Considering the Many Faces of Spiritual Realization
If you’ve read the stories of the world’s great mystics and sages, you find that spiritual experiences come in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes. For example:
- Some Native American shamans enter altered states in which they journey to other dimensions to find allies and other healing resources for their tribe members.
- Some Hindus experience powerful jolts of energy known as kundalini, enter blissful states that last for hours, or merge in union with divinities like Shiva or Kali.
- Christian saints and mystics have encountered transformative visions of Jesus, received visitations from angels, and manifested the stigmata (marks resembling the crucifixion wounds of Christ) in their hands and feet.
- The Hebrew Bible is filled with tales of prophets and patriarchs who meet Jehovah in one form or another — the fire in the burning bush, the voice in the whirlwind, and so on.
Though such dramatic experiences can have a transformative spiritual impact on an individual, they may or may not be enlightening, as Buddhism understands this term. In fact, most traditions of Buddhism downplay the importance of visions, voices, powers, energies, and altered states, claiming that they distract practitioners from the true purpose of the spiritual endeavor — a direct, liberating insight into the essential nature of reality.
The basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence suggests that even the most powerful spiritual experiences come and go like clouds in the sky. The point of practice is to realize a truth so deep and fundamental that it doesn’t change because it’s not an experience at all; it’s the nature of reality itself. This undeniable, unalterable realization is known as enlightenment.
One of Buddha’s core teachings was the four noble truths, in which he explained the nature and cause of suffering and pointed to an “eight-fold path” for its elimination. This path culminates in enlightenment, also known as the “sure heart’s release,” in which all sense of separation dissolves — and with it the negative emotions and mind-states based on the illusion of separation such as greed, anger, jealousy, longing, and fear. (Buddhists have different opinions over what’s revealed when this sense of separation disappears.)
Buddha also taught that all beings have the same potential for enlightenment as he had. Instead of regarding himself as some exalted, special case, Buddha emphasized that he was just a human being with the same inner tendencies and temptations as other people. One of the truths to which he awakened under the Bodhi tree — the tree of enlightenment and wisdom — was this essential spiritual equality. The only thing distinguishing ordinary beings from a Buddha, he taught, are the distorted views, attachments, and aversive emotions that block the truth from our eyes.
All traditions of Buddhism would undoubtedly agree on the fundamental teachings about enlightenment — after all, these teachings come from the earliest and most universally accepted of the Buddha’s discourses. The traditions differ, however, over the contents of enlightenment and the precise means for achieving it. What is the actual goal of the spiritual life? What do you awaken to — and how do you get there? Believe it or not, the answers to these questions actually changed over the centuries as Buddhism evolved.
Most traditions believe that their version of enlightenment is exactly the same as Buddha’s version. Some even claim that theirs is the only true version — the deeper, secret realization that Buddha never dared reveal during his lifetime. Other commentators insist that the realization of later Buddhist masters carried both practice and enlightenment to dimensions that Buddha himself had never anticipated. Whatever the truth may be, the traditions clearly differ in significant ways.