December 8th is a day in which some Buddhist traditions (including the Jodo Shinshu tradition) commemorate the awakening to Enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha. Our temples usually have a special service around this time (often with good food)! This is a typical time to talk about what the Buddha's Enlightenment means for us. So...what does it mean for us? Does it have anything to do with us, in fact?
Each human being has to consider his or her own path to Enlightenment. The Buddha himself said, that the Tathagatas ("Awakened Ones") only showed the way, that we ourselves must make the effort. So in the centuries from the Buddha's time to now, many, many paths to Enlightenment have been blazed by people inspired by the Buddha's teachings, and his personal example. However, what goes into this "effort"? This is the tricky part! Why are there so many different Buddhist practices? Why do some teachers say you must do meditation, and others say that only faith is required? What about everything in between? What is the more "authentic" Buddhism: Theravada or Mahayana? How can all these be reconciled with what the Buddha taught?
It's easy to become confused, even discouraged, by so much diversity! We can easily stumble into a pothole on the path by encountering contradictions in the teachings, imperfect teachers, bizaare cultural rituals, and what not. We could try to go back to what the Buddha "originally" said, but he never wrote anything down in his own hand, and neither did his disciples - we still have to rely on what the Dharma texts (those that survived to this day anyway) stated that they said and did (so even doing this requires a leap of faith)! How can we be sure that we are on the right path to Enlightenment?
Some people assume that Enlightenment for Buddhists is something that they are trying to reach in their lifetimes, that it is essentially the completion of our religious life ("So, your goal is to become Enlightened?"); this has always sounded problematic to me, as if we are struggling to obtain something wonderful, yet a something which is intangible, rather vague, and always out of reach. Occassionally when I am quizzed on this, I can see the confusion (for lack of a better word) in people's faces, as if they are imagining that Buddhists are just waiting, day by day, to become Enlightened!
In my tradition, we say that the Buddha "awakened" to Enlightenment, rather than "attained" Enlightenment, as it is usually put. I do not beleve that Enlightenment is like a prize to be won, it is not even a goal to be reached. This may sound puzzling, but please think about it: what would an Enlightenment mean to you? Does it represent the climax of many years' study and practice? Would be a constant state of euphoric bliss? Would it enable you to know the past, present, and future, give you special "powers" as if you discovered you were actually Spiderman? Is it the equivalent of "Heaven?" Is it the end of samasara? If people ask you to describe it, what could you say?
Enlightenment can possibly mean many different things to different people. I am sure we can read many treatises discussing it, and discussing around it: Enlightenment has always been described as not possible to describe in the human language. While other aspects of Buddhist practice, such as meditation, can be described very thoroughly, now, even scientifically, Enlightenment itself is something more mysterious, more primordial. The word "Enlightenment" itself (bodhi) may not even be adequate. Yet what Buddha awakened to, we do know, was something that has always existed, and something that was, and is, possible for all people. It is a beneficial something, yet it cannot benefit others without the wisdom and compassion shown by the Buddha's personal example, and without our willingness to hear it. Why did the Buddha not just become Enlightened, and ignore the rest of us (this is called becoming a pratyeka-buddha, or "solitary Buddha")? This must be something that calls for our own personal involvement, to follow the Buddha's example, perhaps not 100% like pretending to live like an ancient Indian, but to put into practice in our own lives the principles of Buddhahood. I think that this is the real effort required by us. It can't be forced upon anyone. It can't do anything for us unless we are, at least, willing to try to hear and understand. How do we know it is any good? The Buddha advised the Kalama clan, who had asked him that very question, to simply put it into practice for themselves and witness its fruits. Some Buddhist practices may help people, others may not be so helpful. There is no "one size fits all" Buddhist practice! Is there a "one size fits all" human being?
Personally, the Buddha's Enlightenment for me is a teaching of hope; as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, I am not worried if it does not happen in my lifetime. I don't think most Buddhists anyway are walking around constantly thinking about when they will reach that most mysterious and beautiful possibility of Being. For most of us, it is enough simply being on the path, with fellow travelers, heading towards what we imagine to be an Other Shore, but truly the authentic Awakening must be when we truly appreciate our samsaric existence.
Namo Amida Butsu