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Buddhism: Details on what a man does following enlightenment
February 29, 2012 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Once a man has reached enlightenment, and finds the ultimate peace and bliss merely sitting in meditation, regardless of his surroundings, does he have motivation for leaving this position and doing anything at all in the world? See extended explanation...

First, I know he would eat and otherwise do tasks required to keep his body healthy, since he doesn't want to seek pain anymore than he wants to seek pleasure.

Also, he would spend time with/ tend to other people, with the ultimate goal of helping them reach enlightenment as well.

However, let's say that these two activities weren't necessary: say the man is the last person on earth, and he has a robotic body that doesn't require any food or maintenance. What, then, would be spend his days doing? If he has found ultimate happiness sitting in meditation, wouldn't any other earthly activity be futile pleasure seeking? Why go out and appreciate the beauty of nature when you see the beauty in the transitory nature of all things- wouldn't the wall in your room be just as beautiful as anything else?

My reading has indicated that people tend to find their traditional interests and hobbies becoming uninteresting as they practice Buddhism, and why shouldn't they, if literally everything we do is either to seek pleasure or avoid pain - including seeking out and observing beauty (to the enlightened, all things would be equally beautiful anyway).

So, if there had been no other people to enlighten and his body had required no maintenance, would the Buddha have remained under the tree forever/ until he died?


As a side question, when an enlightened man helps others, what types of actions take priority? Since traditional relationships are another form of pleasure seeking (relieving loneliness, ego reinforcement), there would be no need to interact with others unless you were helping them. It seems like the best activity is to help others become enlightened, and merely relieving their suffering temporarily (by helping them in literally any other way) is an inferior activity (yet worthy if the former is not possible). So, should the man devote his time to teaching and enlightening just a few, or spend an equal amount of time relieving the acute suffering of a greater number? How does one decide who to help first, especially if all of one's self-preservation activites are done alone?

Thanks
posted by mondotwistedmojo to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
> Once a man has reached enlightenment, and finds the ultimate peace and bliss merely sitting in meditation, regardless of his surroundings, does he have motivation for leaving this position and doing anything at all in the world?

If you have to ask...

But, read some on bodhicitta.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:17 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


My reading has indicated that people tend to find their traditional interests and hobbies becoming uninteresting as they practice Buddhism

I haven't seen any evidence of this at all among actual Buddhist practitioners. If anything, the opposite has usually proven to be the case.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:21 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


You're missing the point of the Middle Way, in which extremes at both ends of the spectrum are to be avoided. Sitting under the tree forever would be just another extreme.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:22 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think what you're talking about is nirvana, which in some traditions is a literal extinguishment of consciousness.
posted by empath at 3:27 PM on February 29, 2012


See also: asceticism
posted by empath at 3:28 PM on February 29, 2012


Not sure which Buddhism you are practicising but here is what Nichiren Buddhism states. This Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra which was the teaching that Shakyamuni Buddha taught at the very last, before attaining enlightenment.

Enlightenment is not about finding peace or bliss only, it is to understand and overcome the suffering associated with birth, aging, sickness and death. This is what Shakyamuni set out to do and after meditation understood the "Truth" behind life. Life is a continuum of past, present and future and earthly desires are sources of enlightenment. An enlightened being does not escape life but is part of it. We carry our karmas through the ages with us. The obstacles you see in life are these past causes we have created and show up in our life. Also, we carry the 10 states of life within us, from the very basic state which is animality to the final enlightened state which is Buddhahood. Causes we created give rise to events that trigger these states within us. The goal of enlightenment is to achieve that state of Buddhahood where we have the power to overcome our past causes in this lifetime. As we practice Buddhism, we face our darkness within us which does rise to the surface. By chanting the Lotus Sutra we see definite changes within our environment and can change any challenge that we face.

Much more if you want to read on the Lotus Sutra, try this first, it gives firsthand experience of individuals who practice this Buddhism.
posted by pakora1 at 3:35 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing is, seated meditation is just a means to an end, but it's not the only means to an end. There is a famous story of a monk who achieved sartori while sweeping his hut. Monks in a Zen monastery practice kinhin, which is a form of walking meditation.

Meditation is something you practice for a certain part of the day - the whole point is to achieve mindfulness in whatever you're doing, from washing the dishes to preparing food to using the toilet.

It's an interesting question, though. Theoretically, any abbot of any monastery has received some sort of certification that s/he has achieved satori. Of course, there's a lot of debate about this, which is why there are different sects and different ways of practicing.

If you want to be absolutely hardcore, there were some Buddhist ascetics in northern Japan who believed that everything, including eating, was a worldly distraction, and often starved themselves, and were then buried alive.

The thing is, if you do achieve satori, and it can occur in the blink of an eye, and does not necessarily occur after years of practice, you are experience your True Self. Life continues on, but you are living wholeheartedly.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:39 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


BTW, I don't practice buddhism.

To KokuRyu: you say "the whole point [of meditation] is to achieve mindfulness in whatever you're doing, from washing the dishes to preparing food to using the toilet." I was asking what would happen if you didn't have to do any of those things - what would drive your actions?

How is "nirvana...is a literal extinguishment of consciousness" compatible with "Life continues on, but you are living wholeheartedly" ?
posted by mondotwistedmojo at 3:50 PM on February 29, 2012


Clearly, you need to meditate on this and find the answer for yourself!
posted by Burhanistan at 3:51 PM on February 29, 2012


To KokuRyu: you say "the whole point [of meditation] is to achieve mindfulness in whatever you're doing, from washing the dishes to preparing food to using the toilet." I was asking what would happen if you didn't have to do any of those things - what would drive your actions?

Whatever you like!

While "enlightenment" is a nebulous term and one prone to misuse and fuel for argument, the prevailing view among a lot of people both inside and outside of Buddhism who are interested in the pursuit of enlightenment--and some who have claimed to have achieved it--is that enlightenment doesn't actually change your personality, but rather your way of perceiving the world. A person who is outgoing and friendly will still be outgoing and friendly.

You mentioned hobbies, and in this case, your hobbies will still be interesting to you (Japan is famous for Buddhist monks who are also brilliant poets, calligraphers, painters, etc.) but your perception of them will have changed.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:01 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was asking what would happen if you didn't have to do any of those things - what would drive your actions?

This hypothetical question doesn't make any sense.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:03 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


To KokuRyu: you say "the whole point [of meditation] is to achieve mindfulness in whatever you're doing, from washing the dishes to preparing food to using the toilet." I was asking what would happen if you didn't have to do any of those things - what would drive your actions?

The standard answer as far as I know is "ethics," and specifically "compassion." If you don't feel compelled to do XYZ because it would be pleasurable, or avoid XYZ because it's painful, you can still get the sense that XYZ would be the kindest thing to do in the situation, and that can motivate you to do it.

(The motivation isn't that you get some sort of pleasurable thrill out of being kind, mind you. Or that you experience suffering when you realize you've been unkind. Rather, you act out of kindness because you come to realize that kindness is worthwhile in and of itself, so that even if you're indifferent to pain and pleasure, kind things still count as worth doing.)

From observing actual real live Buddhists of my acquaintance, I get the sense that infinitywaltz is also right: that interesting things stay interesting even as you find yourself less strongly motivated by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

But so in a nutshell, the goal isn't to get rid of all your motivations. It's just to quit being motivated by fear-of-pain and attachment-to-pleasure so that you can live based on things like kindness and curiosity instead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:15 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's important to remember when using terms like kensho, satori, nirvana and enlightement, among many others, is that Mahayana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Tibetan buddhism, and so many other sects, are extremely different in their texts, practices and terminologies. Kensho is like a glimpse of true nature, satori a realization of it. Nirvana, exstinguishing, on the other hand is often used to refer to the end of the cycle of birth and death. Roshi Philip Kapleau's books on Zen Buddhism offer insights into the differeces between satori and kensho, and some excellent transcripts of students of Zen discussing koan studies with their roshis.

I guess the easiest way to approach the hypothetical question of the last Buddhist is to use the often hyperbolic mythology of Buddhism itself. It is said that countless buddhas have already atainned enlightenment and yet they continue to reincarnate in order to ensure that all suffering beings(of which there are more worlds of than grains of sand in all the world) attain the same. So if a practitioner truly were the only sentient being in the universe, then yes, it seems obvious they would simply wait to "die", get off the wheel, and cease to exist in any form.

I was asking what would happen if you didn't have to do any of those things - what would drive your actions?

The age old Zen koan / witticism sums this up tidily: "Before enlightement, chop wood carry water. After enlightement, chop wood carry water." Enlightenment means knowing you don't have to do anything, but doing it anyways.

If you want to delve deep into the idea of normal people achieving enlightenment, check out the Vimalakirti sutra, in which a layman and householder attains enlightnement despite his station.

You can rest assured though, that even if you don't practice Buddhism, coming into contact with these teachings virtually guarantees a propitious reincarnation and eventual realization of the ultimate Reality as an enlightened Buddha!
posted by Lorin at 4:16 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's the cool thing: we're all Buddhists.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:16 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


This hypothetical question doesn't make any sense.

It makes sense, but it's very hypothetical ("What if you had a robot body that didn't NEED to eat?") in a way that the practical side of Buddhism doesn't always deal with.

Ask a Zen master a question like this, and you'd get either a non sequitur for a response or something like "Just sit!"

Tibetan Buddhists get this kind of question a lot, because of all the tales of Tibetan Buddhist masters' magical powers, and it's sort of an inside joke among lamas that you just kind of nod and say, "Theoretically possible."
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:18 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thank you. I've said it on MetaFilter before, but I once asked monk whom I knew quite well what books I should read in order to learn more about Zen, and he said to forget about the books, they're just a distraction. Learn how to sit.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:28 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


infinitywaltz: "Ask a Zen master a question like this, and you'd get either a non sequitur for a response or something like 'Just sit!' ".

Yes, this I know. Unfortunately, this kind of response tends to make me seek another teacher (in my experience with other subjects, never talked to a Zen teacher). I love to annoy teachers with questions! Is this a suggestion that I suspend logic and thought and follow blindly? I'm sorry, I just won't abide by that - shame for me.


"It's just to quit being motivated by fear-of-pain and attachment-to-pleasure so that you can live based on things like kindness and curiosity instead." Is not curiosity pleasure-seeking, as you are relieving boredom by exploring an illusory world?
posted by mondotwistedmojo at 4:34 PM on February 29, 2012


Have you ever tried seated meditation? It is fucking hard, and it is boring as hell. Satori isn't exploring an illusory world, it is just the state of experiencing the world as it is.

You're not looking for happiness. The purpose is to let go of the ego.

"To study the way of Buddha is to study the 'big' Self. To study the 'big' Self is to forget the 'small' self. To forget the "small" self is to be enlightened or verified by all things."
posted by KokuRyu at 4:40 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"You're not looking for happiness. The purpose is to let go of the ego." You are right there -a lot of literature calls it happiness because it is more attractive (less threatening!) to many people - maybe peace is a better word? The Beach Boys song "Hold On To Your Ego" was changed from the original "Let Go of Your Ego", because the original title was considered too repulsive and negative.
posted by mondotwistedmojo at 4:52 PM on February 29, 2012


A spiritual goal cannot be taught like math or history or some academic subject. Perhaps the closest thing to a truth about spiritual goals is to put all of your focus outside of yourself. Worry about others first. (see the first comment in the thread) The great spiritual teachers teach by asking questions and telling stories. One can say the goal is the elimination of ego, but the difficulty lies in how to do that. Stories and questions act as mirrors to help you see yourself more clearly so you can get closer to the goal of letting go of your ego. Of course by achieving that level of humility you will not be able to perceive that you have arrived and if you do perceive it then you are not there.
posted by caddis at 5:44 PM on February 29, 2012


The enlightenment you ask about is just a concept. You want to pin down what it refers to with other concepts. This is not really doable if enlightenment is to mean anything outside of what is usually referred to as "duality". I suggest you make up any answers you like and they will refer to how you use the term "enlightenment." Syllogisms like "If a person is enlightened, he will do X in situation Y" don't refer to any kind of meaningful enlightenment.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:46 PM on February 29, 2012


Is this a suggestion that I suspend logic and thought and follow blindly?

No, not at all, but like I said, the kind of questions you're asking are so hypothetical that they'd be regarded as impractical. It's not an appeal to blind faith, but rather an appeal to usefulness, and from a typical Buddhist perspective, the answers to your questions aren't going to be useful because you're not a mind living in a robot body, so thinking about these things is just a distraction.

If you're interested in finding a teacher, you might have a slightly harder time finding one who's interested in these sorts of hypothetical scenarios, but now is arguably a better time than any in history, because there actually are Buddhism and philosophy nerds that are into this kind of "what if" speculation. Maybe start with the Buddhist Geeks podcast and go from there?

I should also point out that there are numerous non-Buddhist thoughts on enlightenment, too, with one of the more popular Westernized variants of the moment being what's called "Neo-Advaita," so if you're interested in the topic in a more generalized way, there's no need to limit yourself to Buddhist answers.
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:51 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can do whatever you like. There's no point in discussing enlightenment. I feel foolish for even commenting in this thread.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:00 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, harsh! Sounds like you're saying I'm hopeless- poor me!
posted by mondotwistedmojo at 7:03 PM on February 29, 2012


> Wow, harsh! Sounds like you're saying I'm hopeless- poor me!

No, it's more that this thread is rather hopeless and built on your conjecture. You may be full of potential. These kinds of conversations are really best had in person because perhaps someone who has spent time struggling with these concepts might be able to see what your real question is (which you yourself may not quite be able to articulate), and then gently point you in a direction where you are equipped to explore on your own. The real meat of the matter will always be found in your non-verbal, immediate perception of the moment you find yourself in.

Find a local Buddhist group and participate in their open sitting meditation sessions. Ask questions to people who ostensibly have some experience. But, this thread here is very close to what they call "chatfilter".
posted by Burhanistan at 7:15 PM on February 29, 2012


You're not hopeless at all! It's just that...according to most folks, talking and thinking about enlightenment won't get you there, and may in fact get in the way. From a Zen Buddhist perspective, spending a lot of time on hypothetical scenarios could actively interfere with your pursuit of enlightenment. To put it another way, it's like trying to see better by rubbing dirt in your eyes.

To help clarify things, it might help if you explained why you're asking. Are you thinking of pursuing an enlightenment-focused practice (i.e. Buddhism, meditation or Buddhist meditation)? Or are you just intellectually curious? Because if you're just intellectually curious, you can navel-gaze and think about the plate of beans all day, and it can be a fun mental exercise, but if you're interested in practice--in having some of the experiences that some believe lead toward enlightenment--by far the best method is to actually try out some stuff! If it's more an intellectual exercise, I'd again say that the Buddhist Geeks podcast would be a reasonably good way to start, and if you're considering taking up some sort of meditation practice, let us know where your interests lie and what background you're coming from, and we might be able to give you some more specific resources.
posted by infinitywaltz at 7:22 PM on February 29, 2012


Just curious - no need to recommend resources. I wouldn't spend a lot of time wallowing in hypothetical scenarios, but I would shy away from people who entirely refuse to entertain them. I will stop posting now so this thread isn't a chat.
posted by mondotwistedmojo at 7:38 PM on February 29, 2012


Pleasure does not become less pleasurable simply because it is no longer mandatory.
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 PM on February 29, 2012


Is not curiosity pleasure-seeking, as you are relieving boredom by exploring an illusory world?

You've got it wrong, for you will suffer in giving up your boredom.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:22 PM on February 29, 2012


Is not curiosity pleasure-seeking, as you are relieving boredom by exploring an illusory world?

Just noticed this bit: the world isn't illusory in the sense that it completely vanishes after enlightenment, it's that supposedly once you're enlightened, you're seeing the world as it really is for the first time. That's what I meant about enjoying hobbies, art, etc. in a different way after the enlightenment experience. People who have had what the believe to be the enlightenment experience say that it's a one way trip, that they in fact couldn't go back to viewing the illusion even if they wanted to, but they do still enjoy doing things for their own sake.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:31 PM on February 29, 2012


>From a Zen Buddhist perspective, spending a lot of time on hypothetical scenarios could actively interfere with your pursuit of enlightenment.

This is what I was trying to say. I just don't feel qualified whatsoever to talk about Buddhism, and feel foolish for doing so.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:49 PM on February 29, 2012


Wow, harsh! Sounds like you're saying I'm hopeless- poor me!

Embrace the hopelessness. I'm not being snarky here--I'm trying to point out the kind of distinctions you make that are leading you astray.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:07 AM on March 1, 2012


Why do you do things you enjoy but also things you don't?
posted by cmoj at 7:35 AM on March 1, 2012


You could read about Ramana Maharishi, who did something close to what you are describing.

In an interview, Ken Wilber, a new age writer and meditator, has said that nothingness can get lonely after a while, and I seem to remember that he connected this to why the world of individuality was originally created.
posted by goethean at 8:24 AM on March 1, 2012


Part of enlightenment, as I understand it, is giving up the attachment to pleasure, not giving up all pleasurable things. No one (barring ascetics) suggests that you stop eating, and eating almost anything, even dirt, is at least somewhat pleasurable if you're hungry enough.

If you're talking about some hypothetical being that doesn't need to eat, then you're not talking about a human and this conversation is foolish, as KokoRyu said.
posted by desjardins at 1:41 PM on March 1, 2012


That's a good point. This being you talk about isn't human, and being enlightened is just being completely human. Or whatever species you are, really. How many neurotic butterflies do you know?
posted by cmoj at 2:47 PM on March 1, 2012


I'd like to point out that I don't think the OP is foolish, or that his/her question is foolish. I'm the one who is foolish.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:29 PM on March 1, 2012


Are you attached to your foolishness, KokoRyu?
posted by flabdablet at 3:52 PM on March 1, 2012


When it comes to Zen or Buddhism in general, I am only an egg. Please do not take my word for anything (which is good practice in general.)

If you haven't spent time on the cushion, your ideas of what "enlightenment" is are probably pretty unconnected to what people with long-time practices are pointing to when they talk about "enlightenment".* I can't find a reference right now, but IIRC the idea that enlightenment means withdrawing from the everyday world into a state of bliss is considered a... misinterpretation? of the dharma. I think I've seen the term "quietism" used around this idea, but could be misremembering.

As far as "enlightenment", the word itself is so loaded with meaning that some practitioners avoid it, and prefer to talk about "awakening" instead. (Personally, I like this phrasing better because it better reflects my own experience with practice. If you've become "enlightened" but then find yourself back in your old patterns, are you "endarkened"? "Fallen back into darkness"? If you speak instead of awakening, the obvious counter is "going back to sleep". Not anything to be ashamed of, but not helpful if you're working on being awake.)

Anyway, serendipitously earlier today I was listening to the latest episode of the Open Air with Cheri Huber podcast. (Cheri is an American Zen teacher in the Soto tradition who's been practicing for more than 30 years. I post about her work rather a lot when it's relevant because it's been so life-changing for me.)

In the beginning of the podcast, a caller was talking with one of the monks about practice and said "...and what I'm left with is just excitement. And I don't necessarily even know what I'm excited about."

When Cheri came on the podcast, she said
When [caller's name] said that, about the "excited, and I don't even know what I'm excited about", that so perfectly captures practice for me. You know, I just walk around thinking... you know, it's like an internal joke, that I'm happy, I'm grateful, I'm excited. You know, "How are you?" I'm grateful, I'm happy, I'm excited! It's like they all go together. And, "About what?" Well, I guess that would be everything.

I don't know. I don't know. I just know that I'm happy, I'm grateful, and I'm excited. That that's my experience of being in life and having life live me. And so just to think about it that way — that that's actually what we're practicing, is being in that place where we feel that way and there's no content at all. Or there's every content. Any content!
So from her perspective, being awake isn't about being in a blissful state of equanimity untroubled by anything, it's about being present and aware and open to and willing for the experience of the present moment.

If you haven't spent time on the cushion, you might try it. It doesn't have to be about "seeking enlightenment". It can be much more immediate. I'm immensely grateful that I stumbled across one of Cheri's books when I did.


* And even then... Cheri has said "Entire volumes have been written about how you really can't say anything meaningful in words about what we're trying to talk about here." (misquoted from memory)
posted by Lexica at 7:50 PM on March 1, 2012


Listen to Alan Watts lectures for about as eloquent an explanation of Zen and Buddhism as I think is possible in English.
posted by cmoj at 9:57 AM on March 2, 2012


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