Who is Enlightened?

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

Lecture 4, Part 16 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…?

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 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 sexually 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?

(Laughter)

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.

(Laughter)

And it’s got all the tricks to make yourself look like a major spiritual teacher and acquire lots of influence. [the book is now (April 2010) available for free downloading on the web]

(Laughter)

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

(Laughter)

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

(Laughter)

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…

(Laughter)

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.

4 comments

  1. I went to this book signing at a new age bookstore not very long ago where a psychic/medium was signing her books. I was so excited to get the chance to meet a real psychic. But when I talked to her I was so disappointed.

    There was a ghost trying to get her attention and she didn’t notice him at all. I know psychics are allowed to have off days, but she was a REAL psychic, wasn’t she? Not just someone who has the occasional odd experience like me. She writes books and gives people useful advice. I kind of expected her to be enlightened. But she couldn’t even see the dead guy in the room.

    I talked to the dead guy for a bit while I walked to the bus stop. He just wanted to talk to a real psychic too. We were both so bummed out at first, but then we decided it was pretty funny. 🙂

  2. Hi professor Tart, thank you for sharing.

    I’m a big fan of your efforts to explain spiritual and psychological matters in a clear and simple way.

    I can totally agree with the above conversation, but it seems to me that in this fashion we fail to address the existence of profound, radical, transforming insights.
    Not until recently i personally refused to use the word “enlightenment” because of all the confusion and misuse, but would you not agree that we need a term for the profound insight/knowledge of mind/self (and no-self), which either came gradually and/or in jumps (~ satori)?
    You literally claim that you are not enlightened at all, so i assume you implicitly refer to that special “thing” in fact? But at the same time you are implying that you are pretty enlightened at psychology for example, and that is very confusing.

    Would it not be practical to restrict that term (whether it be “enlightenment” or something else) to this insight alone? The insight or chain of insights which affects the whole mind at one time, and which can then be integrated further over time and possibly enlighten remaining knots, confused bits and pieces, including the challenge of new situations, by staying open, creative and mindful?
    As you have stated before, i would say that there is the movement of enlightening, and alongside this movement, transforming insights may occur, and i find the movement much more important than “enlightenment” per se.
    The creative flow of intelligence, the way we live and treat each other, is the only relevant factor and the thing we should be talking about mostly.
    (Hm, maybe i’m trying to cram too much in a few sentences, i hope my words come across.)

    I think one of the big problems is the fact that rarely a distinction is made between the insight(s) and the interpretation(s). It is my experience and serious hunch that the acting out of “enlightenment” is primordially shaped by the interpretation, by the form, the meaning, the explanation given by the mind to its transformation (or delusion, in some cases). The interpretation in-forms the subsequent way of thinking and living of the person involved. Most of the times this is also heavily influenced by the tradition in which it developed, and by the personal background, character, … It is all too easy to get tricked into the guru/disciple idealization and role playing, for both sides. More distortion and the forming of illusion, so there may have been enlightenment, but the end result can become endarkening in many cases.
    It is the acting out by those teachers that is seen and talked and thought about, mostly in way too absolute and idealizing terms, not the insight itself, which is impossible to express.
    The interpretation seems nearly inevitable, but it need not be. I took great delight in reading about the ancient Taoists, who considered enlightenment as a casual, natural event that needs no special attention or explanation.

    1. kuroh tzu says:
      July 1, 2010 at 11:20 am
      I can totally agree with the above conversation, but it seems to me that in this fashion we fail to address the existence of profound, radical, transforming insights.
      Not until recently i personally refused to use the word “enlightenment” because of all the confusion and misuse, but would you not agree that we need a term for the profound insight/knowledge of mind/self (and no-self), which either came gradually and/or in jumps (~ satori)?
      You’re right, there are sudden, qualitative jumps in understanding and being, and we need to recognize them. That’s the essence of my whole systems approach to altered states, actually, as detailed in my States of Consciousness book (not to be confused with my Altered States of Consciousness book). I go overboard in what I told my class here because of dissatisfaction with that word “enlightenment.”
      One of the major reasons science has progressed so much in the last centuries is the precision of the language it’s developed. If a scientist writes about “water,” every other scientist knows she means H2O, dihydrogen monoxide. But people mean so many different things by “enlightenment,” and even the same spiritual teacher can mean different things by it as used in different contexts – without making it clear which meaning is intended. As a scientist, this drives me nuts!
      There’s a fascinating book I’m reading in, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book, by physician Daniel Ingram. On the cover he calls himself an Arahat, which in Buddhism means someone who has reached a major level of enlightenment. One of the first things I learned from the book was my knee jerk reaction to anyone calling themselves an Arahat: who the hell does he think he is? Self-examination showed me that my reaction says something about me and how I’ve passively accepted the Buddhist party line of being coy, but I actually know nothing about Ingram. Except as I read the book, it’s perfectly clear he has meditated a zillion hours more than me, studied basic Buddhist texts a zillion times more than me, and is clearly way ahead of me. Whether that means he knows it all, or doesn’t make any mistakes — who knows?
      But what’s relevant here is that he identifies 21 different models of enlightenment in various forms of Buddhism, some relatively explicit, some relatively implicit, and these models guide what kind of consciousness practitioners build/discover for themselves. This is consistent with my systems approach to understanding the induction of altered states. And, bottom line, every one of these models has logical flaws in it and contradicts other models. And, if you’re like me, you want all these outcomes! Of course I want to be enlightened so everyone will love me, e.g. Funny how there were a number of attempts to assassinate the Buddha, guess that one doesn’t work too well….
      So yes, we need a word or probably a number of words to make it clearer – insofar as we relatively unenlightened folks can get clearer – what various folks have attained. But given how badly enlightenment is used, I think we’ll have to invent new words that don’t carry all this confusing baggage.
      You literally claim that you are not enlightened at all, so i assume you implicitly refer to that special “thing” in fact? But at the same time you are implying that you are pretty enlightened at psychology for example, and that is very confusing.
      Good point. Perhaps I err in the direction of humility, it’s safer that way, I believe. But I’m sure I’ve done relatively enlightened things at times, as we all have. And I have been trained as a psychologist and think I’m pretty good at it. But psychology is still a very young science (as are all our sciences), so I’m hesitant to use an absolute-implying phrase like “enlightened at psychology.”
      Would it not be practical to restrict that term (whether it be “enlightenment” or something else) to this insight alone?
      We have to have clearer language someday if we want to communicate clearly and thus have more mindpower brought to bear on reality than a single mind. But my various “semantic crusades” throughout my career to get clearer terminology have not been very successful. English is a rapidly changing and often imprecise language, whether we like it or not. One of the reasons I really like the way Shinzen Young teaches meditation, e.g., is that he is very clear about just what he means in specific teaching contexts.
      I think one of the big problems is the fact that rarely a distinction is made between the insight(s) and the interpretation(s).
      Amen! Things could be a lot clearer if we distinguished basic experiences from our interpretations of them! For most of us the interpretation happens so fast after the initial experience that we don’t even know we’re interpreting. Mental training – we usually call it “meditation,” but that word is as sloppy in usage as “enlightenment” – can get us clearer on this.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      1. Thank you for the elaborate response!:) It is an honor communicating with you.

        I will check out that book, it sounds interesting, even though i know very little of Buddhism.

        “States of Consciousness” opened my eyes to a lot of things that i knew implicitly but could not explain or pin down very well. Especially the topic of subidentities/subpersonalities struck me as very critical. I am very grateful for your work in that direction.

        I wonder if you have ever read any of the later works of David Bohm (“Thought as a System”, “Unfolding Meaning” or “On Creativity”)? Those books are serious attempts to point out the ongoing psychological crisis of man and the apparent “solution” (~ “meditation”), in a very clear and scientific way. It would be interesting to learn your view on his ideas from your perspective.

        As a matter of fact, it is one my goals to bring together my insights with primarily your ideas, those of David Bohm & Jiddu Krishnamurti, and those of Shinzen Young, which i have all been meditating over for quite a while now. I am still sorting it out and taking it slowly though.

        For your information: i am from the “Bohm-Krishnamurti school”, i was born with an inquisitive and creative mind, grew up without religion (except for a couple of atheist beliefs) and about 6 years back i ended up somewhere i could have never imagined, through (self-)inquiry, radical disbelief and some sort of constant “passive awareness” (~ meditation in action? ~ Krishnamurti) and through experimenting with my way of living and thinking to get out of my confusion ( i later found out through your book “Waking Up” that some of the things i tried greatly resembled parts of Gurdjieff’s teachings).
        I appear to have had a satori experience along my path, which i then brushed off as a temporary mind state without any lasting effects, and only a couple of years later i realized something had changed permanently and that i should come up with a more meaningful interpretation.
        Anyway, i consider myself open- and creative-minded, which helps me not to miss the point in many situations. But i am still learning.

        I am pretty convinced that all insights in general, with “enlightenment” as a sort of special case maybe, help a great deal in not missing the point in daily life, but it still possible to screw things up terribly.
        To me that’s what it all boils down to, not to miss the point, to act intelligently in the most wholesome way. The learning never stops.

        A movement of “enlightening” (as you coined that term so beautifully), an ongoing balancing exercise in the relative. The absolute and the interpretation of the whole “E” thing is just a plaything for the intellect for most part in my opinion.

        All the best!

        Kurt
        (from Belgium).

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