Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics

There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work.

This is the third in a series of posts about secular vs. religious Buddhism. Here are the first two:

Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail - Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.
Buddhism for Non-Believers - Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

Today I want to present the path to enlightenment (also called Awakening) as a series of insights into the world around us.

These insights can be generated

  • by being alive and paying attention
  • (arguably) by undertaking certain religious contemplations
  • most reliably by vipassana meditation

(If you’re not sure what I mean by vipassana, the below article will make more sense if you read Tools of the Trail first).

To attain Awakening, any of these approaches must lead us through progressively more disconcerting realisations to correspondingly more practical wisdom.

That wisdom is not the kind that leads to renouncing society, living in a cave and letting one’s hair grow long (although you can do that if you wish). Nor does it mean living in an ivory tower surrounded by books. The kind of wisdom that Gautama taught is practical; there is also deep irony in it. With it comes resilient love, abiding friendships and compassionate humour.

Enlightenment in a Non-Religious Context

Enlightenment is a subject that people veer away from. It brings a sense of discomfort to both religious circles and secular meditation groups. In the first group, enlightenment has been elevated to a supernatural feat that makes it seem out of reach. Anyone aiming to pragmatically achieve it in this very life is perceived to be flouting the dogma. In the second group, Awakening is misunderstood as a superstitious notion with no cognitive or neurological basis.

Traditionally, Buddha and his followers taught that enlightenment was a definable event, accessible to all, the endpoint of a process with a beginning, middle and an end 1.

Enlightenment is sometimes interpreted to mean the end of ignorance. This means the same thing as to gain knowledge; but knowledge of what, exactly? Not of all things, which would be impossible; nor do we mean accumulating information about planets or atoms or becoming a historian. There are endless fields of study, and meditation is not a data-collection exercise 2.

In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading.(Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).
In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading. (Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).

Vipassana exposes us to certain fundamental aspects of reality that underlie all experiences (their “true nature”). These aspects of reality are known as the three marks of existence, to be explained shortly. Most of us either do not realise, or choose to willfully ignore them during the majority of our daily lives. Through vipassana we can not remain innocent, nor can we ignore. It is our unawareness of, or our refusal to accept these fundamental aspects, which is the ignorance that is ended by enlightenment 3.

Vipassana Defined

Vipassana is a Pali word (pronounced vee-PASS-er-nah) that literally translates as “to see clearly”. Gautama diagnosed most of humanity as suffering from either or both of two problems:

  1. Ignorance of how things are
  2. Failure to accept how things are

Vipassana is designed to overcome both of them by repeatedly exposing our awareness to reality as it is — not as we would like or fear it to be — so that eventually we have no choice but to learn and accept.

Earlier I defined vipassana as reflective samadhi (using sustained attention to investigate sustained attention, see last week’s post). That is an accurate and catchy way to define it, but when we turn samadhi on itself, we notice almost immediately that our attention is not continuous. It constantly comes and goes with each new phenomenon or event that arises.

Sustained attention is an illusion. This is the first insight on the path of vipassana. So the practice quickly turns into something more slippery than my definition makes it sound.

In ordinary samadhi, we ignore the discontinuity and create a sense of stable attention around some anchor like our breathing, or the tip of a sword, or our body’s balance centre. This illusion can be cultivated, and has its own benefits 4. But in vipassana, we do not try to control what arises, which would be out of line with the first goal to overcome ignorance of how things are. So we embrace the discontinuity and expand our awareness to include all possible interruptions; that is, all the sensations of being alive right now — conscious thoughts, hearing, touch, taste, and so on, as they are from moment to moment 5.

The past has already occurred and the future is uncertain. We take the pragmatic view, shared with modern science and philosophy, that what we experience at any given moment within the sensory field (physical sensations plus thought) is the sum total of our existence.

The three marks of existence

From childhood we are taught to see relative things like excitement and pleasure, learning new skills, or acquiring new toys as the source of lasting happiness. As we age, we put forth greater and greater effort to have these things, invest much time and struggle. Yet even with adult knowledge and skills, happiness is fleeting. The bliss we feel after prayer, gratitude practice or yoga asana dissipates. Skills become obsolete or our minds and bodies can no longer grasp them. Objects decay. Even while they are new, we suffer the fear of losing them through theft or absent-mindedness.

The “true nature” of all things, from the cosmically large to the very small such as an itch on our skin, is that they arise and then pass away. This nature of arising and passing away is called in Buddhist language impermanence and it is one of the three marks of existence.

Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.
Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.

We see bliss or pleasure as a source of happiness, and its loss as a source of misery, but the things that bring us bliss are impermanent to their core. Even bliss itself is impermanent. If we do not face up to this during the arising of an experience, then we feel dissatisfaction every time it passes away. Dissatisfaction, stress and suffering is the second mark of existence, and it comes about through our attachment to impermanent things as the source of our happiness.

This suffering reaches new lows when we also assume that the passing away of a desirable thing was due to some mistake of ours, or an enemy’s conniving, and not a natural feature of reality. Under this delusion we strive harder than before to make the next time different.

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way“Hurt” lyrics by Trent Reznor / famously performed by Johnny Cash

This compounds our stress and suffering because we have set ourselves in opposition to reality. We may dominate others to protect our stuff, even stockpile weapons and money. Or we may turn our hatred inward and destroy our sense of self-worth. A more subtle form of this is when we refuse to see the suffering in life. “Speak to me only of love”. In all of these examples, we have split life into those parts we tolerate and those parts we do not. This split is artificial. Seeing through it is necessary so we can make rational, caring choices in life.

Buddha challenged his followers: find what you mean when you say “I”, “me” or “mine”.

Now that is a trick question, because in samadhi we cannot find any permanent, separate thing in the field of our senses (thoughts and body sensations) to point to and say “this is me”. Instead we find an ever-changing procession of events that arise only to pass away 67.

This insight is called no-self in Buddhist language and it is the third of the three marks (sometimes also caused the three characteristics). No-Self is the end of all dualities between “self” and “other”.

Experience is everything

Intellectually, the three marks of existence are not revolutionary. Well, they were to me but no doubt you the reader have been nodding your head. Novelists and poets write about them 8. But when we meditate we contact the three characteristics through our senses, and not just intellectually through entertaining thoughts. We experience them. This writes insight on our awareness; no matter how alien at first, we progressively become familiar with “oneself” as not a permanent or separate entity 9.

Another way to look at the path of vipassana is that we are progressively untraining our minds from seeing things as separate entities, and instead to actually experience reality (including oneself) as a web of interlinked processes undergoing constant change.

At defined points in this progression, specific delusional dualities become permanently eroded 10. From direct experience, deep integration of the three marks into the flow of consciousness arises. When it does, that is called enlightenment.

Conclusion

Enlightenment or Awakening is not reliant on any knowledge of facts or philosophy (which at the end of the day are just more thoughts). It goes beyond the library and the lecture notes. No belief in doctrine or an external entity is needed, whether moralism or divine providence, psychic phenomena or blessings from monks. It is based only on experiencing our own mind and body clearly.

Any day now 🙂

There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work. But just as reading a carpenter’s handbook will not teach one to cut straight, reading definitions will not teach one to see clearly. We ourselves must strive.

If you want to know more, break the silence and submit your comment now 🙂

Alternatively, try the Further Reading section or send me some feedback. Always good to hear from fellow consciousness cowboys.

Further Reading

Other than the links embedded in the article, check out the following resources.


Also published on Medium.


  1. I realise that this makes the progress of insight sound horribly linear when of course it is not. There is no actual end to the development, even after Awakening. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. But such simplifications are unavoidable in the space of this article, or in any conversation about enlightenment. It is closer to the truth than saying that the progress of insight is directionless or without landmarks, which is a frustrating and dis-empowering notion that tends to be promoted by people who have neither the experience nor the theoretical knowledge to make such statements.

  2. In Gautama’s own words: the parable of the Simsapa Leaves.

  3. “Enlightenment is an understanding of both the relative mode of existence (the way in which things appear to us) and the ultimate mode of existence (the true nature of these same appearances).” What does Buddhism mean by “Enlightenment”? by Matthieu Ricard.

  4. Mostly to do with developing powers of concentration, relaxation and joy.

  5. Buddhists add “sense of thought” to the usual five senses. That itself is an insight from early-stage vipassana.

  6. “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth” — Alan Watts

  7. “Were this form my self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.'” Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Anatta-lakkhana Sutta. AccessToInsight.com

  8. There are too many to list all of them, but some I find noteworthy are Doris Lessing, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot and Leonard Cohen

  9. The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. It literally translates as to familiarise or habituate. It means coming to accept the three characteristics — what are at first quite disconcerting ideas about reality — on an experiential level.

  10. These are the “stages of Awakening”. South-East Asian Buddhism recognises four stages of Awakening, Tibetan Buddhism slightly more.

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