The Secret about Enlightenment Your Guru Never Taught You

The Secret about Enlightenment Your Guru Never Taught You

There is a tale about a young Zen monk, who, after many years of apprenticeship under a well known Zen master, became frustrated with his lack of progress.

No longer able to contain himself he confronted the master and accused him of withholding the information he needed to reach Satori (enlightenment).

The master listened patiently as the young monk passionately made his case.

‘Have I not served you these long years master? Have I not amply demonstrated my humility, patience and sincerity?’ asked the young monk.

‘You have,’ said the master, nodding thoughtfully.

‘Please master respectfully I ask you now to reveal what you have withheld, so that I too may join the ranks of the initiated,’ the young monk pleaded.

‘Okay, I will grant your request. Rise early tomorrow so that we may travel to the field of ten thousand poppies and be there by sunrise,’ said the master.

The young monk unable to sleep spent the night wondering what the great Master would finally reveal to him the following morning. They set of for the field of ten thousand poppies early the following morning. Reaching their destination as the sun rose in the east. Wild poppies covered the field as far as the eye could see, and their sweet fragrance filled the air.

‘Do you see the poppies?’ asked the master.

‘Yes,’ answered the young monk.

‘Do you smell their sweet fragrance in the air?’ asked the master.

‘Yes,’ answered the young monk again.

‘Then how can you say that I have withheld the secrets of our art from you? I have revealed all. It is you who is unable to see,’ said the master.

This short story is typical of Zen teaching. It is not meant to make sense to any who have not yet broken the veil of illusion.

What is the Illusion?

The illusion is Enlightenment itself.

As someone who knows has written:

I have never been able to find any P’li or Sanskrit word which corresponds to the English word “enlightenment.” This word was selected sometime late last century by English translators as a label for the goal of Buddhist practice because of its resonance with the 18th century ideal of the Enlightenment. The European Enlightenment was a movement which idealised progress, science and reason – the “light” in “Enlightenment” refers to the light of reason.

In Victorian Britain, sympathetic English scholars wanted to present Buddhism in as favourable a light as possible, and they did so by portraying the Buddha as the perfect Victorian gentleman. He was presented as rejecting the priestly mumbo-jumbo of the Brahmins (who for the Victorian English corresponded to the Roman Catholic clergy) in favour of a religion of reason and morality.

The only thing that spoiled this picture was undeniable evidence in the Buddhist texts that the Buddha taught and practiced some kind of bizarre self-hypnosis or cultivation of trance states – what we today call meditation. The word “enlightenment” referred to a state of enlightened reason attained by the Buddha which, however, existed only in the imagination of Victorian scholars. Unfortunately the word has stuck, and with it the confusion.

This is the first thing you need to grasp. Enlightenment, if it is anything other than an 18th century scientific ideal, is the realisation that it doesn’t exist. Its pursuit is in ultimately in vain. It is rather a conceptual tool which has enslaved countless neophytes. Knowledge, even mystical knowledge, is a continuum. As it had no beginning so too does it have no end.

What about non-duality?

An idea that is broadly speaking convergent with ‘enlightenment’ is non-duality. By this what is meant is a conscious which ‘transcends’ the illusion of subject-object duality. In your normal mode of conscious awareness you perceive yourself as separate to the contents of consciousness. In the state of non duality you recognise that this separation is an illusion.

Firstly a little about duality itself

In truth not everyone has reached even this level, which is to say you may still identify with the contents of your consciousness. Let’s use the example of anger. When you are angry you may be inclined to frame your thinking as:

I am angry!

However when you reflect on this for a moment you realise that the ‘I’ that says ‘I am angry!’ cannot be the anger itself. When you realise this through what is sometimes referred to as meta-thinking (thinking about your thinking) you are now firmly located in duality. Duality is the state of consciousness where you understand your perception to be separate from what it is you perceive.

A simpler example than anger is a chair, or maybe another person. You do not identify yourself with the object (chair or person) of your perception. This is known as duality, it has dual components: your conscious awareness on one hand, and what you are aware of on the other.

In certain mystical traditions your consciousness is said to suffer under the illusion of duality.

Duality can take many forms but they always have a convergent feature, which is an opposite or other.

Problem ‘ solution

Present ‘ future/past

Me- you

Us- them

Spirit- matter (Cartesian duality)

Man- God

Are all examples of dualistic thinking.

The most well known example of duality in modern philosophy is Cartesian duality, from the philosopher Ren’ Descartes. Descartes claimed there were two fundamentally different things in this world, spirit (or mind) and matter. He distinguished them by saying that mind was not extended in space and matter was.

This created a huge headache for philosophy and science that they have spent the next few centuries trying to solve. Cartesian duality is a profoundly unpopular idea, although it has yet to be satisfactorily resolved. Reality still seems, at least phenomenally, split along the Cartesian divide.

So what about non-duality then?

Non-duality much like enlightenment is an illusion. It is not a sustainable mode of conscious awareness. It can be achieved temporarily in what is similar to a trance like state. However it is an unnatural and impractical mode of being in the world. In order to function in this world consciousness, of necessity, will always function in a dualistic mode.

Admittedly, the path of the initiate means recognising the ‘as if’ nature of dualistic consciousness, that this is only a way of perceiving. It is a category which determines the nature of conscious awareness rather than being an accurate description of the underlying reality in itself. About which in truth we can say nothing, except possibly that we recognise the limited nature of the dualistic framing.

What I would like to share with you though is as with enlightenment the aspiration or goal of non-duality is essentially nonsense. As long as you are living and breathing, sane, and conscious you will experience duality.

Is there a Path to Initiation in the Mystery Tradition?

Yes there is. Gnosis and knowledge of the divine do exist. There are certain teachers and schools who carry this knowledge. The search for spiritual wisdom is not in itself doomed to failure before is even begun. It would be untrue to say knowledge doesn’t exist, it does, or that you already know everything you need to know- you probably do not.

However I would suggest travelling down the road to initiation with a big stick. Use it to beat off the 1 000 false prophets you are bound to encounter before any real knowledge is revealed, knowledge which is actually worth learning.

Whatever that path is for you, I wish you grace and good fortune on your journey.

Warm Regards,


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  • Cathy Sander Reply

    I beg to differ, though. The capacity to reason is uncommon in the modern world. We’re all too good at rationalising away our responsibilities to others.

    We, for better or worse, have to contend with the mixed legacies of the 18th century. I don’t buy the idea that the individuals of the Enlightenment were one-dimensional beings who cared only about rationality and science. A lot of them were deeply religious with some quite heretical views.

    In fact, it was because of their collective non-rational concerns for liberty from imposed social order created by both kings and church authorities that drove them, for instance, to create institutions and aspirations which we unfortunately take for granted at our peril, such as modern democracy.

    Yes, the Enlightenment was not without bloodiness. Unfortunately, humans as a whole take generations to change mindset. We have to fight for such concerns–it doesn’t happen overnight and can easily disappear.

    We need to remind ourselves that these people of the Enlightenment were human, just as we are, with our shared fallibility, passion and determination. And I, too, as a person passionate in both science and humanities, am a descendent of the Enlightenment.

    On a more relevant point: For me, it’s not about duality. It’s about the ability to live within the liminal zone between the past (which extends beyond the Enlightenment into deep history) and present that enables us to create possibilities. This liminal zone enables me to viscerally feel connected to the past whilst being able to live presently. I suppose this path is the one I’ve chosen to bring about gnosis.

    May 23, 2015 at 2:27 pm

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