It doesn’t matter what you call it, but the pursuit of that divine force has inspired some of the world’s greatest civilizations, its most enduring architecture, foundational philosophies as well as the wars that have time and again sought to tear all that down. But can any of us mere mortals truly understand the hidden clockwork of the universe? If we assume that it exists at all, then the actual state of transcendence poses an interesting problem. What are people supposed to do with the rest of their time on earth once they’ve gained that ultimate knowledge? Revered gurus who teach that status and power are meaningless in the ultimate reality, nonetheless have to muck about in the mundane world. They gather followers, build institutions and dispense knowledge from lofty thrones. Is it hypocrisy when enlightenment simply reproduces familiar hierarchies? Another way to put it is how does a Buddha remain in the world, but not of it?
In March of 2006, Emily O’Conner was sure that she was on the cusp of enlightenment. We had spent the last seven days on a silent meditation retreat together in the holy city in India for Buddhists called Bodh Gaya. I was the director of her abroad program, and Emily was my student. Late in the night she filled her journal with a scrawl about what she had learned in the silence. She wrote that contemplating her own death was the key to deeper spiritual realizations. A few paragraphs later she wrote the words, “I’m scared that I will have this realization and go crazy.” Then, on the last page, in a paragraph all by itself, she penned her last words — a final resolution to her spiritual progress: “I am a Bodhisattva.”
When she was done writing she wrapped a shawl around her face, stood on the ledge of the three-story building, and jumped. One of the other students on the program found her body an hour later.
In Tibetan Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a fully realized being whose deep spiritual insights have opened the door to Nirvana. However, rather than stepping though the threshold, Bodhisattvas pledge to remain on earth to help other people to the same realizations. In a way, you could think of a Bodhisattva as a sort of god that exists beyond the realm of life and death. Almost three millennia earlier, in a spot less than a mile from where Emily took her own life, the man who would become known as the Buddha had a similar realization. He spent the remaining time he had on earth translating his knowledge to a growing community of followers. Read more “The Enlightenment Trap”→