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21st-Century Buddhism: What Is Enlightenment?

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Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me.

 

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Episode 004:

What Is Enlightenment?

Recently I was having lunch with an 86-year-old Buddhist nun, and we were talking about enlightenment. (If that sounds like the opening of a stand-up comedy routine, it's not. I live in a monastery, and this is an everyday occurrence.)

"You see, the problem," she said, "is that we don't really know what enlightenment is."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," I replied. "It seems like everyone is always flapping their gums about enlightenment this, enlightenment that, but what is it? Nobody seems to know."

"Or everybody thinks they know but they all have a different idea."

"And usually we make it into this big, mystical production, like a number from a Bollywood musical. You know, like when you attain enlightenment the earth trembles and the animals all bow down and the choirs of heavenly beings sing your praises and break out in celestial line dancing. All that hyperbolic stuff in the books."

We both laughed. "Maybe enlightenment," she said, "is actually something very simple."

"And we're looking for something complicated. I can't remember the name of that Tibetan teacher who said, about the nature of mind, 'Because it is so close, no one sees it. Because it is so simple, no one trusts it.' Maybe enlightenment is like that."

"Yes. If we're looking for an enlightenment that's far away, some big thing in the future, we're never going to find it," she said, placing her palm against the tip of her nose, "because it's always right here."

"Ponlop Rinpoche has talked about that too. I remember once at a talk he gave, he was remarking about how we always like to be perceived as sophisticated people. If someone calls us sophisticated, we take that as a wonderful compliment -- but if they call us simple, well, that's a huge insult. I guess that's sort of how we build up our expectations about enlightenment, too."

We both nodded, and went back to chewing our lettuce.  

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Dennis Hunter publishes a popular website on Buddhism and spirituality, One Human Journey. His work has also appeared on Buddhist Geeks and Rebel Buddha and in Bodhi magazine. A long-time resident of New York City, he is currently living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in a very remote part of Canada.

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Comments

enlightenment is simple

I agree with that. It is something very simple, always very close at hand. Nothing to attain, nothing to get. Simply be mindful, be watchful and be grateful. That is about my take. I have discovered it is much closer to my Christian heritage than I had believed when I started out - but that is quite OK.

Christian heritage

Yes, I've been discovering much the same thing. I wrote a couple of articles related to this recently. If you're interested, here's a link to the second one (the first one is linked from the top of that one): http://bit.ly/c7G5WJ

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