I finally figured out why I'm not enlightened. Over 30 years ago, when I had just made the proverbial first step on a "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 trouble had I simply answered the question implied by that story honestly: No. No I do not want to get enlightened more than life itself, more than I would crave my next breath in that situation.
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. After standing there for 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 holding a sword over him, saying, "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 Master replied, "And don't you know who I am? I am someone who could offer you his head to cut off without a second thought or batting an eye."
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 beliefs, incense, and countless books on esoteric subjects written by others who themselves have not made the final cut, so to speak. (The late Douglas Harding, one of the few who seemed to know of what he spoke, titled one of his books, On Having No Head). But let's face it: of all the people that you and I know who have spent a good deal of their 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?
It would mean putting enlightenment at the top of our To-Do list and priorities, ahead of career, family, comfort and security, things which, speaking for myself, actually comprise some of my favorite parts of being alive. In the Christian world, of course, Jesus was a "fisher of men" and told them to put down their nets right then and there and "follow me." Like the Moonies in the early days, those who joined up never even called home or checked in with their parents. (Perhaps today the families of Peter, Judas and the rest would kidnap them and deliver them to a deprogrammer). Same for the monks who divested themselves of all worldly goods and personal attachments to traipse through the forest with the Buddha. The Jews, naturally, didn't have much choice. Following Moses into the desert for 40 years seemed at first as if it would definitely be a step up from brutal slavery, but a lot of them bitched and moaned about it anyway. Even they didn't always want their freedom more than the familiarity of the less than optimal life they knew.
Ram Dass once spoke of a picture he saw in the newspaper of an abused and battered infant wailing as it was taken out of the arms of its mother, reaching back desperately for its abuser. The message was clear: we are wired to choose the familiar and the comfortable at any cost. I attended a two-week retreat in Rishikesh, India with contemporary guru Andrew Cohen once, and he made it crystal clear at the outset that it was imperative that we "want to be free more than anything else," and that we needed to be "deadly serious about it." I've never really been deadly serious about anything (except maybe my record collection) so that put me off a bit, especially since the most enlightened people I had come into contact with over the years always had at least one thing in common: they laughed uproariously and often. (Actually, to be fair, so did Andrew.)
I recently finished reading Spiritual Warfare by Jed McKenna, who, like Andrew and many others who walk among us these days, presents himself as someone who is "done," in the sense that prior to enlightenment, we are all perpetually in a state of "becoming," as distinct from finally being released into the vast mystery of Present Being, with no further demands of life, only curiosity and radical amazement. Jed is done with all becoming. So he, too, naturally, makes statements like, "All that's required is an arm and a leg? That's it?" He can't believe his good fortune to learn that "waking up" is such a bargain. Living without a few limbs, he says, is far preferable to even one more moment of living a lie.
Okay, 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.)
Now, for the opposing view: the most provocative statement I ever heard Werner Erhard make-yes I know he is controversial and either adored or despised, but this is worth considering-was that over the years, he had witnessed thousands of people literally give up everything in their pursuit of enlightenment. He had seen them give up their jobs, their families, spend their fortunes, devote years of their time, meditate until their knees were destroyed, "ANYTHING," he said, "except the ONE THING required in order to be enlightened. That, no one will give up." He paused for emphasis, then shouted, as was his style, "PEOPLE WILL NOT GIVE UP THAT THEY ARE NOT ENLIGHTENED. IT'S TOO TERRIBLE TO GIVE THAT ONE UP! THEY HAVE TOO MUCH FUN DOING THINGS THAT ARE GOING TO ENLIGHTEN THEM!" He went on in a softer voice, "Now, did I just say you shouldn't do things that are going to enlighten you? No; do them. But do them because it's fun to do them! I would do them. I do do them. But not because they're going to enlighten anyone. You can't get enlightened. But you can be enlightened."
It's the perennial paradox. There are many spiritual teachers and schools of thought who remind us continuously that, "this is it," that we are, each of us, always already enlightened. That it is impossible to be otherwise, and any effort whatsoever in the direction of enlightenment can only, by definition, be a journey further from it, since it is where, unbeknownst to us, we are starting out from. A religious way of stating this would be to say that we are always already in the Presence of God. If God is Omnipresent, the Source and Substance of Everything/Everywhere, (and for the non-dual people, also the Non-Source and Non-Substance of Nothing/Nowhere, and really neither of those two, nor both; confused yet?) then there is absolutely nothing any of us could do, obviously, to either bring in or remove God from the scene.
Our True Nature is who we already are, not something we can become or attain in the future. The paradox becomes that we somehow don't recognize this fact and spend years searching for something that was never lost, and if we're fortunate, we'll run into a teacher along the way who will simply, as the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition puts it, "point out" what is perfectly obvious. Jed McKenna calls it "opening your eyes," Gurdjieff and many others refer to it as "waking up." It has been called God-Realization, Self-Realization, Enlightenment, Liberation, or simply being real and authentic, resting in the center of our original, True Nature and living life from that place rather than looking for it.
So those seem to be our two main choices: Either we're presently, already enlightened and simply don't know it, and there may or may not be teachers or methods that can help us achieve the recognition that there is nothing to achieve; or, we're clearly very far from enlightenment and we need to be willing to sacrifice our very lives to get to the Truth, and there may or may not be teachers or methods that will help us achieve that. In either case, good luck! In the meantime, it seems to me that it behooves us spiritual seekers to get on with our day.
Image by quinet, courtesy of Creative Commons license.