Saturday, November 22, 2008

technically enlightened

From stories I've heard and read, and what seems to be the common lore, enlightenment is something you sort of stumble into. There's the story of the guy who sorted fish who got so into his job that one day he couldn't distinguish between the fish and his hands and he became enlightened. There's the story of the monk who spent years in the monastery, meditating, striving, and finally gave up and left, only to go to a prostitute and become enlightened while having sex.

In one of the more depressed times of my life, I remember living in Santa Cruz, having dropped out of school and quit my job, spending a lot of time stoned wandering around the city, thinking that if only I could figure out one thing maybe I'd become enlightened, only to think that thinking that way was the one thing I needed to stop doing, which created a very tortured feedback loop in my head.

Kassia and I just sat another meditation course. It was sort of the second level meditation course in the tradition of Vipassina meditation we've been doing, with S. N. Goenka as the teacher. In the standard 10 day meditation courses Goenka basically gives an overview or a sketch of everything a meditator needs to know to go from day one of meditation to enlightenment. In the course we just did, which is only for students who have done at least three 10 day courses, Goenka spends the evening discourses translating and explaining the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. That translates to "the great discourse on the establishing of awareness." It's the discourse the buddha gave that details the practice of meditation and the process by which a meditator becomes enlightened.

So there I was, each evening, listening to Goenka explain it, line by line, step by step. And I thought, wow, I didn't realize reaching enlightenment was so technical. It's no big esoteric mystery. It's actually spelled out very clearly.

Of course, it's all theory. Goenka is very clear in his discourses that theory is secondary to practice. The theory is only there to give us a context for understanding our experience. But if the theory doesn't make sense, or if there's something we don't agree with, "doesn't matter," he says, "leave it aside."

It's very pragmatic, which appeals to me. As Goenka says, "don't accept something because the buddha says so. Don't accept something because the scripture says so. Don't accept something because your teacher says so." And in fact the buddha says the same thing. You have to experience it.

It reminds me of another buddhist story I read once. There was once a young novice who went to a great meditation teacher and said, there are some lines of the scripture that I don't understand, could you please explain them to me. The teacher said, I'd be happy to, but I don't know how to read. If you read the lines to me I will explain. You don't know how to read, the novice exclaimed, then how can you understand the meaning? The words are unimportant, said the teacher, they are not necessary to understand the truth. Say the truth is the moon, and the words are my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon, and you can see the moon without me pointing my finger at it.

So I do this meditation practice. I go and spend 11 hours a day at it for 10 days in a row. And of course I doubt, I question, I wonder, what am I doing? Is this doing anything? But by the end of it I feel so much more peaceful, happier. It's more clear to me how to lead a life that will be good for myself and good for others.

There are things I struggle with - how Goenka is as a teacher, and with how the courses and meditation centers are run. As much as Goenka speaks against dogmatism and integrating cultural tradition in with what should be a universal remedy for a universal malady (i.e. suffering) he is very dogmatic, and there is certainly culture mixed up in the teaching. But it's far less than any other religion or spiritual path I've come across. It's all about the practice.

So, I leave the things I don't like aside. Their mild enough that I can do that. And it helps that the theory, for the most part, completely agrees with modern physics and psychology, which are religions I have respect for ;0)

So, I keep at it. Now that I have a thorough theortical understanding on how to reach enlightenment, it is very clear to me how far I have to go. According ot the Buddha to reach enlightenment requires up to 7 years of constant, thorough understanding and awareness of impermanance. I'm not sure if I really have an understanding and awarness of impermanance yet, and it's certaily no where near constant or thorough. What I'm doing now, Goenka seemed to say, is simply making preparation, develping my awareness and equinimity. Basically, it ain't happenin' in this life time.

Whatever. The way I understand enlightenment is that it is when one is totally free from negative reaction patterns created from past experiences. I have moments of that, and when I'm in the middle of a meditation course I can sort of, vaguely imagine what it might be like to be that way all the time. But it's completely overwhelming, and when it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter, because it's already working.

At this point, all I know is that when I meditate I feel better and that I create less negativity and agitation in my life and in the world around me. And that is definitely good enough.


memeticist said...

i look forward to talking with you about the steps to enlightenment.

Why does this blog exist? said...

I take away something really different with the 7 years thing... I think... The 'constant understanding and awareness of impermanence' is something I see as continually available and active, even if I am not completely immersed in it. I had a week two years ago, literally seven or eight days, where my every waking thought was about what it would be like to be dead. The void and fullness of it. I was going through the motions of every day life but everything was sort of blurred.

In one way it seems like Buddha could be saying it takes seven years of suffering to be able to become enlightened. I don't always know that I distinguish suffering from enlightenment, either. I find that I often am reaching out to embrace the hard/difficult/absurd/painful more than I am seeking 'pleasure.'

Anyway. I love your posts. They are very thought provoking. (as evidenced by the above)

Elizabeth said...

A few years ago I got into a yoga class that was what I called "real yoga"--not just a physical exercise class. That was where I first heard enlightment talked about in this way. It's not something I've been working on much lately, but it is something I should probably get back to. And I'd love to do a meditation course like this when Adriana's older and I can leave her for a little bit.

I've been thinking about you lately--I always do this time of year with Thanksgiving coming up and remembering having so much fun with you and Matt when you would come at Thanksgiving to our house and then to Pam's and Grandma Ruth's at Christmas when we were little. I hope you are well. Safe travels!

Jay said...

It's all done with mirrors. ;o)

Nelson Armando Tchuvuvulo Wilson said...