The Buddha’s message: Do nothing at all
to become enlightened
The is the fourth part of an extended series of explorations on “enlightenment” as a human experience. The first, second, and third entries in this series may be found in the archives.
At the conclusion of Part One I said that the danger of this business of enlightenment is two-fold. The first danger is thinking that there is something specific that you have to do in order go get there. And that if you don’t do that, you can’t get there. The second danger is thinking that your way to get there is the fastest, the best way to do it.
In Part Two I wrote of the time when Paramahansa Yogananda, or “Master” as he was called, came to America bringing a technique for “self-realization” — which was his phrase meaning “enlightenment.” Self-realization declares that when you realize who the Self is, you become enlightened. And Master described himself as having been enlightened. And, by the way, he was enlightened. He was enlightened because he said that he was and, I hate to break the spell that someone may be under, but to be enlightened is to say that you are. It is quite as simple as that.
In Part Three we looked at other “Masters” and other programs leading to “awakening” or “enlightenment,” not only Paramahansa Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship, but also Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation, and, more contemporarily, Werner Erhard and the est program. There are many programs, many approaches, many paths developed by many masters. There is a book written called Many Lives, Many Masters written by my friend Brian Weiss, and he talks about the fact that there are many ways to reach the mountaintop. Which way, then, should we recommend? Which way, then, should we encourage others to take? And the end of Part Three I indicated that we would look next at the path that the Buddha took. So, then…let’s do that now…
Wikipedia tells us that most scholars regard Kapilavastu, present-day Nepal, to be the birthplace of the Buddha. This public encyclopedia also says that according to the most traditional biography, Buddha was born in a royal Hindu family to King Suddhodana, the leader of Shakya clan. Before he became the Buddha, this man was known as Siddhartha Gautama. Gautama was the family name.
His father wanted to protect Siddhartha from any knowledge of the outside world, not wanting the young boy to be pained or stained by it. And so, Siddhartha was kept him within the compound, which was quite large, all of his life. But one day, when he was a young man already married, Siddhartha ventured outside the walls of the compound and learned of life as it existed in the rest of the world. He learned of poverty and of illness and of disease and of cruelty and of anger and of all the so-called negative experiences that no one ever allowed him to experience when he was inside the gates of his compound.
It was after this experience that he gave up all of his riches and all of his luxuries, his whole family, left his wife and everyone at home, and disappeared, embarking on a search for the meaning of it all. He desperately wanted enlightenment. “What can I do?” he asked his own understanding of God, “What can I do?” And he then underwent a series of very rigorous physical and mental disciplines, from fasting to daylong meditations to physical trainings, of every imaginable sort. And this went on for quite awhile. Not a week or two, but for a long time.
Along the way he sought out other Masters and asked them how they had achieved or moved toward the experience of enlightenment, and he did as they told him, because he wanted to honor the masters that he met along his path. Yet nothing brought him the experience of enlightenment. It only brought him an emaciated body, and a life that was difficult, filled with physical and mental discipline and training. And, as I said, still didn’t feel enlightened.
And one day Siddhartha Gautama, frustrated with his utter lack of progress, said stubbornly, “I am going to sit beneath that tree over there and I’m not going to move until I am enlightened. I’ve tried everything. I’ve done all the physical disciplines, all the trainings, all the exercise, all the starvation, all the diets, all the fasting, and all the meditations. Now I’m just going to sit there on the ground. I’m tired of all this stuff, and I’m not getting up until I’m enlightened!”
And there he sat, doing nothing. Doing no exercises, no meditations, no fasting, no nothing—just sitting there doing absolutely nothing. Now that is hard for us to do, because, like Siddhartha at the beginning, we think there is something we are supposed to be doing in order to be enlightened.
Siddhartha just sat there day after day staring into space, simply “being.” At night he slept right there on the ground. He took care of his basic needs, and some people from the town, seeing that he was clearly on some sort of inner quest, occasionally brought him a bowl of rice or a piece of fruit, and he subsisted without moving from that spot.
Then one morning he opened his eyes and realized that he felt different. He felt different inside, and he felt different about everything he was seeing outside of himself. He had changed at some fundamental and important level—and he knew it. And he said quietly, “I’m enlightened.” The townspeople approached him and said, “You look different, Serene. At peace. What happened?” And he simply repeated, quietly: “I’ve become enlightened.” It wasn’t a boast, it wasn’t a brag, he was simply and quietly offering a statement of fact.
And people came to him, more and more people, and they said, “What did you do? How did you get to this place? What did you do?” They saw that he was a changed man, and now quite different from them in his manner and his experience. “Teach us master? You have become the Buddha. (the word was used to refer to an ‘awakened one’ or an ‘enlightened one.’) What is the secret? What did you do?” And the Buddha said something quite extraordinary. “There is nothing that you have to do.”
“After all this time. After all this self-flagellation, and wearing a hair-shirt, and starving my body and doing my physical discipline. After all this time, I realize it’s not about saying the beads, or lighting the incense, or sitting in meditation for many hours a day. It’s not about any of that. It can be if you want it to be. It can be if that is what suits you. It can be if that is your path. But it is not necessary to do anything.
“I’m enlightened because I realized that enlightenment is knowing that there is nothing you have to do to be enlightened. You simply had to be exactly what you are being right now, and then make choice about that, deliberately and with intention.”
The Buddha had discovered that you can choose to be peaceful no matter what is going on. You can choose to be loving no matter what is going on. You can choose to be gentle no matter what is going on. You can choose to be forgiving and compassionate and totally okay, no matter what is going on. You can choose to be wise and very clear about all of this, no matter what is going on.
Isn’t that interesting? Sad in a way, when you think of all the effort that people are putting in, with years-long approaches to enlightenment, only to find out it required nothing at all. Just a simple decision. A simple choice.
Now I have come here to this column in The Global Conversation online newspaper to give you the inside “scoop” on how you can seek and find enlightenment. And to let you know that if you have found peace and joy and love, you, too, like the Buddha, like Jesus the Christ, like Paramahansa Yogananda, like Maharishi, are already enlightened.
My own story is that, like all of those other masters, I tried everything. First I tried orthodox religion. I said my rosary faithfully everyday, because I was told there was a formula that you could use to have God answer your prayers. There was a litany, there was a process. If you said the rosary a certain number of times, you could depend upon a certain outcome.
I tried fasting. I tried meditation. I tried reading every book I could get my hands on. I took est. I learned transcendental meditation. I learned transactional analysis. I walked down many paths, many, many paths. And then one day I had an out-of-body experience. Now it was interesting, because I wasn’t trying to do this. This was not something I was trying to do. I was trying to produce outcomes with my fasting. I was trying to produce outcomes with my meditation. I was trying to produce outcomes with my rosary and with my disciplines, but those were not bringing me where I wanted to go. But on this particular occasion I was just simply trying to get some sleep. I just fell asleep. But during that “sleep” I flew out of my body quite involuntarily. I just left. And I knew that I had left. It was a conscious awareness. I was not in my body and I knew I was not. I was having what one might call a lucid dream.
I won’t take time here now to explain to you or describe for you my experience, although I can tell you it was very real, and it is very real to me to this very day. I’ve had three such experiences in my life, two since the original one. And every one of those experiences brought me to the same place: a space of absolute—capitol “A”—awareness. Kind of like an AA meeting: Absolute Awareness. And when I returned from that place (I have not yet found a way to stay in that place on an ongoing, non-interrupted basis) I was left with two words that stopped me in my tracks. Would you like to know what they were?
What an amazing message for my soul to receive from the One Soul that is All of Life. Nothing matters? How can that be? That moment changed my life. And the message behind the message is what we’ll look at next. You are invited to join us.