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Enlightenment for Everyone?

August 27, 2013

Q: Is it possible for anyone to attain enlightenment? Is it possible that everyone could attain?

The Arahant: Interesting question. On one hand, it is at least theoretically possible for any living being to attain complete enlightenment. On the other, it is extremely unlikely that everyone, or even a large percentage of living beings, will choose to do so.

“There is the case where a monk develops mindfulness as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening… persistence as a factor for Awakening…rapture as a factor for Awakening… serenity as a factor for Awakening… concentration as a factor for Awakening… equanimity as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk — in dependence on virtue, established on virtue, having developed & pursued the seven factors for Awakening — attains to greatness & prosperity in terms of mental qualities.” — Himavanta Sutta (SN 46.1)

How many people, or what percentage of people, alive today would choose to develop these factors for awakening? Who would take the trouble to study the Suttas? Who would give up their worldly wealth, power, fame and enjoyment to pursue meditation and enlightenment?

Further, they are strongly attached to wrong views, extreme misconceptions of the nature of existence and the self:

“This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’

“As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self… or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & dukkha.” — Sabbasava Sutta (MN 2)

Such a person is incapable of choosing to pursue enlightenment. Even if he does, he is soon distracted by sense enjoyment or falls prey to false teachers with deviant views. He would find it impossible to stay on the Middle Way, to maintain purity or to focus his concentration sufficiently to attain enlightenment.

The foundation of enlightenment is uncompromising truthfulness; but we live in a time when cheating is glorified, and the greatest swindlers become heroes and leaders of the people. It is impossible to establish Right View in the midst of such chaos. The only place it is possible to establish the root of the Eightfold Noble Path is far out in the country, in isolation from the bewildered masses and false religion. It is very difficult even for Arahants and highly advanced monks to spread mindfulness among the people in such conditions.

So even though out of compassion we want to see everyone happy, delivered from the mental suffering (dukkha) that plagues all unenlightened human beings, it is not likely that any significant percentage will be delivered any time soon. Conditions on this planet may have to become much worse before any amount of people would be willing to give up their cherished misconceptions and take refuge of the Triple Gem. It is sad but true: we live in a time then mass communications could make enlightenment available to everyone—but we also live in a time when, despite the suffering and stress of modern life, no one wants it.

From → Q&A

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