Enlightened Beings in the Present Age?

In one of our sutra classes A—,a fellow student, asked me “Are there any enlightened people now? Or did this just happen in the old times?” This question surprised me. My response was “Yes. Read…look on the internet.” My contention is that not all people there who teach meditation, mindfulness, wisdom etc. are in the technical Zen sense “enlightened” but many have a degree of awakening. What a lot of people don’t know is that you can experience some degree of awakening, but stop at any place, and you can regress as well, if you don’t keep on practicing in the same direction. There are a number of popular speaker/writers that Zen students tend to go ga-ga over, but who leave me cold: Joko Beck, the Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh. I can’t account for this. Maybe it’s my own ignorance. Beck and Tolle certainly have something, but I wouldn’t compare it with the old masters. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have gone the social activist route. All four are/were* authors and world travelers: rock stars of the Buddhist world.

But let’s get down to what we’re talking about: enlightenment. That’s not just “emptying the bucket” but having the bottom fall out of the bucket and seeing everything you thought was in there, everything you thought you were, spill out and be lost forever. It’s being pure, empty and clear in this life. So who’s enlightened? Let’s start with the anonymous writer of The Enlightenment Trilogy, “Jed McKenna”. He has the best & simplest definition of enlightenment I’ve found: “Non-regressing truth realization”. Let’s break it down: there’s a realization about your ego (it doesn’t exist except as a sort of repetitive motion) and an entirely new self-view. What you see is the truth, and you recognize, as he says that “truth exists, non-truth does not”.  And once you’ve opened your eyes, there’s no closing them: it’s permanent. It’s a state he calls DONE. I could go on, but read the books. They will teach you about the real thing…and inoculate you against the phonies or “partials”.

What’s a “partial”? Think about the allegory of Plato’s Cave: Some people sit chained, watching the dancing shadows, some get up and walk around the cave, and some–a very few–leave the cave. What most people want to do, according to JMK, is get up and walk around the cave, so they, for the first time, have a sense of freedom and knowledge. The usual response to this–which is an experience of the ego–is to “become a teacher” and to begin writing books, on mindfulness, weight loss, dealing with emotions, and numberless other topics. And, of course, depending of where you are on the Path and what your goals are, some of these books can be very useful. However, these authors haven’t left the cave. When someone busts out of the cave, that’s enlightenment. Then they’ve become a rider of waves, automatically responding to whatever the universe has planned for them. Fearless, without will, without desire.

So for my friend A—, and for anyone else interested, a little reading list: Jed McKenna, Adyashanti, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Bassui. That will give you, not enlightenment, but the flavor of an enlightenment person. What you want to develop is not discrimination, but discernment when looking for the highest teachings. And then, after you’ve dipped into those, you might also want to read some of Ram Dass, or Nyogen Senzaki or even Fr. Anthony DeMello and the poems written by the Tang masters. And yes, there are self-realized women as well. Gangaji is one of them. The Zennist blog (linked here) will give you a good accurate look at Buddhist teachings. This is a somewhat international group, as you notice, because realization has no boundaries. The first four people I mentioned are the gold standard in full enlightenment teaching. You may find others…good luck.

*Beck Roshi has passed on.

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2 Responses to Enlightened Beings in the Present Age?

  1. Alex Bravo says:

    I’ve heard that your friend A was reading “The Diamond of Perfect Wisdom Sutra” recently.
    After reading chapter 9 “The Four Stages of an Arhat” he realized that a question he had tried to find an answer to recently (“Who have achieved the enlightenment”) does not make sense.

    Even Buddha wouldn’t say he’s enlightened because then that would show that he has a notion of self, which would make him not enlightened. So the Buddha not saying that he is enlightened is one way to see that he is not “not enlightened”, but it’s not the way to see that he is enlightened. [Note, all words here are important and no double-negatives can be removed].

    So the new question is:
    Is there a way to find out if somebody is enlightened?
    Maybe one way to see if somebody is enlightened is to see if they follow “The teachings” in both words and deeds.

  2. heldenkline says:

    The word Buddha actually means Awakened One. (Watch the first video in the Enlightened Youtube section.) Now, if you look through these posts you will see that there are a number of references to enlightenment by enlightened people. (When I come across a good one, I put it up here.) Nevertheless, enlightenment isn’t ‘a thing’ any more than turning on a light is a thing. The common factor seems to be a total change in perspective, a qualitative change. Since there are degrees of enlightenment, no, following the teachings both in words and deeds wouldn’t work here. It would make you a good person who was responsible and moral, but it wouldn’t get you one step toward your goal of enlightenment. Practice which makes you a good businessman, a calm, honest, generous and mentally healthy person is, in Japan, called Bompu Zen. That’s exactly what almost everyone wants. However, in the Q & A section of the _Sutra of Hui Neng_, the 6th Patriarch makes a distinction between two types of deeds, those that, as he says, result in “felicities” such as good luck and long life, and “merits” which are associated with realization of emptiness and equality. The latter put you on the path to enlightenment. Remember that it’s said that Buddha had many realizations, went through many lifetimes before he attained supreme enlightenment. There are very few who are willing to open themselves to full enlightenment. It’s like being expected to do deep psychoanalysis all by yourself. And those who are on the path or are at some stage of attainment can recognize one another. This is why we have teachers, and this is what is referred to as “wordless transmission” of the Dharma. Transmission takes place within the disciple, and the master recognizes it. And, most importantly, he recognizes when there is still imperfect understanding, and can direct the disciple in the right direction. The teacher you admire, Adyashanti, is a bodhisattva. He can, in other words, direct students to enlightenment.

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