QUESTIONER: Hello Mr. Warner. I have a question for you. Even though we are only human, after we get enlightened, is that supposed to change our life? For example, would I still be a Nazi after I get enlightened?
ME: Are you a Nazi now?
QUESTIONER: No, far from it. I tried to give an example. Let me try and reformulate. If a teacher is said to be enlightened but his deeds are … controversial, can we put his enlightenment to doubt? Is his enlightenment manifested in his deeds?
In one form or another, this is a question that has vexed spiritual seekers of every faith for as long as we have had spiritual seekers to be vexed about things.
The simplest answer I can give is that there is no spiritual experience that can zap a jerk and turn him instantly into a nice person. (Since the questioner’s example was male, I’ll continue to use a male example for simplicity’s sake, but what I’ll say here applies to all genders.)
I don’t like bringing Nazis into questions like these. I don’t like bringing Nazis anywhere, in fact. But since our questioner asked I’ll say that it is highly unlikely that one could be a Nazi and at the same time have what is commonly (and mistakenly) called an “enlightenment experience.” This is because being a Nazi requires a person to expend a huge amount of mental energy trying to justify actions that he knows intuitively to be wrong. Because of this, our hypothetical Nazi would almost certainly miss any kind of “enlightenment” that might come his way.
This is because enlightenment is not an experience. It is something we all possess. It is something we all are. Even Nazis. This is where the answer starts to get very tricky.
Meditation is not a technique to bring about the experience of enlightenment. It is something you do to calm and quiet the mind enough that you might eventually, after lots of practice, begin to dimly discern the enlightenment that already exists and has been there since before you were born.
There is nothing intrinsic to so-called “enlightenment experiences” that instantly fixes all the unfortunate shit you’ve ever done in your life, or erases all the unfortunate shit that’s been done to you. There are loads of koan stories about this. The most famous is usually called Hyakujo’s Fox and it is koan #2 in the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) collection. I wrote about this koan in my book Sit Down and Shut Up.
The moral of this koan is that one is never free from cause and effect, no matter what kind of realization you have. So if you had dendrophilia – which is a sexual fetish for trees, check the link if you don’t believe me – before realization, due to whatever it is in someone’s personal history that makes them have dendrophilia, you will still have dendrophilia after your experience of realization.
You may have a better understanding of the true nature of your tree fetish and of your relationship to trees. You might come to understand the reasons why it may not be wise to engage in your tree fetish. You may understand the trauma you are causing to those poor trees or whatever. But that will not make your tree fetish magically disappear.
You also will not lose the capacity to mentally shout down your innate sense of ethics. We all have an innate, in-born sense of right and wrong. However, this in-born sense of right and wrong can get messed up in a lot of ways. Sometimes a person gets so damaged that it is much, much more difficult for them to respond to this in-born ethical sense than it is for the rest of us. We have names for people like that, such as “sociopath.” Yet even a person with that kind of damage can still sometimes learn to quiet his mind enough to notice the enlightenment which underlies his existence. It’s uncommon, but it happens.
Another point my questioner raises is the nature of ethical action. He starts off by using the example of a Nazi, who is a person that does terrible things by just about any standard of ethical behavior. But then he asks, “If a teacher is said to be enlightened but his deeds are … controversial, can we put his enlightenment to doubt?”
I’m going to pass over the phrase “said to be enlightened” for the time being. But it’s crucial. Instead, let’s first focus on our hypothetical enlightened person doing deeds that are controversial. This presupposes that ethical behavior will always look to us like ethical behavior. That’s a tough call.
We never know exactly what goes on in someone else’s life. So it’s very difficult to judge the ethics of another person except in extremely broad terms (see the discussion of Nazis above). You can judge whether someone else’s conduct is problematic to the rest of society, though.
Your enlightened master’s dendrophilia is ultimately a matter between him and his chosen sycamore. However, if the sight of him nakedly humping trees outside the temple is disturbing to the community, they may have reason to ask him to stop. Most such controversial behavior works pretty much the same way. To take a more relevant example, if the enlightened master is groping people who do not want to be groped, it is right and proper to tell him to cut it out or, if he won’t cut it out, to tell him you’ll no longer be attending his lectures and retreats.
But even such behavior does not necessarily mean that his experience of realization never happened or that his teachings regarding that aspect of his (and everyone else’s) life are false.
On the other hand, there are people out there who are just plain nuts and somehow manage to convince lots of others that their nuttiness is an example of some kind of “crazy wisdom.” Without closely examining each individual who professes such things, it’s impossible to know for sure one way or the other. And frankly, I haven’t got time for that.
Ultimately, I think what my questioner is asking is whether there is some quick easy way to tell if someone else’s claims of realization are genuine or not. The answer to that is simple; No, there isn’t.
There are a few red flags that clue you in to the possibility that you’re being hoodwinked by a sociopath in pretty robes. Actions that appear to indicate a serious lack of ethics are indicators that maybe your enlightened master isn’t that enlightened after all. But that’s about as far as you can go. There’s no absolute test to see if someone’s supposed “enlightenment” is genuine, not even if he’s kind of an asshole.
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