Religious Beliefs

What is Enlightenment?

In Buddhist tradition the term “enlightenment” means the simple, clear realization of the most basic truths about life. It presupposes the utmost attentiveness to whatever one is experiencing as one experiences it. And for that reason it sounds too simple and ordinary to be worth pursuing. But enlightenment begins and ends precisely with the simple and the ordinary. It is the realization that the headlong pursuit of pleasure (hedonism) and the dogged avoidance of pleasure (extreme asceticism) both yield the same results: suffering. Hope fuels the one, fear the other. Both are a flight from the real as it confronts every individual in the here and now.

Enlightenment means grasping the fundamental realities summed up in Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths.” First, life is difficult. Look around. As the Four Passing Sights taught Siddhartha, the human condition includes some hard inescapable realities. This first truth is not as pessimistic as it might sound. It is the ultimate in realism. If human beings had the power to change the basic realities we experience, we would have done so long ago. But we can change the ways we respond to experience. Second, all that hardship and suffering comes from inappropriate attachment or grasping. Whatever I “must” either have or avoid will finally make me suffer. If I get what I want, it will soon disappoint. If I manage to avoid for a time what I fear most, something else will soon replace it. There is a solution in the third truth: to avoid suffering avoid inappropriate craving. Under ordinary circumstances no human being can stop craving altogether. The Buddha nearly killed himself with austerities before he realized the futility of such an approach. What is appropriate behavior? The fourth truth says simply, to stop inappropriate craving, and follow the Eightfold Noble Path.


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