Monday, December 8, 2008

Why Don't I Feel Enlightened?

In Buddhism it is taught that we are already, in essence, enlightened. The true nature of mind is radiant and clear and primordially pure. This optimistic view of our fundamental nature may come as a shock to those of us who grew up in the West, where our culture is steeped in the doctrine of Original Sin -- the idea that we are basically corrupt and damned unless we are saved by an external god.

So if we're already enlightened and the nature of our mind is primordially pure, why doesn't it feel that way? Why do our lives, and our minds, get so mucked-up?

Although our essence and nature is pure, it has become obscured somewhere along the way, covered over by two veils that blind us to our true nature and distort our perception of reality, leading us into all kinds of suffering.

One of these veils consists of our emotional obscurations -- what are known as the kleshas, or afflictive emotions. These include all our habitual emotional patterns: anger, craving, jealousy, aggression, and so on. Through acting out our habitual patterns and destructive emotions, we create negative karma and further ensnare ourselves in the web of suffering.

The other veil consists of our cognitive obscurations -- our misperception and misunderstanding of the way things really are. Foremost among our mistaken beliefs, and the root of all other mistakes, is the idea that we truly exist as some kind of permanent, independent, and unitary entity. In reality, the way we exist is impermanent, dependent on causes and conditions, and not unitary but composed of smaller and smaller parts, the more closely you examine it. From the mistaken belief in a truly existent self comes the perception of "other" and all the grasping and aversion that follow.

The path of meditation and the study of Dharma (the way things are) enables us to see our own confusion and begin to awaken from this long sleep. When we truly do wake up, it is said, we recognize and rest in the true nature of our own mind, which has never been separate from the mind of Enlightenment itself.

As T.S. Eliot put it in his epic poem "Four Quartets":
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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