Who is Enlightened?

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 17 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I have a question that I’ve been wondering about. Have you actually met anybody personally that you would think of as an enlightened being, or…?

Another Student: Or admitted to being enlightened?

Student: Admitted is one thing. Anyone that you thought was actually enlightened though?

CTT: Well let’s take the admitted part first because that’s easier. I’ve met people who let their students claim that they’re enlightened, but they are, apparently, too humble to actually claim to be enlightened. Now from one point of view, yeah, if you felt relatively enlightened, it would be sensible and courteous not to make any claims to that effect. On the other hand, if you are in the guru business for fun, profit, fame, and money, it’s good to let people think you’re enlightened and just have a little secret smile when they ask you about it, but don’t actually answer them. I mean there are lots of games that could get played here.

Now so have I met anybody that’s enlightened? I’ve met people that I think are more enlightened than me. Now that’s easy to say because I know I’m not at all enlightened. Okay. But let me put that more precisely. I’ve met people who I think have kinds of spiritual knowledge which I would like to know, that I think are very valuable, and I have a special kind of respect for those people.

But I don’t think of “enlightened” in absolute terms anymore. I don’t think there’s some certain point a person gets to and then, click, they are now perfect in every single thought, word, action, feeling, experience, etc. I tend to think more about how there are moments when a person is more or less enlightened in particular things they do. So you may have someone who is pretty enlightened in certain ways or when they do certain kinds of things, and then in other areas of life, they screw up.

One example, a good controversial example, is we have a whole history, even in this brief 30, 35 years of Transpersonal Psychology, of famous Eastern gurus coming to teach in this country, and they were thought so enlightened by so many people. Then it ends up that they sleep with little boys and sexuality exploit people and do all sorts of things and it makes you wonder. The thing I wonder is, some of these people were charlatans, but I don’t know how many of them were actual charlatans.

But it could very well be that when you’re raised in a certain cultural setting, there are certain human skills and problem areas that you never have to deal with, because the culture handles those things very well. And you come into another cultural setting and you may have gotten pretty enlightened in your first setting but now you don’t know how to handle things in this second setting. And so stuff that hasn’t been worked on comes out. So I’ve met people I’ve respected a lot and wanted to learn from, but nobody that I have thought was enlightened in any absolute sense. And how would I know?

Student: But there’s no test certainly.

Student: I know a group of people who have been asking this question for the last 15 years: the editors of the magazine, What Is Enlightenment?

CTT: Oh yeah.

Student: I don’t know if they have answers yet.

CTT: They don’t have a list of the approved enlightened beings? 😉

Student: I don’t know. The editor himself, Andrew Cohen, wrote a book of Enlightenment Is a Secret. That’s a big answer to me.

Student: Yeah.

CTT: Yeah.

Student: I don’t think they’ve got a real investment in figuring the answer to that question out, right?


CTT: There’s a book – I don’t know if our library has it but it would be well worth reading if you could get your hands on it – and the title is something like How to Become a Modern Guru, by Norman Livergood. [I believe the book is available for free on the web – CTT]


And it’s got all the tricks to make yourself look like a major spiritual teacher and acquire lots of influence.


Norman, Norman Livergood. That’s the guy who wrote it. Norman Livergood. I met him. Nice fellow. He had his own group of course.


So even while he was writing a book on how to fake it all, he had a group that thought he was pretty enlightened.


Student: That’s a testimonial.

CTT: Yeah. But when you read the book and see how easy it is to fake it, it really makes you wonder.

Student: I just thought of Enlightenment for Dummies. That would be…


Student: That’s a great one.

Student: That would be really good.

Student: You should send them an email.

CTT: There is a Meditation for Dummies book that actually is a very good book on meditation.


  1. Dr. Tart, I believe that an individual who attains a stable and consistent state of satori does not seek fame, acknowledgment, or wealth. If they do, they have not verily attained true satori which would include a lack of concern for personal recognition or so called materialistic wealth. The truth of the issue is literally hidden in plain sight as one who has attained “enlightenment” will be silent and remain anonymous. They comprehend clearly that is no “doer” thus, there is nothing to be done (nothing to be accumulated or lost from the ego-less perspective). One should never follow a guru who drives a Lambourghini.

    1. >one who has attained “enlightenment” will be silent and remain anonymous.<
      But if you would like guidance from such a person, and/or they would like to share what they have realized with others, how are you going to know about it if they remain completely silent?
      I experience a much milder version of this. I write my books and articles because I think I have some information that can be useful to people. But I am conditioned to think it's really crass to "sell yourself." But how will anyone who might find the info useful know about it unless I do some promotion or selling? I err on the side of not promoting myself, but have to to some extent, and then the best I can do is try not to get carried away with ideas of how smart I am…..
      And then there is the "crazy wisdom" tradition of teachers flaunting all our conventions of how they should act. Could be true, if the most effective way to teach me something valuable is to shock me, OK. But the whole idea of "crazy wisdom" strikes me as very dangerous and a rationalization for total irresponsibility….

  2. Hi Dr. Tart,
    I have considered your point prior…that one enlightened might feel somehow obligated or compelled to share the path they took in attaining their enlightenment. Yet one must ask for what purpose?

    If true enlightenment were to be considered an egoless state, then for what attainment or satisfaction would an enlightened person gain by guiding or teaching others? Surely you know the statement by Lao Tzu that “One who knows does not say, and one who says does not know.”

    What would be the underlying motivation for one who has achieved true enlightenment to share their not easily grasped methods, perspectives, insights, and views with the average individual or even a self proclaimed “seeker”?

    If there were some spiritual imperative connected to one’s belief system that it were necessary to help enlighten as many others as one can during one’s lifetime, then one could rationalize their desire to share in teaching (and, or writing at the least) the narrow path which was taken for one to have attained enlightenment.

    The nature and validation of what constitutes true enlightenment seems to me to still be a bit difficult to clearly define. Most seekers can grasp the basic concept of enlightenment by the reading of a book such as Maurice Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness”, but yet they cannot personally relate to the actual transcendental experience.

    And yes, your books Dr. Tart have been instrumental in my own search and inquiries into the subject at hand. I’m currently working my way through your latest book, ‘The End Of Materialism’.
    Kudos and much sincere gratitude for your efforts.

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