“Enlightenment is a state of perfect knowledge or wisdom, combined with infinite compassion.”

Mattieu Ricard,


It’s not clear that there’s any point at all in having a chapter on enlightenment in a book like this, but it is clear that, in the popular mind, lots of people associate Buddhism with something called “enlightenment.” Brad Warner is very clear that he thinks modern Americans have a badly mistaken understanding of “enlightenment.” He points out that, in the original stories, Mara, whom I describe as attacking Shakyamuni on the night of his becoming the Buddha via enlightenment, visited the Buddha repeatedly even after his enlightenment. As another teacher put it, enlightenment is not something one is, but something one does. It is an on-going process, not a stable state of being. Although we tend to speak of the Buddha as having “achieved enlightenment,” Warner notes that sustaining his enlightened state required continual effort by the Buddha for the rest of his life. Another prominent Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, says “enlightenment” is not the best translation of the original term. He prefers “awakening,” which has the virtue of offering an obvious verb, “to awaken,” that is in common usage in modern English.

There is a famous zen saying: before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. I take this to mean that becoming enlightened, awakening, will not suddenly transform the concrete circumstances of your existence, magically transporting you to some cosmic Cancun where it’s always sunny and 80 degrees and you have not a care in the world. It certainly did not have that effect on the Buddha. After his enlightenment, his awakening, he was still sitting under the same tree in the same place where he had sat down the night before.

Despite his own misgivings, Warner does describe the moment in Tokyo when he was walking to work, an ordinary, boring day full of ordinary, boring thoughts when “all my confusions and misunderstandings just kind of untwisted themselves from each other and went plop on the ground.” (Hardcore Zen, p. 94) He then goes on to write “Every damned thing I’d ever read in the Buddhist sutras was confirmed in a single instant. The universe was me and I was it.” (95) Everywhere he looked, he saw himself looking back at him.

And, like the Buddha, Warner continues to teach. He has written several other books and has a web site, http://hardcorezen.info/. If you want a very American, very accessible account of Zen Buddhism, Brad is your guy. He’s a former punk rocker from Ohio who loves cheesy Japanese monster movies and is very frank and plainspoken about his understanding of Zen Buddhism.

Warner is also very modest. He occupies that peculiar position of a person who writes very popular books on a hot topic who still does not necessarily want to set himself up as an authority, largely because he wants people to take responsibility for themselves, which Buddhists believe you ultimately have to do anyway. In a subsequent book that bears the title (paradox alert), There is no God and He is Always with You, he tells the highly amusing story of the man who approached him to tell him how moved the man had been by the part in Hardcore Zen where Warner describes his encounter with the apparition by the lake. “The part where I encountered the who by the what?” (p. 50). After much conversation, Warner realizes the man is referring to the episode, quoted above, when all of his problems went plop, which occurred according to the original account as he was crossing a river. Warner makes clear there was no apparition, and blames himself, saying “Clearly I made a mess of things,” but it’s not Warner’s fault. It’s really not anyone’s fault. It is just the peril of authorship. No matter how carefully one writes, some readers will misunderstand. It’s inevitable. Some of the people who read this book will misunderstand it in more or less creative ways. That’s life. Human communication is always imperfect. (The singer/songwriter John Prine tells the story of the woman who asked him to play his “Happy Enchilada” song. “Ma’am,” he replied, always the polite southern gentleman, “I don’t have a ‘Happy Enchilada’ song.” “Yes, you do,” she insisted. “You know, ‘A happy enchilada and you think you’re gonna drown.’” The line actually is “a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.”)

I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered another person who has achieved enlightenment, but I have had an experience of superior wisdom that made quite an impression on me. The process of formally becoming Buddhist, which is entirely up to you, is called “taking refuge” (more on that later). One takes refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, or group of fellow practitioners. When I decided to take refuge, the ceremony took place in a city other than, but near, the city I lived in at the time. In the lineage I took refuge in, a senior teacher performs the ceremony, as part of which s/he bestows a new, “dharma,” name on you. Part of the process, then, is an interview. I had never met this senior teacher before. I appeared for the interview, he and I chatted pleasantly for twenty minutes or so, and that was that. I drove a carful of my sangha members to the nearby city and participated in the ceremony. The senior teacher announced each person’s dharma name first in Tibetan, which none of us understood, then in English.

My turn came, and he announced my dharma name, in unintelligible Tibetan, then in English: “Intellect Lord.” There were several people from my home city who knew me sitting in the audience. They guffawed audibly. I felt smacked between the eyes. I was very impressed, and remain very impressed, that anyone could arrive at such a telling name for me after a twenty minute conversation.

To be as clear as possible: I am not claiming that this senior teacher has achieved enlightenment, although he may have. Like the Buddha after he awakened, this man teaches relentlessly, and he is a model of good humor and compassion who inspires admiration and a gentle affection in everyone who meets him. He is also far too modest to claim to have achieved enlightenment, even if he has. It doesn’t really matter. The proof is in the pudding. Don’t confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Whichever word you choose to use, “enlightenmenting,” “awakening,” “realization,” etc., is still just a word, not the thing itself.

Part of the problem is that English tends to rely heavily on nouns. This seems unimpeachable to us because we’re so accustomed to it, but it is not necessary. A philosopher who was trying to think through problems of human language once posited that, when a person from a hunter-gatherer society exclaimed at the appearance of a cotton-tailed lagomorph running across the ground, in his mind, his exclamation might mean, “Lo, it rabbiteth,” meaning that he understands animals, which English speakers think of as things, as a process or an event for which a verb is a more accurate description than a noun. We tend to think of ourselves as being dead when we can no longer act, which suggests that verbs and actions are at least as essential to our being as nouns and things.

Similarly, it might make more sense, instead of saying one achieves enlightenment, as if reaching the peak of a mountain, saying that one elightenmenteth, or engages consistently in a process of being enlightened or acting enlightened.

At any rate, the ultimate problem we face here is that we are trying to describe the indescribable. The Buddha spent some fifty years after enlightenmenting teaching other people how to do it, so it would be more than a bit presumptuous of me to claim to settle the matter in this book, especially since he has done it and I have not. It is also like the famous definition of pornography a Supreme Court justice once offered, “I know it when I see it.” According to the story of Shakyamuni’s enlightenmenting, immediately afterward, the people who saw him asked what was up. They could tell something big had happened to him, but they didn’t know what. He said, “I am awake,” so we can also use awakening in place of enlightenmenting, although in keeping with our preference for verbs over nouns, we might translate it as “I have awakened.” Returning to our example of the philosopher from above, it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that, what English translators thought most appropriate to translate using a noun might have been more of an action than a thing in the Buddha’s mind. We’ll never know. One way of breaking the concept down into more manageable pieces is to talk about “realization,” for which we have a nice, ordinary verb, “to realize.” I cannot claim to have enlightenmented yet, but I can claim to have realized a lot of things about myself and the world that feel to me like leading in the direction of enlightenmenting, all, or mostly, as the result of my meditation practice.

Some authors describe the goal of Buddhism as realizing “the deathless,” meaning that one has escaped the cycle of birth and death that we call samsara. The person who was born Shakyamuni eventually died as the Buddha, so by realizing “the deathless,” we apparently do not mean that this lifetime will continue forever. It would seem to mean, instead, that after the end of this lifetime, one has the choice not to be reborn again.

So, again, if you find someone who claims to have enlightenmented, tread with caution. Most people who do have a plausible claim to have done so are very modest about their accomplishments and tend not to advertise them. Brad Warner continues to discuss something he calls “enlightenment porn,” (There is no God, 51) which he explicitly compares to the usual sort of porn as having the purpose of inciting in the viewer/reader the desire to have the same experience, no matter how wildly implausible such an outcome might be. Continuing the metaphor, he asserts that many people who write enlightenment porn are happy to sell the experience to anyone who might want to buy it. That should raise a red flag in itself. It is inconceivable that anyone who actually can reliably lead other persons to enlightenment would charge for the service. Number one on the list of Buddhist values is compassion, and number two is generosity, and charging for access to enlightenment is neither compassionate nor generous.

One way to understand the goal of Buddhist practice is to achieve the cessation of clinging, meaning that attachment, desire, is the problem, not the solution. Zen master Seung San has a book called (paradox alert) Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake, which may seem paradoxical because you may reasonably have thought that the only reason to become Buddhist is because one wants to achieve enlightenment. I specifically stated in the chapter on meditation that regular practice is essential, and it’s hard to imagine how you would keep yourself practicing regularly if you didn’t want what the practice promised.

I take Seung San’s point to be that achieving enlightenment, or enlightenmenting, or whatever you want to call it, requires an enormous amount of sustained effort, but that, as many, many Buddhist teachers put it, you have to let go of outcomes. Again, this will likely strike modern Americans as odd. We all want to be goal oriented, right? The problem with goal orientation is that it is an attachment. Warner never said enlightenmenting was his goal. He does say that, before his plop moment, nary a day had gone by for some twenty years when he had not spent roughly twenty minutes staring at a blank wall, as Soto Zen practitioners do. (There is no God, 22). That’s sustained effort. But also, on the day of the plop, he wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. He certainly did not have a to-do list for the day with “Enlightenment,” or “awakening,” or “plop” written on it. Part of the reason for the emphasis on contemplation is that the arrival of any realization, big or small, is an unpredictable affair, and what meditation does is it leaves you increasingly open to whatever comes along. Some of what comes along will be unpleasant, but in the main, only by being very open will you be available when and if your personal plop moment arrives.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store