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Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 3:48 AM
Author: GhostLLP
Forum: Dharma Overground Discussion Forum

I made a comment in another thread which turned into a bit of a fiasco, but it inspired me to make this thread. I am very interested in getting some thoughts and opinions on responding to claims of enlightenment.

What I want to know from you guys is:

Someone tells you they have reached enlightenment.
Do you
A) Accept this claim without question and just say "Congratulations on your attainment!"
emoticon Be skeptical.

If you choose
A) What is the reason?
emoticon How then do you decide, or not decide, if they are enlightened?

Now let's say the answer to the first question is B, and furthermore you are either convinced that they are not enlightened, or have high doubts to the claim. Do you
A) Play along anyway, and just say "Congratulations on your attainment!"
emoticon Express your thoughts to them.
C) Not express your thoughts to them and mind your own practice.

If
A) Is this compassionate?
emoticon What is the best way of doing this?
C) Is this compassionate?

Again, I would be really interested in hearing some thoughts on this.

May Peace be with you all
Lucas

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 4:17 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
If someone claims enlightenment, and if you're interested in verifying the claim, then you need more information, before being skeptical or accepting the claim without question.

I'd say judging someones attainment depends on your own experience (you can often tell when people are talking from direct experience, because it resonates with your own experience) and your own idea of what enlightenment consists of.

If you have serious doubts, and you want to get involved, of course you don't play along (idiot compassion). You inquire further, by discussing practice, technique and your personal experience in such issues. How does your personal experience conflict with what this person is claiming? How does your practice/technique differ? How do your favoured traditions agree/disagree on various notions regarding enlightenment? From there, you may be in a better position to judge their claim.

Of course there's always character judgements. I was interested and generally in agreement with Alan's claim because I know he has been logging his progress for years on his website. So it's easy (for me) to see that he's a dedicated practioner who has been making solid progress for a while, and therefore that all his efforts would eventually get him somewhere.

I usually just mind my own practice :0) I think assessing other peoples practice on an online forum is tricky at the best of times! Plan your own liberation!

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 4:30 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Hi Lucas,

My answer to the first question is: 'B' - Be skeptical, but in a respectful way.

Second question: First, because I might not know what the person means by Enlightened. There are various models with multiple stages of awakening. I am less skeptical of someone saying "I am an Arahat" than if someone said "I am a perfectly enlightened, omniscient Buddha who is spotless and clean from any negative thought, emotion, or sensation." I would be a hell of a lot more skeptical of the second type of claim.

Third question: I can't answer with the options provided. My answer would be "engage them in conversation." Find out what they mean by enlightened, how the experience came about, what lead up to it, and what their present experience is. If you can check their replies by lining them up with other highly realized practitioners who follow the same model, you might get a good sense of whether their claim is bonafide. I personally don't think it's always very skillful to judge someone against a model of awakening that doesn't correspond with their own.

I guess I kind of answered the last question already. The best and most compassionate way of expressing your thoughts to someone about their claim is to engage them in respectful dialogue. If you've read through the threads that have been posted in the last month or so, you'll see a lot of this going on. The amount of honesty in regards to attainment on this site is uncanny, both for those with high and low attainments (or no attainment at all).

Lastly, there's an amazingly long tradition of people claiming to have attained various stages of awakening, going back to the time of the Buddha. If you have time, listen to this episode of Buddhist Geeks, where Daniel talks with Vince about this very issue...

http://personallifemedia.com/podcasts/236-buddhist-geeks/episodes/3717-enlightened

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 4:34 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Author: GhostLLP

Hey Dan, thanks for responding.

I am confused as to this part of your response, which I quoted.

Is not "being interested in verifying the claim" itself inherently skeptical? Does it make sense to say that if somebody is skeptical then they need more information before being skeptical?

Perhaps you are confusing the use of "skeptical" with that of "denying." For clarification, when I say "skeptical" I am simply referring to suspending judgment.

Peace
Lucas

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 5:57 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
I don't approve of the way this whole thing is developing at DhO, but it's probably just me. First of all, the claim of awakening is the burden and privilege of the one making it, for better or for worse, and of his or her teachers, spiritual friends, and students. There is a point, however, when one must stand alone in this, and the way one decides to go about it is strictly individual.

Curious, inquisitive, interested etc. is the way to go with this issue. Skepticism is related to doubting, questioning, disbelieving, distrustful etc. The question itself - accepting without question vs. skeptical - betrays poor choice of language, or a strong bias in itself, as if the only alternative to naive unquestioning acceptance is distrust and skepticism. Wanting to know more seems to be the proper way, if one cares. Remaining undecided is just as good. The other questions made seem to continue from the false dualism made in the first question.

We can have no definite opinion on something of this sort without additional insight, not just through Q&A, but particularly through direct and prolonged observation of the person in question coupled with our own establishment in higher realizations. Someone without substantial experience and accomplishment in any area of human development would not be in position to judge the accomplishment of another. Therefore, it's off limits for most people, being beyond their event horizon. For most people, "compassion" is not really an option in such cases, as compassion requires clarity. Fortunately, not knowing is compassionate.

Finally, my view is that these sorts of deliberations and pronouncements are better held away from public curiosity that too often seems prompted by some sort of spiritual materialism, even tabloidism. Good luck to everyone involved.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 6:20 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
That wasn't very clear sorry. I was trying to hint at a more receptive open-minded attitude, as opposed to the dualisms inherent in the answers you suggested (see Hokai's comments, re: "as if the only alternative to naive unquestioning acceptance is distrust and skepticism")

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 6:32 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Author: GhostLLP

Hey Hokai

You are probably right in my poor choice of language (this is not new for me haha). My intention is not to bog people down with semantic debates, but rather what I am asking in a sort of unnecessarily long winded way is simply "How/Can we judge claims of enlightenment, and what is the most compassionate way of responding to claims we feel are false?"

I made a deliberate choice in the limited question answers, mostly just trying to keep the post from being convoluted. For example, I did not put a "C) Denying without question" because I don't feel like any of those types of people are a part of this community. If you would rather use words such as "curious" instead of "skeptical" that is fine. I would encourage people's responses to not be limited to the choices provided if they so feel.

But furthermore I think your comment has made clear to me that this probably isn't the proper community for me to be involved in, as my presence seems to cause unnecessary tension, and furthermore I don't think I have anything of value that may be offered here.

So this will be my last post. I am sincerely sorry for causing any negative developments.

"The Truth belongs to God.
The mistakes were mine."

May Peace be with you all
Lucas

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 12:13 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Author: msj123

This is a good question. You will very likely not convince anyone that they are wrong in this regard. It is my opinion (and just that) that the overwhelming majority of people here and elsewhere on the web overestimate their attaintments. It is especially easy to rationalize to oneself and others given the amount of information put out there by Daniel and Kenneth, for example.

If they are wrong, I ask myself: do they appear to know more than me? If so, I learn what I can, keeping my reservations to myself. If not, I still keep my reservations to myself. Why? Because no way are you going to convince some one that they are wrong in this regard over the internet. No one is going to label themselves at a certain stage of enlightenment, wander into a chatroom, and significantly change their mind. While it may be frustrating to bear the messages of some of these invidiuals, it is a genuine opportunity to practice with negative emotions and compassion for those who have deluded themselves. I also take it as a reminder to be honest in my own practice.

If an opportunity arises to help point something out that may be helpful, then I would take it. However, the truth is what it is, and many people will be severely tested-- if not sooner, then on their death bed. I firmly believe there is a force that helps the spiritual seeker. Sometimes we may be called to intervene, but often we will not.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 3:14 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
If you read something and it seems like a good pointer, then use it. If it sounds good, listen. If you hear something you disagree with, debate it. The path toward arhatship has built in feedback mechanisms. If you are on the wrong track, nothing happens. If you are on the right track, shit happens and it doesn't matter whether it's theoretically right or wrong, nor does it matter where the point of inquiry came from. It matters least of all whether or not someone has a title that implies that they are more awake than you are.

I do not mean to say that there isn't some usefulness in credibility. Credibility helps because it allows a person to put faith into a practice or technique, pointer, etc. And that is very important. Other than that, though, the difference in whether or not someone is an arhat or not does not matter at all. Let your experience of a person build credibility in regard to the advice and thoughts they give you; not the opinion of the social group. This whole thing is about finding your own way to freedom, don't let someone else tell you how you are going to find your way.

The dumbest shit you have ever read still made you think, and that thinking can still lead to insight. Open the mind, be your own guru, debate it all; see what happens.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 11:03 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
I think that, while sometimes a complex, conflicted and rough business, keeping things about people's attainments out in the open if they want them to be there is a way to help the feedback loops of reality function better. I generally think this is superior to the other methods, such as vague hints which allow for all sorts of projection or vague grand titles or just keeping everything closeted. That said, it clearly has its downsides, as noted above.

Regarding claims to enlightenment, one must be careful about what those claims imply, both to you and the person making the claim. Internal models of enlightenment vary widely, and even people who think they are on the same page rarely are, as our deep projections and ideals tend to skew interpretations of these claims, as we filter them through our own beliefs regarding what awakening entails and provides. It is very hard, even for seasoned practitioners who have dealt with these things for years and decades, to be entirely free of the deep conditioning of models that promise things like emotional perfection, deep psychological insight and integration, perfect behavior, perpetual mental balance and clarity, and the like.

Most of the worst reactions come from these sorts of deep seated models. When someone claims enlightenment, if they are not specific about exactly what that implies and what their criteria are, it makes some sense to ask if you are in a situation where that is reasonable, such as place like this, which is prone to openness and debate and people expect that. I personally spell out exactly what I mean by my own claims to attainments in MCTB, and hopefully that helps cut down some of the projection and false expectations.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 11:15 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
I remember about 17 years ago when my old friend Kenneth had come back from a year retreat in Burma and Malaysia the retreat on which he got stream entry. I knew this guy well, as we had been on the road together in a band and he had been my housemate for almost a year and was one of my best friends (and still is). The changes that retreat made on him were obvious and I knew that he knew something I didn't. A few years later when I began going on retreats he gave me some advice on the fine points of the maps and on some fine points of seeing impermanence and the other characteristics, and I was able to confirm for myself that the maps were useful and pretty accurate and that the Three Characteristics lead to insights and so got stream entry myself. That is the best way to confirm someone's realization: follow their advice, techniques and maps and see if they lead to what they say they do. If so: you can't argue with it. If you don't do the experiment, then you will never know for certain.

I remember watching The Prisoner Greco on retreat here for 2.5 months last Spring: he would rise up to Equanimity and fall back, rise up and fall back. He was frustrated, moody, and having a hard time. His faith would flag, his understanding was erratic. On the next retreat this Spring he got stream entry, clearly, obviously, and it changed him utterly as a practitioner. His insights were classic, his control and mastery of the stages came quickly, and it was easy to see he had been firmly established in strong insight.

However, just as these things have occurred, so much hasn't occurred. I think that all of us who make these claims and know each other well as old friends are very aware of the limitations of what has not been done by whatever degree of awakening we have attained. Old personality traits, conflicts, quirks, issues and other related things have remained through the years.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 11:26 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
While much has been done, states and stages have been mastered to whatever degree, and insight have been integrated to whatever degree, yet the humanity, the dramas, the failings and faults, the human frailty and predicament remains in very ordinary and often very disappointing. This is life. Those who really get to know the enlightened will all say the same thing. Ask our spouses if they can tell any big difference, and most will say something like, "Not much." Ask our families if all the problems and quirks are gone and they will all say, "No way!"

It is easy in a forum like this one to get lost in the hype and roles and projections, despite many attempts to keep things down to earth. This is, in some ways, a separate issue from how one should react to claims to attainments, but yet is relevant.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/5/09 11:41 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
I also like to remain pragmatic about people's claims to attainments. They are only particularly relevant to the spiritual quester if they are augmented with something that the quester can use, such as an effective method, a good map, some sort of functional and realistic support on the path that leads to real progress, or the message that as they did it, so can you. Beyond these sorts of things, there is not a lot of good that comes from claims and much that is bad, including jealousy, comparison, projections, exploitation, doubt, blind faith, divisions in communities, cliques, battles for supremacy, large shadow sides, and the like.

Luckily, most of those who are claiming something here are offering something useful also, or just trying to sort out what is what for themselves. Most are also pretty down to earth most of the time, despite the fancy states, stages and terms that get thrown around.

Really, if some dude or dudette on the internet calls themselves something, it hardly has any relevance to anyone else in the world unless they can do something useful with the dialogue that follows.

I have a lot of respect for those like Hokai who let their wisdom shine are reluctant to make more formal claims to attainments beyond their titles. I think that most of the time real wisdom is pretty easy to see, and as long as it is coming from that sort of helpful, empowering place, then the claim or lack thereof is not very important, but that the wisdom helps others: that's of value.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/6/09 4:14 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
It seems inevitable to me that here, on Dharma Overground, there will be claims of spiritual progress made, if only because the emphasis is on the practical side of Buddhism and on the spiritual maps. Human beings just like to compare and contrast. While I believe the maps are very, very helpful I also think they are a double-edged sword. Keeping one's progress to one's self seems more appropriate to me than making it the subject of public claims - at least until one's experience is very, very clear and can be demonstrated more through indirect means as opposed to overt claims. And knowing this place I think overt claims of progress are inevitably going to be questioned by others.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/6/09 4:53 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
I agree, I think that's how I would approach it. I can understand if someone gets excited about this or that attainment - after all, that's sorta the idea, right? And I think most of us have adopted Kenneth's motto: "Enlightenment is a team sport", so I feel like we should celebrate each others' success. Aside from excitement/joy over progress, the only other reason I can think of publicize an attainment is to lend credibility to one's advice and/or opinions.
It's only natural to give greater consideration to suggestions coming from someone who surpassed your own attainments I know that personally, when someone offers me advice my first internal "gate" is to question whether or not the person is qualified through education, experience, etc. to offer it? If the answer is yes, then I'm much more likely to accept it.
When someone makes a claim, my inclination is to assume that it's probably so, but I also know that only time will tell, and it often happens that the claimant may learn that s/he has jumped the gun, and now has to either retract the announcement or continue to act as if it were true - but who would want to lug a burden like that around?.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/6/09 5:36 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
I love the good ol' grounded pragmatism in the last few posts! And thank you Daniel for such a mature and integrated view on the role of attainments on the spiritual path. I think sometimes it's easy for people to confuse your personal understanding w/ your public message. You tend to be a lot more balanced than your written work portrays you.

I know that's cause your written work is an intentional attempt at providing a strong antithesis to the mushroom meditation culture, but it still surprises me (even after years of knowing you) that your personal views are so well balanced. Good stuff...

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/6/09 2:18 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Thank you everyone.
Please wake your friends.
The house is burning.

Honestly, even the Buddha was questioned, criticized, (allegedly attacked and pursued across multiple lifetimes, etc....) etc.. He specifically stated that this commentary is unending. I think of it as the muttering of heaven buzzing along in the background with the 115 VAC that encases so many of us. If I didn't think I benefited from scrutiny and vulnerability I wouldn't be here. There is no investment portfolio to go with any of my statements. Burn me down.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/7/09 11:27 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
"While much has been done, states and stages have been mastered to whatever degree, and insight have been integrated to whatever degree, yet the humanity, the dramas, the failings and faults, the human frailty and predicament remains in very ordinary and often very disappointing. This is life. Those who really get to know the enlightened will all say the same thing. Ask our spouses if they can tell any big difference, and most will say something like, "Not much." Ask our families if all the problems and quirks are gone and they will all say, "No way!" "

It is unfortunate that this can't be permanently written onto the walls of every western sangha. There is nothing more devastating to practice than the idea that enlightenment by definition means perfection. How silly that is! There is nothing more perfect than a that the spot of afternoon sun on the carpet next to me, my dog panting after chasing a stick, a human being. All as they are, nothing extra.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/7/09 12:23 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Author: msj123

I find these statements sort of odd. I understand not holding oneself to be a Buddhist superhero, but really, has "not much" changed? I only say this because in my practice, I have seen tremendous change. When I started, I was a cynical, smoking, hard drinking, depressed loner who burned most of his days in anger, stress, and frustration. As my mind has loosened, many of these things have simply dropped away. I no longer smoke or drink, I have a wife and children, and most of my days are pleasant, even in the face of imminent physical danger. From being high strung, I am generally known for being calm. I am not perfect, but if you were to ask me what has changed due to my practice, I would say "Quite a bit."

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/7/09 1:22 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Hi msj123,
It's all relative. Your life has gone from being hellish to being rather pleasant. That's a big change, and I'm happy you made it. However the change from the current positive condition you described to...umm, let's call it "realization of the Unconditioned"...is subtle beyond belief. Literally nothing changes in the way experience arises. Only your understanding of, and relationship to, experience change radically. This is truly "radical" (i.e. going to the root) and yet exceedingly subtle. There are no fireworks. No one notices anything different about you, necessarily. You were already a cool cat because of your prior spiritual development. But now (to borrow one of Kenneth's expressions) you are a no-dog ;) And as in the Sherlock Homles story, you are the one that didn't bark.

I'm not trying to be deliberately obscure here. But it's very difficult to explain this in any way that makes sense. Realize it in your own case and you'll see. Then YOU can try to explain it! And I hope you do!

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/7/09 11:04 PM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Dear MSJ,

Your point it well taken. I do know of many instances of real transformation in personalities, addictions, mental issues, psychological issues, and the like that have happened in ways related to meditative practices and related endeavors, and some of these transitions have been remarkable and dramatic, as it sounds like yours has. I have also seen dharma practices contribute to the wreckage of people's lives, divorces, suicides, career derailments, bankruptcies, psychotic breaks, scandals, affairs, family alienation, and a whole host of other problems. Thus, they are mixed bag, like anything.

While I am clearly a big supporter of these practices in some ways, I have a healthy respect for what they can do both good and bad. I am glad your experience has been good and even great, but realize that it is not always so, that the factors that contribute to human happiness and failure are manyfold, and that even the dharma often causes odd side effects as people struggle to figure it out.

I myself was pretty functional except when I had recently crossed the A&P and gotten into some Dark Night phase, but I do think that the skills I learned in meditation helped somewhat with studies and career development once I had learned them. Those things said, it is hard to sort out what is just growing up and getting older and more stable from the natural process of maturation from what has come to me from my meditation practice, as they happened together.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/8/09 2:56 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Author: msj123

Your statement makes me think of all the people who practice energy practices that go awry. I didn't consider that the dharma would have these results. Outside of this site, almost everyone I’ve come across has had a positive experience of the dharma. Of course, many of these folks don’t seem to know as much as the DhO crowd.

Gil Frondale talked that vipassana used to be taught after years of preliminary practices. Now, anyone can go to their local meditation center and receive instruction. I wonder if in fact Mahasi-style in particular isn't TOO powerful, especially for a beginner. I mean, if you’re truly grounded in the 3 characteristics, then negative energies/emotions, etc. shouldn’t ruffle you so much. After all, you should be able to recognize that they are impermanent, that nothing satisfies, and none of it is you.

Shinzen Young says that suffering = pain x resistance. I wonder if those who have bad experiences have too much resistance--- again, this is similar to reports of kundalini sickness—people who fight the spiritual changes that have thrust upon them. Maybe the demons that tear us apart are actually angels setting us free: so long as you surrender to the process.

Finally, I am reminded of the Kalamas Sutta:
"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness" — then you should enter & remain in them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.”
If the dharma isn’t leading to wholesome states, is it truly the dharma?

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/8/09 3:52 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Hi Matt,

One of my teachers said that "dharma" means "the way it is," and by extension, the teachings of the Buddha. I take that to mean that the Buddha taught the way it is. I like that, because it implies, among other things, that if there were no ancient dharma teachers, including the Buddha, there would still be dharma. The way it is is just the way it is. Sometimes it's pleasant, sometimes it's not. And although it's tempting to fantasize about a kind of spiritual path that is paved with gold, it wouldn't really satisfy us.

Have you ever noticed that the best-loved classic children's stories are the ones that prominently feature death, pain, evil, or complex weirdness? Think, for example, of The Wizard of Oz, or Bambi (Bambi's mother gets shot by a hunter), or Alice in Wonderland (how weird is that?). Humans crave the full, wide range of experience---so much so that if there were a spiritual path that was uniformly pleasant, I think most people would quickly get bored with it and go back to being deluded. In fact, we could reasonably speculate about how delusion arose in the first place. If we are all "one-without-a-second," why do we spend our lives imagining ourselves to be separate? It makes me think of something Sri Aurobindo said (paraphrased from memory): God split himself into a million billion pieces for the sheer joy of coming back to himself.

If we/IT wanted eternal peace, IT could have saved itself the trouble of pretending to split up. Seems to me this whole thing is an adventure. Might as well enjoy it while we can; it will be over soon enough.

And here is something I hope this wonderful community of engineers, scholars, and assorted eggheads will deeply consider: Ultimately, there are no conclusions to be drawn. This is it. Right now.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/8/09 5:14 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Yes! This is the essential, most profound point around which all dharma-wheels revolve. Just so, it's this point that ultimately claims awakening, always already.

As to the issue of changes - not much or otherwise - we could say that all answers are true, depending on perspective and criteria. Everything changes, and nothing changes. Awakening itself, the discovery of mirror-like wisdom and its twin discriminating faculty, is essentially not about change. And yet, many little tweaks are necessary in most cases to become susceptible to such a discovery, a whole training-discipline-path indeed. Naturally, one is transformed in certain ways through the stages of such path, while other personal modifications require additional measures, would one wish to do so. It's useful, however, to keep the two separate before trying to join them. Therefore, mahayana teaches two truths and two "accumulations", namely virtue and wisdom, respectively proximate causes for two awakened bodies, rupakaya and dharmakaya. Now, it's important to note that there's more than one good way of understanding the relationship between these two aspects of realization in post-enlightenment stages of integration.

RE: Claims of Enlightenment
Answer
4/8/09 11:33 AM as a reply to Wet Paint.
Author: msj123

Kenneth,
Thanks for you reply. I think life itself provides plenty of suffering to prevent anyone from getting bored. Part of the reason I practice is for myself, but also part is for other sentient beings. When I attain a level high enough to actually teach, I want to be able to present the easiest, happiest path possible. The wise sages of the past may have discovered the way, but isn’t it up to us, in the present, to continue to refine it?

Matt