I believe that awakening is possible in this very lifetime. I know this is one of the ideas we, as modern secular Buddhists, are invited to discard, along with belief in rebirth, heavenly beings, and miraculous powers. I prefer to suspend judgment and remain agnostic regarding the latter three, saying neither “If the Buddha said so, it must be so” nor “It can’t be, therefore it isn’t.” But awakening is another story. I think it can be possible for a person, even a rather ordinary person, to awaken. Furthermore, I think it is a goal to which we can all aspire.

Awakening (aka enlightenment, but this latter term is not a good translation of bodhi) is understood in the early discourses as a process of gradual mental purification culminating in a profound psychological transformation. This happened to the Buddha while he was seated under the Bodhi tree in Uruvela (now Bodhgaya), and it is important to distinguish this event from what happened to him 45 years later as he lay on his right side between two sal trees in Kusinara.

I have no idea how to understand the Buddha’s parinirvana, his final passing away after 80 years as a human being. Lots of people asked him beforehand what happens to a Tathagata (Buddha) beyond death, and he refused to answer. When pressed to say why he would not answer, he gave explanations ranging from “You wouldn’t understand” to “There is no way of expressing it” to “You don’t need to know” to (loosely paraphrased) “You have your hands full understanding what is happening in your own experience here and now—so get back to work meditating and stop asking irrelevant questions.”

I am actually fine with his silent response and am happy to leave the matter of “what happened to him” to the Buddhist theologians who tackled it in the centuries after his last days. But getting some handle on what happened to the Buddha under the Bodhi tree is more accessible, particularly since he talked about it quite a lot in language both empirical and psychological. In the earliest strata of Buddhist discourse, awakening is not about transcending this life as much as it is about accessing the deepest levels of inherent well-being, here and now.

Simply put, there are emotional and behavioral habits within us, many deeply embedded, which are toxic and cause suffering. Greed, hatred, and delusion, along with the emotions they engender, may sometimes be gratifying and even useful in the short term, but they invariably cause harm to oneself or others (or both). Think of common chemical toxins such as caffeine, sugar, nicotine, or alcohol, which can have pleasurable immediate effects but cause damage to our biological health over time. Psychological health is not unlike physical health, which can be diminished or augmented by behaviorally adjusting the levels of pollutants and nutriments in the system.

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