Enlightenment’s Dark Age

matrix-background-with-face-buddha_zypVdR8uEnlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.

Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.

In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.

Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.

A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.

We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.

Posted on April 8, 2015, in buddhism, Enlightenment, Uncategorized, vipassana and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I’ve studied Korean style Zen for 10 years and the teaching is not to be concerned or pursue enlightenment. They even say that wanting enlightenment is a big mistake and it won’t help you live day to day, might even bring you further from it. But, recently I’ve been having what Nathan Gill calls Transcendental experiences. Brief flashes that disappear quickly. I don’t think anything of them other than being a tease, but now I begin to wonder if enlightenment is actually possible for an old goat like me? Good article, thanks

  2. Thanks for a provocative piece, Ron. But may I speak for “the opposition”?

    First, I have to question an apparent contradiction in your line of thinking. You say (appropriately IMHO), “Enlightenment…cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science.”

    Then you add, “But that may be changing, because science is changing.” Yet the only changes you cite is increasing funding, resources and interest by serious scientists. Yes, that change is indeed happening. But how does it address the inherent inadequacy of “standard tools of science” for studying enlightenment, other than hoping or assuming that some radical new tools will emerge? Or maybe you think that fMRI or some technically improved version is it — a fundamentally new tool that will usher in the breakthroughs you foresee.

    Setting aside philosophical issues, it seems to me your argument is based on the assumption (myth?) of inevitable scientific progress, that science has always met every challenge set before it and always will, which I think is a demonstrably false narrative. But if you believe it for enlightenment, how close do you think we are to a breakthrough? Meaningful century-out predictions in the past have proved remarkably difficult — heck, even five years out is pretty unreliable.

    And since you mention the support of the Dalai Lama, I should point out two rather dramatic pronouncements he made in a recent give-and-take with prominent contemplative neuroscientists in front of a large audience. Near the beginning he turned to the scientists, pointed to his head, and said, laughing, something like “Why are you studying this to understand the mind”. And later, he looked at them and rather ferociously proclaimed, “I don’t need you [meaning scientists] to tell me how to practice Buddhism!” (The talk is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLvlftYwUl0, but I cannot find either of these in perusing the video — have they been edited out?! There is no question that he said them.)

    One last point. One of the greatest developments of modern science, perhaps THE most philosophically significant general accomplishment, has been its ability to establish its own limits. We now know that the Greek problems of trisecting the angle and squaring the circle with the specified methods are unsolvable (1837 and 1882), and it took some pretty heavy-duty mathematics to prove it. Godel proved in 1931 that the methods of mathematics cannot, in a very precise sense, capture mathematical truth. And of course, quantum physics established that the precise measurement of physical quantities such as spatial position and velocity is not possible (1927).

    So what if the hoped for progress in the science of enlightenment turns out to be a demonstration — or at least a very convincing empirical case — that enlightenment cannot be even remotely captured by the tools and methods of science. Why not?

    • Hi,

      I’m in agreement on most of your points, actually.
      I am not sure that science will ever be able to clearly discern enlightenment in a way that will ultimately satisfy everyone. It can’t do that for many things. Heck, even most screenings for physical conditions are hit or miss, and psychological screenings more so. But what is happening that encourages me is not that scientific tools are improving (they are) but that scientists themselves are becoming more curious about things that were once considered hokum. It seems as though the past two generations of scientists have progressively become much more comfortable stating hypotheses not about stress reduction or lowered blood pressure, but about rarified concepts found in the pali texts. It seems as though there is a progressive move in the scientific community toward asking deeper and deeper questions about things right at the heart of the enlightenment traditions. And I think that trend means that science is changing in the kinds of questions it asks as much as in how it goes about funding and so on.
      But as I said, I share your views. Even still, I think there is room for optimism.

      Thanks – I love this kind of give and take.


  3. I recall reading this article about a year ago about a study that Shinzen Young was involved with: http://www.psychologytomorrowmagazine.com/inscapes-enlightenment-and-science/. It sounded like a standard fare meditator-brain-scan study of some of Shinzen’s students, but then there was this:

    “With the two most experienced meditators, something even more surprising happened, something that, to the knowledge of the investigators involved, had never before been captured on any kind of brain imaging technology.

    Lying on their padded gurneys in the center of the humming MRI in this famous research hospital in the heart of East Boston and Harvard Medical School, each of the two research subjects suddenly… disappeared.”

    The meditators had fruitions during the brain scan. Putting aside the difficulty of studying subjective experience, the ability to scan somebody’s brain while experiencing a fruition seems feasible (in this case, it was actually done), and might actually provide some useful data about correlating brain states (regardless of whatever conclusions one may ultimately draw about the phenomenological gap between such brain states and consciousness).

    Here’s what annoys me the most: The article does not explain what the brain scan showed! I hate the term “enlightenment” for these purposes. It seems to draw the skepticism of scientists and the disdain of dogmatists. But fruitions are, in a way, quite concrete. The non-happening actually happens. That’s something we can certainly study.

    (To this day, I remain extremely curious about what that brain scan showed…)

  4. Thanks for this post Ron. If you want to see a speculative fiction take on this, I would recommend Ramez Naam. He has a trilogy beginning with the book “Nexus” that revolves in significant part around buddhist meditation. The second book brings this out even more so.

  5. How do you know that it is real?

    • I use the word “real” in the most common-sense colloquial way here. That is why I qualified it by saying that it is real like love or the color blue. In other words it is something that can be directly experienced. I deliberately avoided over-defining “real” to avoid taking the reader down ontological rabbit holes, but from an ultimate perspective there is a legitimate question there. One for another essay.

      • How do you even know that it’s real in the same sense that a color is real? That’s a bold opening statement unless you’re ready to tell the world that you yourself are enlightened. If you’re not ready to make this claim, you do not and cannot know that’s it’s real.

        Personally, I assumed it was real for a long time but the more I go down this rabbit hole the more I have my doubts.

        Self proclaimed enlightened people say different things. Because of the Internet I’m able to listen to many and compare and contrast their messages. That alone is very disturbing to me.

        So is enlightenment real? Or is it a tried and true method for someone to instantly gain power… I really don’t know

        • I think it depends on what people mean when they use the word. What I mean when I say it is (and I believe this is the meaning in the original suttas) that the person has at least attained stream entry. The first stage of the path. And there are actually lots and lots of people who have attained stream entry. Way more than most people suspect. Most of them keep it a secret, because of the reactions it generates. But people are starting to get over the weirdness of it and talk about it openly, and many people who are open about being post-stream entry are participating in research studies (I know many of them, and some of the researchers). There is a lot of exploitation and cult-like behavior that has happened in the past (and is still happening), but much of that comes from the secrecy surrounding this. It is far more normal and far more accessible than many people suspect. And the more we can talk about it in a normal and accessible way, the healthier we can be about it.

  6. Enlightenment is the only possibility for humans to be the Universe and not to give up present moment. Science is now.

  7. Olivier Sandilands

    Hi all,

    I highly recommend an incredibly profound book which provides, i believe, a definitive answer to the question at hand.

    Unfortunately, I think it is only available in french for now… So, perhaps discard this before reading on, if french isn’t a language you have, or wait around for an english translation to turn up – as such an important book MUST get translated to english some day……

    The book is “La conscience a-t-elle une origine ?” by Michel Bitbol, who has an MD, a PhD in quantum physics, and is now professionally a philosopher, specialized in phenomenology (his explanation of épochè and the phenomenological reduction, provided in the third chapter of the book, and the connections made with christian and buddhist meditative practices, particularly vipassana, is luminous…).

    It shows why it is in fact constitutively impossible for sciences to really add something to our understanding of the transformations of consciousness which we meditators are trying to achieve ; and why pursuing that (in the way that neuroscientists are trying to “find the neural correlates of enlightenment” or whatever they’re trying to do) is a chimera and possibly dangerous, because it occults the true significance of the experiences that are made possible through deep meditation, and further the attitude and mindstate of furthering so-caled scientific “progress” .

    It is impossible because of the inaugural epistemological stance which makes objective sciences possible, because the quest for invariants and descriptions of the relationships that aspects of objectified entities have with each other, are entirely derived from the pre-verbal experience of Being, which cannot be validated through representations which are merely construed from certain ways of, first, fabricating objectivities, details of consciousness-life-world, and second, creating formal ways of representing the relationships that these objectivities emerging from the observational stance adopted by the observer appear to have with each other because he observes them with that certain type of interest.

    Maybe the methods for attaining the truth experientally can be refined, sure – ie, meditation. But the true scope of what is revealed through meditation is entirely beyond the reach of science, now and forever. The lesson we have to learn is that the quest for an utter, total and perfect understanding of reality through rationality (the goal of sciences) is a myth, and a somehow dangerous goal. The lesson we have to learn, is that truth cannot be expressed in words. But we have been convinced since Aristotle and Plato, that what is true is so when what we say is in conformity with what is. This is also at the heart of the sciences. Isn’t it ? But this way of conceiving, and valueing, truth, has been dimmed by Heidegger a “catastrophic” from the former, pre-socratic notion of “a-lethe-ia”, i.e. the greek word for truth, which is the “coming out of the forgetfulness of Being” (“lethe” means sleep).

    In particular, the straightforward paragraph at p. 156, shows the contradictions of believing that the representations that are constituted in the different fields of the sciences to account for what is, are actually mirorring an externally, naturally pre-constituted objectal reality. The last chapter, exploring the significance of … the fact that we die, and offering a philosophical discussion of the moment of death and its significance, shows that there is a profound connection between the humongous efforts that are being put into finding a unifying scientific theory which would explain everyithing, which is such a popular “desire”, in a way – and basically, all the research that has been done on meditation in the academic world in the west, has fallen within that domain of endeavour – a deep connection between this mythical quest, and the denial of our mortality.

    For instance, what the hell can a brain scan of an enlighten mind teach us about anything ? That is a byproduct of positivism guys, and it is misguided. Third-person, externally established knowledge, which we tend to think of as “truer”, more “objective”, is derived. We only know that such and such part of the brain are related to such and such mindstates in the first place, because of our so-called “introspective” power. A neural description of any mind state teaches nothing about it. COnsciousness IS primary. For instance, talking about the cessation experiences which Shinzen Young had in that MRI… Firstly, the mri has a time resolution of 12 seconds. I don’t think the cessation lasted so long. Vago explains this in his report. When i read this i thought : why in the world are we giving any significance to pictures of our neurons taken 12 seconds apart to teach us about our experience ?
    And secondly, why the heck would a picture of someone’s neurons matter to understand something about the unconditioned ????????? That stance is somehow similar, in my view, with the corruption of insight. What-is-path and what-is-not-path has not yet been discerned.

    Remember Henri Bergson’s analogy to counter the significance of the project that already existed in the beginning of the XXth century of mapping the brain in order to understand the mind : he said that it was akin to thinking that a thorough description of ONE bolt that is part of a complex machine would provide us with insight into the working of said machine. Granted, the absence of the small bolt might make the whole thing stop working (and maybe not, maybe the machine could keep working ; we wouldn’t know, we are looking at the bolt). But it doesn’t really tell something about the global interdependent process that is the machine. In this analogy, of course, the bolt is the brain, and the machine is the mind.

    Not that there aren’t practical applications to these endeavours of course, but scientific theories should not be reified as ontologies.

    The conclusion of the book urges us to see through that and to engage deeply with the philosophical significance of all this, and not get seduced by the promesses of science which have gotten us in the MESS that the world is in right now .
    For we must be clear about this : the technical mastery, permitted by the sciences, which has given rise to the industrial revolutions, and lack of ethics/wisdom, which are certainly connected to the worldview that is usually shared by people partaking in scientific materialism, HAVE brought about the ecological catastrophe which is most probably gonna happen soon. Science is not what will take us out of this ! Radical existential and ethical transformation is.

    I’m all for science helping us come up with ever better ways of practice which lead to understanding the truth. I’m against science taking these practices and trying to reduce them to fit its inescapably self-limiting and reductionnist agenda. Which is what seems to be happening with all the neuro-cognitivo-hype.

    Meditation is broader than sciences. Sciences are inherently limited constructs derived from a fine exploration of consciousness. They have powerful practical applications ; that’s it. And they should be given the place they deserve : not a fundamental one……. The current state of funding for research is a sad reflection of the fact that this is not common thinking these days.

    Hope that wasn’t too boring ! These are my thoughts on a profoundly important topic. Of course, proper treatment can’t be given in such a short text… But i do advise reading the book i mention, it is just amazing, although hard to follow sometimes – especially if you don’t speak french, haha.

    Cheers !


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