‘Saint Augustine receiving the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus’ (detail) – Philippe de Champaigne, 1645 – Wikimedia
“A thunderclap under the clear blue sky
All beings on earth open their eyes;
Everything under heaven bows together;
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.”
~ Wumen Huikai (enlightenment poem)
The words for the discovery of our true nature — like enlightenment, realisation, awakening, liberation, etc — are all very significant. They all point to truth and have numerous things to say. Take ‘enlightenment’ for instance. Its original signification is ‘to shine’ or ‘to make luminous’. So to enlighten means to put the light on. It means to cease being distracted by all that is objective in our experience and doesn’t define us truly, and make what is already and absolutely ours here and now apparent. It doesn’t mean to achieve, to reach, to attain, to get something new. Where did we get this idea from? But let’s be very cautious here: to make luminous — does this even require a doing? Why should we have anything to do when the light is already fully on? So to be enlightened is really more a matter of noticing what is already here, and that we have missed due to a pathological phenomenon of blindness. We are too occupied with a thousand things, worried, concerned, busy with this and that, distracted, ambitious, desiring, grasping, expecting, and god only knows what else we have in mind to so successfully avoid seeing the patently obvious. Our true reality and identity as consciousness is already present, luminous and shining in every corner of our experience and we are blind to it. That’s where the word ‘realisation’ comes in.
So it is a noticing — this awareness — a noticing that we are aware. It is not just a matter of perceiving, of reaching an outside reality. It is a matter of letting that one crucial element of reality reveal itself, and come to the foreground. This is the realisation — which the dictionary defines as ‘an act of becoming fully aware of something as a fact’. And the fact is: consciousness is the dominating factor of life. Please realise that. Make it come to your attention. Render it true. ‘To realise’ also means ‘to make real’, from Latin ‘res’ — which means ‘thing’. Usually, what we take as real is everything objective. Here we render real something that is viewed as secondary, negligible — in reason of its non-objective quality — but is in fact the only real ‘thing’ there is. That’s why we call this aware presence ‘reality’ sometimes, referring to its absolute is-ness, its inescapability, its undoubtability, its unmistakability, and its all-embracing aptitude. So realise your true identity as being awareness itself. Make awareness real, palpable, enjoyable. Feel its rock-like presence. Don’t push it in the dark. Don’t let it be a night. Hear that? And this is where the word ‘awakening’ can be useful.
Ignorance is a night. Or rather a slumber. The slumber of being unaware — missing it all — all the beauty of life — its aliveness — its intimacy — its loving and faithful presence. We sleep. We sleep. And it’s not that there are no alarm clocks. There are in fact many — all the suffering, the boredom, the lack of completeness. But we live like in a dream. We are dreamers — ceaselessly hoping, projecting, desiring. Yet we need to awaken from the dream, from the sleep. Life is waiting. The time has come for an awakening. But for now, we are sleeping, sleepwalking in this apparent world without having a clue of what is going on. We are dreaming and we believe in the reality we are experiencing. Everything is kept at the level of objects and appearances, on the surface of our mind. To awaken is to deepen our experience by incorporating to it its one most important yet overlooked element — the very thing experience is made of — and let it acquire all the pre-eminence that is truly his but is missed every single moment of our lives. Usually, at night, the realisation that we are dreaming is enough to wake us up and make us realise what was temporarily eclipsed by the power of mind — our true self and real world. But there is a a further awakening: the one that makes us realise that our true self and real world is not in our body and thoughts, not in our emotions and sensations, not in objects and the hard stuff called matter, but in this thing called awareness, and that we have relegated in the background as a detail of our experience. Awareness is our real world, is our real self. And all the other things that we have taken to be the real stuff of life are in fact unsubstantial, and derive their reality and being to consciousness itself. This second awakening is as liberating an experience as the one when we wake up from a bad dream. This is where the word ‘liberation’ can help.
We are prisoners of our thoughts, of our feelings, our false identity — they bind us, keep us small, limit us, and make us prey to suffering and conflict. So to be liberated not only means to be free from our false sense of identity, but also from all that this erroneous identification engenders in our everyday life in the form of suffering and conflicts. We feel free! Free after years of ruthless conditioning, unending thoughts, and overwhelming feelings, which we have let define us. We don’t have to carry this load anymore — what a relief! Lightness of just being is now our new norm and identity. This is true liberation — to be rid of all the superfluous, of all the lies, the confusion, the sorrow. To be rid of the pain that it is to mingle oneself with an ego — which is nothing but a bunch of arbitrary thoughts and feelings, with no real and meaningful consistence. The meaning of the word ‘liberation’ in the dictionary is ‘the action of setting someone free from imprisonment, slavery, or oppression; to release’. I think we are right on track here. Free yourself from what keeps you down and miserable, from all your limiting shackles. Release the grip. Such letting go is a winning game. But this is better explained by a more exotic name coming from ancient India: ‘moksha’.
‘Saint Bruno’ (detail) – Philippe de Champaigne – WikiArt
Liberation is a central concept in India. The word ‘moksha’ (liberation) is derived from the root ‘muc’, which means ‘to free, let go, release’, or even ‘to relinquish, cast, move away’. It is often used in reference to ‘saṃsāra’, which is the cycle of death and rebirth, and actually means ‘world’. So we can see that there is a short step from this form of liberation to the long standing tradition of India to move away from the world, to renounce. But what is really meant here is a more subtle and proactive form of liberation. We are invited to release the tension inherent in our attachment to thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Not to get away from the world. This tension is our illusory self. And what is meant by ‘world’ is the eternal process of creation and destruction, the eternal danse of existence, where nothing is constant, where duality prevails, and causation, and life and death, and movement, with the rising of conflicts, troubles, suffering, all the friction inherent in objective experience. The trap of objectivity is what needs to be released. This is the true meaning of liberation. And there is no better way to dis-identify ourself from objective experience than through this other landmark of Indian spirituality — when it comes to enlightenment — which is the word ‘nirvana’.
India, in its all encompassing wisdom, has invented the only term for enlightenment that is wholly a negative one. Although translated positively as being bliss itself, the original meaning of ‘nirvana’ is negative in the sense that it puts the emphasis on the extinction of our sense of being a ‘person’. For ‘nirvana’ literally means ‘blown out’ or ‘extinguished’, implying ‘extinguishing the fires that cause suffering’. It is the extinction of all that is blocking our way to the light, or truth — all the limitations in the form of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, that we have brought down to being our self, our ‘ego’, when they are in fact only tools and windows. Other meanings for ‘nirvana’ extend to ‘dissolution, cessation, having no arrows, out of the wood’. ‘Having no arrows’ to send towards an hypothetical better in the future, nothing to project, or acquire, or conquer, or possess, no likes or dislikes, and no hurts or wounds to address towards an ‘other’, be it the world or people. And this is likened to the experience of being ‘out of the wood’, out of the obscure and endless confusion of life. This is where another word comes to help: ‘satori’.
Life has become an all too confusing experience, for the reason that we have taken it to be what it is not. Life is not in its outward manifestations, but is essentially a field of being and knowing. This is what we have to understand. ‘Satori’ is the word that is used in Zen for ‘enlightenment’, but its literal meaning in Japanese is in fact ‘understanding’. It is derived from the verb ‘satoru’, which means ‘to know’. So satori, in its original meaning of ‘understanding’, conveys the idea of ‘standing under’, which points to this place of truth underlying existence: awareness. Being covered up by all the excessive attention given to objective appearances, consciousness retires for a time beneath the lines of our unending thoughts and feelings, or between each of their appearances. So the moment of understanding is in this timeless instant when we stand under our limited identifications with objects, and bask in the consciousness that is our true identity. This is why understanding always comes with its particular flash of relief, order, peace, or light. It clears up the situation, makes us come out of the wood of confusion. And it brings a gift with it — one with subtle aromas. This is where the word ‘happiness’ enters the equation.
In the life of every person on this planet — and in common parlance — the process of enlightenment is not something unheard of. Only, it is simply called happiness. This is how presence makes itself known and reachable in the middle of ignorance: through happiness. This is how awareness shows itself, makes itself desirable. The reason of this acquaintance of consciousness with happiness is that consciousness, being unconditioned, absolutely balanced, in perfect repose, and unthreatened by anything, is therefore fundamentally at peace. This peace in human experience is felt as happiness. But that’s not all there is to enlightenment. One of its other precious qualities is to be found in the word ‘beauty’.
Beauty defines enlightenment. This is its signature, like happiness is. Beauty gives the world a shine and a halo. And a transparency. The world is trembling with clarity and intimacy. It gives all its secrets away. It relinquishes its solidity. And it makes its new name evident. It won’t tell you though. Names have become altogether meaningless. The world and all the apparent beings are in fact simply made of the same substance you are made of. They are sharing the very same being than you. This is fundamental news. And this is to express this intimacy that the word ‘love’ was invented for.
Love is an embrace. It is neither received nor given. Love is life itself throbbing in your being. It is the fountain where all beings have their existential thirst quenched. It is god’s recognition token. It is the knowing of everything that needs to be known. It is death after death is known to be nonexistent. It is the radiance of emptiness. It is one without a second. Love is one without a second. One without a second.
Text by Alain Joly
Paintings by Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)
– Wumen Hiukai (Wikipedia)
– Philippe de Champaigne (Wikipedia)
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5 thoughts on “Defining Enlightenment”
yes. Well spoken/written, as far as fingers pointing at the moon can be. As we approach the “le point vierge”, the sacred heart comes into focus out of the fog of our conditioned awareness, and what is there to do, but be that love? Thank you.
Thank you for your comment! 🙏 Nice expression this ‘Le point vierge’…
Thanks. I believe Thomas Merton coined it. I imagine it being the point at which our personal awareness encounters the unfolding love; a place of living love and light being continually born again in each moment.
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This blog should be winning the internet. So beautiful and profound!
Thank you Pam! 🙏 Delighted to hear that you enjoy this work!