The Big ‘E’ - Enlightenment
Dr. Stephen Fulder


The word enlightenment is enticing. It conjures up a radical and ecstatic transformation, a filling up with light, more or less turning a human being into an angel. We think of the Buddha, of Moses on Mount Sinai, of Jesus, and of enlightened beings throughout the ages, though as we are not entirely sure what enlightenment actually is, we cannot actually say who is or is not enlightened.

Enlightenment is a rather bad word. It is an English translation of various terms in Sanskrit or Pali or Japanese, such as Nirvana or Sartori. This translation became popular some time ago, when it was assumed that the transformation talked about was some kind of intellectual and ecstatic insight, a seeing of light, an ‘eureka’ moment.  It harked back to the Enlightenment period in European history, which was a period of intellectual and cultural creativity, coming out of the ‘dark ages’ of religious authority.  However there are much better words to describe it. A villager once met the Buddha walking in the street and was impressed with his presence. ‘Who are you’, asked the villager, ‘are you a God, a prince, an Angel?’ ‘No,’ answered the Buddha, ‘I am not a God, a prince or an angel. I am awake.’ Awakening is better term which is truer to the transformation. It has more to do with waking up from a dream of ordinary mundane reality, than lighting up this reality with transcendental light.

We believe totally in this ordinary reality,  the dream of seeing the world as a given, a fact. A tree is a tree, a rock is a rock, a person is a person and an enemy is an enemy. My anger is real and the cause of my anger, another person, is to blame. I am a separate me and I spend my life looking after myself and those I am close to, and I am afraid to die. Time exists and I don’t have enough of it. I must manifest myself in life and be successful like others, and I need to spend my life doing what others seem to be doing all the time: spending, consuming, fighting, thinking, building, watching TV, working, and believing what I am told  by others. Waking up is waking up out of this dream – each moment is seen as a fresh, original and alive moment, that arises and passes like a line written in water, or a bird passing in the sky. These living moments are time-less and don’t belong to me or to anyone. ‘On a still night when the stars are clear and close, you would be aware of expanding space and the mysterious order of all things, of the immeasurable and of nothing, of the movement of the dark hills and the hoot of an owl. In that utter silence of the mind this mystery expands without time and space...this is love.’ writes J. Krishnamurti in one of his journals.

Awakening is a shift to another way of viewing the world, a sense of perfection, completion and interconnectedness. As such it need not be obvious or dramatic, as Elijah says in the Bible: ‘not in thunder...but in the 'hidden voice of stillness’.  It does not need ecstasy.   It may be wrapped  inside ordinary reality,  like a diamond covered in mud.  It is about stillness with  intensity. Nirvana, for example, is translated as ‘quenching the fires’ the fires, here being the fires that keep us burning with activity and need. All of us have moments of awakening, moments when we look at things more clearly, with insight and with a big heart. Usually they last a moment and are forgotten. True spiritual awakening occurs when  these moments are more intense and prolonged, such that they become a state,  or way of being. Then one can say a person is ‘Awakened’ or ‘Enlightened’. I want to give an example of a recent moment of awakening in my own life:

I had just been digging in the vegetable garden, preparing another bed for the summer vegetables. I stood in the middle of the garden and relaxed.  I took in the whole picture and it suddenly felt overwhelming. The garden exploded with richness: the multiple  varieties of green, the red roses, the healing and sacred orange calendula, the herbs, tastes, and aromas, the intoxicating smell of deep wet earth. It was the work of my hands and yet of everything else in the world that all contributed. This joyful cycle had no purpose, no end, just the beauty of engagement with life.   It made me weep. What is the awakening? It is the participation. It is melting into the moment. The garden needed me to know it, so we could exist together. As the knower of it, I was just one more necessary part of the picture. Along with  each radish.

The journey to awakening is written into the instruction manuals of all the great spiritual traditions. Whether Christian mystics, Muslim Sufis, Jewish Hasidim, or Buddhist meditators, the guidelines are there. Although I must admit a personal preference for the Buddhist teachings as they are so well developed,  so clear and  accessible, with so little mystification and so much wisdom and  expertise on navigating  the  inner journey.  The way always starts with a base of deep morality, deep purity, what Don Juan in the Castaneda books called ‘impeccability’. We have all seen that abuse or harming  of self or other doesn’t go together with awakening. The path from there involves familiar components: meditation and spiritual exercises, a balanced mind and body, development of trust, faith, concentration, joy, peace and letting go. All held together by a deep commitment to the journey. The journey might be longer or shorter. It might and often does involve extremely difficult periods of doubt, fear, weakness or pain: ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’.  It is generally not a one-off revelation, more of a gradual peeling away of attachments and blindness, like a snake removing skins. Awakening is beyond our mental processes, beyond thought and beyond concept. As such we can never measure it, expect it, design it or plan it.  The more we push for it, the more it runs away.  It is both up to our efforts and quite beyond our efforts. There is a famous Zen quote: ‘Enlightenment is an accident. All we can do is become more accident-prone’.


It may be the greatest task we can do with our one precious life. And it is the journey itself that makes it so, not just the destination.