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The Enlightenment Scam

When I started practicing Buddhism, I had one goal.  I wanted to attain enlightenment.  I wanted the spiritual maturity, unshakable confidence, and endless calm that I envisioned the Buddha having 2,600 years ago.  

I spent endless hours scouring the internet, and pouring through books in search of a Buddhist school to dedicate myself too.  Eventually, I settled on Zen because it seemed like the most direct, no-nonsense approach.  

I practiced faithfully for several years, and I slowly started to make progress.  My mind became calmer, my heart became gentler, and the world didn't seem like such a dark place.  But I didn't feel any closer to enlightenment.  

Then I heard the practice described as walking through a fog, and suddenly realizing that you're soaking wet.  That seemed logical.  Buddha practiced for 6 years before having his awakening under the Bodhi tree, so why should I be any different?  I just needed to sit, and keep sitting until something "clicked" and my enlightenment bell rang like an egg timer.

I continued happily on this path until last year when I had a crisis of faith.

The more I studied Buddhism, the more I learned about Buddhist teachers.  And the more I learned about Buddhist teachers, the less I liked what I saw.  

To be fair, no religious institution is free of scandal.  Both the protestant and catholic churches have faced their share of issues over the years, and it was unfair of me to expect Buddhism to be different... but I did.

I thought that a fully enlightened person would be different.  I thought they would be immune to petty human weakness.  But based on all of the sex scandals, sectarianism, and outright bullying some teachers engaged in, I realized that enlightened men and women are just as messed up as everyone else.

To be clear, I'm not talking about some yahoo who dropped acid, saw pretty lights, and then gave himself a Dharma name to mark the occasion.  

These were individuals with impeccable Zen Buddhist credentials.

They'd sat all the necessary retreats, served in the appropriate temple positions, and gave the right answers for koans until their enlightenment was recognized in an established Zen lineage.  But that didn't stop them from abusing their students, or stealing from congregants, or being cruel in other ways.

What good is enlightenment, if it doesn't stop you from hurting people?

I pondered this question for many months.  I almost quit Buddhist practice altogether when I couldn't find an answer.  But I stuck with it because the benefits of seated meditation were real and concrete even if the benefits of enlightenment were not.

These days, I no longer believe that enlightenment can be attained.  To be clear, I do believe in the inherent enlightenment that all beings possess as a result of their Buddha-nature.  But there's no enlightened state that Zen Buddhist priests possess, which makes them better, and more capable than the rest of us.

Rather, my experience has been that the practice makes our minds more clear, and it helps us to see the consequences of our actions more clearly.  This in turn allows us to make smarter, more compassionate decisions.  

Additionally, Zen teachers who have been practicing the Way for many years can give us instruction in much the same way that a personal trainer can teach us how to use weights in the gym.  

But that doesn't change the fact that they're flawed human beings; not gods.

And we should take everything they say with several grains of salt.  After all, being able to see the negative consequences of our actions is no guarantee that we'll make the right decision; thus the scandals that plague some Buddhist communities.  

That being said, I'm confident that if we all practice hard enough, there will come a day when our spiritual awakening is stronger than our collective human weakness.

On that day, we'll have no need for nonsense words like enlightenment.

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The Enlightenment Scam


  1. I don't think that one should follow a religion or spiritual path with the intent of becoming enlightened. Wasn't the Buddha searching for how to overcome suffering (or something along those lines)? I believe that enlightenment could be part of the path one walks, but should not be the destination. At least that is my thinking. Right now I am trying to become a better "me" and right now that is a lot of work. If enlightenment comes great, if not then I'll just keep trying to be a better "me".

  2. If their "enlightenment" did not involve bodhicitta at a deep level then what was it they attained? If deep compassion and loving kindness was not pervasive then what did they supposedly attain? It was something but not enlightenment by any definition I understand. Ego was still playing a central but altered role for them. Sex, theft, money, etc. Its all too familiar. All this shows is that Dharma practitioners are as convoluted in thought and emotions as everyone else. Easily beguiled and naive. Where was the ethical stabilization? How could you have enlightenment without it. Something else maybe but not the true nature.

  3. you are either enlightened or you are not... according to history of spirituality in all religions, a highly advanced awakened being is free of ego delusion and full of compassion... actions are wholesome and authentic... very simple...

  4. It just looks like you never met anyone who was actually enlightened. Not surprising as it's rare.

  5. Why did Siddhartha ask a question, even though he knew the answer?

  6. This is the paradox, if you do not have a goal then you will not reach the goal, and having goal is against the Buddhist practices as it is a desire.

  7. Consciousness (Buddha nature) doesn't look for itself, it recognizes itself and that's it. Then you walk into a jungle, desert, a mountain, or get lost in the city and live (then die) in peace, silence...and nothing really matters...anyway the wind blows.

    EVERYTHING else you made it up; Zen, Meditation, Buddhism, Enlightenment (and the search for it and the notion of attaining it,) your practice, etc.

  8. You've clearly mistaken the marks of enlightenment for enlightenment.
    More sitting needed.

  9. First of all.. don’t use scam as the title of this debate. Scam is an activity that it ripped someone off and gain something for itself. Secondly, you are not practicing Buddhism in the correct Way. In order to understand Buddhism, is better for you to start at the right place. Enlightenment is not something a layman like us or even the sangha can attain especially with this material and lustful world. How do you meditate? How do you control your monkey mind? Buddhism revolve around what? What is the ultimate goal of practicing Buddhism? You have mixed up all wrongly and starting at the wrong path, how can you be enlighten? Seek more, seek deep and understand the true nature of Buddhism. Sadhu X3.

    1. Dear Steven,

      Sorry you are very mistaken. The Buddha taught awakening in this life. Anybody can awaken, it is not even that difficult given the correct technology.

      It's sad to see so much misunderstanding.

      For the technology you can go here:

      There are many talks that lay it out in perfectly understandable and logical terms.

  10. One thing. Buddha Shakyamuni did not say, "no-self".
    That is wrong view.
    Anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit)
    Means "Not-self"

    Or non-self. It means that which one perceives as self is dependently arisen on conditions....
    ....Which is like a wave in the ocean....impermanence....
    Anicca or Anitya.

    Clinging to to the notion of anitya as permanent is the cause of suffering.

    Impermanence is empty of an inherent essence because it is dependent on conditions.
    Mistaken impermanence as the Unconditioned Tathāgatagarbha is wrong view precisely because one assumes Buddha is the self

    This is called the Emptiness of Other.
    That which is dependently arisen is empty of Other.
    This again is not saying sentient beings do not have Buddha Nature.
    Nor is it saying they do.
    Don't mistake the finger for the moon.
    If the finger gets in the way, cut it off.

    The Gateless Gate is a fancy way of saying, intentionless intention.
    It the "I Don't Know" mind Buddha Shakyamuni established as the Middle Way between not affirming existence nor negating it.

    If we try to become the Unconditioned, The Unarisen,
    there is only renewed becoming.
    We have mistaken Enlightenment for a condition.

    If asked, "Which part of me goes to the Pure Land"?
    Namu Amida Butsu ������

  11. I guess you killed that buddha you met on the road, eh? I tend to agree with you. Sometimes I think the point is to just not be so ill-at-ease in the world, and to help people.

  12. I have great respect for Alex Johnson. The rest of you prattle on and bicker like washer women. If you're not out there busting your hump on behalf of humanity then you're no Buddhist. If you cannot come to learn to appreciate the Void, you're hardly enlightened. You are everything that makes me despise American Buddhism.

    1. Despise American Buddhism? I presume you don't claim enlightenment or following the eightfold path, either?

  13. Can liberation from suffering be obtained? Enlightenment is a loaded and pretentious term.

  14. Not only can zen teachers help us, but also zen artists. I have been practicing meditation for many years and some of my zen enlightenment art seems to help others achieve true inner peace, in both their hearts and minds.

  15. Before enlightenment you are a jerk, after enlightenment you will still be a jerk, just now you accept it! LoL

  16. This is the logical contradiction: if you don't have a goal, you won't achieve it, yet having a goal, as a desire, is against Buddhist principles.


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