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[This is the 11th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

In the aftermath of movement politics, California was teaming with seekers after truth. More than a few political activists had replaced their concerns about social justice with a quest for personal enlightenment. I was skeptical but intrigued by rumors of a state of consciousness promising clarity of mind and perception.

I knew a number of high achievers in mathematics, physics, politics, and the arts, and I wanted to know if attaining enlightenment would be helpful in such fields. If enlightenment is indeed a state of exceptional lucidity, it ought to affect the quality of the work done by those who’ve attained it.

To check this out, I read widely (e.g., Jesus, Lao-tzu, Mo-tzu, Huang Po, Nisargadatta, Wei Wu Wei, Shunryu Suzuki, Hubert Benoit, John Levy, Erwin Schrödinger, Thomas Merton, Dalai Lama, Virginia Satir, Martin Buber, Franklin Merritt-Wolff, Atmananda, Joel Kramer, Robert Powell, Alan Watts, Heinrich Zimmer, Ramana Maharshi); and I attended talks, seminars, workshops, and retreats with a variety of teachers and gurus (including Jean Klein, Douglas Harding, Walter Truett Anderson, Jean Houston, Chögyam Trungpa, Gyalwang Karmapa, Ram Dass, Werner Erhard, Vimala Thakar, J. Krishnamurti, Muktananda, Carl Rogers, Fernando Flores, George Leonard, and Joseph Campbell).

I got to know several gurus personally, as well as some of their advanced students privy to what went on behind the curtain separating the novices from the gurus. How did these presumably enlightened masters act when they were not functioning in their role as spiritual leaders in front of a group of devoted followers?

Getting a close look at several individuals who were advertised as enlightened led me to conclude that there’s a lot of hype and hypocrisy in the business. A good many of them, not unlike a fair number of academics I’d known, seemed to me to be in it primarily for the lifestyle.

Many gurus are treated like deities and hold absolute power over their devotees. As “enlightened beings” they’re accountable to no one, and their foibles, appetites, and excesses are given a pass. Of course, there were some teachers who, as far as I could make out, lived exemplary lives. But lack of transparency and accountability ensnare leaders of all types in corruption, and spiritual leaders are no exception.

Fraud is a stranger to neither science nor religion. Its presence invalidates neither, but its ubiquity warrants skepticism. What I really wanted to find out was whether there were claimants to enlightenment who, unlike ordinary people, actually pass their days in a state of bliss and clarity. And, if attained, does enlightenment persist? Are the enlightened more creative subsequent to attaining satori, to use the Zen term for enlightenment? Are they kinder, wiser, or more creative than the unenlightened?

None of the teachers I asked gave unequivocal answers to these questions. Nor did any of them unambiguously exemplify the supposed benefits of enlightenment. Many identified with traditional religious rituals or techniques, and saw their job as grafting these onto contemporary American culture. The language of enlightenment tended to be esoteric, obscurantist, and elitist, and the teachings attracted more credulous dabblers than credible seekers.

In the end, I concluded that while certain people do attain an unusual degree of insight into the workings of the mind, their default consciousness did not seem different in kind from that of other extraordinary individuals who made no claim to enlightenment and indeed were skeptical about the idea.

During quiet moments, when our current identity is withdrawn, “off duty” as it were, we can see ourselves as nothing special no matter how grand our public persona, or nothing shameful no matter how lowly our social status. We just are what we are, unburdened of opinions, free of judgment and guilt, released from striving, perhaps inclined towards empathy, perhaps not. We take things in, and we witness ourselves doing so. We see the world whole and are not separate from what we behold. We may experience euphoria, or just tranquility.

Regardless, neither euphoria nor tranquility lasts. Presently, when the world calls us back to the ho-hum of everyday life, we have to assume a working identity because not to have one is to have no way to participate in the life game. Even gurus who style themselves as having no identity are assuming the identity of someone who fancies himself or herself to be egoless.

I’ve come to think that the eradication of ego is no more workable than doing without the other pillar of being—the body. Rather than downgrading either, it’s better to give them both their due by maintaining them in good working order. Take care of the body, and it’ll support your identity; take care of your identity, and it will support your quest.

In my quest, I did not come across anyone who could be said to dwell in a state of permanent enlightenment. No doubt, some gurus experienced bliss, but it was intermittent, as in other people.

The term enlightenment is sometimes used to denote the knowledge of the insubstantiality and malleability of identity and sometimes to refer to an experience of the insubstantiality of self. Knowledge may last, but an experience can’t be bottled. In this regard, enlightenment is like happiness: treasured all the more for its intermittence.

Enlightenment practices, not unlike mathematics and physics, are often obfuscated. A few centuries ago, reading and writing were such rare skills that possessing them set people apart. In the same way that literacy has spread, so too will people everywhere become conversant with experiences of enlightenment, recognizing them as the unmoored feeling of pivoting from an old model (which may range from a single belief to a personal identity) to a new one.

Religion and Science[All 20 posts of this series have now been collected in a free ebook: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship. If you enjoyed this series please let me know at My most recent book, The Rowan Tree: A Novel,  explores  the personal and political ramifications of my ideas as part of the coming of age of America in an era of global partnerships. The Rowan Tree is available as an ebook or in print format.]

Originally posted to Robert Fuller on Sat Jul 14, 2012 at 03:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  The false equivalence (4+ / 0-)

    it burns.

  •  Enlightenment is your capacity to be free (8+ / 0-)

    Free to change models as needed, based on information or circumstance. An ego is a social construct that defines your role - guru is just another option as is "enlightened one." I see no reason it should change your ability to operate machinery, for example.

    Personally I am in very major and difficult transition as my wife died recently. I have signed up for a week of meditation retreat next month because I think it will help me allow the changes to happen in positive ways as I build myself a new model of who I am. The old one is busted. I didn't break it - she just moved out, damn it.

    I really don't care about enlightenment so much as lightening my own load just a little - shed some of the limitations I feel that are no longer real - embrace some of the possibilities that are now open to me. Meanwhile I don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater - my wife changed me a lot over our 30 year marriage. There are things she did I loved that I will have to learn to do myself if I want them to continue - in a sense she gets to live on through me if I can just get my old cranky suffering ego out of the way.

    If I were looking for an enlightened person I would look to see how they handled trauma and huge change. If they were able to stay positive and not be unnecessarily limited in outlook - to that extent I would say they were enlightened. The idea it is a switch that suddenly goes on, or off as the case may be, seems kinda naive. It is more a matter of how you live with yourself rather than how you live with society.

  •  Jiddu Krishnamurti (3+ / 0-)

    in my opinion is probably one of the most authentic sages of the ones you've listed. The irony was that the more he told people to stop following him the more they followed him.

    As far as enlightenment, I like Jack Kornfield's book/concept, "After the ecstasy, the laundry."

  •  Robert, I'm sorry to seem disputatious, (4+ / 0-)

    but passages like "Take care of the body, and it'll support your identity; take care of your identity, and it will support your quest" strike me as codswallop.

    Is your concern fraudulent enlightenment?  You name-drop a huge reading list and appear to pivot away from those writers and thinking into a frame of reference where 'fraud' is prevalent.  

    Not seeing grounds for this.  

    Several sources which might be valuable to any thinker have no primary source material.  We learn of Jesus, for example, not from Jesus, but from a host of other folks, some of whom can't get their story straight.  

    I'm still not seeing what's the matter with alternative models.  Many such predate us.  In some cases, quite arguably, they are better than the current models.  'Fraud' is not era-specific.  


  •  Siddhartha (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    muddy boots, Robert Fuller

    sat under a tree and thought about making it easier for common castes to attain Nirvana. After some thought, he came up with what have been enshrined as the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. That was the depth and breadth of his enlightenment. Like many other teachers in India, he gained a following and explained those two ideals over and over, in as many ways as he had to so common people could understand that they could attain Nirvana more quickly. Those explanations became the Dharmapada, a small volume of words compared to the other books of the World's major religions. Before he died Siddhartha asked that his followers not make a religion out of his teachings. His body was not yet cold when the factions began to fight. Luckily the Dharmapada survives--there were no Councils of Nicea to amend and truncate it. What is troubling are the millions of sutras that people have been writing--vastly unrelated to what Siddhartha was talking about--ever since. All of the authors and "gurus" you have mentioned are frauds who, as a direct cause of their attachment to their egos, have made much money elaborating on Siddhartha's simple truths. The business of enlightenment is lucrative, and since humans need the path to enlightenment to be punishing there is no shortage of customers. But enlightenment is both easy to attain and free. The very first time you read the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, you are as enlightened as Siddhartha was. There is nothing more to it. You can understand then why the Hindus didn't make too big a deal out of Siddhartha and why the Tibetans have been adding a crushing weight of magical philosophy to his words since they were brought to Tibet: it's too easy and easy doesn't make money for your monastery, nor does it provide a nice apartment for your publicist.

    •  Too cynical for me, this. Makes Buddhism sound (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wilderness voice, Robert Fuller

      like K Street.

      But I share the author's reluctance to accept enlightenment as a goal (if I'm reading him correctly).  How is persuing enlightenment different from persuing any other pleasant state?  Isn't this a form of craving?

      Observing one's mind, valuing spaciousness and undermining craving, identity, and urgency, and practising kindness don't obviously require going for a kind of Big Release or Way Out.

      Or maybe I'm just stuck down here in some version of hell that I don't recognize.

      •  indeed, no big switch! (4+ / 0-)

        I find the diarist's emphasis on the enlightenment of others to be off-target. For me it's about engaging in the process of personal evolution - using the practices to become more self-aware and less driven by old patterns.

        •  I'd like to tag along with you on (3+ / 0-)

          that walk through the woods.  

          I think the model of the 'pilgrim' is very compelling.  It suggests the "personal evolution" you reference and appears to welcome ideas in and of themselves, with maybe the expectation that they will not all be the same.  Or that they may contradict.  

        •  An antidote to hate... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Robert Fuller, wilderness voice

          I read your diary and enjoyed it. I have a slightly different take on the Adam and Eve story. The point of knowledge is it creates a knower and that knower is naked. To share that knowledge we have to clothe it in an ego - a social role. "If I were you, this is how I would see things..." We then adopt roles as ways of seeing and we all see things differently.

          In western philosophy they talk of the subject object split. There can be no awareness without splitting reality into an object one is aware of, and the subjective state that is aware of it.

          As far as I can tell there can only be one reality. For me a spiritual practice is the method (and there are endless methods) by which you explore your own subjectivity.

          Religions love to confuse the objective and the subjective sides of things. This is a very great evil and the source of a lot of hatred.

          Just as there is only one reality I think ultimately there is only one subjective point of view. I would not call this a god as that is a role. I see no purpose in it. Rather I should seek to see others as if they were myself and learn to love them as myself and strive to make them and ourselves see this clearly.

          It means picking the lock to the garden of eden.

          •  thanks for reading! (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            muddy boots, Robert Fuller

            I agree that there is an objective reality, however, the only means we have to access it is via our subjective awareness.  In science this is mitigated by reproducing experiments and coming to inter-subjective agreement as to validity of results. No reason why this same methodology cannot be applied to spiritual experience.

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