I’m one of those teachers who’s comfortable with the “E-word”—perhaps because my very first teacher Okamura Keishin talked about kenshō and satori as realistic goals. I take the Zen notion of kenshō to be roughly equivalent to sotāpatti or stream entry. I tend to use the phrase “enlightenment with a small e” to refer to the depth of a person’s kenshō, i.e., the extent to which they have broken the identification with the mind-body process.
Of course many teachers avoid using the E-word. There are numerous and quite legitimate reasons for that taboo—not the least of which is that the general public tends to associate the word enlightenment with an extremely advanced stage of practice wherein one has deeply integrated kenshō with refinement of one’s humanity in terms of behaviors and relationships. I tend to refer to this latter attainment as “Enlightenment with a big E.”
Enlightenment with a small e comes about as a kind of paradigm shift involving the notion of self. That shift can occur rapidly or come on gradually. (I have talked about this a lot; see the resource list below.) According to Buddhism, the centerpiece of this paradigm shift is the shedding of sakkāya-diṭṭhi, the perception that there is a thing inside one called self. Historians of philosophy point out that a Buddhist-like notion that self is an illusory bundle of perceptions also arose in the West, specifically in the Scottish thinker David Hume, who is considered to be one of the founders of the European Age of Enlightenment.
Recently an article appeared in the Atlantic by Alison Gopnik conjecturing a direct historical link between Buddhist bundle theory and Humean bundle theory. The connection involves an amazing Italian Jesuit named Ippolito Desideri—perhaps the first Westerner to attain a thorough education in Buddhist scholastic theory (in the early 1700s!). So possibly there’s an interesting synchronicity between enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of that term and The Enlightenment in the historical sense of that term.
If this sounds interesting, check it out!
- Shinzen Defines Enlightenment (video)
- On Enlightenment: An Interview with Shinzen Young by Har-Prakash Khalsa
- Paths to Liberated Experience (video)
- The Quickest Way to Enlightenment (video)