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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Enlightenment

The experience of illumination of the consciousness, accompanied by transcendent insights or realization. The experience of enlightenment is universally recognized in all major religious traditions, and in non-religious literature as well. It has been called bodhi, samādhi, satori, prajñā, cosmic consciousness, mystical consciousness, etc. It is a subject well studied in mystical literature as well as in modern transpersonal psychology. The psychologist William James, in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, made one of the earliest studies of mystical experience. He states that the experience is basically ineffable but has a noetic quality, that is, it is accompanied by an intellectual insight or illumination which could not be expressed in words. In addition, it is transient and passive.

Alan Watts, a Christian minister who became a Buddhist monk, described the experience as follows: The experience of enlightenment appears as a vivid and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as it is at this moment, as a whole and every one of its parts, is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification beyond what it simply is. Existence not only ceases to be a problem; the mind is so wonder-struck at the self-evident and self-sufficient fitness of things as they are, including what would ordinarily be thought the very worst, that it cannot find any word strong enough to express the perfection and beauty of the experience. Its clarity sometimes gives the sensation that the world has become transparent or luminous, and its simplicity the sensation that it is pervaded and ordered by a supreme intelligence. At the same time, it is usual for the individual to feel that the world has become his own body, and that whatever he is has not only become, but always has been, what everything else is. It is not that he loses his identity to the point of feeling that he actually looks out through all other eyes, becoming literally omniscient, but rather that his individual consciousness and existence is a point of view temporarily adopted by something immeasurably greater than himself. One of the most famous non-religious descriptions of the enlightenment experience was made by a Canadian doctor, Richard M. Bucke, who later wrote about it in a book called Cosmic Consciousness. He concluded that the experience was a universal one that is found among religious and non-religious people, such as John of the Cross, William Carpenter, Buddha, etc. Here is his own account of the experience: All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe.

Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed. I knew that what the vision showed was true. I had attained to a point of view from which I saw that it must be true. That view, that conviction, I may say that consciousness, has never, even during periods of the deepest depression, been lost. (Quoted in William James, Varieties of Religious Experience) Religious Traditions. Among religious traditions, studies of the experience are numerous.

Buddhism started from the experience of enlightenment of Gautama Buddha attained under the Bodhi tree, and all subsequent Buddhist practices are essentially aimed towards the attainment of this transcendent state leading to Nirvāna. This illumination has multiple stages, called jhānas in THERAVĀDA BUDDHISM. In Zen Buddhism, the initial enlightenment experience is called kensho or satori. It is the awakening of prajñā. Christian mysticism calls this experience illumination that eventually leads to Union with the Divine. The state has been described in paradoxical terms by various mystics to illustrate its transcendent ineffability. The following is a description by John of the Cross.

I was so whelmed, so absorbed and withdrawn, that my senses were left deprived of all their sensing, and my spirit was given an understanding while not understanding, transcending all knowledge.

He who truly arrives there cuts free from himself; all that he knew before now seems worthless, and his knowledge so soars that he is left in unknowing transcending all knowledge. (Living Flame of Love. Copyright ICS) Hinduism calls the experience tur…ya, or the fourth state of consciousness (the other three being waking, sleeping, and dreamless sleep). In Rāja Yoga, it is called samādhi accompanied by the awakening of prajñā. In this state the ego-center, ahahkāra, ceases; the distinction between the observer and observed correspondingly ceases. Islamic S™f…sm identifies this spiritual illumination as the many levels of hal or spiritual states. These realizations eventually leads to fanā, or annihilation of the self. The importance of this enlightenment experience is so central to the major religious traditions that it has been widely considered as the core religious experience common to all of them.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow noted that “the very beginning, the intrinsic core, the essence of every high religion is this private personal illumination or ecstasy of a prophet or a seer.” Therefore, he concludes: To the extent that all mystical or peak-experiences are the same in their essence and have always been the same, all religions are the same in their essence and have always been the same. They [religious practitioners] should, therefore, come to agree in principle on teaching that which is common to all of them, i.e., whatever it is that peak-experiences teach in common (whatever is different about these illuminations can fairly be taken to be localisms both in time and space, and are, peripheral, expendable, not essential). This something common, this something which is left over after we peel away all the localisms, all the accidents of particular languages or particular philosophies, all the ethno-centric phrasings, all those elements which are not common, we may call the core-religious experience or the transcendent experience. (Religions, Values and Peak Experience)

Theosophical literature refers to this state as the awakening of prajñ€. which “makes of a man a God, creating him a Bodhisattva, son of the Dhyanis” (Voice of the Silence). This state is found in the Buddhic level of consciousness, eventually leading to Union with one’s štma, the spark of the Divine.

All the spiritual traditions are unanimous regarding the need for preliminary preparations before such a state of enlightenment can be attained. It requires the initial awakening of one’s intuition which leads to what in Christian literature is called the “divine discontent.” Then one goes through a process of search for the wisdom and the Path. When the Path is found, there is a need for purification or purgation of the lower self or personality which has been the subject of conditioning from the past and from society. Only after these are successfully done can the aspirant hope to enter into the gates of illumination and union. In theosophical literature, the preparatory requirements are outlined in such works as The Voice of the Silence and Light on the Path. See also MYSTICISM.

 

V.H.C.

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