In this series of articles I have described various aspects of enlightenment, but I have not addressed why one might wish to become enlightened. Attaining it is a rigorous process that for most takes thousands of hours of learning, meditation and at least in Vajrayana Buddhism, turning one’s heart and mind over to another human called the guru. Furthermore, even after all that time and effort one may not experience it in this lifetime. For such reasons, it makes sense to ask whether it’s worth attempting.
I believe it is for the following reasons. First, even if we don’t attain it, the process we go through in its pursuit is beneficial. It is guaranteed that most of us, if we become familiar with our mind in meditation and follow the precepts of Buddhism, will become more accepting of ourselves and of more benefit to others. If one has witnessed the comportment of Buddhist monks and nuns one has seen the effect of Buddhism on their lives. They are gentle, in the moment, without the mindless speed of modern society and they speak softly and to the point. As they say in Buddhism, they are worthy of veneration. So, in my opinion, even without enlightenment, entering the Buddhist path is worthwhile.
With enlightenment, however, the benefits of being a Buddhist skyrocket. In the first instance of experiencing it, for example, the meaning of life and our place in it become immediately apparent. What we see isn’t what we wanted from ego’s standpoint, but it is the truth, and it shows us that life actually has no meaning, other than what we give to it, and that there is no “we” to have a place in it, since we are it. Furthermore, to be enlightened is the only way to be completely human, until then we have been playing a role about who we want or do not want to be, not who we really are or aren’t. In other words, until we see the true nature of things we have no chance of transcending our manufactured sense of self and becoming a truly authentic person. And when we do become that person, we will understand how important authenticity is.
Then, there is the problem of me and them. As long as we feel we have a central entity called me that stands in contradistinction to what we perceive as them, we will be ensnared in one of three ways of acting: wanting, rejecting or ignorance. Those attitudes, caused by seeing the world dualistically in the absence of enlightenment, generate more pain for ourselves and others than all the wars, plagues, and famines in history. This is because unenlightened mind is tortured moment to moment by the divide between this and that, and how to deal with it. Until we see the true nature of mind and reality, that suffering will continue to our last breath and into our future lives as well.
Finally and most importantly without insight into the true nature of things we will never be able to experience uncontrived compassion. Preoccupied by self’s needs we will be unable to open to the world at large. Our constant attention to me and mine precludes any readjustment of our priorities. Also, devoid of the vastness, bliss and clear seeing of awakened mind we will never find the richness to fully extend ourselves to the world in the face of all the suffering we witness. Only enlightened mind can withstand all the ways the world twists us when we commit ourselves to it, and I feel I have the experience as a practicing physician of over forty years to make such a statement. So, the biggest reason for attaining enlightenment is the ability it provides for us to experience true compassion.
Certainly, more reasons for enlightenment exist than I have outlined, but I have chosen three that stand out: the chance to know the true nature of ourselves and the world; the means to relieve the suffering of ourselves and others; and the only understanding that can make us unconditionally compassionate. In truth, the best thing that can happen to us in this life is to attain enlightenment. And the next best thing is to experience in our bones the truth of that fact and devote our life to it.