Glimpses of Awakening

In the gaps we notice moments of clarity, wakefulness, and peace. Enlightened mind turns out to be very ordinary and present, says Judy Lief.

Judy Lief
1 May 2008

Awakening is the central goal of the Buddhist tradition. Buddhadharma is all about awakening, or enlightenment. Buddha means “awake,” and the Buddha is said to be the enlightened one. But what does that mean? What exactly is the goal? And where do we start?

The pivotal experience that sets one on the journey of buddhadharma is the experience of suffering, of discontent. After the Buddha attained enlightenment, the first thing he taught was the four noble truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path. It was his puzzlement about the nature of suffering, and compassion for suffering beings, that set him on his journey of discovery, and it was his proclamation of the truth of suffering that marked the completion of that journey. By holding still and looking directly into the nature of suffering, the Buddha was able to attain liberation.

Unlike the Buddha, most of us simply want to avoid the reality of suffering, and we cook up all sorts of strategies to get around it. If we are searching for spirituality, the world of suffering is the last place we want to look. We would rather fantasize about realms of love and light far removed from the raw nature of our experience. But in order to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, instead of feeding further fantasies and speculations, we need to go back to square one. We need to look directly into the nature of our experience, to look within, and by doing so awaken from the illusions that entrap us.

Having attained enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have been at a loss as to how to convey the essential experience of awakening—if it even could be called an experience—to others. So how is it possible for any of us to speculate about what it really means?

Old maps described uncharted areas of the world that were rumored to exist but had not yet been explored as terra incognita, “unknown earth.” Fabulous tales were told of the mythical creatures living there—strange hairy beings, giants, monsters with mouths in their bellies, beasts of outlandish shapes and sizes. These unknown regions were supposed to be filled with the most horrible and terrifying discoveries, but at the same time there was something alluring about them. People thought there might be magnificent treasures there or outrageous sensual delights.

Similarly, modern people talk about alien civilizations existing somewhere in outer space. Some people fantasize that superior and wise beings will be discovered who will rescue humans from our mistakes and folly; others speculate that technologically advanced and powerful alien beings will entrap and enslave us earthlings, destroying the world as we know it. We have both a fascination with undiscovered worlds and a fear of unknown places. When we don’t know anything about a place, no problem: we just make things up. In the realm of spiritual mapping, the notion of enlightenment can play the same role as terra incognita. It can serve as a blank slate for the most poignant, hopeful, and outrageous fantasies.

We could think of all the good things we know about and aspire to, every quality we wish we had but don’t, and pile them together. If all those were realized, if our wish came true, would that be enlightenment? If we were perfect in every way, would that be enlightenment? If you close your eyes and free associate, what images come into your mind when you think of enlightenment? What comes up when you think of awake? When you cross the river and abandon the boat, where are you—and how does that relate to where you are just now?

It is said that the Buddha attained unsurpassable complete great enlightenment, and that his virtues are inconceivable. They cannot be captured by words and thought. It is also said that for each eon, there is a Buddha; in our case, Gautama Shakyamuni. Is that it, only one? Or is it that the Buddha forges the way, alone and independent, scouting a path for the rest of us to follow—a path leading to the same destination? How are we to know?

Some equate enlightenment with happiness. All beings seek happiness, but only enlightened ones know true happiness independent of the vagaries of favorable conditions. But how is it possible to attain happiness when there are suffering beings? A mother is said to be only as happy as her least happy child, so if we view all beings as a mother would her children, we can never be happy until all beings are enlightened. Compassion does not allow us to see happiness as an individual accomplishment, because our experience is so intimately interconnected with all living beings.

The idea of enlightenment is tied up with our images of wise men and wise women. We have all sorts of preconceptions about how such wise beings are supposed to look, supposed to talk, and supposed to act. Maybe they have to be a certain gender or from a certain class. Maybe they need to wear robes or appear to be very pure. Perhaps they need to have a halo and radiate light. Maybe they are extraordinarily virtuous and kind, and smile beneficently at us. Based on our particular preconceived notions, we may try to sort out who among us is enlightened to greater or lesser degrees. We would like to match what we see with whatever standard we have created. But in doing so, not only may we apply inadequate standards but we may also be fooled by trappings and popular acclaim.

Enlightenment is not easy to pin down. Nevertheless, while our ideas of enlightenment may be somewhat vague, and we may not know exactly how to describe it, we feel that we recognize it when we see it. Maybe we don’t know exactly what we are seeking—we only know that we are seeking something. We might not want to deal with it, but we can’t get around the notion of enlightenment. Although we could pretend to be above it all, beyond striving and without ambition, we cannot hide the fact that in the Buddhist tradition the attainment of enlightenment is the central goal. At the same time, it is considered unseemly to talk overly much about one’s own practice experiences, or to advertise one’s own enlightenment. It is felt that if you have to point it out, it isn’t happening. So it is better to be modest about one’s attainments, neither latching on to such experiences nor trying to explain or discuss them with others. The problem with that approach is that, since nobody talks about it, students may begin to wonder if awakening is simply out of reach, if enlightenment is a myth and a hoax.

I was having brunch with an old friend of mine, and at one point he became very quiet and pensive and asked me, “After all these years of practice, do you think anyone in our sangha has actually attained enlightenment? Is there anyone who is truly accomplished?” There was an urgency in his voice, a doubt that enlightenment might even be a possibility. At another time, I overheard Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche remark that although he had all these monks in his monastery doing pujas, detailed ritual practices, all day long, he didn’t know why they kept doing it, because, basically, they weren’t accomplishing anything. And Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche went so far as to say that we should be inspired to continue on the path of dharma not because someone else got enlightened, but because someone did not get enlightened!

The word “enlightenment” is so loaded at this point, so fraught with projections, that I wonder if it is more of a hindrance than an inspiration. It is so colored by a feeling of distance and unattainable perfection. Just think of all the cartoons in which spiritual seekers climb some special mountaintop on which sits a wise yogi who has all the answers and knows the secrets of the universe. Somehow that yogi is able to dispense this special knowledge, so if you manage to climb up and find him, he (always a “he” in the cartoons I have seen) may deign to lay it on you. It is clear—we don’t have it. It is far away in some exotic and remote mountaintop, so we have to go to the source and beg for it.

The question arises as to whether we are practicing, seeking, and developing devotion in order to get the prize, the big E, or whether it goes the other way around: that we practice, seek, and develop devotion as the expression of enlightenment. Paradoxically, although we are on a search for enlightenment, following a path designed to bring us to that point, enlightenment is said to be inherent, our very nature. Many traditions have a version of the parable in which a poor person spends years and years looking for buried treasure here, there, and everywhere else, eventually discovering that he has had the treasure all along, buried under the floor of his own home. We may keep looking and looking for something and not see a thing, but when we finally do see it, it is completely obvious. How did we miss it?

Enlightenment cannot be produced. No matter how many mantras we recite, no matter how many teachers we serve or meditation retreats we do, we cannot force it to occur. Trungpa Rinpoche once said that teachers give students practice to do and ritual implements to play with simply to pass the time until they realize they can wake up any time they choose. In the Tibetan tradition, enlightenment is described as the stage of no more learning, when for the first time you are not trying to attain anything.

Enlightenment is not a thought; it is not an attainment. It is inherent. Although enlightenment can seem to be a totally unreachable goal, in fact we know exactly what it is and have glimpses of awakening all the time. We see it in great teachers, who like mirrors point out that same quality in us. The only problem is that our glimpses of awakening are brief, hit and miss, and cannot be sustained for any length of time. In ordinary life, there are times when you have a breakthrough and finally understand something—you’ve got it—and when that happens, you cannot then dis-understand it. In fact, sometimes you discover something you wish you had not known; nonetheless, once you know, you know.

Such knowledge does not come and go, flicker in and out. It is like learning the alphabet. It is a struggle at first, but once you have learned it, you cannot look at a shape like this—A—and not conceive of the letter a. When we first understand something, we may not be sure we’ve quite got it, but eventually it sticks. It is the same with awakening. At some point our understanding no longer wavers. True accomplishment does not fade. We may have many powerful insights and meditative experiences, but while such experiences may be inspiring and encouraging, nevertheless, over time they fade. They are temporary. Unlike such experiences, enlightenment neither comes nor goes, and there is no need to try to nail it down.

Glimpses of enlightenment crop up all the time—in the in-between spaces or gaps. In my own experience, I find that over and over again fresh insights keep poking through the thickness of my habitual mental and emotional patterns. But then I notice those insights, and with the noticing comes commentary, and with the commentary comes the desire to hold on to them as highlights or credentials. What was a fresh insight is no longer fresh, nor an insight. It is no longer a gap in ego fixation, but instead a further means of holding it together. And so it goes. What at one moment is a breakthrough, a gap, is quickly co-opted by ego, so that by the next moment, it has itself become an obstacle to be broken through.

You could say that the path is a continual softening process. The moment we solidify our experience, we have lost its freshness, its inherent awakened quality. We can actually perceive that razor-thin boundary between awake and asleep. The instant we make a subtle decision to grasp, we can sense the constriction. We know the moment we have lost it, and each time that happens, we are softened. We realize how hard it is to change that basic pattern of backing away from our own insight; at the same time, we realize how thin the membrane is that separates us from the reality of awakening.

In the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment comes first; confusion is an afterthought. Our experience often seems to be just the opposite—confusion is obvious and enlightenment is the afterthought. Not only is confusion most obvious, it is our familiar ground, where our allegiance lies. It is simple: we are being asked to shift our allegiance, so it is scary. With enlightenment front and center, we are provoked constantly with the possibility of awakening. What is the hesitation? What is holding us back? Why not wake up?

While we keep plugging along, painstakingly unraveling our personal obstacles, it is important not to lose sight of the very real possibility that, at any moment, we have the potential of seeing our world entirely differently. At any moment, we have the possibility of awakening.

Judy Lief

Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of many books of teachings by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death. Her teachings and new podcast, “Dharma Glimpses,” are available at