The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Winter 2014 issue of Quest magazine. Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 102. 4 (Winter 2014): pg. 2.


Richard Smoley

What fun is it to have an editorial page if you can't use it to tackle tough issues? So this time let's take on the toughest one of all—enlightenment. 
Enlightenment, in the sense in which I'm using it here, is the goal of Buddhism (although Hinduism has something similar in its concept of moksha or liberation). It often seems to refer to a state of transcendent awakening that puts the experiencer beyond all dualities of good and evil, like and dislike. According to some versions, it even bestows omniscience. 

The goal of Christianity, by contrast, has generally been salvation. Salvation does not confer, or pretend to confer, any special advantages in this life: it does not in and of itself make you wiser or more illumined. Rather it is a kind of guarantee for deliverance in the afterlife. With it, you go to heaven; without it, you go to hell. 

Little by little, the Christian goal of salvation has been losing its hold on the Western imagination, if only because of the logical contradiction of an infinitely merciful God condemning a soul to eternal damnation for the offenses of a few decades on earth. Moreover, the birth of modern psychology in the nineteenth century aroused interest in higher states of cognition that bypassed conventional religion, as we see in William James's Varieties of Religious Experience. 

Today, over a hundred years after James, enlightenment has become a buzzword and something of a gimmick. Years ago, in a New Age throwaway in San Francisco, I remember seeing an ad for a group of people that were planning to shoot for full enlightenment one weekend. I wonder how far they got. 

One troubling aspect of the enlightenment craze has been the behavior of supposedly enlightened individuals. The fad of "crazy wisdom," whereby the teacher behaves capriciously or abusively in order (supposedly) to shatter the student's ego, has probably peaked, but scandals among gurus and lamas still surface, and there are comparatively few meditation centers that have not been stained with a scandal or two. Today the word "guru" has mostly a negative connotation. 

A number of books have explored these topics: the more memorable ones include Georg Feuerstein's Holy Madness and The Mother of God by Luna Tarlo, a woman's account of her experience with an abusive guru who happened to be her own son. (You would think that an enlightened master would have more sense than to take on his mother as a pupil.) But the problem persists. Recently I was on "Mind Shift," a Web talk show with Jay Michaelson, author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment. Jay remarked that there were abusive Zen masters who even had certificates of enlightenment from their lineages. (I don't know what a certificate of enlightenment would look like, but I would love to have one.) 

What's going on here? Enlightened beings might be expected to behave at least somewhat better than ordinary mortals, but they often seem to act worse. Arethey like Nietzsche's superman, who has transcended good and evil so that moral categories no longer apply? 

Recently I was discussing this topic with my good friend John Cianciosi, who lived for over twenty-three years as a Buddhist monk and is now director of programming at Olcott. (John's article "Calm and Clear: Samatha and Vipassana Meditation" appears in this issue.) I asked him what enlightenment meant in Buddhist thought. He replied that according to the traditional scriptures, an enlightened being is one in whom the Three Poisons—desire, anger, and delusion—have been completely eradicated. 

This casts some light on the situation. Many times enlightenment is portrayed as a kind of sudden cognitive awakening. But it has to be more than that. After all, as James showed, cognitive awakening is relatively common. While it usually transforms those who experience it, it does not bestow utter omniscience or benevolence upon them, nor does it free them from the Three Poisons. As often as not, the experience comes at the start of the spiritual path, and the individual has to go through a long process of discipline and purification in order to anchor it in his being 

Thus enlightenment, rather than being something that a bunch of wide-eyed aspirants can attain over a weekend or something that occurs in a blinding flash of cognitive light, is extraordinarily rare. Certainly I have never met anyone who was even close to being enlightened in this sense, and while there are accounts of enlightened ones in recent times, they are far removed from us and sometimes semilegendary. 

We could draw two conclusions from all this. We could decide that enlightenment is simply a myth—an illusory carrot dangled in front of the aspirant's nose. Or we can assume that it does exist; it's just very rare. I prefer the second option myself, if only because it jibes with my own intuition that it is the task of human beings to experience the full range of possibilitieson this physical plane. If you can think of it, someone somewhere has tried it (and done it, if it's feasible within the limits of physical possibilities). History gives us evidence of the grossest acts of cruelty and the sublimest acts of wisdom and compassion. Human potential may not be boundless, but it is effectively so. People are capable of anything—probably even enlightenment. 

Richard Smoley