This article is excerpted from Why I Am Not Enlightened, recently released by Reality Sandwich Singles, a new series of novella-length e-books.
Seeking the Great Whatever
I finally figured out why I am not enlightened. Over 30 years ago, when I had just made the proverbial first step on the "journey of a thousand miles," I heard the following well-known tale:
A man approaches a Zen Master and asks to be shown the path to enlightenment. The Master replies, "Okay, follow me," stands up, and walks the man to a nearby river and into the water. Without warning, the Master forces the man's head under the water and holds it there as he struggles violently for his life, until he is nearly dead. At last the Master pulls the man up, gasping for air, and says, "When you want to be enlightened as badly as you wanted to take your next breath just now, come back and see me."
At the time, as a youthful spiritual adventurer, the story inspired me and got me fired up, and fueled the years of seeking, meditating, and exotic travels to distant lands that followed. Yet now, looking back, I'm wondering if I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble had I simply answered the question implied by that story honestly:
No I do not want to get enlightened more than life itself, more than I would crave my next breath were my head being held under water.
Again and again in the spiritual literature, and particularly in the fierce world of Zen, we come across stories that are similar.
In ancient China, it is said that Hui-ka came to Bodhidharma's cave and waited for the monk to accept him as a student. After standing there for many days with no sign of the teacher coming out to greet him, it began snowing. When the snow had reached to Hui's waist, Bodhidharma finally came out and asked,
"What is it you want?" ?
"My mind is not at ease," Hui replied. ?
"The Way is long and difficult," said Bodhi, dismissing him.
Hui took out his sword and chopped off his left arm and handed it to the Master, and was accepted.
Another tale tells of the Zen master who was once threatened by a gruff Samurai warrior holding a sword over him, arrogantly roaring,
"Don't you know who I am? I am someone who could cut your head off without a second thought or batting an eye!"
To which the fearless Master replied, without missing a beat, "And don't you know who I am? I am someone who could offer you my head to be cut off without a second thought or batting an eye."
At hearing that, the warrior put down his sword and became the Masters disciple.
In one of his previous incarnations, the Buddha is said to have
offered his body as food for a hungry tiger.
And so forth and so on; the message seems to be that enlightenment, or the realization of Truth, is not a casual affair for mere spiritual tourists, but only for the very rare individual willing to sacrifice any and everything, including his or her very life, in its pursuit.
Alas, most of us, myself included, are merely in search of, at best, "feeling better," while possibly surrounding ourselves with consoling aphorisms and Rumi poems, zafus and incense, and countless books on esoteric, metaphysical and spiritual subjects.
But let's face it: of all the people that you and I know who have spent a good deal of their lives (our lives!) sitting on meditation cushions, chanting in Sanskrit, gulping psychedelics like M & Ms, and subscribing to The Yoga Journal, how many have achieved the pinnacle of human possibility that all of the great spiritual teachings insist is available to anyone, if only we wanted it as badly as air and life itself?
I think I've made my point: the reason I am not enlightened after all these years is that I value my arms and legs too much, not to mention my wife and family, and last but not least, air. (My favorite.)
What would it look like if I were as committed to awakening as these stories declare is necessary?
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Like what you've read? Don't stop reading now! Click here to download the complete e-book.
Enlightenment is not for the faint of heart, or as Eliezer Sobel makes clear, for those without a sense of humor. Why I Am Not Enlightened is a penetrating, insightful, and above all genuinely funny meditation on the quest for gnosis and its discontents.
Praise for Why I Am Not Enlightened:
"Eliezer Sobel is living proof that the New Age disease of self-improvement is incurable. Thankfully, Sobel's utter failure to get enlightened is chronicled with laughter, irreverence, insight and raw truth." Gabrielle Roth, author of Sweat Your Prayers
"It's said that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, since only he knew he didn't know anything. This is why I believe Eliezer Sobel to be the most enlightened teacher in America. If you're tired of neo-shamanic know-it-alls and soft-spoken yoga divas telling you how awakened they are, and want to know what the spiritual path is *really* like, download this book, read it, and laugh. Or cry. Or both." Jay Michaelson, author of Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism