Question: Would you call awareness ‘enlightenment’?
Ajahn Sumedho: Yes, I would; it’s as simple as that. Awareness is like switching on a light. ‘Enlightenment’, of course, is a tricky word because it tends to sound grand, something like the experience of a blazing light, a blinding light that you can’t sustain. What is sustainable, though, is awareness; and it is light, actually, because it is consciousness and wisdom combined. It is seeing things in a certain way. If there is too much light, it blinds you. But if it’s the right kind of light, you are able to see; your discerning abilities are enhanced – you can see things as they are.
If I take a photograph with a flash, there is this blinding light, and you will be blind for awhile; you won’t be able to see. That is often the way people interpret enlightenment, and trying to sustain that experience. Most of us, perhaps all of us, have had enlightenment experiences or mystical experiences in our lives where we see the truth, but very often don’t know how to interpret it. Then the ego comes along and grasps the memory of it: ‘I had this fantastic experience ten years ago when I was in India…’ and we go on like that, but that is only a memory now.
On the other hand, even if your mood is down or you are feeling a sense of despair, awareness of those feelings is actually seeing them in terms of what they are. So, in terms your emotional state, you can look pretty depressed, but because you are shining the light of awareness on it, you are seeing it for what it is. Then you are not attaching to it and becoming somebody who is depressed.
As far as our karma is concerned, we are subject to the weather, to the ageing process, to the loss of loved ones, and so on. Like here at the Summer School we keep losing them, don’t we? Catherine Hewitt, I miss her. I still miss Catherine Hewitt even though I know it for what it is. It’s not that I’m making my life here miserable because of it, but it is a recognition of the way it is. So, the loss of a loved one is ‘like this’. It doesn’t mean that when you are enlightened you don’t feel anything; it’s just that you know what you are feeling for what it is. If you think you shouldn’t be attached, that is the suffering. If you have got some idea: ‘I am too attached to this person and I shouldn’t be,’ then it becomes a problem. But attachment is like ‘this’; it is part of one’s karma to recognise and not to make a problem about it.
[Part of a Q&A session between Ajahn Sumedho and
participants at the Leicester Buddhist Publishing Group
Summer School on the 5th August 2004.]
Read more Buddhist teachings by Ajahn Sumedho here.