Levels of Enlightenment

Argues that enlightenment is not attained absolutely. Instead it is achieved in steps, including plenty of backsliding.

Levels of Enlightenment

Enlightenment is often understood as a singular event in a person's life; such as the enlightenment of the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree. Consequently it is seen as a step onto a new sphere of existence; one that, once reached, one may never leave during once lifetime (and possibly beyond, given ones spiritual inclinations).

Enlightenment though is a through and through human experience, shaped by the constraints of human psychology. Humans are rarely one thing and we change over time. This is extensively discussed by Julian Baggini in The Ego Trick, a book about the human self and how it is constructed. One of the main points made in the book is that we are composed of multitudes and that our self changes much more over time than we would ever expect. And, yes, I do know that one of the core fundamental beliefs in Buddhism is that there is no such thing as a self; it can however not be denied that our thoughts need a vessel and that this vessel is our body and mind nature has bestowed upon us.

Given the complexity of our mind, I believe that enlightenment is not a singular event but rather a dynamic, multi-layered process. As in all things, we must not judge ourselves if our actions and thoughts are not always as full of insight as we wish them to be. We need to accept that we are not perfect but made from flesh and bones and often guided by millennia-old behavioural programs.

One way to gain a better understanding of this complex enlightenment is to divide the process of attaining enlightenment into levels such as the following:

  • Level 1 Childlike existence: We experience emotions purely and innocently. We feel joy with our whole heart. We feel pain with our whole heart. Our emotions are moderated by thought and reflection only to a small degree.
  • Level 2 False suffering: We bring more suffering into our own lives by measuring ourselves against arbitrary norms and societal expectations. We believe we need to be just as rich as our neighbours, and since we are not, we suffer. We believe our thoughts and actions need to live up to the standards of an imagined deity, and since they are not, we suffer.
  • Level 3 Atma and Brahman: We understand that everything is connected, and we are a part of the whole, and we are the whole at the same time. We get true spiritual solace through an idea that is deep and meaningful and not based on evidently false scriptures.
  • Level 4 Attana: We understand that there is no true self and no true world around us.

Given the nature of our psychology, there will be no linear ascend through these levels. Instead, we are bound to live in all of them at the same time. We may strive to attain the highest level - but to believe we may have overcome the 'lower' ones is to delude ourselves. Thus, we may conceive a kind of meta-enlightenment; that we understand what enlightenment is but also that we may never achieve it perfectly and embrace that there is good in that too.

We need a childlike perspective sometimes to unleash the wellspring our our truest emotions. We need to be in the state of false suffering; otherwise we cannot exist in community with others. We need to think about and feel Atma and Brahman to give ourselves spiritual grounding. We need to embrace Attana to give our lives a true core.