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.


  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.

Buddhism for Non-Believers

Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.

silhouette_of_buddha_sitting_clip_art_19688 This is the first in a series of posts about two different aspects of Buddhism that I am calling secular vs. religious Buddhism.

Secular Buddhism is the main teaching of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, aka ‘The Buddha’. It is practical and gives instruction on developing morality, powers of concentration and insight into reality.

If you've been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.
If you’ve been to South East Asia and seen temple-goers worshipping then you will know what I mean by religious Buddhism.

Religious Buddhism has mostly sprung up in the millennia since Gautama’s death. It is belief-centric and involves things like prostrating before golden statues, praying, burning incense, chanting and receiving blessings from monks. Though culturally rich, such practices turn many people away; they may close a person’s mind to meditation for years, even for life.

That’s ironic because as we’ll see, if you find yourself interested in meditation but balking at religious ceremonies, that may actually be a very good thing.

The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.S.N. Goenka1

Buddhism: technology or religion?

Even the most devout of the Buddhist monks today would agree that meditation is the main thrust of Gautama’s teachings. And meditation, as opposed to prayer, is a practical skill that can be learned and improved upon.

Bear with me and let us briefly go back to the historical life of Gautama himself. Nowhere does he claim to be a supernatural being. Nor does he try to bestow blessings on others. Clearly he had some remarkable qualities: he renounced his noble birth, was notoriously impossible to goad into any kind of anger or spite, touched the heart of multitudes and developed a system of meditation that had never been taught before. For most of his life he taught that system to a growing number of practitioners.2

But he was born a human and eighty good years later, he died. Instead of claiming to be any kind of saviour, he teaches that enlightenment is for everyone. He encourages us to work on our own insight and attain the same freedom he did, the exact same way.

These exhortations have not been forgotten. In modern Buddhist temple life as centuries ago, monks spend long hours meditating. Monasteries throughout Asia nominate meditation masters within their order to teach young novices. Lay people of all backgrounds, myself included, receive instruction within their walls in exchange for only donations.

The process is to firstly eliminate distractions through living simply, secondly to develop concentration power by taming our mind, and finally to use this combination as a tool for investigating our reality. That describes a methodical series of practical steps and has no recourse to faith or belief-oriented invocations. It describes a technology that can be undertaken by most of us, a set of related techniques, skills, methods and processes. Since this is the main point of Buddhism, it can be argued that Buddhism is not at it’s heart in fact a religion.

Penetrating investigations into the minutiae of a simple life leave us fundamentally changed as people. This has given rise to some wise and potent human beings over the centuries and continues to today. Speak with any accomplished meditation master and you will find those same qualities of generosity, even temper, compassion and rational thinking as Gautama did. Perhaps not to the level of full enlightenment — but sometimes, it may even be just so.

This gives rise to respect, and sometimes, to awe. As we’ll see, that can be dangerous.

How rituals help

Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are "making merit" -- performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through "karma", the law of cause and effect.
Lay-people visiting a temple in Thailand on Buddha Day make offerings. Technically, they are “making merit” — performing meritorious acts in the hopes of improving their lives through “karma”, the law of cause and effect.

The main thrust of my argument is that religious Buddhism can and should be de-prioritised in favour of meditation. But it would be unwise to dismiss these rituals entirely.

Being in the presence of a modestly accomplished meditation teacher can help to guide us in times of difficulty.3 We can call on that help even when they are absent by bringing to mind their teachings and positive qualities. In ancient times, this was done through chanting (the culture was mostly illiterate). Vedic customs were also common in Gautama’s region, so gestures like bowing and burning incense arose naturally after his death as a way to keep the memories fresh.

From these humble beginnings, ritual was formed.

If we are not discomfited by these rituals, they can generate helpful qualities in our lives such as equanimity and compassion, just as they did for the ancients. We can adopt peaceful conduct by remembering the Buddha’s humility or that of our meditation teacher. By showing respect and generating feelings of connection and community, we can impress upon ourselves the things we admire in others. This can be a powerful adjunct to any technique that develops insight.

From a modern meditator’s perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.

“Speak to me only of love.”

But writing has long since replaced chanting. And bowing to a Buddhist idol will arouse skeptical thoughts and discomfort for those with a modern scientific background or a non-Buddhist faith. These matters make the acts unlikely to have the intended benefits. They will just cause distraction and resistance.

Even for those who do not flinch at them, such as those born into Buddhist cultures, these rituals should not be considered a replacement for meditation itself. However in religious Buddhism that’s often exactly what happens: ritual, originally a side-dish to meditation, ends up becoming through a sense of awe the whole meal. Or at least, the main course.

That is a big problem, and here’s why:

The good side-effects of ritual and remembrance don’t last.

Equanimity- or compassion-by-association is transient. At night we may make our peace before the altar and (if we’re lucky) fall asleep unworried about what we did or did not achieve. Yet the next morning, we wake with a to-do list that worms around inside us.

Think of the New Age trend of making affirmations in the mirror. “I am worthy of being loved.” But the resulting magnanimity quickly turns into out of line reactions when our buttons are pushed. We cut out the trivia nights at the local pub because we cannot resist the temptation to drink excessively. Over-zealous yogis and new religious converts may withdraw from their friends and family to avoid cynical remarks (the “yoga bubble” effect).

This is a tragedy. In the name of world peace, we shrink our world to just the bit we can tolerate. “Speak to me only of love,” goes the song. We limit our interactions because we cannot keep our hearts open when the shit hits the fan.

Meditation, practised often and well, does not just temporarily remind us of the qualities of peace and compassion; it causes permanent changes in how we perceive the world. As we progress on the path of insight, those changes bring increasingly more peace and compassion to every situation, no matter how fraught.

An accomplished meditator need not avoid the local pub because they will no longer be swayed by habits and addictions.

There is a wonderful Zen story about the Soto Buddhist monk Tanzan that illustrates this beautifully.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Meditation is experience practice

On the path of insight, ritual and remembrance practices are unnecessary. In fact, they can be a hindrance even to those who accept them. They are helpful to some people; but insight, not remembrance, is what liberates. We create insight by experiencing our own life clearly, not by trying to make our behaviour reminiscent of another person’s, whether they are enlightened or not.

Meditation is “experience practice”. It is dedicated time where your only goal is to experience life without resistance. That is, to experience your life clearly.

This teaches us to be generous and feel things completely even after we end our meditation session. The lessons from meditation remain with us in the most trying of circumstances.

It is not easy, but it really is that simple. That was the Buddha’s great genius and his gift to the world.

Conclusion

If your goal is to live a happier, calmer and more loving life, then rituals like bowing, chanting, burning incense, or a morning run all help to smooth the ride of meditation, providing fresh energy and inspiration when motivation starts to flag.

But if you don’t meditate in the first place you may be smoothing a ride that hasn’t started yet. Many people perform their individual rituals daily, and yet nothing much changes in their reactions when life gets complicated.

On the other hand, lucid experience is what liberates and therefore meditation alone is enough to both start the ride, and once started, to keep on truckin’.

This will be not only beneficial in your own life but also that of your loved ones.

Heard of a practice that has similar goals as meditation? Mention it in the comments!

Let me leave you with a quote from that wonderful, rational, human being, the Dalai Lama.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.Our Faith in Science by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama 4

Afterthoughts: Is there no other way?

I’ve established that insight comes from experiencing life clearly. Given that, shouldn’t it be possible to attain all the insights of meditation simply by being alive and paying attention? After all, that must be how the great saints and sages of the past arrived at enlightenment without access to meditation practice.

It is common for people with an observational nature, with high levels of concentration and a passion for understanding life, to take some steps on the path of insight. But I would say that for most of us the chances of getting enlightened without some kind of formalised practice are very small.

Other forms of “experience practice” exist in other traditions; anything that helps us watch the movement of our own minds is going to lend itself to insight. I’m convinced that there is plenty of overlap with other practices (and have experience with eight-limb or Tantric yoga and t’ai chi). But not being a practitioner of many others I cannot speak to their efficacy or their efficiency (which are not the same thing).

I take a pragmatic approach here: if your goal is enlightenment then no, meditation is not essential; but it helps immensely.


  1. Retreat Code of Discipline

  2. The tradition states that Gautama didn’t create vipassana meditation, he only “rediscovered” it, after it was lost for thousands of years. An intriguing legend; if you have any information on this please leave a comment.

  3. By “modestly accomplished” I mean twenty+ years of dedicated practise with plenty of long-term retreat experience.

  4. *Our Faith in Science*. New York Times 2005.

Autumn peeps through

Rising early doesn’t come naturally to me. Traditionally I’d roll from bed with half an hour to spare, and head straight to work via the kettle and maybe breakfast.

But yoga’s morning benefits became too numerous to resist — a hidden blessing of an older body perhaps. I’d regret sleeping in whenever my discipline slipped (consider that a warning). Since then I added post-asana meditation. A penny more focus and a sliver of presence. Worth it.

These days I’ve swapped it around: meditation then asana. I’m interested in what my mind feels like, before I properly waken. I get up, ablute and then sit down, yawning, to notice what I’m noticing.

Mornings stay dark much longer in March. When I sat the other morning, all was dim, but after, as the timer chimed and I opened my eyes, light was all around. I went outside.

Autumn peeps through.
Autumn peeps through.

The new sun lit up the leaves like stained glass. Birds were all about it. The day had a plan, tickety-boo.

Breath lifted my inner body, my shoulders opened. I scanned the horizon. And I thought, why wait for the sun? Even if the world is grey, or dark, everyday moments (even wretched ones) are precious. Passing away. Never to come again.

How fortunate was that moment of early sunlight! But how just like a sunny morning it was that the universe later manifested me in the murky afternoon, foibled and confused, amidst smog filled traffic:

image

If we allow, the cold or the grey, just like sunlight in the trees, can draw a surgeon’s blade through our surface worries.

Our compassion for ourselves and others is weak, when all we choose is this single-masted yacht, a cocoon aboard which to sail the vast sea of human experience.

Leap from your craft, I said aloud. Immerse yourself in the waters of happenstance. Occupy love.

At dusk, the cock announces dawn.
At midnight, the bright sun.