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Why confusion so often precedes Enlightenment

Drawing from Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism and modern neuroscience, I make the case that states of deep confusion and doubt are inextricably linked to enlightenment

I would be puzzled if someone were to ask me what color my thoughts were, or what the scent of my favorite song was. The questioner clearly does not understand the nature of a thought if they wonder about its color. This is an ontological category mistake. A similar, more nuanced category mistake occurs when we wish to understand the nature of enlightenment. As will be shown, enlightenment does not belong in the realm of the understanding. In its stead, I will demonstrate that aporia is what manifests to cognition. This paper will be framed around the experience of enlightened epistemic shifts (EES) within individuals, and the idea that states of aporia often precede these shifts. I will argue that the relationship between aporia and EES is not merely causal, but that aporia is the manifestation of the transcendent concept of enlightenment into the domain of the understanding. These states are two sides of the same coin, and will be shown as being metaphysically linked. Next, I will examine how this relation helps to explain how one moves from aporia into enlightenment. Beginning in the realm of Buddhism, I will frame our question of inquiry and distill the essence of enlightenment by examining Zen and Tantric texts. Moving to cognitive science, I will look at modern conceptions of EES and how a synthesis of these views clearly show an inextricable link between aporia and enlightenment.


The search for meaning and truth often begins with a doubt. Inspiration for this search is a sense that something is lacking, that things are not quite wholesome. As one progresses down the spiritual path, this doubt often turns into deep aporia. With usage dating back to the time of Socrates, aporia is a mental state characterized by irreconcilable internal contradictions. I would like to define it as a cognitive framework. A structural relation between thoughts and ideas that is ripe with incoherence, confusion and illogic. This is a state of mind very different from our baseline state, in which our body and mind work in consort to optimize our relationship with the environment. In aporia, chaos is made salient to us, and the world is seen as such. I would like to distinguish between the content of an aporetic state and the quality of aporia as an emotional modality. My argument will not hinge on whether aporia is brought about from trying to learn Zen archery, or investigating bodily aggregates, but will be concerned primarily with the abstract structure of the state. Turning to enlightenment, it is important to formalize what is meant by this oftentimes vague term. An enlightened epistemic shift is characterized by a permanent alteration in the way one interfaces with the world; a radical shift in worldview. In How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman found five key features of enlightenment from their surveys. These were: unity/connectedness, intensity, clarity, surrender, and permanent big change (Newberg & Waldman, 2017, p.51). Chogyam Trungpa, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist, gives the following description. “It is what is. It cannot be shown by analogy; nothing can obstruct it. It is without limitation and transcends all extremes. It is clear-cut nowness” (Trungpa, 1939, p.22). Famed Tibetologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz writes: “Nirvana is indescribable, because no concepts of the finite mind can be applied to That which transcends finite mind. Nirvana is Unbecome, Unborn, Unmade, Unformed” (Evans-Wentz, 2002, p.8). It is clear that this is far from a normal state of mind. What is being discussed is of a different nature altogether. It is such an exotic idea that we can only speak about it through apophatic discourse, or talk of infinity. Enlightenment cannot be reduced to a singular state of mind, nor is it a plurality of states. Perhaps a productive description is that of a meta-state, a primordial epistemic attitude directed towards mental states. Despite the uncertainty, what is immediately clear is that aporia and enlightenment seem diametrically opposed and so far, relate only in intensity. Armed with our primary concepts, instances of self-transcendence achieved through encountering aporia can now be explored.


Beginning with Buddhism, I want to introduce the claim that aporia not only precedes enlightenment, but plays an integral role in attaining it. This will begin to lead towards the inseparability of the two. Beginning in China as Ch’an Buddhism, the Zen lineage can be traced back to its founder, Bodhidharma. The tradition is characterized by existing outside of scripture. Wisdom is transmitted not through words or letters, but directly from mind to mind. The first example of such a teaching occurred when Gautama Buddha held up a flower to his disciple Mahakasyapa. Upon seeing it, he smiled and was immediately enlightened. No exchange of words was necessary. Zen aims to bring one beyond their habitual patterns of conceptualization. Its truths are passed down in the form of myths and the rich collection of student-teacher stories known as Koans. These paradoxical, non-logical riddles are meant to abruptly stop discursive thinking, leading one to an EES. Your success in understanding a Koan is not a function of time nor of effort, but is of a different variety altogether. How can you reasonably think about the sound of one hand clapping, or imagine the face you had before you were born? These questions do not belong in the realm of logic, as no deductive answer will suffice. It is then no surprise, that Zen Koans are known to induce states of deep aporia. This aporia is what must be confronted in order to adequately answer a Koan. A famous example of this involves the Nun Chiyono, who studied hard for many years without any hint of realization. Enduring the daily rigors of monastic life, her goal of enlightenment continued to elude her. Yet one evening, as she was carrying a pail of water that was reflecting the light of the moon, the bottom of the pail suddenly fell apart. In that moment, as the moon’s reflection disappeared with the falling water, she attained enlightenment. (Pauper, 1959, p.32). This is an example of something mundane eliciting an EES. Chiyono wasn’t thinking about enlightenment, nor was she even thinking at all. The crash of the pail brought her out of habitual, discursive thinking, and into the present moment. This mundane event was the spark of realization,only because she had previously been so absorbed in her thoughts of attaining enlightenment. The aporetic trend in Zen is also found in the modern example of philosophy professor Eugene Herrigel recounting his efforts to learn archery in Zen In The Art Of Archery. It took Herrigel years to learn even the most basic aspects of the technique. Hopeless, he only continued due to the encouragement of his eccentric teacher. He embodied aporia for years, and his master would give him Koan-like instructions such as: “draw the bow spiritually with an effortless strength” (Herrigel, 1953, p.34). When he would make a good shot, the master would say, “Just then, It shot, It waits at the highest tension. Not You, not your ego, but the whole world” (Herrigel, 1953, p.77). It took Herrigel over five years of deep aporia to finally attain a degree of mastery over the art. He attained unity, clarity, and the paradoxical goal of “becoming purposeless on purpose” (Herrigel, 1953, p.52). Herrigel’s realization was an epistemic shift, the way in which he engaged with his bow changed. He moved from conceptually identifying with the techniques he learned to embodying them. It is now beginning to become clear that the gateway of aporia rests at the entrance of enlightenment.


Dr. Andrew Newberg, one of the authors of How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain, struggled deeply with himself for many years. He was in a state of self-proclaimed Infinite Doubt, a great Cartesian skepticism by his own account (Newberg & Waldman, 2017, p.13). After years of the most psychologically painful period of his life, he experienced an EES. “Instead of finding doubt in everything, everything literally became the doubt” (Newberg & Waldman, 2017, p.13). This was the single most powerful experience of his life, and it happened spontaneously. He makes a very important observation in regards to this. He desperately sought to eradicate all doubt in his life, yet only when he stopped trying to do so and surrendered himself to it, did it vanish.


Now that the case has been made for aporia preceding enlightenment, I can now introduce my position for why this occurs. As it has been demonstrated, enlightenment is, by definition, beyond the scope of cognition. It cannot be grasped or understood in any conventional sense. It is a foundational epistemic shift, something one must experience. Yet, we have an almost pathological, or perhaps evolutionary need to process everything through the filter of our mind. This process is recursive, as we often find ourselves thinking about trying to stop thinking. However, habitual metacognition is counterproductive to attaining enlightenment and only pushes us further into a state of aporia. Recall that without needing to be exemplified in a basis, aporia is characterized by incoherence, confusion and contradiction. Let me also introduce the notion of a concept as defined by analytic philosopher Gottlob Frege. He says that concepts have a power of collecting things together. To speak of something, it is necessary that we designate it. When speaking about whales in general for instance, we are not speaking about specific definite objects. We instead have in mind a concept of a whale, a collection of specific abstracted properties under which certain creatures fall (Frege, 1980, p.47). The objects that fall under a concept are said to be in a set, understood as an abstract object with members. We can now construct the following case for aporia being part of enlightenment, and formalize how the confusion begins.

Logically, the problem is simply trying to fit N objects into M holes, where N is infinitely larger than M (pigeonholing). In natural language, the problem is precisely that we try to grapple with enlightenment conceptually, not realizing that it is a state we must embody. Further, the more we try to embody it, the more we end up embodying aporia. I believe that the only premise that is contentious is P4, as it posits an infinite set of relations. Yet all descriptors we conventionally use in reference to enlightenment mention its limitlessness, inability to grasp, and infinitude. Part of the reason we struggle with enlightenment is that we try to think about what is truly unthinkable. Otherwise, the conclusion follows naturally. It is clear that whatever transcendental ‘thing’ the term enlightenment points to, manifests itself into the realm of the thinkable not as a singular concept, but as a chaotic, reorganization of the structure of our cognition — aporia. Thinking deeply about enlightenment in the conventional sense, leads to a personal and epistemological transformation.


We have established what the relationship between aporia and enlightenment is, and how it is formed. Let us now investigate how to move through it and experience an EES. We often conceive of the spiritual journey as an ascension upwards, but it is made clear in Zen, Tantra, and even some continental philosophy that this journey is fundamentally circular. At the end of it, you arrive where you began; you awaken to the fact that there is nothing to awaken to. I will present a series of extracts to make this esoteric claim more salient. Once it is plausible that all these traditions converge on this central truth, I will relate them back to the framework of aporia and enlightenment that I previously outlined. Beginning with Zen, D.T. Suzuki, famous for popularizing the tradition with the West, states the following in regards to realization:

“Before a man studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into truth, mountains to him are not mountains, and waters are not waters; but after he really attains the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are water.” (D.T. Suzuki, 1926, p.24)

The middle stage, when mountains are not mountains, is aporia. This is the Infinite Doubt that Dr. Newberg and Descartes experienced. Everything about the conventional world crumbles, there is no longer a ground for knowledge. The most salient example to be found in this tradition is in the 10 Bulls of Zen, a pictographic representation of enlightenment. The bull being taken as representing your mind. Each panel details a step on the path to enlightenment. In the eighth panel you transcend yourself, in the ninth you reach the source of all things. Yet in the tenth, you return to the world and live life as you once did. Having transcended duality, you come back and live even more deeply than before. “It is the state of ‘total flop’ or ‘old dog’. You subdue whatever needs to be subdued, and you care for whatever needs your care” (Trungpa, 1939, p.92). In fact, the very first panel of the set begins with, “The bull has never been lost. What need is there to search” (Reps, 1957, p.168). Turning to Tantric Buddhism, Chogyam Trungpa writes in great detail about the long, arduous and psychologically risky journey of a practitioner. He explains the evolution of ones being and the technicolor journey through reality that one takes, ending with the powerful statement:

“This is the end of the journey which need never have been made. This is the seamless web of what is” (Trungpa, 1939, p.72).

This journey is the navigation, mastery and transcendence of the aporetic state. My final example of convergence is taken from the studies into enlightenment mentioned earlier by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman. A lifelong Catholic, devoted fully to God, was paradoxically asked by this God in a vision to give up her faith and religion. She was in anguish, her worldview turned on its head. Her incoherence and confusion can be characterized by a deep state of aporia. Yet she relinquished her faith, surrendered, and subsequently experienced a life-changing EES. SØren Kierkegaard wrote of this exact experience in his seminal work Fear And Trembling. He says, about his character the Knight of Faith, “He resigned everything infinitely and then grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd” (Kierkegaard, 1843, p.34). Both cases point to an aporetic paradox; in order to receive everything, they had to give it away first. In giving it all away, they shift their state of being, effortlessly, without clinging or grasping at anything. Herein lies the mystery: only in the moment they stop seeking, does realization occur. Not much can be said about this moment, but the instance before, the one of great surrender, is simply ceasing to cognitively engage with the infinite set of properties belonging to the concept of enlightenment. This leads to a great seeing, not understanding. Reality in all its glory, cannot be confined to the mind, which in Buddhism is only one of six senses. It is a full-body experience, which is why the spiritual sages of old are not called thinkers or knowers, but seers. In set-theoretic terms, one realizes that it is the empty set, not an infinite set, which belongs to the concept of enlightenment. This often occurs in a sudden flash, in an instant you experience a total psychological deconstruction, This moment of revelation comes without immediate cognitive effort, but only after having grappled deeply with aporia. Aporia is the crucible; aporia is the transformation to enlightenment. It is the rope one must climb on the journey from man to sage. It appears what you realize in the end is that you were already where you sought to be, but merely lacked the perspective to see it. You needed to be lost, confronted with infinite complexity to see the truth. But the crux is this, while the set was empty all along, it is still related to the infinite set. This relation, though based on misunderstanding, is not unreal in any sense. While the basis of aporia is indeed groundless, the experience of it is still manifestly real. In the Buddhist Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra it is said:

“Form is Emptiness, and Emptiness is Form” (Tsultrim, 1999, p.5).

These two seemingly contradictory words do not negate each other, but rather enable each other’s existence. The Buddhist concept of sunyata is not the substratum of objects, it is the precondition for their existence. Emptiness manifests itself through form. We can only see that objects lack inherent existence and are empty by analyzing them and showing that they contain no isolated essence and are interdependently originated. In a similar fashion, the only way in which an EES exists as an object to the mind is through aporia. As emptiness is demonstrated through form, the inconceivability of enlightenment is shown through aporia.


The journey to enlightenment has been shown to be inseparable from aporia. As we saw earlier, the spiritual journey often begins with a problem, a doubt. Our cognitive habit is to follow problems to their logical end. Hopefully, we realize that no answers are to be found in the infinite and chaotic search space of aporia. While it has been discussed that the path to realization is inherently circular, it still must be travelled. Somewhere along the way, we surrender to incoherence and reawaken to our original selves. I have shown through textual evidence that aporia precedes enlightenment, and proposed a theory for why that is the case. When we mistakenly treat enlightenment as a normal concept, our active attempt to cognize it only leads further from our goal of embodying it. We are led into aporia, a state of contradiction that can eventually give us the perspective needed to see the err in our ways. The paradoxical and beautiful nature of the spiritual journey has been explored, and I hope that this novel framing helps make the path clearer for seekers everywhere.