Enlightenment is an event that happens to a person

(or The Small self/Big Self Fallacy)

cat lion shadow

There is an Indian school of thought regarding enlightenment that came to prominence in the 20th Century and is currently of great popularity in the West, especially in America. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Non-dual spirituality’, ‘Direct-path’ Advaita, or amongst its detractors, as pseudo-Advaita.

This school of thought is a development upon the Indian tradition of enlightenment known as Advaita Vedanta, a teaching that began with Gaudapada in the 7th Century, and championed by Shankara in the 8th. Advaita means ‘not two’, and Vedanta means the ‘end of the Vedas’. The Vedas are a collection of Holy texts that teach enlightenment, and within this tradition enlightenment is considered the liberation (moksha) of the individual in the knowledge of his or her divine soul, or Atman. Before Advaita Vedanta, a popular idea within the Vedanta tradition was that an enlightened person, although realising Atman, is still a separate entity from Brahman, the ultimate principle. Based on personal experience, study of the Vedas, and the teaching of his lineage, Shankara presented the understanding that Atman and Brahman are in fact the same thing. The end of the Vedas is literally moksha, and Atman and Brahman are one (‘not-two’). The core texts of Advaita Vedanta are the Vedas (although Shankara did provide commentaries), particularly the Upanishads, which sanction monasticism and teach Bhakti (devotion or surrender) as the method to achieve liberation. Shankara was the founder of Shanmata practice.

Today, Advaita is taken to mean not the unity of Atman and Brahman that is described at the ‘end of the Vedas’, but the Buddhist doctrine of the ‘non-dual’ nature of enlightenment: ‘In seeing, there is just seeing. No seer and nothing seen. In hearing, there is just hearing. No hearer and nothing heard.’ (Bahiya Sutta). Some Advaitists teach that bhakti and monasticism are obstacles to realising moksha, effort and seeking must be given up, and that a person cannot become enlightened, because they already are. An example of this is given by the Indian guru Gangaji: ‘You are already the Self [Atman]…you are already free!’. Another by Lakshmana Swami when he says ‘The Self is always present. There is no question of realising it.’ (Thompson, The Odyssey of Enlightenment. Origin Press 2003.)

During an interview given in 2004, the popular American teacher Adyashanti gave the following reply to the question ‘Would you claim that you are enlightened?’: ‘Well, no, not with a straight face. I would say enlightenment is enlightened and awakeness is awake. It’s not an experience; it’s a fact.’

After writing recently about becoming enlightened, I came across a blog post by an American teacher who claimed that my awakening was only partial, because no one can become personally enlightened.

It is my contention that people who ascribe to the pseudo-Advaita tradition (yes, I’m not a fan), and particularly those who claim a person cannot become enlightened, are suffering from a poor understanding of the experience of enlightenment (even if it is their own), probably from a lack of applying a modicum of reasoning (I’m being kind. If you think the title of this article is blindingly obvious, wait until you see some of the stuff I’ve had to write below!).

The Argument from misunderstood or degenerated tradition

We’ve already seen how pseudo-Advaita deviates from Advaita Vedanta: ‘Advaita’ means ‘Non-dual’ in the Buddhist sense instead of the ‘Atman and Brahman are one’ sense; practice is actively discouraged instead of promoting shanmata, bhakti or monasticism; and the Vedas are no longer relevant. Pseudo-Advaita and Advaita Vedanta are categorically not the same thing, and I would argue that the former has its origins in the misunderstanding of the latter, although I cannot prove this beyond pointing out the use of various terms and cultural elements from Advaita Vedanta by the pseudo-Advaitists, and the common public misunderstanding that pseudo-Advaita dates back to Shankara.

The Argument from Personal Experience

Prior to 6th March 2009, I wasn’t enlightened. I know this because I was there, in person. For three and a half years I performed all kinds of practices from Magick to Zen to Theravada to Fourth Way to Christian Mysticism to Sufism and so on in an attempt to get enlightened. There is a public record from this time, demonstrating my unenlightened condition, and the steady progress I made towards enlightenment, as predicted by numerous enlightenment models.

On the 6th March 2009, I experienced the event of enlightenment. I know this because I was there, in person. There is a write up of that experience, and a video of me talking about the event. The experience matched exactly the predicted event outlined (again) in numerous models of enlightenment.

(For anyone who thinks my opinion of pseudo-Advaita is based solely on a particular traditional viewpoint, say Theravada or Magick, it should be noted that I became enlightened Advaita style, at the feet of an Advaita guru, at the foot of Arunachala mountain, once home to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, the most famous Advaita guru of the 20th Century. I’m sure if I wanted to I could claim Advaita as my lineage and hop on the ‘no effort’ bandwagon and set myself up as an incomprehensible wise man.)

After 6th March 2009, I was enlightened. I know this, because I was there, and am still here, in person.

In other words, I wasn’t enlightened, then the event we call enlightenment occurred to me in person, and then I was enlightened. I am Alan Chapman, both enlightened and a person. Please consider me an enlightened person.

The Argument from Basic Reasoning

Let’s go back to Adyashanti and the following exchange:

Q: Would you claim that you are enlightened?

A: Well, no, not with a straight face. I would say enlightenment is enlightened and awakeness is awake. It’s not an experience; it’s a fact.

(As an aside, why is it so funny for someone to say they are enlightened? How many sanghas erupt into laughter whenever the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is told? This is ironic considering the interview supposedly challenges The Taboo of Enlightenment.)

Adyashanti’s use of language in this instance is very peculiar. If someone were to ask me if I claimed to be educated (i.e. I went to school), would it make sense for me to say ‘no, because education is educated. It’s not an experience; it’s a fact!’? This misuse of language would not be tolerated in any other field, and yet when it comes to enlightenment, so many are all too eager to bow down to the apparent ‘wisdom’ being expressed. Let’s be clear: saying ‘enlightenment is enlightened’ doesn’t mean anything, and all it does is mystify a very natural, straight forward experience.

And there I go again with that word: experience. It’s common to hear the idea that enlightenment is not an experience at all, because it is non-dual. Therefore no one becomes enlightened personally, because the non-dual is not personal.

There is a very subtle – but nonetheless very real – mistake being made here.

Elsewhere, I’ve defined enlightenment as the sudden and irrevocable knowledge of the absolute truth. We can play around with this definition and substitute ‘absolute truth’ for ‘Wholeness’, ‘Self’, ‘God’, ‘Tao’, ‘Allah’, ‘Buddha-mind’, ‘Emptiness’, ‘the One’, ‘the Good’, or the pseudo-Advaitist’s favourite, ‘the Non-dual’.

Let’s do that: Enlightenment is knowledge of the Non-dual.

Note however, that enlightenment is NOT the Non-dual itself. Enlightenment is the gaining of a knowledge not previously available, specifically the knowledge OF the Non-dual. This is an experience, that occurs to a person, as an event. It is NOT the Non-Dual itself.

Now the Non-dual may be our ‘true nature’ (indeed, the ‘true nature’ of all things), or our ‘ultimate identity’; but that doesn’t change the fact that the realisation of this is an event that happens to a person.

The Non-dual is not an experience, not an idea, is not limited by nor has its foundation in people, places, practices, traditions, space or time. The Non-dual can never become aware of itself, because it does not exist in time; a person becomes aware of the Non-dual, as an event, in his or her life. We call this event enlightenment.

The clue to the nature of enlightenment is in the word itself: Enlightenment means something has become illuminated by a source of light. For the pseudo-Advaitist, this light source is the Non-dual, which ‘enlightens’ the individual.

A person can only become enlightened in a personal sense; the unenlightened person becomes an enlightened person. Personal enlightenment is the reason why there are so many obviously enlightened people out there who have very different opinions, ideas and beliefs about what they have knowledge of, how it first became available to them, and what it’s effect has been for them personally. It’s the reason we can talk about it at all.

‘I am Alan Chapman and I am an enlightened person.’ The sooner statements like this become the norm, the sooner people like Adyashanti won’t feel so squeamish stating the obvious.

Irrational Consequences

Pseudo-Advaitists and others who profess that a person cannot become enlightened are making a very simple error: they are confusing the event of enlightenment with the source of enlightenment. Is the illuminated room the same thing as the light bulb? Is the personality or ego the same thing as the Non-dual? And yet they use the term ‘enlightenment’ as if it referred to an object (‘…enlightenment is enlightened…’)

What are the consequences of ‘objectifying’ enlightenment?

If a person cannot become enlightened, because the person cannot become what the person already is, then the person must be the Non-dual itself.

In other words, the person – not the Non-dual – is the source of enlightenment. The illuminated room is the light bulb.

Hmm. ‘I am Alan Chapman and I am the source of enlightenment.’ Now that would be a much funnier sentence than ‘I am an enlightened person’, if it weren’t for the fact that it sounds so depressingly familiar….

To confuse the source with the event renders enlightenment unintelligible, serves to re-enforce the status of the guru as someone capable of understanding something no one else can, disempowers the individual, paralyzes the practice of earnest seekers, obscures the well-documented progressive developmental nature of enlightenment, ensures no sane, open, honest and reasonable discussion can take place about enlightenment, and keeps the whole phenomenon out of the realm of public understanding.

So here we have it:

The Small self/Big Self Fallacy

This fallacy occurs when the small self (personality, ego or ‘I’ thought) is confused with the Big Self (Non-dual, God, Tao, One, etc). The sentence ‘You cannot become what you already are’ is a result of this confusion, which can be highlighted thus: ‘You (small self) cannot become what you (small self) already are (Big Self).’ This idea that the small self is the Big Self is contrary to the teachings of every single tradition that teaches enlightenment, including pseudo-Advaita. A person committing the Small self/Big Self Fallacy can be said to be ‘objectifying enlightenment’. The consequences of this confusion are:

The belief that nothing needs to be done or no effort is required to become enlightened.

The belief that enlightenment is not an event that can happen to a person.

The belief that enlightenment cannot be understood rationally.

The belief that the ‘Non-dual’ is synonymous with the dualistic notions of doing nothing, seeking nothing, and understanding nothing.

By naming this fallacy we can bring it into consciousness. By calling others on the commitment of this fallacy we can help reduce the amount of confusion around the topic of enlightenment, and hopefully move towards eradicating the image of the guru or teacher as someone who understands something beyond anyone’s comprehension.

The understanding of this fallacy leads to:

The belief that conscious participation and some form of active transcendence (meditation) is required to become enlightened.

The belief that enlightenment is an event that can happen to a person.

The belief that enlightenment can be understood.

The belief that the ‘Non-dual’ is not dualistic.

More importantly, it means the guru or teacher is just another person, with all the weaknesses that come with being just a fellow human being. Like everyone else the guru can be confused about all manner of things, and this includes enlightenment.

(It should be noted that I’m sure I’ve committed the Small self/Big Self Fallacy in the not-too-distant-past, and I can only hope not to repeat it anymore).