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Enlightenment vs. Seeing the True Nature of One’s Mind

by Ven. Shengyen

The term “enlightenment” is used a greal deal in Ch’an Buddhism, but it originated in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, as well as in another sutra, the Lotus Sutra.

Enlightenment means the development of wisdom, the perfection of character.

It can also be called the eradication of the vexations, or the extinction of the vexations.

When there are no vexations, when in a flash, the vexations are gone, it is called “sudden enlightenment”, while the vexations slowly dissipating is called “gradual enlightenment.”

So “enlightenment” in actual fact is, “Oh! I get it.”

Which is why Westerners call it “realization” – “I realize” means “I get it.”

Now, can we ordinary people also experience enlightenment?

Yes, we can.

I classify ordinary people’s enlightenment in a number of categories.

Artists, for example, have the experience of enlightenment.

Philosophers also experience enlightenment.

Religious devotees experience enlightment as well.

Enlightenment doesn’t come out of books, nor does it result from language or from study.

That which does cannot be called enlightenment.

Enlightenment is something you’ve never had in the past, and no one can tell it to you.

You discover it.

So it doesn’t matter whether it is in art, or religion, or philosophy, these all have new investions, new creations, new discoveries, all of which can be called enlightenment.

The enlightenment of Ch’an Buddhism, however, is different.

Ch’an enlightenment is attained when, for an instant, a person suddendly lets go of his or her self-centeredness, his or her selfishness, self-interest, and attachment to self.

Put another way, orginally, because of the ego one has innumerable vexations.

External influences give rise to vexations, and our inability to harmonize our body and our mind causes vexations as well.

But after a genuine Ch’an enlightenment, because the concept of ego and our attachment to self as well as a sort of mental shadow of ego, or psychological self-assertion are all completely shaken off in a single instant, at this moment, one becomes a free person.

Completely free.

Free from what?

Free from gains and losses, free from interest and disinterest.

What one experiences at this moment is called enlightenment.

So, how does one achieve enlightenment?

This is also a problem, for in Ch’an terms, enlightenment can be great or small.

The lesser enlightenment is something like a bubble that floats up, then suddendly disappears.

Great enlightenment, however, is not just a bubble — is is the whole universe, one’s whole ego, and the entire environment suddendly shattering.

Instead of feeling dizzy as if heaven and earth were spinning round, it’s the shattering of heaven and earth.

Suddendly one’s heart hasn’t a single burden.

All your mental crutches and all your attachments are cast off, this is called enlightenment.

It is not just detachment from the body, detachment from reputation, detachment from preconceived concepts, but from one’s whole environment, even the universe itself.

What is meant by “the universe”?

In a vertical sense, it is the history of eternity; horizontally, it is space without bounds.

When they are all non-existent, when time and space are transcended it is called enlightenment.

Now, can everyone achieve enlightenment?

You can say that it is accessible to everyone, yet is also extraordinarily difficult.

Why say that is is accessible to everyone?

Because all you need is to be willing to let go of your ego.

Now, what mean by “letting go of” the ego is that if you do no care about your self, then you are enlightened.

However, it is very difficult for people to let go of their egos.

What aspect of the ego?

It is hard to let go of one’s own body.

It is hard to let go of one’s own dear life.

It is hard to let go of one’s own ideas.

There is more…

One’s reputation can’t be let go; too many things of the ego can’t be let go.

When you haven’t encountered the stimulation of adversity, or the stimulus of seduction, you won’t feel that you have any vexations, or that there are things you can’t let go.

But when you run into something that you really covet, well, you want it, and it just won’t do to not have it.

You think: “I’m not greedy.”

But that’s impossible – as soon as it appears, you will covet it.

Then there is great anger, as well.

You say: “I don’t get angry.”

“I’m not the type of hate people.”

But when you discover a problem, you certainly will hate someone.

So enlightenment is no easy affair.

Now, how can one attain enlightenment?

Well, conceptually, you must realize that our own shelves, this whole world and the universe itself are things without substance.

They are all illusions, mirages, dreams and dramas.

Also, you have to practice, to practice some methods.

One of the methods is meditation.

You can also use the method of working on Ch’an.

Yet another way is for someone to say or do something to you, in the form of a hint or a gesture, that gives you sudden realization.

You must realize that everyone can attain enlightenment, but don’t think it will be easy.

Don’t ever think that you cannot attain enlightenment, and, thus, give up.

This is also very important.

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