There are two phases of enlightenment. One is a sudden flash of knowing, the Zen Satori, as the Japanese call it. I suppose most people experience a degree of this at least sometime in their life. I mean, one’s bastion of belief is bound to crack a bit and let in the light of darkness (玄 xuán) at some point in one’s life.
The other phase is a rarer impartial ‘unbounded knowing’. Impartiality opens the window of awareness wider. The wider this window, the more awe-full the view, and the more essential impartiality becomes to preserving equanimity. Indeed, without impartiality, seeing the ‘big picture’ is emotionally dreadful. This can be a virtuous circle. Impartiality opens the eyes and opening eyes necessitates increasing impartiality. The more literal translation of Chapter 16’s hints at this…
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.
The Zen Satori’s sudden flash of knowing may kick-start ‘unbounded knowing’. It helps get the ball rolling. The Bhagavad Gita describes the challenging nature of such ‘unbounded knowing’. This dialog is between two characters, the noble warrior Arjuna and Krishna (a Hindu deity corresponding to Jesus Christ).
Arjuna asks, “If thou thinkest, O my Lord, that it can be seen by me, show me, O God of Yoga, the glory of thine own Supreme Being“.
Then Krishna says, “See now the whole universe with all things that move and move not, and whatever thy soul may yearn to see. See it all as One in me.”
Krishna allows Arjuna to see what all fear to see, “I am all‑powerful Time which destroys all things.”
After Krishna reveals all, Arjuna freaks out and says, “In a vision I have seen what no man has seen before: I rejoice in exultation, and yet my heart trembles with fear. Have mercy upon me, Lord of gods, Refuge of the whole universe: show me again thine own human form.”
Krishna replies, “By my grace and my wondrous power I have shown to thee, Arjuna, this form supreme made of light, which is the Infinite, the All: mine own form from the beginning, never seen by man before.”
After Krishna returns Arjuna to normal vision, Arjuna says, “When I see thy gentle human face, Krishna, I return to my own nature, and my heart has peace“.
As we see, everything has its price, including “enlightenment”. By filtering what we see, belief helps us avoid seeing the “all-powerful Time which destroys all things”. We only see what we are looking for, and belief largely determines what we look for. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is the price we pay for any beliefs we cherish.
How do you feel about enlightenment now?
If ignorance is no longer blissful, enlightenment may seem to be the only path forward in life. Not surprisingly, promised paths to enlightenment are more cultural hoodwink than not. As chapter 65 confides, Of old those who excelled in the pursuit of the way did not use it to enlighten the people but to hoodwink them.
Such hoodwinks offer safe harbors of belief that promise enlightenment, or other versions of salvation, but in fact deliver safety and sanity. Moving beyond this safety net requires nearly rising beyond oneself as chapter 16 puts it. I find it helps greatly to know the difference between, believing what I see and seeing what I believe. The former is an experience common to all life. Names and thought are not required. The latter requires names and thought, and thus uniquely human— as far as I know.
For example, when I see the Sun rise, I believe that experience. I can say I believe the Sun rises in the morning because I see it happen every day. If it stopped rising in the morning, then I would believe the Sun had stopped rising every day. This so-called belief follows experience. It states the evident, and when that changes so does belief. Thinking is not a prerequisite, so even calling this a belief is inaccurate. It feels like the essence of science.
What is uniquely human is the intangible mental world we inhabit alongside the concrete physical one. For example, a belief that the Greek Sun God, Helios, rises from the ocean at dawn each day in the East and rides in his chariot, pulled by four horses — Pyrois, Eos, Aethon and Phlegon — through the sky to descend at night in the West, doesn’t depend on experience. This belief originates and manifests itself in the imagination, tradition, education, fear, and so on. Here, you need to think to believe, and believe what you think.
So, how can we know whether we are believing what we see, or seeing what we believe? For one thing, the former tends to be a more balanced view. For example, seeing an imperfect perfection is closer to impartially seeing ‘what is’, and not simply a projection of your own needs or fears. Chapter 2 spells out nicely what a balanced view can look like:
Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
Note and sound harmonize with each other;
Before and after follow each other.
The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
Like all animals, we have an innate difficulty actually seeing life impartially. To do so would be unnatural. Like all animals, we are biologically set up to notice differences more than similarities — it’s survival 101. (See Balancing Difference With Similarity, p.120.) Indeed, sensing distinction is how the nervous system’s neurons function. It is distinction, not similarity, which stimulates neurons. Having perception so skewed to see differences makes us innately biased and very un-enlightened. For humans, unlike other animals, this causes us difficulty. As chapter 71 cautions, Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. Actually, it is more serious than that, as the more literal translation reveals, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. This explains why we, unlike other animals, feel a need for salvation, be that Enlightenment, being born again, doing drugs, getting drunk, or whatever!
Chapter 56’s reference to Mysterious sameness is useful for it shows us a way to transcend this difficulty — this disease — to a certain extent provided we truly want that. I find regarding everything I see as merely a symptom of some deeper underlying forces usually points me in that direction and gives me a better chance of channeling what chapter 14 calls the thread running through the way.
Finally, along with this talk of enlightenment it’s essential to recognize that enlightenment doesn’t make us less human. It doesn’t change us, our DNA, or the emotions than flow from DNA’s instruction set. Our core emotions and our original nature remain unaffected. Enlightenment simply and essentially neutralizes who we think we are, and in doing so returns us closer to our original nature. Chapter 16 describes it beautifully:
I do my utmost to attain emptiness;
I hold firmly to stillness.
The myriad creatures all rise together
And I watch their return.
The teaming creatures
All return to their separate roots.
Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.
This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.
Returning to one’s destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.
Returning to one’s original nature doesn’t mean life becomes blissful ease. That ideal, like the myth of Santa Claus, is only helpful to those who need it. In truth, difficulty and ease are inextricably linked. The difficult and the easy complement each other as chapter 2 puts it. Thus, as chapter 73 confides, even the sage treats some things as difficult.