A Non-Dual View of Enlightenment

What are the problems with believing enlightenment is an event that happens to a person?

First, if we accept that a person experiences knowledge of the Non-dual, then we are left with the person as a subject and the Non-dual as an object. Hardly non-dual. Yet personal experience reveals that the Non-dual is not absence of experience; but at the same time, there is no duality. How can we describe enlightenment in order to facilitate an understanding of this, without falling into either trap?

Second, we are left with the consequences of describing someone as an ‘enlightened person’. Not a person who has experienced enlightenment, but an enlightened person. Can you see the difference in emphasis? The first is a description that matches the facts; the second is the ascribing of a certain quality to an individual, and it is very rarely used in the sense that ‘this person has experienced enlightenment’. I would argue that every single bad model, ridiculous expectation and delusional fantasy around what it means ‘to be enlightened’ stem from using enlightenment as an adjective, and it’s a huge contributing factor to the facilitation of the abuse of power by many a guru or teacher. Consider: if enlightenment could not be used as an adjective, exactly how would you ask the question ‘what does it mean to be enlightened?’

The Language of Non-duality

So how do we resolve the two apparently irreconcilable view points? Either enlightenment happens to a person, or it doesn’t, yes?

I think the solution lies in describing the experience of the Non-dual accurately, without resorting to the gobbledygook of pseudo-Advaitists. It’s common here for the pseudo-Advaitist or amateur postmodern philosopher to interject with the idea that language fails us, and that true understanding is not possible with language anyway; we can only ‘point the way’ using feeble gestures and nonsensical phrases.

‘A bad workman always blames his tools’ springs to mind, so let’s continue.

When enlightenment happens, whether it’s just a peek or it’s permanent, it is usually accompanied by the intellectual realisation that consciousness or awareness is not limited to the body, the emotions, the mind, or the individual. What is normally taken to be the self is seen as just another set of sensations, no different from the ground beneath your feet or the sky above your head. Buddhist’s call this ‘no-self’. Advaitist’s call this ‘the Self’ with a capital ‘S’ (or Big Self), as opposed to the ego, or small self.

Duality only exists where there is a subject and object. Normally, the subject is taken to be the sensations that make up a person, who experiences the world as something separate from itself, as an object. But with enlightenment, the ignorance that the person or individual is a subject is gone; we are left with ‘an experience with no experiencer’.

This is exactly my experience. Since my enlightenment I know that I am not this person, Alan Chapman. But Alan Chapman persists after enlightenment just as he did before (much to everyone’s delight, I’m sure). Enlightenment occurred for me, and it was a radical transformation in identity, from subject to Non-dual experience.

‘An experience with no experiencer’ is not meaningless; it is not a garbled, flailing gesture that is supposed to point to the truth. It is an accurate description of what occurs during enlightenment. It is a wonderful definition of Being itself, and perfectly expresses the non-dual nature of existence: Just this.

No doubt some people will argue that it is impossible for experience to exist without an experiencer, and so yet again, language has failed us. But the fault here is not with language, but with a logic based on the ignorance of duality. Awareness is not a thing. Consciousness is not a subject. This can be expressed (and I hope it is right now) very clearly with language, without the need to resort to pseudo-Advaita speak.

Rational Consequences

What does this mean for the belief that enlightenment happens to a person, and the contrary view that it cannot?

The sensations that make up a self or person do not disappear with enlightenment; but the person is very much effected by it. A change in behaviour – physical, emotional and mental – takes place. The person has knowledge of enlightenment, memories of it occurring and persisting, and can express all of this experience in words. Enlightenment happens to people, as an experience.

But the person is no longer a subject. It is assumed by human society at large that a person – his or her physical body, emotions and mind – IS a subject, and they will describe the subject usually in those terms: fat or thin, ugly or attractive, nice or annoying, stupid or clever. For the person who has experienced enlightenment, this still retains its functionality. But can we describe a person as ‘enlightened’ in the same way? Do we not assume that an ‘enlightened person’ is actually an ‘enlightened subject’ when we use enlightenment as an adjective? Does this not imply that there is a subject with a quality – enlightenment – that really exists, when this is actually the opposite of the experience itself?

If there is one thing enlightenment demonstrates, it is that there is no subject to ‘be enlightened’.

Just as describing yourself as ‘fat’ or ‘thin’ still has a degree of utility after enlightenment, even though there is no subject to be fat or thin, can we use ‘enlightened’ in the same way? Consider any description of a person – bar ‘enlightened’ – and you will see that it describes either a physical, emotional, mental or behavioural trait: All the things mistaken to be a subject. ‘Enlightened’ does not accurately describe any physical, emotional, mental or behavioural trait; and that’s why it is frequently assumed as a (usually fantastical) description of a phenomenon that falls into one of these categories.

Describing a person as ‘enlightened’ could be the greatest mistake ever made in the history of genuine spirituality. (Hey, talk about a turn around in opinion.)

So does enlightenment happen to a person? Absolutely. It is an experience that is a perfectly natural development for every single man, woman and child on this planet, and it is perfectly understandable. No pseudo-Advaita necessary.

But there is no such thing as an ‘enlightened person’.

There’s a big difference.