Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Enlightenment as the Goal

"Since nobody here is enlightened, nobody knows what it is," the monk began. But despite this ignorance, enlightenment, he suggested, serves as an indispensable goal for the spiritual path, motivating us to strive for liberation from suffering. It is a "philosophical lucky charm."

This was the message delivered last night by Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu (also known as Pandit) who spoke to a full house about enlightenment in the first of a series of six weekly talks at the new Baan Aree Library in Bangkok. It was just what I was looking for, and apparently others as well. The new lecture hall was filled with farang young and old and a sprinkling of Thai, including my friend Panida. Marcus, a British teacher of English whom I had met on the E-sangha web site earlier, was also present. Late arrivals coming into the room squatted down or walked on their knees so as not to be above the teacher as they crossed in front of the stage to the few remaining seats or cushions on the floor..

Pandit is a British monk who came to Thailand eleven years ago, after a stopover in India where he lived for a time at Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, my spiritual home in Southern Asia. Now he is working on an advanced degree in Buddhist studies and living at a wat in Bangkok. He has started a web site, The Little Bang, which includes blogs and a calendar, to serve as "a Compass for updated information on what is happening in Bangkok that is of interest to meditators, both long term and the simply curious," and the lecture series is the first event. It is the nucleus of the sangha I have been seeking here since my arrival three weeks ago.

Religion without a result, without enlightenment, Pandit said, is just good works, a social institution. Even Mother Theresa, it was revealed in a recent book, had doubts about her faith. In his travels before ordination, Pandit once met her in India. When the practice dries up, enlightenment as a goal helps us push on. If you strip away enlightenment, as the active atheists like Richard Dawkins suggest, there is nothing left to religion. And practice alone, such as pulling ribbons through your nose like the yogis in India, is not enough without the goal of moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Nibanna, the Pali word for enlightenment, means "cooling," or the "putting out of a flame," the dampening of the fires of sense desire. If the Buddha had lived in England, Pandit said, liberation might have meant "not raining." The monk's room overlooks a school, he told his audience, and for him nibanna would be quiet from the noise of young girls and their teachers. Or maybe like one of the occasional power failures in Bangkok.

Keeping one's eye on the prize of enlightenment helps us to avoid attractive distractions, such as excessive solitude or scholarly pursuits. His own favorite distraction, he said, was the TV series, "Gilmore Girls." Without any clear teaching about enlightenment you can even get lost in renunciation. Pandit said his mantra for dealing with distractions is "so what." You must use everything for the sake of enlightenment.

If we don't know exactly what enlightenment is, we can know what it is not, Pandit said. It is not the New Age absorption into the universe. And it is not the suicide of the mind that philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer thought characterized enlightenment. For the monk it is "lighter, brighter and more steady." It is mindfulness and self-awareness, impermanence, "not suffering," deathlessness, a kind of balance, a delight beyond the senses.

At the end of the talk, the audience sat in meditation for a half hour. In the Q & A session afterwards, the monk was taken to task for beginning at the end, with enlightenment, without properly preparing the way. But for me it was a warm and very human way to look at the primary reason for practice. Enlightenment can be the carrot that keeps this donkey on the path. The Christian carrot of heaven and the forgiveness of sins just does not make sense to me. Freedom from the entanglements of mind that lead to suffering, and perhaps from the cycle of death and rebirth, is becoming more appealing.

Before the talk I met Panida at the Ari BTS station and we walked into the compound where the Baan Aree Library is located. Some of it is still under construction, but a number of offices are occupied already by health and healing concerns. Yoga classes are offered. We had an excellent meal from a small kitchen and sat outdoors. There are two places that serve espresso. Afterwards I even found chocolate chip cookie (called "cake" here) to feed my addiction that has suffered since moving away from the Pacific Cookie Company in Santa Cruz. Chocolate is a major distraction for this aspiring Buddha.

For another very insightful perspective on the evening, check out Marcus' Journal.

Buddha in Benjakiti Park

1 comment:

Marcus said...

Will,

Wonderful write-up of last night's event, I enjoyed reading this very much. Thank you.

And it was lovely to meet you there last night and I hope we can get together again over a coffee soon.

Have a wonderful time in Phuket and all the very best,

Marcus