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Buddhism and Enlightenment Experiences

In the beginning of my practice I spent a lot of time reading about enlightenment experiences.  In my head, the purpose of Buddhism was enlightenment in the same way that the purpose of Christianity was getting into heaven.  So, I wanted to know what to expect.

To be honest, I wasn't impressed with any of the stories that I read.  They were very beautiful; Zen teachers and Tibetan lamas going on for pages about how they turned to light, or time stopped, or they felt oneness with the entire universe.  But none of those stories were unfamiliar to me.  In fact, I'd heard them all before.

When I attended raves in the early 2000's drugs were a very big part of the scene.  I was in the Marines, and getting drug-tested regularly, so I never did anything more than drink.  But I did get to hear about everyone else's experiences.

There was the girl who took ecstasy, and said her essence combined with everyone on the dance floor.  According to her, it felt like having 100 hearts all beating in the same chest.  There was the guy who took Special K who said every 5 minutes felt like an eternity.  And I even had one buddy who swore that he talked to aliens each time he dropped acid.

To put it mildly, the similarities between the Buddhist stories and the drug stories were disappointing.  

And if the goal of practice was to make me feel oneness with everything, there were ways to do that with a lot less effort.  Thankfully, I've had terrific teachers over the years who've made it clear that so-called enlightenment experiences are a byproduct of practice; not the goal.

None of them ever told me stories about floating off the cushion during meditation or splitting into shards of light.  But it was clear that the practice helped them in a very real way.  They were calmer and more centered than other people.  They seemed to see the world more clearly than I did.  So, I kept practicing.

Over the years, I had many "wake up" experiences as I like to call them; moments of insight where I saw the beauty and interconnection of the world more clearly.  But I eventually disavowed myself of ideas of attaining enlightenment or achieving higher states of consciousness.  Instead, I just focused on my practice and the many mundane ways that it was helping me.

But this wasn't a perfect solution because the word enlightenment is all over Buddhist texts.  So, even if there was no enlightenment to be attained, it still seemed like enlightenment existed outside of the stories of flashy lights and out of body experiences that I'd read about.

This all started to get cleared up for me when I was exposed to Zen Buddhism.  Zen teaches that all beings are inherently enlightened.  And our practice helps us to clear away our defilements, so that we can manifest that enlightenment in daily life.

It's like the oak tree that exists within every acorn.  An acorn needs soil, water, and sunlight in order to realize it's inherent tree nature.  As humans, we need the Dharma to realize our inherent Buddha nature.

This teaching provided a good framework for practice, and gave me a clearer understanding of what awakening entails.

But there was still something missing.  I now understood that I (and all sentient beings) was inherently enlightened, but I was unsure how to embody that teaching.  If I continued practicing, what would the manifestation of my Buddha nature look like?

I received my answer when I learned of the 4 dharma seals, which describe both the nature of reality, and how we should relate to it.  They go as follows;

  1. All compounded things are impermanent.
  2. All stained emotions are painful.
  3. All phenomena are empty.
  4. Nirvana is peace.

The important thing to remember about the first three seals is that their opposites represent the three poisons that are at the root of all human suffering.  In other words, if we forget that all compounded things are impermanent, we become greedy.  If we forget that all stained emotions are painful, we become angry.  And if we forget that all phenomena are empty, we become ignorant.

When we move through the world from a place of greed, anger, and ignorance, we create the causes for our lives to be painful and unsatisfactory.  But if we do the opposite, if we move through the world with generosity, equanimity, and wisdom, then we create the causes for the 4th Dharma seal; nirvana.

Of course, the phrase "Nirvana is peace," doesn't mean much on the surface.  But it comes together when we dig into the definitions.  The literal translation of nirvana is "to extinguish".  So, we follow the 4 Dharma seals to their natural conclusion, what they're saying is if we extinguish the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance from our lives, we'll be left with inner peace.

But we must be careful, and not confuse nirvana with enlightenment itself.  Rather, the attainment of nirvana is a conduit that allows us to access our true-self.  

Nirvana is the pipe, which lets enlightenment to flow into our lives.

Buddhist teachings like the 4-Noble Truths and the 8-Fold Path help us to keep that pipe clean of defilements, so that our inner goodness can flow freely.  That's why Shunryu Suzuki famously said, "Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.  

He said this because we're already enlightened, but unless we do the work necessary to attain nirvana (e.g. meditate, keep the precepts, study the sutras, etc.), then we won't be able to manifest that awakening in daily life.

So, while enlightenment experiences make for good icebreakers at parties, we shouldn't place too much importance on them.  Rather, we must keep faith in our own inherent enlightenment, and work to manifest it through the attainment of nirvana.

On another note, generosity, equanimity, and wisdom are 3 of the 6 Buddhist perfections.  The other 3 are effort, meditation, discipline.  We learn generosity through the practice of effort.  We learn equanimity through the practice of meditation.  And we learn wisdom through the practice of discipline.  

May it never be said that there isn't a nice, logical flow to the Buddha's teachings!

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Buddhism and Enlightenment Experiences


  1. Thank you for this. One trap is to imagine that our peak experiences are badges of attainment, making us "enlightened" and other not.

  2. In Buddha's words from the Pali Canon: “You should train thus: We shall be wise men, we shall be inquirers” (MN 114).


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