Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? HTML version
Getting a close look at several individuals who were advertised as enlightened led me to conclude that
there's a lot of hype and hypocrisy in the business. A good many of them, not unlike a fair number of
academics I'd known, seemed to me to be in it primarily for the lifestyle.
Many gurus are treated like deities and hold absolute power over their devotees. As "enlightened beings "
they're accountable to no one, and the ir foibles, appetites, and excesses are given a pass. Of course, there
were some teachers who, as far as I could make out, lived exemplary lives. But lack of transparency and
accountability ensnare leaders of all types in corruption, and spiritua l leaders are no exception.
Fraud is a stranger to neither science nor religion. Its presence inva lidates neither, but its ubiquity
warrants skepticism. What I really wanted to find out was whether there were claimants to enlightenment
who, unlike ordinary people, actually pass their days in a state of bliss and clarity. And, if attained, does
enlightenment persist? Are the enlightened more creative subsequent to attaining satori, to use the Zen
term for enlightenment? Are they kinder, wiser, or more creative than the unenlightened?
None of the teachers I asked gave unequivocal answers to these questions. Nor did any of them
unambiguously exemplify the supposed benefits of enlightenment. Many identified with traditional
religious ritua ls or techniques, and saw their job as grafting these onto contemporary American culture.
The language of enlightenment tended to be esoteric, obscurantist, and elitist, and the teachings attracted
more credulous dilettantes than credible seekers.
In the end, I concluded that while certain people do attain an unusua l degree of insight into the workings
of the mind, the ir default consciousness did not seem different in kind from that of other extraordinary
in dividua ls who made no claim to enlightenment and indeed were skeptical about the idea.
During quiet moments, when our current identity is withdrawn, "off duty" as it were, we can see ourselves
as nothing special no matter how grand our public persona, or nothing shameful no matter how lowly our
social status. We just are what we are, unburdened of opinions, free of judgment and guilt, released from
striving, perhaps inclined toward empathy, perhaps not. We take things in, and we witness ourselves
doing so. We see the world whole and are not separate from what we behold. We may experience
euphoria, or just tranquility.
Regardless, neither euphoria nor tranquility lasts. Presently, when the world calls us back to the ho-hum
of everyday life , we have to assume a working identity because not to have one is to have no way to
participate in the life game. Even gurus who style themselves as having no identity are assuming the
identity of someone who fancies himse lf or herself to be egoless.
I've come to think that the eradication of the ego is no more workable than doing without the other pillar
of being—the body. Rather than downgrading either, it's better to give them both the ir due by ma inta ining
them in good working order.
In my quest, I did not come across anyone who could be said to dwell in a state of permanent
enlightenment. No doubt, some experienced bliss, but, as far as I could tell, it was intermittent.
The term enlightenment is sometimes used to denote the knowledge of the insubstantia lity and
malleability of identity and sometimes to refer to an experience of the insubstantiality of self. Knowledge
may last, but an experience can't be bottled. In this regard, enlightenment is like happiness: treasured all
the more for its intermittence.
Enlightenment practices, not unlike mathematics and physics, are often obfuscated. A few centuries ago,
reading and writing were such rare skills that possessing them set people apart. In the same way that
literacy has spread, so too will people everywhere become conversant with experiences of enlightenment,
recognizing them as the unmoored feeling of pivoting from an old model (which may range from a single
belief to a personal identity) to a new one.