perfectly developed, to a degree that we can hardly imagine. It is for this reason - because the qualities of knowledge, love, and energy are already present within him, in however embryonic a form - that man has, as it were, a natural affinity with Enlightenment, and can respond to the ideal of Enlightenment when he encounters it. Thus even when someone speaks in terms of absolute knowledge, of the vision of Reality, or in terms of boundless, unlimited love and compassion for all living beings, it is not something completely foreign to us, it is not just so many words. We can feel something.

And this is because the germ, the seed, is already there, in our own experience, and we can respond to the ideal of Enlightenment whenever and however we encounter it - even when we encounter it in comparatively weak, limited, or distorted forms.

We also know that Enlightenment is the natural ideal for man because, in the long run, man is never really satisfied by anything else. We can have all sorts of pleasures, all sorts of achievements, but eventually we still feel within ourselves something dissatisfied, something non-satisfied. This is what in Buddhism is called dukkha: unsatisfactoriness, or even suffering. Tradition speaks of three forms of dukkha, three kinds of suffering. The first is called simply, `the suffering which is suffering'. It is obviously suffering if we cut our finger, or when someone upsets us or disappoints us, for instance. This is the kind of suffering that is, simply, suffering. Then there is what is called `suffering by way of transformation'. We have something, we enjoy it - we get a great deal of pleasure from it - but by its very nature that thing cannot last, or our relationship with it cannot last. Eventually the thing goes, the relationship with it breaks up, and because we have enjoyed it, because we have become very attached to it, suffering results. This is the suffering that comes about as a result of transformation, of change, of time. Then there is `the suffering of conditioned existence itself': the suffering, ultimately, of everything which is not Enlightenment. Even if we do acquire things, and even if we go on possessing them and enjoying them, there is still some corner of our heart which is not satisfied, which wants something more, something further, something greater.

And this something is what we call Enlightenment. So from this too we know that Enlightenment is the natural ideal for man, because man, the true man, the real human being, the true Individual, ultimately is not satisfied with anything less. Personifying the ideal of Enlightenment, and borrowing the somewhat theistic language of St Augustine, we may say, `Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.' Where does the ideal of Enlightenment come from? The ideal comes from human life itself; it comes from human history. It could not come from any other source. The ideal for man, we may say, can only come from man himself, can only come from a human being. And if we look back into history we can see various people who have actually achieved Enlightenment, who have closed the gap between the real and the ideal. We can see people who have fully actualized all those spiritual qualities which in most men and women are only germinal. If we look back in history we can see individuals who are living embodiments of the ideal. In particular, as we look back into the history of the East, of India, we see the figure of the Buddha. We see the figure of the young Indian patrician who, some 2500 years ago, gained Enlightenment or, as the Buddhist scriptures call it, Bodhi, which is `knowledge', or `awakening'. He it was who, after gaining that state of Enlightenment, inaugurated the great spiritual revolution - the great spiritual tradition - that we now call Buddhism.

At this point I would like to clear up certain misunderstandings that exist with regard to the Buddha and Buddhism. At the beginning of this lecture I said that even the non-Buddhist has at least seen an image or picture of the Buddha, and that he might even be quite familiar with it. However, although he might have seen it many times, he may not have a very clear idea of what it represents; he may not know who, or what, the Buddha is. There are, in fact, on the part of many people, some quite serious misunderstandings about him. There are in particular two major misunderstandings: firstly that the Buddha was an ordinary man, and secondly that the Buddha was God. Both of these misunderstandings are the result of thinking, consciously or unconsciously, in Christian terms, or at least in theistic terms, which is to say, in terms of a personal God, a supreme being who ...

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