To the American popular mind, Buddhism has become an in thing. Everyone agrees it is a good thing (even a wonderful thing), without having any idea what it is.
One of the items absorbed in this process was a belief in enlightenment – in the Eastern, not the Western sense. To them, it simply meant having attained spiritual perfection – without giving three seconds thought to just what that might be.
Fortunately, my meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, set me straight about this. He had survived Buddhist training in Japan (no small matter), and knew a few things about it. The Japanese knew that enlightened persons could be dangerous – and just plain downright evil. They even have a word for this. This sophisticated awareness could not be grasped by Americans – so they just ignored it.
I mentioned this in passing in my posting Hume and Buddhism – and today, four months after the posting, I got a question about it. I mentioned that Hitler in some ways could be considered an enlightened person. If I were to write this now, I would say all religious leaders are enlightened in some way or the other – that is what gives them their power. They have special insights into the workings of the world – and this absolutely astonishes their followers, who believe they are special and god-like themselves.
They do not relish being told they are simply fools. Religious wars have been fought about this very thing, and oceans of blood shed over it.
The worst of these religious wars, in my opinion, was not even recognized – and probably never will be. It has destroyed everyone but a small percentage of the population – and is now destroying society itself. Everyone has become convinced they are enlightened (that they know everything) – and therefore can do whatever they please.
Now that I have said that (and relished saying it) I will say more about the subject of enlightenment itself. Does it even exist? Opinion is divided on this. Some Western Buddhist thinkers, and some very advanced ones, have simply asserted, flat-out, that it doesn’t exist. The behavior of many Buddhist leaders, who have claimed to be enlightened, has born this out. Scandals of all kinds have abounded – some of them very serious.
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that this seems to be culture-dependent. If a culture believes in something (or even an individual believes in something) it exists. Beliefs have their own reality – and that cannot be denied. Good beliefs are another matter, and enlightenment is one of those I can do without.