Recently I had an opportunity to speak to a group of Western Buddhists and I asked them why they practice and what is their end game. A good 90% of them said enlightenment. I always find it a bit disconcerting when people offer up this as a goal. I pushed them a little further and they spoke about going to a different place, such as nirvana, not being born again or residing in a Buddha field in some celestial realm. They seem to regard this place of enlightenment as a paradise full of all the nice things they like, and devoid of anything they dislike. All of which I feel is a misunderstanding of what Gautama Buddha actually wanted us to aim for.
I believe Gautama Buddha’s main point was that life is suffering and we ourselves are the main cause of this suffering. The paths he spoke about in his teachings, such as the eightfold path, are a way for us to alleviate this suffering and live a calmer, more responsible life.
I do not believe he meant for us to dream of going to a different place, such as nirvana, paradise or heaven, once we die or to project all the things we like in this world onto these places. Heaven, nirvana and so forth are states of mind and not actual places.
Gautama Buddha never said he was enlightened. The word enlightenment is a mistranslation of the Sanskrit word bodhi, which actually means awakened.
Once Gautama Buddha was asked if he was a god, a sorcerer, a magician, angel or a celestial being and he answered no to all of these. He said he was awake. Being awake is very different to being enlightened. When we are awakened it is right here, right now, in this very life. It is being awake to or having an awareness of the way the world really is.
When Gautama Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, “awareness.” This awareness is based on our experiences and is not achieved through blindly following a teacher or some teachings. The highest authority is our own experiences. It is not enough to rely on faith or understanding Buddhism intellectually. We have to experience it as Gautama Buddha did. His teachings are all based on his own personal experiences and he strongly encouraged us to do the same.
I strongly believe that if we want the most out of Buddhism we should keep our goals realistic. This way we are not going to get disappointed.
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