On a recent post, some people were critical of the term “enlightenment” and its application toward the human race. Now, this term was being used in conjunction with the “Age of Enlightenment,” something altogether different from our modern American use of the term. Students of History understand, know, or at least have heard of the Western European “Age of Enlightenment,” so called because of the explosion of knowledge, science, and access to those tools that brought forward many of our modern inventions and way of thinking.

According to Websters, enlightenment is explained thus:



1. the action of enlightening or the state of being enlightened. “Robbie looked to me for enlightenment”; synonyms: insight, understanding, awareness, education, learning, knowledge.

2. a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent exponents include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.

Someone very wise once told me that Freemasons fall into two general “modes,” if you will, with regards to their approach to Freemasonry: intellectual and devotional. This is a wide spectrum; and, we all have elements of both within our personalities while some people will fall more towards one side than the other. It’s difficult for someone who leans more toward an intellectual bent to understand a devotional way of being, and vise versa. An intellectually-bent person might look at Freemasonry as a tool to intellectual discovery, a place for concrete fraternal relationships, and a more inward view of life. Analysis. A devotional-bent person may want to explore the esoteric and occult side of Freemasonry, feel more reverential toward their deity through their Masonic work, and perhaps be more inclined toward personal, service-oriented relationships. Feeling. Each person has to some degree these modes of operation. Yet, as a Freemason, they are perhaps brought visible.


Why does this matter when discussing enlightenment? It seems that each of these people view enlightenment in very different ways. Is knowledge derived from a pure scientific approach? Analysis? Is knowledge derived from a pure empirical approach? Feeling? The interesting thing is the judgement that goes along with how each other views the opposite approach. There’s an intellectual snide comment here or there when the devotional Freemason approaches enlightenment with an emotional response. There’s harsh condemnation of science when the intellectual produces a theory based on their analytical approach and disregards the “human” element.  What is interesting is how each immediately judges the other’s approach to enlightenment, as if there is only one way. Even the non-religious discussion can evoke a dogmatic high-horse.

Is it so difficult to imagine that you can have both approaches, and both are valid?There’s also this “great quest” toward enlightenment, as if it’s something that can be achieved through one method, one voice, or one frame of mind. Some think that we can achieve enlightenment in a lifetime, like a Buddha or Christ. Some think that scientists could never achieve enlightenment, no matter how intelligent, because they have no “devotion.” Some think that only scientists could achieve enlightenment because they have “purer” processes. Some think that humans can achieve enlightenment one being at a time, and still others insist that it must be an all or nothing endeavor. I think enlightenment is far greater than the individual, and enlightenment isn’t something sparkly, pretty, easy, or fun. There’s no flash of sudden godhood nor individual ascension into the realms of all-knowing, having-no-use-of-bodies beings that will provide us some unknown fascinating wisdom. I don’t think that we get out of this corporeal manifestation anytime soon.

The idea of enlightenment, as in The Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th C., is really about letting go of the shackles of tradition. It’s about embracing change and using knowledge to propel us, individuals and humanity, forward. Enlightenment isn’t everyone achieving godhood. It’s about all of us realizing that we are already in control, and have the tools inside of us to solve those problems. Deepak Chopra said, “I was an atheist until I realized that god was inside of me.” When asked about his religious views, Einstein replied:

“Your question is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”

Is finding “God” enlightenment? Born just prior to the Age of Enlightenment, Baruch aristotleSpinoza laid the groundwork for radical thought (in 17th C Europe) regarding the existence and definition of God. Much like Mozart as the pinnacle of Baroque music, Spinoza was the pinnacle of Latin academic writings in rationalist philosophy. According to Spinoza, God is Nature, and Nature is God.

The fascinating thing about Spinoza is that he worked, day to day, as a lens grinder. His passion was philosophy, ethics, religion, and the question of the divine. He did not content himself with or define himself as his day-to-day paying job. He did not accept honors or rewards based on his writings and thought. He died young, at the age of 44, but seems to have accomplished a great deal for the human race in that short of a time. One can read Ethics and Spinoza’s other works at Project Gutenberg.

One would like to think this is true enlightened human being. Spinoza was an everyday man who engaged in deep thought, the search for Truth, and produced that Truth in service to Humanity. He propelled the next generation, and several after, to continue to explore and discover knowledge. He was an individual who kept the greater species in mind, literally. He was not concerned with some idea of heavenly admittance, some monetary gain, or some brilliance that only he could attain. This is someone who is on the path to enlightenment and bringing others along with him by virtue of sharing what he thought. It’s not purely the result of his work that causes him to be enlightened; it is the fact that he is bringing the entire species up to a level of awareness not previously found. He’s enlightened because of his humility and selflessness. Perfecting the human to perfect humanity.

The Age of Enlightenment did that as well; it brought different cultures to new heights of thought, awareness, and knowledge. As a species, it was a leap forward. Each leap of knowledge is usually obvious but not always grand. One cannot leap from the valley floor to the top of a mountain in one go. It also is visible in hindsight, rarely in the present. Enlightenment seems, to me, to be gently incremental. There are no five easy steps to enlightenment, no matter what anyone says. There is no golden knowledge at the end of all the degrees. Enlightenment is work. Hard work by many, many people. And…we can only bring humanity up if we work toward its good, bringing it all up with the talents and gifts that we have, be it a lens grinder or a philosopher.


And why not both? What is stopping us from pushing away from the TVs and video games and doing what Spinoza did? Nothing, as far as I can tell, except our own laziness. We are tempted by many things which bring down our humanity, or at the very least, stagnate and stall our progress. We need to be self-discovering, exploring ourselves, our environment, nature, our own natures, the universe, looking at things we know and don’t know, with both our natures – intellectual and devotional. Science and nature. Analytical and feeling. We might not find “enlightenment” at the bottom of a test tube but we may find wonder, delight, and wisdom on the journey. The results, of the destination and the journey, are the seeds of Enlightenment.

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Big doubt, big enlightenment; small doubt, small enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.

That’s what the saying is in the Buddhist Lonji tradition of Chan. The spiritual life has always been a quest for meaning and for answers to the two existential questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I?” A quest for truth, a quest for “what is,” a quest for purpose; these are the foundations of the spiritual way. Too often life’s paths seem paradoxical and confusing. Doubt and perplexity play a vital role in the journey to enlightenment.

Are there lessons from the Buddha that can help us sort out the contradictions?

Fundamental to the entire Buddhist philosophy is the idea that everything depends upon the mind. To help us understand that we are not just what we are thinking, Buddhist teachings make a distinction between what is called “small mind” and “big mind.”  Small mind is the rambling, limited, distorted, distracted, often out-of-control ordinary thoughts of the mind. Big mind is what we call Buddha-nature. This is our true inner nature — the pure boundless awareness that is at the heart, and part, of us all — still as the surface of a mountain pool… calm, lucid, empty, clear and at peace.  

Wat SuthatIn the great Tibetan Monasteries of Lhasa, monks seek to purify their minds and study the subjects of awareness and consciousness. Through understanding the nature of the mind and the process of cognition, inner peace can be attained.

The Buddha often described the nature of existence to be impermanent. One of the most frequently quoted passages from the Mahayana Buddhist Sutras is this short verse:

So you should view this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Perhaps existence is not really what we think it is?  So how do we know what is real and what is unreal? How do we know what is illusion and what is truth? 

Most of us who enjoy philosophy are always seeking answers to the big questions. Fortunately, searching for more meaning is considered a desirable human quality. The French writer André Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking truth. Doubt those who find it.”

The Three Stages of Doubt

Wat Suthat 1We are always doubting.  A doubting consciousness is defined as a knower having qualms in two directions. Doubt can tend towards one side of an issue or another, or it can be completely undecided, but it is always accompanied by an element of uncertainty. 

In the book “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinpoche, he describes three types of doubting consciousness. For the purpose of illustration, I will give an example.  We might have a statement like: “Sound is impermanent.” Also, let us say this statement is true or fact. Then, you might entertain three stages of doubt about it.

  1. Tending towards the fact — You might think that “Sound is probably impermanent.”
  2. Tending toward distortion — You might think that “Sound is probably permanent.”
  3. Tending towards both equally — You might not be able to make up your mind and wonder whether sound is permanent or impermanent.

Lati Pinpoche says that doubt can be beneficial in that it is an initial step in weakening the wrong view. This begins the process toward developing correct understanding. One of the basic requirements for all Chelas is an open-minded point of view.  No Chela is expected to accept, untried or unsubstantiated, any statement made to him in the course of his training.  The point is not to just “believe in” the teachings, but to evaluate them, understand them, and test them against our own experience. Awakening comes through a direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas. Although there are benefits in questioning, doubt is still considered in Buddhism an afflicted state of mind. It can be undesirable if the Chela is constantly questioning if this is the right road or not, which makes it hard for him to arrive at his destination.  

Wat Suthat 2

Beyond the stages of doubt, there are states of higher awareness and what is called “correctly assuming consciousness.”  One wonders about the consciousness of the Bodhisattva or the person who has attained Buddhahood and lives the vow to liberate all sentient beings. Here we might find Wisdom and Compassion mutually supportive, and totally inseparable. The Light of Wisdom is clear, precise, sharp and sword like. Compassion is warm, nurturing, and open-hearted. These are complementary facets of the heart-jewel of Bodhicitta or the heart of enlightened mind. How incredible!  

The Search for “Suchness”

Recently, I was reading some Zen literature that described enlightenment as “suchness.” What in the world is “suchness?”  “Suchness,” like love, is a way of being in the world or Tathata. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, we might say “The Power of Now.” You just have to stop thinking. Then you will be in a state of “suchness”: the suchness of the moment, beingness, the as-is-ness. 

Wat Suthat 4“Suchness” is such a quintessentially marvelous word to represent the quality of living an enchanted life. Each moment, each breath, is unique. The sacred, the magical, and the radiant are not somewhere else. They are all right here, where we are. “Suchness” is a refusal to let life descend to a cycle of worry about the past or the future and the mundane. Instead, we find sparkle and wonder in the present — this I feel is truly living the spiritual life. 

The wonderful thing about doubt and healthy skepticism is that it can be the propellant that fuels the spiritual engine towards “suchness.” When you experience your own doubts — and almost everyone has doubts — you will wonder what to do and where you go with your questioning. In my own spiritual practice in Freemasonry, I have several times struggled with doubts about many of my beliefs. I have found that it is through doubting on the path that I have come to see both the something and the nothing of existence. With “suchness,” we allow both perceptions to coexist. Anything we can know with this body or this mind, through our senses, may be fleeting, ephemeral, and insubstantial … or not??

From the great Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu:

I dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke.

Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?


Note: Images are from Wat Suthat Thepphaararam, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand