Don’t fall for the “enlightenment” myth

We all suffer, although the wise suffer much less.

In Buddhist circles, there are many myths and misconceptions about enlightenment. One very common myth is that enlightened people(i.e. the Arahants) no longer suffer. There is a widespread belief that the enlightened ones live in perpetual bliss. But is there empirical evidence for that? To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever produced any life specimen of a suffering-less Arahant.

In the Pali Canon, there are multiple accounts of senior monks and Arahants getting sick and experiencing anxiety and severe pain. One such example is the case of Assaji(see the Assaji Sutta). Some even committed suicide. Three widely-known cases of senior monks committing suicide are Godika, Vakkali and Channa. Buddha clearly stated that Godika and Vakkali had attained Nirvana, thus were Arahants. Typically, the Buddhist establishment rationalizes such monk suicides by saying that although enlightened people no longer have suffering(emotional pain), they can still have physical pain. Physical pain is okay because it is natural and unavoidable. Thus, Arahants can have physical pain but not emotional pain.

But this seems to be a semantics game used to define away suffering. Why discriminate against emotional pain? It too can be natural, even instinctual. It is true that the long practice of Buddhism helps the practitioner avoid unnecessary emotional suffering. But can emotional suffering be avoided altogether? The Buddhist sacred texts clearly indicate that there were senior monks who sought to terminate their own lives. Was this due to the physical pain alone? Or was it due to a combination of physical pain, anxiety and fear? Can we really tell? In any case, the mere fact that some Arahants committing suicide does raise eyebrows.

Having been a Buddhist practitioner for 30 years, I can tell you that I am relatively immune to emotional pain. I have been through significant life events such as the death of my wife and multiple job losses. But emotional pain is still possible if I am not mindful. If you read the Pali Canon in detail, you will see that Buddha did not offer any silver bullet to end emotional pain. What he did offer is a rational approach to dealing with suffering. For example, don’t hold on to the past. Accept what is. Don’t make the matter worse by worrying. Don’t rub salt into a wound. In the Sabbasava Sutta, Buddha offered advice for “getting rid of all cares and troubles.” The opening statement of this sutta goes as follows:

The Blessed One said, “Monks, the ending of the fermentations is for one who knows and sees, I tell you, not for one who does not know and does not see. For one who knows what and sees what? Appropriate attention & inappropriate attention. When a monk attends inappropriately, unarisen fermentations arise, and arisen fermentations increase. When a monk attends appropriately, unarisen fermentations do not arise, and arisen fermentations are abandoned. There are fermentations to be abandoned by seeing, those to be abandoned by restraining, those to be abandoned by using, those to be abandoned by tolerating, those to be abandoned by avoiding, those to be abandoned by dispelling, and those to be abandoned by developing. (Sabbasava Sutta)

These are all sensible ways to manage suffering. According to Buddha, troubles are to be rid of through the exercise of wisdom and proper attention. While Jesus is said to perform miracles, Buddha did not. Buddha’s approach is very down-to-earth. It is essentially rational therapy.

Having been a Buddhist for over thirty years, I know that Buddha’s approach of combing mindfulness with reason is invaluable in helping us deal with emotional suffering and the troubles we encounter in everyday life. Still, the enlightened do not live in permanent bliss. In fact, the Three Marks of Existence (which are benchmarks to be used to distinguish genuine Buddhist teachings from fake ones) includes the law of impermanence. Buddha taught that all phenomena are impermanent. This is a universal law that applies to all phenomena. Thus, whatever bliss or peaceful state that we can experience through enlightenment is also impermanent. The notion of permanent bliss is a myth that contradicts genuine Buddhist teachings. It is either a grave misconception or just sales talk. It is not reality. As a Buddhist teacher, I strive to stay real and honest. It is unconscionable to hype up enlightenment. Those who claim the attainment of permanent bliss are not practicing Right Speech.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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