We’ve all heard of enlightenment: awakening to the ultimate truth of life, usually achieved by relief from suffering. With the stresses of modern life — careers, love, family, Facebook — all that mental and physical pain, who wouldn’t want to suffer a little less? Who wouldn’t want enlightenment?
According to the Japanese Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi (774-835), enlightenment is obtainable within our own lifetimes. And you may even be able to prevent suffering in all lifetimes to come as well. Hot dog — sign me up! What are we waiting for?
On the other hand, most of us have heard the prerequisites for achieving enlightenment: intensive meditation (no way, José!), detachment from physical and material things (that’s everything I’ve worked so hard for!), non-violence (get real!) and good will to all living beings (I don’t wanna go vegan!). No wonder more people don’t go for enlightenment.
So Kobo Daishi, what do we do now?
I think if Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon-shu Esoteric Buddhism in Japan, were here now, he would tell us all to calm down and take a good look at ourselves. After all, life has changed a lot since his time. Yes, enlightenment takes patience and a great deal of maturity to achieve, but it is not out of our realm. And I don’t think he’d tell us to give up the material things we’ve worked so hard for. I doubt he’d even recommend becoming a spiritual hermit these days. Instead, I think he’d politely tell us that what we really need to do to achieve enlightenment is to cultivate a better mindset.
While the idea of enlightenment is a Buddhist concept, it is not unique to Buddhism and you do not have to be Buddhist to reach personal enlightenment. Think of Mother Theresa, and Mahatma Gandhi (religious pluralism) — both role models of enlightenment.
Rather than attempt the path to enlightenment a Buddhist monk or a spiritual leader takes, we can take our own individual path. It doesn’t even have to be religious. It does, however, have to adhere to certain accepted principles of enlightenment, many you’re already familiar with such as mindfulness and compassion for others, for example.
Here are some basic things that all enlightened individuals share.
They’re peaceful. Sometimes it’s hard to look at the world and even consider the possibility of world peace, especially since there has been fighting among people since the beginning of mankind. Imagine the arguments Adam and Eve must have had! And I surely wouldn’t, at any time, want to encounter a miffed cave man carrying a club. But dreaming of peace is the first step to living it. The Japanese even went so far as to write it into their Constitution — no more wars.
They have compassion for those less fortunate. Enlightened people help the less fortunate, volunteer to make the world a better place, and encourage others to do the same.
Enlightened people find strength in the things they do have, rather than yearning for the things they have been denied. When bad things happen, they realize they are not alone. Bad things happen to everyone.
They know how to be critical without being judgmental. They do not use presumptuous statements or make negative comments based on unqualified evaluations rather than fact. When others like things they do not, they do not berate others for liking them. They are not jealous. They’re happy with what they have, appreciate it and believe in it. Furthermore, they’re happy for others when something good happens to them. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Enlightened people don’t badmouth, belittle, berate or disparage other people’s successes. They realize there are many different points of view in the world, many of them different from their own and while they may not agree with them, they respect them. They realize there are not always clear rights and wrongs, especially within contexts others may not be aware of. Enlightened people would never blame others for their own lack of success. Even if they could. Nor do they harbor feelings of hatred. Being mean, disparaging or showing dislike for someone is unnecessary.
Enlightened people do not show their anger forcefully but make their point quietly. Philosophers, inspirational speakers, horse whisperers, those kinds of people.
They do not want to harm others. Ever. Even if someone is breaking into their house, even if someone is threatening their lives. The enlightened person has no desire to hurt anyone mentally nor physically. Period. They treat animals, all animals, with kindness.
The concept of revenge has no place in the hearts of the enlightened. Instead, they forgive. Revenge is a sign of weakness.
OK, now you’re thinking: But I don’t know anyone like that! Look closer. They are there. You can start via elimination: It’s definitely not the guy walking around with a chip on his shoulder, for example.
Or look at the people you know who seem happier than everyone else. They deal with whatever comes their way with grace and poise. They’re optimistic, but not overly, and they don’t complain much. They seem to have no problems at all!
Maybe you feel more at ease around these people. They’re kind. They’re accepting. When they see more bad than good, they produce more good. They spend their time thinking and acting on good, positive things, not bad, harmful things. If they don’t like something, they move on to something they do like. As my grandmother, a strong-willed, independent woman who was born in 1897, and who claimed to be the first woman jockey in the U.S., taught me: “Don’t concentrate on the things you can’t or aren’t allowed to do, but the things you can.”
When you’re enlightened, you see the world in a different way than most. You’re happier, have less stress and love your life as well as the lives of others. You bring out the best in others so that they become better people too.
Personal enlightenment. I know it’s a big ask. But I’m asking.
Amy Chavez is author of “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment” (Volcano Press, 2013). She’ll be speaking at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 20, as part of the BookNotes Series at Good Day Books in Gotanda. Call Good Day Books at 03-6303-9116 to learn whether seats are still available. Or join her the following day for her presentation at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.