Is Zen Enlightenment Real?

by | October 17, 2021

By James Haught

I’m intrigued by Zen meditation as a supposed path to enlightenment. I’ve tried repeatedly — lying silent in bed, blanking out my mind, hearing nothing but the rhythm of my breath, seeing nothing but dark blurs behind my eyelids. But all it does is put me to sleep. In the end, I never get a smidgeon of enlightenment. I’m still just the same old me.

I wonder whether anyone finds enlightenment — or whether the quest is self-deceptive, a fantasy leading nowhere?

I never knew any meditator who seemed enlightened — did you? Did you ever see amazing insights or remarkable creative output by an enlightenee?

American Buddhism is a billion-dollar field with many gurus. It’s followed by intellectuals such as brilliant atheist Sam Harris. Researcher John Horgan says:

“The number of Buddhist centers in the United States has more than doubled to well over 1,000. As many as four million Americans now practice Buddhism, surpassing the total of Episcopalians. Of these Buddhists, half have post-graduate degrees.”

Horgan wrote in Slate that he plunged ardently into the exotic pursuit, but –

“Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth. Buddhism’s moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science — or more generally, with modern humanistic values.”

Buddhism’s insistence that suffering is an illusion theoretically could make followers less concerned when bigoted white police kill unarmed black men, or women are victimized by male predators, or other outrages occur.

Horgan added that supposedly enlightened gurus can be unappetizing: “Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987.”

Another guru, Bhagwan Rajneesh, created an Oregon commune that committed the worst bioterror attack in American history. Trying to control a local election, Rajneesh followers cultured Salmonella in a lab and sprinkled it in salad bars at ten restaurants in The Dalles in 1984, hoping to make townspeople too sick to vote. It worked, and 750 became ill. Forty-five were hospitalized, but none died. Two women leaders of the commune were convicted, and Rajneesh was deported to India, where he died in 1990.

Dr. Robert Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, made an intense study of meditation gurus and their adoring followers. Writing in Psychology Today, he summed up:

“Getting a close look at several individuals who were advertised as enlightened led me to conclude that there’s a lot of hype and hypocrisy in the business. A good many of them, not unlike a fair number of academics I’d known, seemed to be in it primarily for the lifestyle. Many gurus are treated like deities and hold absolute power over their devotees. As ‘enlightened beings,’ they’re accountable to no one, and their foibles, appetites and excesses are given a pass.”

He continued:

“Fraud is a stranger to neither science nor religion. Its presence invalidates neither, but its ubiquity warrants skepticism…. The language of enlightenment tended to be esoteric, obscurantist and elitist, and the teachings attracted more credulous dabblers than credible seekers…. In my quest, I did not come across anyone who could be said to dwell in a state of permanent enlightenment.”

Writers shouldn’t pontificate about subjects they don’t understand. I truly don’t understand meditation and enlightenment — but I wonder whether anyone does. This essay can serve as an invitation for some Ph.D. Buddhists like Sam Harris to write a rebuttal saying how ignorant and shallow I am to ask whether meditation is a trip to nowhere.

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Image Credit: James Haught.

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One thought on “Is Zen Enlightenment Real?

  1. JB

    As a preface, I think most students of meditation would advise against lying in bed to meditate, exactly because there is a good likelihood of falling asleep.

    You ask:

    I never knew any meditator who seemed enlightened — did you? Did you ever see amazing insights or remarkable creative output by an enlightenee?

    Speaking only for myself, I can report that meditation, and to a degree, Buddhist ethics, have produced better behaviour on my part, towards myself and others, and some interesting altered states of mind. Tied to that better behaviour is better attentiveness to my internal life, to include my interior perceptions of the outside world. It creates more space between stimulus and (habituated, unhelpful) reaction. In sum, I think it’s worth it. Keep in mind this is over the course of over 20 years, and exploring a few different models of Buddhism–as you are doubtless aware, it has nearly as much variety in doctrine and praxis as Christianity.

    I offer no defense of the cultish and otherwise nasty aspects that pop up all too frequently–in specific, Buddhism in the USA has been rocked by many scandals of sexual abuse and other more subtle kinds at least since the 90s. I do think that placing certain figures as more-than-human, especially when they espouse anti-rational stuff like “crazy wisdom” (Chogyam Trungpa’s favoured excuse for his grotesque manipulation of his devotees). Even the relatively democratic, counter-culture Dharma Punx’s leader, Noah Levine, had his sexual exploitations revealed some years ago.

    Perhaps you can call it “tu quoque” but the secular movement hasn’t been immune to this sort of thing either–sadly, hero-worship and our culture’s continued winking at sexual predation means that any charming, persuasive character with claims to special wisdom will find plenty of prey. But I don’t dismiss humanism or atheism because of that, and I don’t think one necessarily should do the same with Buddhism–though, as with other religions, we may find doctrines that serve to enable this kind of viciousness.

    I quit calling myself a Buddhist because I found myself unable to sustain such a front when I’d rejected so many of its core doctrines, like karma and rebirth, or any supernatural entities. And of course the idea of a superhuman state of “enlightenment” is one of them. Still, to answer your actual question, I have certainly encountered people of diverse backgrounds with an unmistakable (but a little hard to quantify) set of qualities. One, they seem more present than a lot of people. If they’re listening to you, they’re really listening. Second, they express themselves clearly and are remarkably good at setting appropriate boundaries. Three, they are still humble and able to poke fun at their own imperfections (I distrust overly blissed-out, ultra-positive types anywhere, and unfortunately a lot of them seem to like Buddhism). I could probably come up with more, but perhaps you get the idea. So, “amazing insights”? I don’t know. Certainly I have felt impressed by their insights into human behaviour, and have even been blown away a few times, but they weren’t insights locked behind some gate of Buddhism’s. I’m not sure what creative output has to do with anything.

    Pardon if that’s all a bit muddled; I hope it helps.

    Reply

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