Attaining Enlightenment

enlightenmentThe other day I got an email from Non-Duality magazine, an on-line mag where I’ve been interviewed before, asking me a lot of questions about enlightenment. You can see the interview here.

I just had a look at the other guy he interviewed, Alan Jacobs, who I’d never heard of before this. His answers are very different from mine! I’ll be curious to see other people’s answers if he posts them.

During our back-and-forth via email I learned that there is a movement within certain types of Buddhism in America to proclaim your enlightenment and various spiritual attainments. I was not aware this was a movement, but I was vaguely aware of something weird going on along those lines. A guy at a monastery I frequently visit told me of a particularly difficult customer who showed up at the place demanding to know what levels the teachers there had achieved so she could compare them to her own attainments. She didn’t last long.

I wasted some valuable time this morning looking at a couple videos by some of the leaders of this movement and reading — well, more like scanning because they weren’t worth really reading in detail — some of the writing associated with this stuff.

Near as I could tell, the thrust of the movement is that meditation is “like anything else” (to quote the guy who said it) in that it was all about accomplishing one’s goals, and that once one had accomplished these goals one ought to openly proclaim them. I guess you’re supposed to be like Hans and Franz showing off your meditational muscles. Apparently this movement sometimes goes by the name of “Hardcore Dharma” (I wonder where they got that from) and is called, by its originators, a “masculine practice.”

I’m sure you can guess by my tone what I think of all this. When I hear about this kind of stuff I’m always glad that I don’t spend a lot of time keeping up with the current trends in American Buddhism. I know I’m missing some good, positive stuff. But I also miss the goofball stuff. If I want goofball stuff I’ll watch The Three Stooges.

The problem with this approach is screamingly obvious. I go into a lot of it within the interview that I posted a link to above. But I’ll try a slightly different approach here.

Let’s look at this concept of attainment for a moment. When one attains something, one adds that to oneself. It’s related to the word obtain, which means to take possession of an object. A couple years ago I sold my Ibanez Rickenbacker copy bass and used the money to obtain a Noel Redding signature model Fender Jazz bass. So one day there was Brad and the next day there was Brad + Noel Redding signature model bass. Awesome!

When I attain something it’s a bit more nebulous. Google’s very helpful dictionary function tells me that to attain means to “succeed in achieving (something that one desires and has worked for).” A few years ago I desired to lose some weight. I’d returned from Japan and spent about a year enjoying all those gigantic restaurant portions and greasy fried things I’d missed in Japan. I gained about twenty pounds. But I started eating better and exercising more and before too long I was back to my normal weight. I re-attained it. Success!

But what happens to my attainment if I start eating Big Grab® bags of Fritos and drinking giant “healthy” smoothies every day again? Yep. I get fat.

Back in the 90’s I moved to Japan. When I arrived there I could speak very little Japanese. But I worked hard at it and after a few years I attained a level of competent, if not brilliant, Japanese.

But in the past five years I haven’t spoken much Japanese. And while I haven’t lost the ability completely, I’m not nearly as good at it as I was five years ago.

I’m a pretty good bass player, an interesting lead guitarist, a good writer, and a few other things. I worked hard at all that stuff. But if I stop doing these things, I will lose all of these abilities I have attained. At the very least my attainments will be diminished.

So attainments don’t stay around by themselves. I can’t come up with a single one that does in any area of life. You have to work at all of them. Why should meditational attainments be different?

The model of spiritual attainment we have nowadays in the West (which may have its roots in the ancient east, so you can’t just blame it on us) has it that one attains certain levels of enlightenment and that this situation remains fixed forever. But that model is just weird. Nothing works that way.

Then  there’s the matter I alluded to earlier of the idea of me + the thing I’ve attained. I add my attainments to myself. It’s part of my internal model of what I call “me.”

So if I attain some sort of level of meditational excellence then there is Me + Level Seven (or whatever). Wow! I just got a whole lot bigger. I’m Super Mario and I just ate all the cherries and attained 700 hit points (I’m not  much of a gamer, but you get the idea, I hope).

Attaining levels of meditational excellence enhances one’s ego structure immensely. How can it be otherwise? I’ve also observed that it tends to make people kind of neurotic and defensive. I guess it must be hard to continuously defend this thing you’ve attained that nobody really understands or can see specific evidence of. I’ve never run across someone who claims to have great spiritual attainments who wasn’t also a jerk. It seems to go with the territory. I’ve learned to avoid such people.

It must be a tough life, to be an enlightenment attainer. Claiming your attainments will lead people to challenge them. For example, you can run around claiming to be fluent in Japanese when you really only know how to order a beer. Sometimes I meet people who do so and speak to them in Japanese. I swear I do this innocently, just for the fun of speaking the language again. A few times I’ve ended up seriously embarrassing someone when their friends see them faltering and unable to reply to what I’m saying.

But who can test a claim of enlightenment? I could lob a few koans at someone. But what would that prove? To anyone else listening the conversation would sound like nonsense. The person making the claim could easily just say that my answers were less enlightened than his and who would know?

Besides that, a person making this claim can be reasonably sure it won’t be tested very often. So it’s not nearly as risky as claiming to be fluent in Japanese or claiming to be a master landscape painter or whatever.

This is why the Heart Sutra says that there is nothing to attain. It’s not a joke. It’s not a metaphor. There is nothing to attain.

Claiming to have attained enlightenment or some special meditational level is an entirely useless claim to make. It means less than nothing. It tells me only that the person making the claim thinks very highly of himself. Big deal.

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If you want to donate to me directly, please do. This blog is how I mainly support myself these days. Though I’m looking into what translation and rewriting work is available.

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Registration is now open for our Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center May 9-11, 2014

The events page is now updated! Take a look at where I’m gonna be!

You can see the documentary about me,  Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations:

– April 17, 2014 Los Angeles, CA

– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA

ZERO DEFEX will play on May 16, 2014 in Akron, OH 

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79 Responses

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  1. david s
    david s April 7, 2014 at 9:50 am |

    Hi Brad.

    It seems to me that you are also one who has proclaimed attainment and this is the basis of your status as a leader/teacher. You have written about your experience and understanding. So what makes your position any different than the rest who are interested in discussing the topic?

    Putting aside the issue of does enlightenment last or not, clearly your status is founded upon this claim to even be a teacher, and to have your teacher ask you to teach others is also based upon such. If there was nothing to attain then why sit? Clearly there is something in mind or you wouldn’t be a teacher.

    I don’t see any need to not discuss it openly. Just look at all the discussion this blog has generated. Everyone is probably not going to agree of what it is and that in itself is really revealing isn’t it? I think all discussions on the topic are noteworthy and add to understanding this mind of ours at work.

    So I am interested in hearing why in this post you are pushing against those who are willing to talk openly about their attainments when in fact you have done so too.


  2. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer April 7, 2014 at 11:23 am |


    Obviously I am not Brad, but I have read a lot of his writing so I’ll give you my take.

    First, the Soto linage in general does not have enlightenment as a goal. Brad is a member of that linage so….

    Brad also at several points in his books strongly states that he is not enlightened and never has been. He was “certified” by his teacher as a zen priest and has received transmission from same, which as far as I can tell allows him to teach zen.

    Dogen, who Brad refers to a lot, says that sitting zazen is itself enlightenment.

    Also, as far as I can tell, if you practice zazen long enough, you will find that there really is no self. If this is true, who can get enlightened?

    The Heart Sutra, which is said to contain the most concise description of Buddhist thought, has the line “There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever.”

    Seems pretty clear on that point.

    The question “If there was nothing to attain, then why sit?” is one of the fundamental questions in zen.

    Dogan traveled to China and spent many years trying to answer that question.

    I think anyone who has a serious practice is trying to answer that same question…

    Sorry about the jumble of thoughts.

    Good luck.

  3. david s
    david s April 7, 2014 at 5:37 pm |

    Hi Alan.

    I would like you to read Brad’s, Hardcore Zen book starting on page 178 (paperback edition), or refer to chapter, Eating A Tangerine Is Real Enlightenment. Here Brad describes his experience which is what I was referring to….. He is talking of enlightenment here.

    We could talk of ‘realization’ instead of ‘enlightenment’, making it more transitory, yet this too would have to be experienced, right? And isn’t the word ‘attainment’ another word for ‘having had’ (…realization, enlightenment, jhana, any experience, etc.)?

    Sometimes the language used and the concepts they represent are too tightly held. Buddhist no-self doctrine referred to in this post is (for me) used as a tool to discredit others who are simply talking about their experiences and in this manner are engaged in learning from one another. Their background is based in Theravadan Buddhism. So I get the difference in direction from Zen. But I commend their intention to just talk openly about what they are experiencing. I don’t see a problem here. Brad disagrees with their lineage and talks from that perspective. I get it. Some of what can drop away is one’s control/striving and one’s intellectual conditioning. So in such a way attainments can appear to keep one mentally engaging when letting go is the movement.

    What interests me about this topic is how the different lineages view such experiences and how different such experiences are. It looks like the methods developed by each lineage create differing experiences. Isn’t that interesting? Is one better than another? Probably not. Which is why I don’t quite get when someone disparages other lineages. Obviously Zen from Japan will be different than Theravadan from Sri Lanka. Is one better or more true? Depends on what one is taught to believe and one’s values.

    Here is where I find Brad’s critique short-sighted. I also saw how Brad positions himself into being a leader/teacher through talking/writing of his experiences and yet tries to discredit others from doing the same.

    Thanks for your response,

  4. Meditation December 23, 2014 at 7:38 am |

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