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.