Chapter 15: Is Enlightenment Enlightening?

Over the ages, the equation of enlightenment and liberation has assumed many forms and found many audiences. The original headquarters of the CIA had Jesus’s version of the equation etched in its wall: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And the movie The Matrix, as we saw at the outset of this book, offers a truth-freedom linkage that echoes Buddhist philosophy: Life as ordinarily lived is a kind of illusion, and you can’t be truly free until you pierce the illusion and look into the heart of things. Until you “see it for yourself,” as Morpheus puts it to Neo, you will remain in “bondage.”

But there are important differences between the Matrix scenario and the Buddhism scenario. For starters, the truth in The Matrix is easier to describe. Sure, Morpheus says you have to “see it for yourself,” but the fact is that he could have given Neo a pretty clear verbal picture of it: robot overlords have put humans in gooey pods and are pumping dreams into their brains! There—how complicated was that? Certainly it’s an easier claim to grasp than, say, that the self doesn’t exist or that everything is empty.

There’s another sense in which those robot overlords give Neo’s predicament an appealing simplicity. Namely, they give him something to rebel against. And rebellions are energizing! An oppressive enemy focuses the mind and steels you for the struggle ahead. Which would come in handy with meditation, because it really can be a struggle—getting on the cushion every day, even when you don’t feel like it, and then trying to carry mindfulness into everyday life. Too bad that in Buddhism there’s no evil perpetrator of delusion to fight!

In traditional Buddhism, actually, there is: the Satan-like supernatural being named Mara, who unsuccessfully tempted the Buddha during the epic meditation session that led to his great awakening. Mara, though, has no place in the Western, more secular Buddhism that is the backdrop of this book. Kind of disappointing.

But there’s good news on this front. If you would like to think of meditation practice as being a rebellion against an oppressive overlord, we can arrange that: just think of yourself as fighting your creator, natural selection. After all, natural selection, like the robot overlords, engineered the delusions that control us; it built them into our brains. If you’re willing to personify natural selection, you can carry the comparison with robot overlords a bit further: natural selection perpetrated the delusion in order to get us to adhere slavishly to its agenda.

Its agenda being, of course, to get genes into the next generation. This is the core of natural selection’s value system, the criterion that guided the engineering of our brains. And we have every right to decide, like Neo, that our values differ from those of the force that controls us and that we want liberation from it. Which means, first and foremost, liberating ourselves from the delusions through which that control is exercised. (This declaration of independence is of course in no way undermined by the irony that, in a modern environment, these delusions often fail to serve natural selection’s agenda of genetic proliferation anyway.)

There’s a second virtue of thinking of the Buddhist path as a rebellion against natural selection. Looking at things that way helps us put a finer point on what we mean by liberation and by enlightenment. And it helps us answer the big question: Is enlightenment really enlightening? I mean, obviously enlightenment is enlightening—that’s why they call it enlightenment. But is the Buddhist version of enlightenment—the end state, Enlightenment with a capital E—enlightening? Is it a radically truer view of things than our ordinary experience? Is it the ultimate truth? …

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