Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics

This is the third in a series of posts about secular vs. religious Buddhism.

  • Buddhism for Non-Believers talked about how flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.
  • Tools of the Trail defined samadhi as sustained attention and vipassana as using samadhi to investigate itself.

Today I want to illustrate the path to enlightenment (also called Awakening) as a series of insights generated by vipassana. This path leads through progressively more disconcerting realisations to correspondingly more practical wisdom on the behalf of a vipassana meditator.

That wisdom is not the kind that leads to renouncing society, living in a cave and letting one’s hair grow long (although you can do that if you wish). Nor does it mean living in an ivory tower surrounded by books. The kind of wisdom that Gautama taught is practical; there is also deep irony in it. With it comes resilient love, abiding friendships and compassionate humour.

Enlightenment in a Non-Religious Context

Enlightenment is a subject that people veer away from. It brings a sense of discomfort to both religious circles and secular meditation groups. In the first group, enlightenment has been elevated to a supernatural feat that makes it seem out of reach. Anyone aiming to pragmatically achieve it in this very life is perceived to be flouting the dogma. In the second group, Awakening is misunderstood as a superstitious notion with no cognitive or neurological basis.

Traditionally, Buddha and his followers taught that enlightenment was a definable event, accessible to all, the endpoint of a process with a beginning, middle and an end 1.

Enlightenment is sometimes interpreted to mean the end of ignorance. This means the same thing as to gain knowledge; but knowledge of what, exactly? Not of all things, which would be impossible; nor do we mean accumulating information about planets or atoms or becoming a historian. There are endless fields of study, and meditation is not a data-collection exercise 2.

In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading.(Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).
In this image it is the lay person on the left who appears to be meditating, and not the monk on the right, who is reading. (Ghosh/Tapasphotography/flickr).

Earlier I defined vipassana as reflective samadhi (see last week’s post), or samadhi turned on itself; using sustained attention to investigate sustained attention. That is a catchy way to begin, but as I mentioned the first thing we notice when we do this is that our attention is not actually continuous. It is constantly coming and going with each new phenomenon that enters our awareness.

In ordinary samadhi, we try to ignore the discontinuity and continue trying to create a sense of stable attention. This illusion can be quite effectively cultivated, and has its own benefits. But in vipassana, we do not try to control whatever arises. This means we must embrace the discontinuity. And so in the end, reflective samadhi becomes an awareness of all our senses. All the sensations of being alive right now — conscious thoughts, hearing, touch, taste, and so on 3.

We take the pragmatic view, shared with modern science and philosophy, that what we experience within the sensory field (physical sensations plus thought) is the sum total of our existence.

There are three fundamental aspects of reality that underlie all experiences (their “true nature”). Most of us either do not realise, or choose to willfully ignore these aspects during the majority of our daily life. Through meditation we can no longer remain innocent of them, nor can we continue to ignore them. It is our unawareness of, or our refusal to accept these fundamental aspects, which is the ignorance that is ended by enlightenment 4.

The three marks of existence

From childhood we are taught to see relative things like excitement and pleasure, learning new skills, or acquiring new toys as the source of lasting happiness. As we age, we put forth greater and greater effort to have these things, invest much time and struggle. Yet even with adult knowledge and skills, happiness is fleeting. The bliss we feel after prayer, gratitude practice or yoga asana dissipates. Skills become obsolete or our minds and bodies can no longer grasp them. Objects decay. Even while they are new, we suffer the fear of losing them through theft or absent-mindedness.

The “true nature” of all things, from the cosmically large to the very small such as an itch on our skin, is that they arise and then pass away. This nature of arising and passing away is called in Buddhist language impermanence and it is one of the three marks of existence.

Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.
Rubbish piles up in refuse stations around the world. All of it was once considered useful or pleasing by its owners.

We see bliss or pleasure as a source of happiness, and its loss as a source of misery, but the things that bring us bliss are impermanent to their core. Even bliss itself is impermanent. If we do not face up to this during the arising of an experience, then we feel dissatisfaction every time it passes away. Dissatisfaction, stress and suffering is the second mark of existence, and it comes about through our attachment to impermanent things as the source of our happiness.

This suffering reaches new lows when we also assume that the passing away of a desirable thing was due to some mistake of ours, or an enemy’s conniving, and not a natural feature of reality. Under this delusion we strive harder than before to make the next time different.

If I could start again
 A million miles away
 I would keep myself
 I would find a way”Hurt” lyrics by Trent Reznor / famously performed by Johnny Cash

This compounds our stress and suffering because we have set ourselves in opposition to reality. We may dominate others to protect our stuff, even stockpile weapons and money. Or we may turn our hatred inward and destroy our sense of self-worth. A more subtle form of this is when we refuse to see the suffering in life. “Speak to me only of love”. In all of these examples, we have split life into those parts we tolerate and those parts we do not. This split is artificial. Seeing through it is necessary so we can make rational, caring choices in life.

Buddha challenged his followers: find what you mean when you say “I”, “me” or “mine”.

Now that is a trick question, because in samadhi we cannot find any permanent, separate thing in the field of our senses (thoughts and body sensations) to point to and say “this is me”. Instead we find an ever-changing procession of events that arise only to pass away 56.

This insight is called no-self in Buddhist language and it is the third of the three marks (sometimes also caused the three characteristics). No-Self is the end of all dualities between “self” and “other”.

Experience is everything

Intellectually, the three marks of existence are not revolutionary. Well, they were to me but no doubt you the reader have been nodding your head. Novelists and poets write about them 7. But when we meditate we contact the three characteristics through our senses, and not just intellectually through entertaining thoughts. We experience them. This writes insight on our awareness; no matter how alien at first, we progressively become familiar with “oneself” as not a permanent or separate entity 8.

Another way to look at the path of vipassana is that we are progressively untraining our minds from seeing things as separate entities, and instead to actually experience reality (including oneself) as a web of interlinked processes undergoing constant change.

At defined points in this progression, specific delusional dualities become permanently eroded 9. From direct experience, deep integration of the three marks into the flow of consciousness arises. When it does, that is called enlightenment.


Enlightenment or Awakening is not reliant on any knowledge of facts or philosophy (which at the end of the day are just more thoughts). It goes beyond the library and the lecture notes. No belief in doctrine or an external entity is needed, whether moralism or divine providence, psychic phenomena or blessings from monks. It is based only on experiencing our own mind and body clearly 10.

Any day now :)

There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work. But just as reading a carpenter’s handbook will not teach one to cut straight, reading definitions will not teach one to see clearly. We ourselves must strive.

Further Reading

Other than the links embedded in the article, check out the following resources.

Originally published at Zig Zag Yogi.