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What is Enlightenment? Is it necessary to be liberated? || Acharya Prashant (2019)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
14 min
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Questioner (Q): I have studied with several Advaita teachers. My old teacher’s emphasis was on seeing that the process of being and becoming is never-ending, that there is nowhere to escape to; that enlightenment isn’t about coming to the end of suffering but about finally starting to live, but now, you could say, free from the ego consciousness. In Zen, which I predominately study now, there is a specific emphasis on continuing the practice even after enlightenment occurs, because enlightenment is no guarantee that you will be free from biases and conditioning afterwards; the possibility of a downfall is always there.

So, I am interested to hear what you have to say about this, because for a lot of people, especially in the Advaita traditions, the assumption is that the moment you are free, that’s it; there is nothing else left to do, all your karma is absolved, and there is a sort of assumption that it’s impossible for you to do wrong anymore. The consequence is that, as we have seen historically, many teachers do very bad things as a result of that assumption, this myth that enlightenment makes you infallible or impervious to doing wrong. I’d love to hear what you have to say about that.

Acharya Prashant (AP): Enlightenment is absolute and final till you get the next one. Every enlightenment is complete, and after every enlightenment there are endless enlightenments to be attained. Is there anything left or missing in enlightenment? Nothing at all. But since you continue, therefore the process of enlightenment too has to continue.

To whom has enlightenment occurred? To you. Has enlightenment finished you off totally? In some sense, yes; in other senses, no. To the extent you, a being in time, continue to plot along in time, you will need a subsequent enlightenment every moment. Therefore, enlightenment necessarily has to be a series of enlightenments each absolute, final, complete, but the series never-ending. Sounds obviously paradoxical. But then, if you venture to talk of the Absolute, paradoxes is what you have to be prepared for.

But what is certain is that there is nothing called enlightenment at one particular point in time. As long as the body is there, the mind-body complex will remain susceptible, vulnerable, corruptible. The Prakṛiti-Puruṣha game will continue and freedom will have to be defended. However, there does come a point in this journey when the tendency to be corruptible reduces, reduces, and starts tending to almost zero; then the need to be alert and defensive reduces—reduces, but never fully eliminates. Therefore, spiritual practice, nevertheless, always remains important.

You have talked of spiritual teachers turning bad after enlightenment. Had they been really good, why would they first of all claim enlightenment? It is not after enlightenment that the fall happens; it is just that the fall becomes much more spectacular after enlightenment. When a common man falls, it is normal and usual; common mortals are supposed to be fallible. But when you see the fall of a so-called enlightened being, then it is quite a scene. The fall had begun much earlier; the fall had begun with the rise of the tendency to claim something special for oneself, a mere temptation, like all the other temptations in life—a title, a sobriquet, a uniqueness, a privilege.

But that’s how we are. We want something special in life because the ordinariness of life scares us, bores us. So, of all the special things we want, enlightenment somehow happens to be the most special.

The power of enlightenment, rather the title of enlightenment, is so much that several of those teachers who very well know that enlightenment is a hoax had to claim enlightenment for themselves. It was a compulsion, because if you do not claim enlightenment then you would not be in a position to help those who are there to be helped. Most people open their ears and sit down and start looking only when there is something spectacular and massive and commanding in front of them. If there is a so-called enlightened master is speaking, then the listening opens up. Therefore, so many well-meaning teachers had to perforce wear enlightenment.

Q: For many traditions, especially in India, the ultimate goal has been to escape rebirth, and the ultimate kind of mahamokṣha is to become reabsorbed into Brahman . There is a certain assumption that existence or becoming or the experience that we have in time is somehow still a form of ignorance, and that as long as we are here, there is something fundamentally wrong. So, existence is fundamentally wrong or bad; there is a problem with it. But there are also traditions where the emphasis is not so much on escaping rebirth or birth but on realizing that the process of life is itself a manifestation of nirvāṇa or Brahman in form. So, I am interested to know your views on this, since in the Advait Vedanta traditions specifically there tends to be this bias of a return.

AP: These things are subtle. When it is said that the aim of spiritual practice is to liberate one from the cycle of birth and death, it is not physical birth and death that are being talked of. How do you know that you have taken birth? Birth is the consciousness of being a born one. And if you are a born one, you would also necessarily be the dying one.

Relief from the cycle of being born and meeting death again and again is nothing but freedom from the consciousness of being a born one who is constantly moving towards death and is therefore scared of loss. So, birth is essentially something of the mind. Every time you take up an identity, you are born—obviously, the fundamental identity being that of the body—and then you are born again, and born again, and born again, and born again. You are somebody right now; the one you are right now would be no more the next second.

So, there is death, and then there is another death, and another one comes into being, and then he too goes away, and all this is suffering. This movement from self to self, ‘I’ to ‘I’, being to being, is suffering because this movement is essentially in search of rest. Because the ‘I’-sense does not get one particular resting point, an identity that would totally satisfy and fulfill it, therefore it keeps on donning, trying with, experimenting with all kinds of identities—and, as is our experience, no identity satisfies it. That has been symbolically represented in tradition as taking birth again and again but dying unfulfilled; wearing an identity, trying fulfillment through that identity, and returning dissatisfied. The gross, physical, symbolic parallel of that is: taking birth as a body, seeking fulfillment through the body, and dying totally unfulfilled. But the gross symbol is just that—a mere symbol. The subtle thing it is pointing at must be appreciated.

Birth and death are not unique events occurring once in a lifetime; they are constant. You are not what you were five years back. To make it clearer, you are not what you were thirty years back; that you would find more easily acceptable. And if you are not what you were thirty years back, then you are also actually not what you were one second back. Birth-death, birth-death, birth-death; I am somebody, I am somebody else, I am somebody else, I am somebody else, I am somebody else. And why does man keep moving in this stream of time? So that at some point the stream may end; so that at some point time itself may end. But how can time end if you are relying on time itself for fulfillment? The very approach defeats itself. What we are actually saying is, we need more time to get out of time. Now, if you keep asking for more and more time, then you are merely furthering the cycle; time won’t end.

Therefore, those who have known have advised that the purpose of life is to live in a way where one is able to see the falseness of placing hopes upon this and that and that and that. And when you are no more eager for the next experience, when you have turned totally hopeless, that is final death, mahamokṣa . Mahamokṣa is total disillusionment. “No more hopes upon anything, because I have already hoped a million times and these hopes are not going to be fructified.” That is mahamokṣa . That does not have to come with physical demise; the death of the body has nothing to do with that. It is here (pointing at the head) .

Q: In my experience, and throughout my studies in spirituality, it seems that the consciousness or the liberation of consciousness does not fundamentally belong to an individual. So, I can’t say, for example, that consciousness belongs to me. It seems apparent that this experience we are having in time is some sort of an experiment, or you could say it is a form of joy of consciousness overcoming ignorance, and it’s not that life is meant to be a suffering or boredom. What do you have to say on this?

Also, what is your view on the experience of being in time? Some traditions often hold this view of negativity about being in time, that we must end the experience of time inwardly, and ultimately there must be an end to time outwardly and physically also, and, you know, that’s the ultimate sign that you have achieved some higher form or are purely identified with Brahman . The other view would be developmental: understanding that consciousness is kind of emerging out of the universe into higher and more complex forms.

AP: Consciousness does not belong to the ‘I’ because there is no original or independent ‘I’ to which consciousness can belong. What is consciousness? In very direct terms, that which is going around in your head right now is consciousness—your universe, the things that matter to you; your house, your friends, your thoughts, your identities, your clothes, your past, your experiences.

There is you and there is your personal world. At the center of your personal world you stand; yet that world is not quite yours. Why is it not yours? It is not yours because it’s not you who has created that world. You and the world are mirror images of each other; you do not have any existence independent of that world. The world created you.

You might be thinking of your friends, so your consciousness, the stuff of your consciousness right now consists of the faces of your friends. But who are you right now? Right now, you are the product of your association with your friends. So, even as you are thinking of your friends, the thinker is the one who has been created by the friends.

You are thinking of something wonderful to eat. Who are you right now? The desirous one. The object of your consciousness has created the subject. The food that you are thinking of is creating you right now; you and the food material are mutually dependent in their existence. This is what the Buddha called as Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination).

Therefore, you may say that consciousness does not belong to you. To whom does consciousness belong? To nobody—multiple mirror images in which the mirrors themselves are getting reflected with nothing substantial in between to talk of.

Time—the next thing that you spoke of—might inwardly cease. Inwardly time ceases when there is no more a desire to become somebody else. When there is no inner project left unfinished, then the internal clock stops. Outside the clock will keep moving because outside the clock is that of physical nature, Prakṛiti . The internal clock having stopped, the one who wanted to interfere with Prakṛiti , saṃsāra , the world, to gain fulfillment, he too has stopped. If he too has stopped, why would he come back and re-exist again and want even the external clock to stop?

So, the desire for external time to stop only proves that even internal time has not stopped. If internal time fully stops, then who is there left to desire the ending of external time? The desirous one himself is a product of internal time. Internal time having stopped, the internal one too is gone. If he is gone, then, I am asking, who is now desiring that the external clock stops? There is nobody left.

Q: What role does desire have in liberation? Is the realization of the Self the core thing, or is it about the abolition of all desires?

AP: Liberation has to be a very, very strong desire. You cannot just wish away desires. Given that we are beings of desire, desire is our reality. We cannot just swat away desire. And if we are beings of flesh and blood wallowing in desire all the time, then desire can be our only possible instrument to gain liberation. One requires to have a burning desire for liberation.

Q: What to do when one gets very attached to thoughts?

AP: Thoughts are thoughts, little fleeting things. They gain in strength and importance when you start associating meaning and significance with them, just as one starts giving interpretations to basic, simple stories. Now, a thought could have come and gone, but one says, “Wait, look—there is something special here! It is not merely what it looks like; there is something deeper hidden inside,” just as we are trying to figure out something deeper hidden inside the story. And now the little, petty thought gains a status far beyond its brief.

Thoughts can come on their own but they cannot gain power on their own. They gain power when you start seeing value in them, when you start associating and identifying with them. Otherwise, like clouds they will come and like clouds they will go away. You need not do anything about them; let them be.

Remember that you are born human. Remember that evolution has given you a particular kind of brain. It’s a thinking brain; it thinks. It thinks almost involuntarily; it thinks almost like the lungs breathe. Just as you don’t want to mess with the breathing process, similarly stay clear of the temptation to do much with the thinking process. Give thoughts their due right to exist. If you can give them their due right to exist, they will exercise their due right to fade away. We make thoughts powerful not only by supporting them but even by resisting them.

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