The Science of Enlightenment: The Pathless Land

Anyone who has taken a serious study and practice of meditation inevitably encounters a lot of paradoxes along the way, especially when it comes to the concept of enlightenment. Different schools of spirituality put different emphasis on how to view enlightenment. Some schools (e.g. nondual traditions, like Mahayana, Advaita Vedanta, Dzogchen) view enlightenment as an abstraction — a non-goal in which the emphasis is on the non-doing. While some schools (e.g. Theravada) view enlightenment as a path — complete with stages and models of development with emphasis on different strategies and techniques on how to get “there.”

Early on I was confused by these two seemingly paradoxical approaches to enlightenment. But over the years I’ve grown comfortable to embrace the two contradictory views. In short, I’ve gotten used to the paradox. I no longer agonize over it. It’s still a paradox to me. But I prefer to view it as enlightenment by serendipity.

So whenever I say that the ultimate “goal” of my Open Practice is enlightenment, I’m very well aware of the contradictory nature of that statement. I’m aware that it’s an illusion. I’m aware that I’m setting up myself for failure. I’m aware that I’m treading on the pathless land.

Nevertheless, I carry on, keeping in mind the core lessons I’ve learned from The Science of Enlightenment. Allow me to share some of these lessons…

In Session 13 of The Science of Enlightenment series (one of my favorites in the series), Shinzen Young started out with a track entitled, The Pathless Land. In this talk, Shinzen has captured in exquisite detail my view on enlightenment.  I’ve transcribed the talk so I can share this to all readers and to encourage people to listen to the entire series. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ll be transcribing more of my favorite tracks in future posts. In the meantime, here’s a sample of how eloquent Shinzen is when describing the “path” to enlightenment. 

Session 13: Track 1 – The Pathless Land

One metaphor for spirituality is that it’s a kind of path. The particular benchmarks on that path and how one describes the starting point and the ending point of that path, and the kind of vehicles that one uses — the actual techniques and approaches that carry you down that path — may differ. And in fact, the description of the path itself may differ. Often people don’t realize that two seemingly different descriptions of the path are actually referring to the same thing. Of course there’s some troubles, some problems associated with considering spirituality as a path. It leads to some misconceptions and some pitfalls.

If we describe spirituality as a path then it immediately sets up all sorts of expectations, all sorts of cravings, all sorts of aversions — “I wanna be there”; “I’m not there” — all sorts of ignorance because the goal of the path of course is to understand where you have been all the time. In a sense when you come to the goal of the path you only realize where you’ve always been. So the length of the path that you have traversed is actually, in a sense, zero. If you start thinking about a path it creates enlightenment as an object out there and in the future, which of course is the essence of illusion itself. You’re damn if you do, and you’re damn if you don’t.

If you fail to describe this spirituality as a path people don’t have a motivation, they don’t have a direction, they’re not sensitive to the benchmarks and the signs, they don’t recognize them, they don’t know what turns to make, etc.

To teach is to inevitably mislead people, to a certain degree. Any kind of teaching, as soon as you opened your mouth, you have misled people. On the other hand, to fail to teach is to mislead people even worse.

Let’s talk about aspects of this path, understanding that to speak of it as a path has dangers and is misleading. And yet on the other hand, to speak of it as a path may be of some use.

One possible model for the path to enlightenment is to look upon it as a journey from the surface of consciousness to the Source of consciousness. A lot of times people think of spirituality sort of as turning a 180 degrees away from the world. We turn away from the world and we turn towards God. And it’s a 180-degree turn going in exactly the opposite direction. But the way that I’d like to look upon spirituality is it’s not a turning of a 180 degrees, it’s a 90-degree turn. If we consider consciousness in some way as a layered cake, which I think has some validity as a model — the Earth exist in strata; there’s the surface of the earth and then underneath that are older rocks and underneath that are older rocks and the whole structure changes as we go through successive layers. In the same way we can look upon consciousness as having different layers to it.

Our usual ordinary day to day experiences — the world in which we have to sort of take care of business; subject and object are separate; we’re inside time and space; we have only the ordinary human type experiences that constitute what we might call consensual reality. And so our day to day life can be looked upon as sort of moving over the surface of consciousness — the different kinds of experiences we have in daily life: ordinary reality.

When we start to meditate we turn 90 degrees. Instead of moving just along the surface of consciousness we start to move down into consciousness. Actually, passing through successive layers in its structure. So we’re moving into the mind, into consciousness. By consciousness I mean, of course, just the six senses. Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body, and the thinking mind are the six doors of consciousness. And collectively, taken together, we can use the word consciousness to describe the collective of these six senses. We’re starting to go into consciousness rather than moving on the surface of consciousness. It’s a kind of journey from the surface of consciousness to the Source of consciousness. In doing so, we pass through successive strata or layers of consciousness, encounter different kinds of phenomena.

(UPDATE: For the continuation, see The Science of Enlightenment: Consciousness as a Three-Layered Cake.)

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