Issues Surrounding Talking about Enlightenment

There is a website called 

access to insight

 that I generally think is excellent. It provides one of the largest on-line English translation selection of the original texts as well as a huge amount of other useful information, including a section of questions and answers on Buddhism. 

There is a section of it (click here) in which they answer a question about whether or not there are enlightened beings around today and how to know. I like most of the advice they give, but take some issue with the following advice found at the end of their (John Bullitt's) answer:

Finally, one rule of thumb that I've found helpful: someone who goes around claiming to be enlightened (or dropping hints to that effect) probably isn't—at least not in the sense the Buddha had in mind.
As one crusader for bringing things back down to earth, empowering everyone to aim high in their spiritual practice, and standing up against harmful taboos, I submit the following reply to that assertion:

I have a great deal of experience with people who have had to wrestle with this question from both sides of it, meaning that I know lots of people looking for enlightened beings, and I know lots of living enlightened beings wondering about how in the world to talk about it in ways that are skillful. I have also been lucky enough to hear both groups' candid opinions on these issues. I also have some knowledge of the examples from the old texts of the various strains of Buddhism that give examples of enlightened beings handling it in various ways. I will address the later two: 

Examples of people actively claiming enlightenment include:

  1. The Buddha, who was forever talking about how enlightened he was. Sutta after sutta, story after story, he makes explicit claims about his efforts, deeds, abilities and understanding that are of the grandest and most explicit nature. So do large numbers of other Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, Dakinis and hangers-on. The very word "Buddha" means "Awakened One."
  2. Many of the early Sangha: Sariputta and many of the others were explicitly known as being enlightened to various degrees, having powers, etc.
  3. Loads of Buddhist practitioners since then, including basically every lineage master explicitly or implicitly (the very concept depends explicitly on there being transmission of real ultimate wisdom from teacher to student), and numerous authors (e.g. The Vimuttimagga by The Arahat Upatissa). Many of the titles people receive in the past and today have explicit stages of awakening inherently implied in them, and basically all lineages have some requirement for minimum levels of attainment to be allowed by those lineages to teach (e.g. second path in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, at least Third Path (First Bodhisattva Bhumi and beyond) in the Tibetan Five Path System for teaching tantric empowerments, etc.).
  4. Large numbers of modern dharma teachers, including a good number who teach at IMS and related centers, as well as plenty of the living Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan masters, routinely give hints, and occasionally outright claims to enlightenment above and beyond the unambiguous implications of their titles, fancy hats, robes, seats on the front cushion, and lineage status. If you are curious, I will be happy to provide scads of examples that I have witnessed myself.

Examples of people not claiming it who are:

  1. Hard to be sure, obviously, but the Buddhist texts are not always kind to these, such as the "silent Buddhas" who are criticized in the Mahayana literature for failing to share their much-needed wisdom (see the standard lists of ways bodhisattvas fail). Or take the Buddha's admonition that the arahats not go two together so that there would not be one silent while the other spoke the dharma. 

    If one has known for one's self wondrous understandings, abilities or attainments, their direct personal and societal benefits, the reproducible means to attain them, the pitfalls, perils, and side-tracks of those practices and how to avoid them because one has done this for one's self, it is extremely natural for compassion and the wish to share these things to arise, and this is well-documented and attested to. That compassionate wish to share these things having arisen, it is natural to face the question of how to frame those understandings, options including:

  2. Not claiming any understanding and thus teaching on the blatently deceptive pretense that one is merely teaching those things attained in the past or by others (perhaps one's teachers or guru(s)), thus playing one's actual understandings as merely points of dogma or heresay, thereby undermining one's authority to teach in trade for some sort of polite attempt at "modesty", or putting students in the complex position of trying to figure out if one is lying for their benefit, if it could be called benefit. Possible benefits involve hopefully avoiding the massive amount of projection, role confusion, temptation to abuse confused students, cults of personality, disbelief, inevitable disappointment, and other craziness, doubt, and possibly professional issues that arises whenever people falsely or correctly claim levels of realization, concentration practice ability or powers. Downsides to this approach include reinforcing the common belief that these things are not attained today (as is implicit in the question above), or are only attained by very rare beings or those with huge amounts of retreat time (say 20 years in a cave). Further, students may think they are sitting with someone who is merely reciting the dogma, when even cursory examination of the dogma says that one should seek out a qualified teacher (i.e. an enlightened teacher) if at all possible. All of those are clearly absurd and disempowering to students who are then likely to underestimate their own potential to tap into their inherent wisdom.
  3. Claiming enlightenment by hints or explicitly (perhaps stating level of attainment as well). Downsides include:
    1. Possibly being wrong about enlightenment or level of attainment: a common mistake, particularly for those who have crossed the Arising and Passing Away or entered into the formless realms. Also, those in the in-between paths, particularly anagmis, can be easily fooled into thinking they are arahats. Those using other models (Tibetan Five Path, Bodhisattva Bhumis, Trees of Life, Rungs of the Ladders of Love, etc.) face similar issues. People are then stuck in either apologizing and facing all the badness that comes from that or getting stuck in the role when they are not up to it.
    2. Having to face all the projection, etc. noted above. This can be particularly bad if they have some other job, particularly one that involves non-dharma people, such as a professional job (e.g. the lawyer, doctor, psychologist, accountant, architect, etc. who works in a normal worldly capacity also claims enlightenment is blatantly asking for badness, ridicule, etc.).
    3. Having to either:
      1. expose people to the inevitable conflict between the realities of human enlightenment and both the standard craziness of the old texts on what emotions enlightenment eliminates as well as modern people's projections and absurd ideals about what enlightened beings must be/feel/say/do/perceive, or
      2. put on some fantastic saintly front to play to these bizarre ideals and face the burden, danger and trap of the massive shadow-side that inevitably follows.

Benefits include (assuming one didn't blow it and claim enlightenment when not actually enlightened):

  1. Conveying the accurate and very empowering sense that these things are done today, by regular imperfect people, with available techniques and not absurd amounts of retreat/practice time, and thus that they could do this also.
  2. Granting the (hopefully) appropriate level authority to one's guidance and thus increasing the confidence of one's students.
  3. Not having to break the precept against lying by playing the exceedingly neurotic "I didn't actually maybe do this sort of, hint, hint, wink, wink" game.
  4. Following the example of countless enlightened beings before.
  5. Creating the continued sense of lineage and direct transmission of living dharma that is relevant to today.
  6. Normalizing and shining the clear light of reality on something that desperately needs normalizing and bringing back down to Earth.
  7. The feeling of accomplishment that comes when one begins to bravely face the projections, stand up against the absurd emotion-denying dogma, and says that enlightenment is actually about understanding honestly the full real-world implications of this human birth.
  8. Getting the understandably rewarding recognition for an accomplishment that is truly worthy of praise, recognition, and, perhaps, dare I say it, celebration.

It needs to be the acknowledgment that throughout the ages psychopaths and cons have routinely claimed enlightenment when they weren't for all sorts of basically evil and deluded reasons, and massive badness, theft, exploitation, and death has resulted from this, but that does not contradict the points I mention above at all. It does, however, require careful vigilance, as well as holding those who claim enlightenment to the exact same basic and perennial moral codes that everyone should be held to. I refer you to the excellent book by William (Bill) Hamilton called Saints and Psychopaths for more useful discussion of this and the above topics. I agree wholeheartedly with the advice given in the answer to the question about watching people for long periods of time before making up one's mind and the cautions about watching one's own delusions and defilements. 

A few more thoughts:

  1. If the teacher who claims enlightenment is basically into their own enlightenment, this usually is pretty obvious. This will tend to attract the most religious and least empowered practitioners who are looking for the guru/daddy/mommy/divine presence and usually repulses everyone else as they realize that these people are being treated like foolish children.
  2. If the teacher makes hints of enlightenment (by being an abbot of some monastery, teaching but not answering the question), this will tend to attract people who are not quite so devotionally religious, but still rather into the hierarchy, religion, worship, scene, and sort of into the practice, though starting to grow up, but usually don't really expect to get far and probably still have some unrealistic expectations and disempowering projections about the whole enlightenment thing. It will also tend to disappoint realists and serious practitioners who, instead, like things being clear, open, down-to-earth and balanced, as they don't like being treated as if the dharma is PG-13 and can only be discussed as it actually is between adults (monks/gurus/senior teacher list/etc.).
  3. If the teacher says, "Hey, I'm just some ordinary person who with good technique and good effort realized exactly the same thing you yourself can realize by the same or similar methods, and this is how it is done so that you can do it," that tends to have a very different feel, is certainly not inappropriate. It will tend to attract pragmatic and real-world practitioners who are just into going for it without any concern for the rest of the trappings, mystery, aura, i.e. practitioners who like being treated like the capable adults they are. It will also disturb the those like adolescents who prefer the cushion of the second way that allows them to dip their toes in the water without having to learn to swim and scare off those like children who really just want a guru to tell them how to live and magically save them. The texts have plenty of examples of even complete morons who through enough good practice got all kinds of enlightened, and I still prefer this view and model to the others as it seems the most healthy and sane, but to each his own.

In short, the basic sentiment, which I have heard oft repeated and appears on that fine site, that those who claim enlightenment can't be, is patently absurd and clearly not in keeping with any of the Buddhist traditions I know of, not substantiated by the texts, not part of the practices of the lineages we all respect, not part of the legends, and not what happens today, as well as being one more thing that gets in the way of those who are brave enough to face all the difficulties that come from saying one is enlightened and teaching from that place. 

Again, I hope that people develop into the spiritual adults they are capable of being and that conversations around awakening become freed from foolish taboos. These are my thoughts as they come to me this afternoon. I hope you have found them useful.