Even though Buddhism was founded on the realization that everything is impermanent and interconnected, that insight hasn’t always been applied to the way Buddhists understand their highest ideal: enlightenment. In his new book, What is Buddhist Enlightenment?, Professor Dale Wright, who teaches religious studies and Asian studies at Occidental College, suggests that enlightenment isn’t one-size-fits-all; instead, it’s always personal and contextual. “As human practices, capacities, needs, and interests change,” he writes, “so will the images of human excellence that we come to admire and pursue in our lives.”

Wright also contends that pondering the question “What is enlightenment?” is a meditative practice and that those reflections should serve to guide our other practices and pursuits in the world. I recently corresponded with Wright about some of the ideas explored in his book.

In your new book, you write, “If you are a serious practitioner of human life, whether Buddhist or not, the question ‘what is enlightenment?’ (or any equivalent version of the question) is among the most important questions you can possibly ask.” Why is that?
If you ask what enlightenment is, not in a general academic sense but specifically for you, what you’re really asking is: What am I doing here? Who should I strive to become? What is possible for my life under the specific circumstances that are right now shaping me? If you don’t ask yourself that question and pursue it seriously, then you won’t have much say in who or what you become. It will just happen to you behind your back, without your input. That might be OK, or it might be disastrous. But either way, you’ve opted to forgo the freedom of being a participant. You become a product of fate and faith.

You seem to be suggesting that having an answer to this question is essential in order to begin any type of transformative practice or meaningful pursuits in life—because an answer is the only thing that can provide us with a goal worth pursuing. And yet, by engaging in transformative practice, it’s likely our goals will change. Can you talk about this tension?
Yes, but in real life there’s not much tension. We form an image of enlightenment—a way of being in the world that constitutes our current ideal. That image or goal is the motivating drive for constructive change. We then determine what we should do to move in that direction, and if we’re sufficiently motivated, we do it. If practice has been wisely selected and consistent, change begins to occur. This change gives us a different perspective on the goal we once naively imagined and set out to attain. Our understanding of this goal evolves along with our practice so that we now have a clearer, more comprehensive image of the ideals we seek. As our image of true excellence shifts, we revise and deepen our practice, and if all goes well this eventually leads to further revision of our motivating image. Practice and enlightenment are mutually correlative; they evolve in conjunction with each other. You won’t have a sophisticated practice without a sophisticated image of enlightenment—the point of practice—nor a profound image of enlightenment without profound practice.

Is this motivating image or goal also necessary for Zen practitioners, who often describe their practice as goalless?
Yes, a motivating image or goal is just as important for Zen practitioners as it is for others. As a Zen practitioner, I am motivated by a sense that the Zen master is awake and in touch with reality to a degree of depth that I am not, but could be and want to be. If I lack that essential insight and drive, there would be no point to sitting there in meditation. But your question is attuned to something vital: the Zen insight that constant focus on and attachment to a goal or an outcome will undermine practice and prevent the transformation of consciousness that you hoped to effect. The interplay between motivation that drives me into deeper dimensions of mind and the liberating sense of goallessness is essential to Zen practice. We cannot “just sit” unless deep down we have a potent answer to the question “why?” When Rinzai announces that he is a person with “nothing to do,” he is also in the midst of being a Zen master with everything to do. But when anyone “just sits” in a zazen of “nothing to do,” in that moment they have released all goals and reasons into the open space of Zen freedom.

Some traditional accounts of Buddhist enlightenment describe masters who have transcended the fray of ordinary life and no longer suffer from passions and emotional excesses. You suggest that contemporary images of enlightenment might be more open to portraying a full range of human emotions. Can you say more about this?
Many—but not all—images of enlightened life in traditional forms of Buddhism focus on a deep equanimity that is undisturbed by the fluctuations of human emotion: think of images of the Buddha with eyes barely open to the world, for instance, a serene smile on his lips. People imagine him to have transcended our states of sadness, longing, anger, and elation in a state of profound nonattachment. This is common in other religious and philosophical traditions as well. 

Emotions are often troublesome and human maturity requires that we keep some urges of feeling in check. We all know that there are occasions when we must have the capacity to act against the pull of inner inclination. However, we have also come to realize that lives lived without laughter, sadness, longing, and joy are impoverished in some important sense, and that admirable forms of human life will be characterized by emotional intelligence. This form of intelligence results from cultivating our emotional lives in meditative self-awareness, a kind of cultivation that develops and extends emotional freedom and openness. It seems to me that this is the relationship to our emotions that we will most likely find worthy of the word “enlightenment.” Thus, new Buddhist images of greatness might include the capacity to laugh and cry. 

In the book, you write, “The most effective forms of enlightenment are those that are well-aligned with the individual characters of those who seek them.” What are these different forms of enlightenment?
When you study the history of Buddhism, you realize that enlightenment comes in a brilliant array of styles and formats. Enlightened saints are far from being clones of each other. Some are serene and relaxed, while others are energized and active. Some exemplary Buddhists are far removed from the world of full engagement, while others assume responsibility for the current state of the world. A few are outstanding artists or writers, while others are orators or political advisers. In addition to differences of language, culture, and history, we can also see the effects of personal upbringings and educations. There are different temperaments, orientations, and passions. There are also various problems to face and a wide range of goals. That should be good news to all of us. An enlightened you is still you. Personal uniqueness, preferences, and styles can be developed and accentuated by awakening rather than eliminating them.

It is an occasional problem in Buddhism that the image or meaning of enlightenment sometimes becomes hardened and static. The central Buddhist claim is that “all things are impermanent and arise dependent upon conditions and circumstances.” This insight is equally true of enlightenment. Enlightenment is impermanent and takes the particular shape that it does dependent on the conditions and circumstances in which we actually live.

Must each of us answer the question “what is enlightenment?” for ourselves?  
Many people will never raise that question and therefore never really answer it. And that’s fine. As in other religions, many Buddhists are not inclined to question anything and will simply accept the version of the dharma given to them. That works. Reasonably good lives can be lived by accepting custom and taking it on faith. But that’s not a quest. To be on a quest is to be compelled by real questions, sometimes burning existential questions. If you’re not on a quest in life then what we typically call “enlightenment” or “awakening” is not likely. Lacking a transformative motivating image, you will have no reason to engage in transformative practice. And without intentional practice, there is no guidance for change. Change still occurs, as always, but undirected change is unlikely to give rise to anything we will be likely to regard as enlightening.

If all serious practitioners answer the question “what is enlightenment?” for themselves, does this mean that there are as many forms of enlightenment as there are people on a quest?
Must each answer the question on his or her own? Yes. Questioning myself about where I am going in life and why is a fundamental form of meditation. Not asking that question as a real question takes a default position of voluntary blindness. Does this make all forms of enlightenment different? Yes, but only in the limited sense that particular conditions have had some role in shaping particular lives. One of the essential “skills” for Buddhist teachers is having the sensitivity to recognize differences between people and to take them into account while teaching. If my deficiency is debilitating fear—an inability to face up to life—then the most appropriate practices and my awakening will be profoundly related to that shortcoming. If my problem is greed or anger, a very different set of practices and insights would be entailed in my awakening. But others besides me have been fearful in life, and I can and should learn from them. They may have worked through that problem in ways that can also help me. The history of Buddhism is the history of enlightened variation—different forms of human excellence. But reality imposes serious limitations on the range and degree of these differences. Only some insights and ways of being will ever come to be regarded as “enlightened.”

By relying on our own answers to this question, isn’t it possible that our guiding images will be selfish or egocentric? And where might we find guiding images of enlightenment?
Indeed, it is not just possible that guiding images will be “selfish” in some way; it is probable. Answers to the question “what is enlightenment?” or “what ideals should guide my practice in life?” almost inevitably begin to take shape in a mindset of self-absorption. Recall your own teenage image of the ideal you. You may have wanted to be attractive, rich, successful, happy, admired, beloved by all. But for whose benefit? Yours, of course. That just was your ideal at that point in your development. Fortunately, ideals often develop and evolve over time to become less focused on a shallow adolescent version of your own pleasure. At some point you may have come under the influence of a real teacher or a set of teachings and under that influence your vision of who you might become in life is enlarged, stretched out far beyond naïve ideals of personal pleasure. Perhaps then you become purposeful in sculpting your life, where both the direction of guiding images and practice begin to alter your perspective. In most cases, we can just assume naïve “spiritual materialism” at the beginning and hope that more developed images of personal ideals gradually begin to take over. Stumbling into Buddhism or some other mature spiritual tradition is often just a stroke of good luck.

Buddhism is relentlessly focused on the problem of self-absorption, which is why some of these teachings are so brilliantly appropriate for us at this time. Its no-self meditations are cogent, insightful, and effective in undermining this basic delusion. And we find these teachings popping up at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the path. Because it just can’t be true that reality is all about me and arranged for my benefit, it must be true that thinking so is a delusion that prevents me from seeing myself and the world clearly. Buddhist teachings on nonduality and the practices that aim to bring me to deep comprehension of these insights are offered as transformative remedies for my delusion.

But your question asks whether relying on “our own” answers might be a problem. If you look closely at your favorite answers you will see that they’re not really your own. Everything we think is a version of what we’ve heard or seen in others, and that’s as true for the master teacher as it is for the beginner. That is liberating news, because it relieves us of the sense that we have to start everything from scratch. We borrow, we inadvertently steal, and we come under the influence of ideas, images, and practices that float all around us in human culture, often through teachers. That’s where we find our guiding images of enlightenment, where we come across the very idea of awakening as a possibility and all the images we have internalized about what “it” might be. Some people find just the right teacher and, at that point in life, can simply look there for direction. Others have to scout all over the place—even in different traditions—in order to come up with guiding images worthy of their quest. But in both scenarios, we will find our answers somewhere out there in human culture and then interpret them, practice them, and shape them, either knowingly or unknowingly, to be truly our own.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters