Seeking direct experience, but mindful of my physical limitations, I found myself on a long flight to India on New Year’s Eve. I was in search of enlightenment, knowledge, gnosis, wisdom, insight, oneness, ecstasy, and awakening—all terms used to point toward that spark of the divine which feels like salvation in one religious tradition or another.
Plato offered one of the most cited metaphors of this spiritual state of clarity in his allegory of the cave. He describes a group of people imprisoned in a cave since childhood, chained in such a way that a fire burns brightly behind them and casts shadows on the wall before them. Talking among themselves, they come to understand what is happening out of their range of sight simply by paying attention to the shadows on the wall. This is the only reality they have ever known. Then one prisoner breaks free, and his reality is changed forever. As this former prisoner’s eyes adjust to the sunlight beyond the cave, allowing him to see all the beauty of the real world, he is struck with awe and delight.
This is what it means to momentarily glimpse enlightenment, to suddenly see directly that which has only ever been surmised before. We live most of our lives in the shadows of reality. Many cannot see beyond the cave of our constructed reality. Others simply refuse to believe any other reality exists, even if we catch a glimpse in our peripheral vision. It is too scary to conceive of a bigger reality than that which we have always known.
So this former prisoner returns to his mates, explains what he has seen, and encourages them to join him on the journey. Few will. In fact, many people will disbelieve, perhaps even seek to kill or dismiss the person carrying this new message. But a few will always be willing to see. The Buddha’s Middle Path brought him inner clarity and enlightenment, so he declared himself awake. Then he taught his wisdom about the co-arising interdependence of all realities to all who would listen.
Sufis drink neither alcohol nor caffeine yet grow intoxicated with the sweetness of divine mystery and stumble forth to dance with the beloved. The goal becomes mystical union with the divine. As the fourteenth-century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote (in a Daniel Ladinsky translation): “God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing.” Such can be a mystic’s experience of awakening to union with the divine.
In Europe during the so-called Middle Ages, Jewish mystics employed the wisdom of Kabbalah to achieve mystical union with God. Christian mystics practiced the presence of God, giving us spiritual practices—such as perpetual praying, the dark night of the soul, and the incredible lightness of being—that can lead us into union with divine mystery. Sufis practice love’s surprising joy. All three Abrahamic mystical traditions seem to point to this state of being, which is described as beyond understanding.
This is also the awakening sought by the Hindu sadhu and the Zen Buddhist monk. It is what Taoists describe as the perfect yin-yang balance in harmony with life’s core vitality and spirit. Vitality has to do with our life force and spirit with our primordial essence. For many people, myself included, vitality was in ascendency during the first half of my life. It was only after midlife that spirit came into ascendency. Both vitality and spirit seek to remain harmoniously in balance, creating a sense of heaven, even as the balance shifts over a lifetime.
The Buddha taught that each person receives insight according to his or her nature. Some rely on philosophical reasoning. Others draw upon ancient sayings and traditions. And yet others rely upon their direct intuition of the divine mystery. All three function according to our nature.
I discovered for me to truly experience spiritual awakening, I must draw, according to my own nature, from reason, traditions, and direct experience. Until this stage of my life, I had not yet been ready. Given my particular life story, finally by the age of sixty I felt I had lived enough to draw upon my reason, tradition, and experiences to finally discover the nature of deeper spiritual maturity. On my own pathless path, with many teachers, I traveled forth to awaken to divine bliss, to dance with the beloved.
But could I truly awaken without a sangha or spiritual community? Test my thoughts and experiences without an enlightened teacher? For decades, I had followed the path of the independent scholar and practitioner, never actually meeting most of my teachers in person. I possessed many good and valuable books with important insights and had encountered mystics who had taught me along the way. But I had never submitted myself to the discipline of a single master teacher. Would this be enough? Was I finally ready?
The Japanese Zen Buddhist monks had decades earlier shown me the way, set forth in their Rhinoceros Sutra, one of the oldest Buddhist texts, perhaps reflecting the Buddha’s own teaching. In this sutra, early Buddhism describes three different kinds of buddha, or awakened or enlightened beings.
The most famous, the sammasambuddha usually called Gautama Buddha, achieved awakening so he could teach the path to all who followed him. A second kind, a savakabuddha, includes most Buddhists I have ever met. They train in one of the lineages of Gautama Buddha’s followers, relying upon the Three Jewels: the teacher, the traditional teachings, and the spiritual community. A third kind, called a paccekabuddha, arrives at awakening through a spiritual journey of his or her own. To attempt to live into awakening on one’s own requires a certain spiritual audacity, but the pathless path is there. I was following this path.
So I flew to India, arriving in Kolkata on New Year’s Eve to begin 2016 by traveling up the Ganges River with a small group led by a Harvard comparative religion professor. We would journey in the footsteps of the Buddha. This would be the occasion of my enlightenment, my awakening, my coming into spiritual maturity, my bliss.