The Search for Enlightenment


Asking Questions

Who wants to be enlightened?

When I first thought about this topic, I assumed everyone wanted to be. After all, what else is life for? Then I realized that most people could probably care less about it. After all, most of us don’t even know what enlightenment means. I’m not sure I know.

So if people don’t want enlightenment, whatever that is, what do they want?

stones-by-deniz-altindas-from-unsplash - stones balancing and light behind it - the peace, happiness, and understanding of enlightenment

I guess that depends on the person and, perhaps, the moment.

So is there no common, human desire?

Maybe we all want happiness.

Okay. What do I mean by happiness?

Happiness and Impermanence

I think happiness and enlightenment are related. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh refers to happiness when he talks about liberation or awakening, which are two other terms for enlightenment. He says that when we awaken, we can be happy every moment, no matter what is going on. [1]

That might sound crazy, but assuming it’s true, what does he mean by happiness?

If you’ve done any kind of religious or spiritual seeking, you know happiness is not found in money, or getting high, or bossing people around, or having orgasms, or eating baklava, or even listening to music or dancing. All those activities might stimulate feel-good chemicals in our brains that make us feel happy for a moment, but the chemicals dissipate. Their effects fade.

So what happens when the good feelings fade? Do we cling to disappearing sensations, get lost in the pursuit of more? We so easily get obsessed with amassing gold, losing weight, finding heroin, having sex, forcing obedience out of each person or creature we run into. This is our addiction. It’s part of our history, as a society and as individuals. We become addicted to so many things, relationships, ideas.

But this doesn’t make us happy. Indeed, such obsession leads to suffering. Since suffering is uncomfortable, we deny our feelings or get trapped in delusions and rationalizations. We think that if we ignore our pain, we’ll feel happier. In reality we only increase our misery.

Happiness and Healthy Pastimes

Yet surely some healthy activities bring us happiness: a fragrant cup of coffee, a glimpse of the full moon, the laugh of a baby, the softness of a cat’s fur, a good movie or book or joke, cribbage and dances and poetry and paintings and conversations over fish and chips. What’s wrong with that?

Nothing, on the face of it. Spiritual leaders tend to agree that joy comes from appreciating the little things in life. Yet is that happiness? How do we separate happiness from pleasure? Like our addictions, these sensual experiences last for a moment, maybe an hour. Eventually, they fade. Then how do we cope? Do we seek out more pleasure or let go of what has passed and enjoy what comes next, even if that next thing is not so pleasant? Can we really find happiness in the sensual enjoyments of life?

Maybe. I mean, they probably don’t hurt. But aren’t there more important pleasures to pursue? What about close relationships, fulfilling careers, a sense of worth and value and meaning? Do they, in themselves, make us happy?

Being Happy No Matter What

The Buddhist author Sharon Salzberg recounts a story of one of her teachers, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche or Khenpo. As he and others fled persecution in Tibet, travelling through the mountains toward India, they were ambushed by Chinese soldiers who killed all but Khenpo and four others. These five eventually made their way through the torturous Himalayan passes and found rest in India.

Slazberg tells how she and others were moved to tears by his story, and thus were surprised to hear him say, “And I was very happy.”

Happy? How could Khenpo have been happy during this time?

Khenpo explained that the Buddha’s teachings sustained him. He talked of how life has many ups and downs, that it is like a dream. This does not mean he ignored the pain he felt nor the suffering of those around him. On the contrary, he felt it deeply. Yet within that experience was a peace so profound, he could feel the glow of the Buddha inside his heart. That made him happy.

Salzberg writes, “Every so often, if we are fortunate, we catch a glimpse of a quality of happiness or freedom in another human being that is not bound to conditions, that sustains them even through extraordinary suffering.” [2]

This, as I understand it, is enlightenment.

Enlightenment and Racism

Who wouldn’t want that? Yet is such a story relevant for all of us? Is it relevant for our times?

While looking through various religious texts for insight on enlightenment, I was also reading Michael Eric Dyson’s book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. In his book, he tells stories of police who profile him, his family members, and other black people. He describes unfair stops and humiliating searches, taunts, racist slurs, times when whites assume that because a person is black he is dangerous. He calls on white people to look inside, to see the myths and frailties we use to protect our innocence. His litany of racist attacks and his naming of subtle manipulations of white power is insightful and painful.

Am I suggesting that Dyson and everyone else who has experienced unfair assaults on their humanity should realize that we’re all one, that suffering is an illusion, and that they can be happy, no matter what some white person does to them? Of course not. And yet, that doesn’t mean enlightenment isn’t relevant here. It is.

One reason Dyson wrote his book was so white people like you and I might better understand the truth of the black experience, and the white experience, in the United States. In other words, he wrote the book so we could become enlightened.

Knowledge, Power, and the Enlightenment

Enlightenment refers not just to the Buddhist concept of awakening, but also to the period of scientific and philosophical exploration in Western Europe after the Middle Ages. Men and women explored, discovered, and understood the world, life, and death in new and exciting ways. That’s why it’s called the Enlightenment, because of all that learning.

Well, Dyson’s book is enlightening me. Reading it isn’t comfortable. It doesn’t make me happy, exactly, although I enjoy learning new things, and I appreciate the creative structure of his work, his facility with language, his proficient use of story. So, yes, I find some pleasure in the reading.

Yet, his words also disturb me. In his stories, I see the suffering of his people and feel their pain. As a white person, I accept his analysis that my culture has traumatized and limited me, too, and not only should I change myself and my society because it’s the right thing to do, but also because I will benefit. Like people of color, I experience pain living in this broken country. And from what I know, and from everything I’ve lived and read and heard and seen, if we refuse to recognize, honor, and experience that pain and suffering, we will never heal, never awaken, never grow into enlightenment. Indeed our suffering is our path to freedom. We can be as happy as Khenpo, even in the face of horror and maltreatment, even in the face of white supremacy.

Transforming Suffering

This does not excuse aggression, abuse, entitlement, the humiliating exercise of power and control. It does not exonerate us when we hurt others, even if we don’t mean to. No. Instead, this recognition that we cannot be enlightened unless we’ve suffered allows all of us to find a way out. And if we white people seek that way, we make it that much easier for everyone else.

Hanh encourages us to embrace our suffering, cherish it, bring it to our meditation pillows, acknowledge and observe it. “Without suffering, you cannot grow,” he writes. “Without suffering, you cannot get the peace and joy you deserve.” [4]

Why is this? I don’t know, but I think it has to do with our inability to empathize, to feel compassion for the stranger, unless we know what suffering is. The Buddha said suffering is a “Holy Truth” because it reveals to us who we are, the nature of reality, and the path to liberation. [5] Perhaps without our suffering we would not be motivated to even start to become who we are meant to be.

The Way Out

How do we begin to find that way out?

We start with where we are. Then we come to know ourselves, and we gently hold and honor the truth of our experiences. In this way we find healing through our own inner seeking, yet we also find it by reaching out to others who see us, hear us, honor us, and hold us in the totality of our being.

Once we have been held enough, then we have the responsibility and the opportunity to hold and heal others, whether their wounds come from racism, homophobia, sexism, and other manifestations of our brokenness, or whether the wounds are more individual. Once we have awakened even a little bit, we also have the responsibility and the opportunity to keep growing ourselves.

Hanh reminds us that enlightenment doesn’t happen once and for all time. We grow in awareness bit by bit. Oh, yes, there are stories of sudden and overwhelming enlightenment that transform lives. I’m sure they happen. From what I’ve seen, though, even these magical moments pass, and we become again who we are, with some more wisdom than we had, more understanding, more equanimity. And with still more room to grow. [6]

Enlightenment Leads to Compassion

But if we get liberated, don’t we evolve beyond all this healing and suffering and holding stuff? Once we realize that everything’s an illusion, don’t we also realize that nothing matters any more?

Actually, it doesn’t work that way. Salzberg explains that Khenpo’s ability to be happy in the face of suffering didn’t make him carefree or oblivious. On the contrary. He developed a deep compassion for those in pain, dedicating his life to helping other Tibetans and spreading the Buddha’s teachings. In that way, he strives to honor and help heal the suffering of others.

All religions, even humanism, understand that finding enlightened doesn’t end our quest, nor does it end our purpose on this earth. When we feel God’s presence, or what passes for God, and when we know God to be as close as the veins in our hands, compassion naturally arises. It just does. When we awaken, we learn to listen, we empathize, and we reach out to serve others and heal wounds.

Healing the Wounds

Khenpo is reaching out in his way. You and I will probably choose other tools or paths, and that’s a good thing. We need many approaches to fix this broken and suffering world. So do what you are called to do, from whatever religious path you choose.

You know, we never did define enlightenment, but I’m going to leave it that way. After all, wiser teachers than I have tried to put the experience into words, yet from what I’ve heard, we won’t understand it until we’ve been there.

So I forge on, step by step, facing my suffering as much as I can, honoring my wounds, loving my humanness, and seeking to express whatever compassion I’ve picked up over the years. If, in this way, I awaken a little bit, I am grateful. If, in this way, I can help others heal, I am more grateful still.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 155.
  2. Salzberg, Sharon, A Heart As Wide as the World, Boston: Shambhala, 1999, 182.
  3. Dyson, Michael Eric, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, New York: St. Martin’s 2017.
  4. Hanh 5.
  5. Ibid 5.
  6. Ibid 215.

Photo by Deniz Altindas from Unsplash

Past columns about:

  1. Enlightenment: The Light of Enlightenment
  2. White Supremacy: White Supremacy and Listening