Global-Enlightenment Myths

I believe that meditation can offer a person valuable skills and insights.  But I don’t believe meditation can turn anyone into a god or anything god-like.  Many meditators claim that they or their masters have “the ability to see reality as it truly is”.  They make the claim so broad as to virtually claim to have the ‘Mind of God’.  And with their new god-like brilliant insight, their new “global enlightenment”, they claim global enlightenment:

  • Health Enlightenment:  they understand the real causes of disease and how to cure them
  • Psychological Enlightenment:  they can see the thoughts and motivations of others — they become psychic healers
  • Political Enlightenment:  they know the correct political policies needed to fix the world
  • Life Guide Enlightenment:  they can help you know the right job, the right spouse, the right hobbies
  • Physics Enlightenment:  many make miracle claims that defy the laws of nature

Wow, that is a lot to get from meditation!  I have heard identical claims among charismatic Christian leaders, great Yogis in Hinduism and among admired teachers of Islam.  Such claims are generic.  These claims come in many subtle disguises.  Otherwise skeptic Western readers may let these claims slip by because they are impressed with the charisma of their teachers, the beauty of their new found community or even the life altering experiences they had in their faith.  But if you read that last sentence again, you can see how it could apply to both Christian or Buddhist enthralled believers. This naivete bothered me when I was a Christian and I see it also in many Buddhist circles.   The Global-Enlightenment Myth is a universal trait.

I am inspired to write about it now because I am seeing it in an otherwise insightful book called “The Crystal and the Way of Light” by  a well-known Tibetan Vajrayāna teacher called Namkhai Norbu.  Norbu claims that Dzogchen (his meditation practice) allows one to not only see, but also enter into ‘the Primordial State’ where duality does not exist [enlightenment].  He claims duality blinds us.  OK, I confess, I am Buddhist-enough that I actually  agree with some of that but when he goes on to hint that such enlightenment confers far-reaching global miraculous powers then I start to doubt even the true things he may be saying.  He claims:

  • “Certain illnesses, such as cancer, are caused by disturbances of the energy, and cannot be cured simply by surgery or medication.” pg 32
  • He describes a miraculous virgin birth of the founder of Dzogchen (Garab Dorje) but says that understanding this miracle “seems impossible from the limited point of view of dualistic vision”. pg 40
  • Of Garab Dorje he says, “He developed the capacity to transform himself into any form he chose, as well as all the other ‘siddhis‘, or powers that arise when the dualistic condition is overthrown.” pg 56

You get the point.  I have seen this thinking among Zen Buddhist practitioners and others.  The “Global-Enlightenment Myth” is pretty pervasive — not just in Buddhism but in other religions too.  Heck, science-lovers quote Einstein’s views on religion and politics like it mattered in some mystical way.  People think that movie stars have special insight on how to run our countries.  Just because someone has an amazing talent in one field, does not confer them magical insight into all other fields.  We are suckers for charisma.  We are suckers for heroes.  Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think Global Enlightenment exists.


Filed under Cognitive Science, Philosophy & Religion, Science

27 responses to “Global-Enlightenment Myths

  1. DaCheese

    I think part of the problem is that people don’t realize how much of our daily experience is mediated by people’s minds (both our own and each others’), and so they extend mushy thinking that works in that realm to apply to physical reality as well.

    For instance, take the whole “Law of Attraction” thing. Thinking and visualizing about what you want *is* a good idea, for complex psychological reasons. And having a positive attitude, associating yourself with people who have what you want, etc., are all good social strategies. So in the mushy psycho-social realm that shapes the majority of a person’s daily life (that they pay attention to), the “law” of attraction seems to work fairly well.

    But extrapolating that into some sort of physical or metaphysical law is just silly. A positive attitude, a committed belief, or even a Satori moment, isn’t going to make my car stop sliding on the ice; nor will it cause my computer code to compile correctly if it contains an error. But in modern society, most people aren’t confronted with such harsh physical realities very often, so it’s easy to forget or misunderstand the distinction.

  2. @ DaCheese: well said. But maybe it is not just the over-thinking of insights of meditation benefits, because every religion does it — even non-religious people do it. Maybe it springs from a much more common habit of mind which desires to control the world. And if not their own power, power-figures and hopes of power as if extensions of their selves — albeit false.

  3. In Tibetan, there is a word “kunkhyen”, which literally means “omniscient” (kun = all, mKhyen = know). It’s often taken as equivalent to “enlightened” and applied to important lamas (living and dead).

    There’s a passage in Chogyam Trungpa’s “Crazy Wisdom” where he talks about this. (I’ll put a link to the Google Books version at the end of this comment — it’s long.) He says “If a Buddha didn’t know how to change his snow tires, for example, a person with this view might begin to have doubts about him. After all, he is supposed to be the omniscient one; how could he be a Buddha if he doesn’t know how to do that?” Enlightenment doesn’t give you instant snow-tire-changing siddhi.

    Kunkhyen is more usefully understood as “knowing all about how samsara works – how one creates unnecessary suffering by misunderstanding dissatisfaction.” (I think Trungpa Rinpoche says that somewhere; if not, other lamas do.) Ordinary Tibetans do commonly attribute “global enlightenment” to lamas, but most lamas have a more realistic view.

    I thought your discussion of “global enlightenment” was insightful, by the way.

    By random chance, I’m working a page to be titled “The fantasy of control”…

    Here’s the Google Books link:

  4. @ David :
    Thank you, David, as usual, you often put things most clearly! DaCheese helped me to see that I left out the element of control that I mention in the comment above — I will have to add it to the post itself.

    You have had lots of exposures to Lamas and Senseis in several lineages and traditions. Have you ever witness any siddhis that others would describe as miraculous?

  5. No.

    (Mostly only Lamas, btw, and not _that_ many. But I don’t expect that I’d see any miracles no matter how much time I spent with however many and fancy ones.)

  6. @ David — wheew, that is what I expected! 🙂

  7. Ed

    @ Sabio… great post. This concept, you call the “global enlightenment myth” is ubiquitous but comes in many shapes sizes and flavors. At Steve Hagen’s Dharma Field Meditation and Learning Center, neither he nor the other teacher, Norm ever mentions powers or enlightenment. That is not the point of the teaching. Steve often says “there is nothing really that can be said about it”. In fact this phrase is used really often. I never gave it much thought till one day I heard a young guy who regularly attends the retreats and Sunday programs, say to a new comer, (in a very serious and secretive way) “well, you see, there really isn’t anything that can be said about it.” At that moment, the light went off for me… he was full of it. Maybe not Steve or Norm but most of the attenders were depending on there being nothing to say about it… so then they must have it! Who could know otherwise?

    And at other zen centers I have been to it is unspoken but nevertheless expected that there is something to get… which will lead to whatever it is that the zen masters have. The tacit fact is, it is powers. Powers over, birth, disease,old age and death. The four hard facts of human existence. Even atheists seem to be striving for that “something” that will give them understanding and or power over these four “hard facts”.

    The New Agers are just more blatant about what they want… and part of what they want is for others to be “magic” and save them from “ordinary” life. Anyone promising anything will be believed. Readers who would like to see the “Global Enlightenment Myth” in action can click here to see “Jo Dunning and Global Meditation and Planetary Transmission”. This is a most stunning load of human waste. It is your post in action. Everyone enjoy!

  8. @Ed — your observation reminds me of a traditional Jewish joke that my Lama, Ngak’chang Rinpoche, often tells:

    On Yom Kippur, the rabbi stops in the middle of the service, prostrates himself beside the bema, and cries out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!”

    The cantor is so moved by this demonstration of piety that he immediately throws himself to the floor beside the rabbi, and cries, “Oh, God! Before you, I am nothing!”

    Then a tailor jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the aisle and cries, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!”

    The cantor nudges the rabbi and whispers, “So look who thinks he’s nothing.”

  9. Ed

    @ David… actually gave me a belly laugh! Thanks…

  10. @ Ed

    The Zen tendency to think it is so cool to say the “nothing can be said about it” or chastize those trying to discuss their philosophic claim as “using merely dualistic thinking” or such, to me are signs of something different that the Global Meditation Myth that I am writing about. I agree with you that it is very real, and I have wanted to write on it, but I have not been able to think of a name for it or an easy way to describe it. Nonetheless, the two are separate and I think come from separate bad habits of mind. I could be wrong but …

    Maybe I should call it “Paradox Pimping” — but that doesn’t capture it either. It is like Christians who argue using empirical statements (“God heals diseases”) and yet when asked to discuss with empirical tools they escape with words like “faith” or “spirit” or “God’s wisdom” and call empiricism “reductionist”. Some Buddhist do the same: They make claims about understanding “true reality” and “having (“owning”) enlightenment insight” but they claim it is unspeakable and nailing it down is merely a feeble attempt of the dualistic mind.

    I find this escapism nauseating but I can’t figure out how to summarize it — it is like it is beyond words ! 😀

  11. Ed

    @ Sabio… yeah, I kind of new it was not exactly the same thing, but it is a related phenomenon I believe, so I posted it. “Beyond words”… very funny… :-}

    How about if we call the zen thing, “Magical Mystery Envy”… (your mysteriousness is magic to me so I envy you)?

  12. DaCheese

    Not A Practitioner here, but: Buddhists teachers are well known for denying potential benefits that they clearly *do* believe in, so I can see how something like what Ed mentions could happen even if the teachers aren’t intending it.

    Just today I picked up a book in the book store and read a passage where the author was asserting that “meditation is useless”. Now I think I understand why he would say this; to truly progress with meditative states, you need to be able to let go of the distracting idea that you are achieving something. But still, it’s obvious that the guy does believe that there is some sort of benefit from meditation; otherwise, why would he be writing a whole book telling others about it? (Other than the obvious ulterior motives, of course.) If your whole introduction to Buddhist practice starts out with “useful deceptions” like that, then it’s not hard to see how students might conclude that any other denials from their teachers might be similarly motivated.

    A rough parallel to this would be the case of a guy who was on the Colbert Report TV show a while back. His biographical details happened to match the those of a coming messiah foretold by some obscure cult leader. When confronted with the suggestion that he was the prophesied messiah, the guy of course firmly denied it –thus fulfilling another aspect of the prophesy!

  13. @ DaCheese
    I think you are referring to the fondness of some Buddhist to do flashy paradox abuse in their pseudo-philosophy. (Hey, I like the ring of that). Not all of them do that by any means. If you have visited David’s sites, you will see some high quality careful thinking and writing. But I think I get what you mean, though. Paradox Abuse is another misadventure of certain types — some Christians do it too.

  14. Check out Socrates’ criticism of the knowledge of the craftsmen and poets in The Apology. He says the same thing you’re saying here; that these people, owing their poficiency in some one area, assume a general proficiency.

    I think many Western Buddhists (and other spiritual types) could do worse than to do some readings from our own philosophical tradition!

  15. @James
    Fantastic point — thank you, I look forward to it gladly. Thanks for the suggestion — I am excited to read it. Don’t you have a blog?

  16. Your first two words are enough to expose your misunderstanding “I believe…”

    Of course, there is much truth in what you say, especially about those who “do” meditation in order to “get something from it”.

    Yet the fact that you take the trouble to post on this subject reveals your doubt: Could I be wrong? Maybe there really is something like enlightenment?

    You have, unfortunately, fallen for an inductive fallacy. Let me draw an analogy: If a small child is given a toy oven, a plastic box with knobs and buttons, and perhaps an impressive light, but of no practical utility, they are happy to believe/pretend that this imitation is as important and useful as their parents’ oven – yet such a toy is of no use for actually baking cakes.

    The situation with masters is somewhat similar. Many believe that the imitations are as important and useful as the real masters, though in fact no help can be had from them. There are also, however, many people who are sufficiently experienced to see this through deception, and perceive, rightly, that the impostors are without function. In the case of masters, however, it happens that the genuine article is very much rarer than the imitation,.so those who have never directly encountered a real master are disposed assume that there is no such person alive. This is an egregious error!

    I wish you well, and also all the others who will shit on me for this “irrational” viewpoint (check my blog, if are really up for it). May you all come to see, whatever actually is, as soon as may be.

    Yes i am also an atheist…


  17. @ Vijen,
    By starting your post with “Your first two words are enough to expose your misunderstanding…”, you do not invite me to listen much further.

    The phrase “unfortunately you have fallen for …” is another non-starter.

    I checked out your blog. We are all very happy that you have found a true master and can now pontificate the truth.

  18. Meditation is method, not truth. Every method reveals a truth, but not “the one truth”. If I use a “different” method from you, or from one I used before, another truth is revealed for me. Methods are inherently different right, tey have a place they start, a path they take, and a result they achieve. If thoese three things are the same, we are talking about the same method, no matter what we call that. If they are different in any of those three ways, then also, no matter whether we call them the same, they realize different truths.

    This relativity can be quite bothersome, if you are used to the god religions of the book, the religions of the one truth. Or it can be bothersome if you are an monist / absolutist that needs all truths to be equivalent at some high level, the god-level as it were (your reference to the “god mind”).

    The closest thing there is to an absolute in that reality is the one truth of no one truth. It’s the truth that every method works, of itself (rang). It’s the great completion that realizes the truth of nondual truth of principle and function.

    I just blogged about this topic somewhat (on my new blog that I am shamelessly plugging):

    As I include a quote from Ngak’chang Rinpoche, it’s not utterly worthless to visit 🙂

  19. @ Sengchen
    OK, we get the value of pragmatic thinking. But how does this address my post?

  20. I thought the distinction of buddhism being about method and not truth was relevant. I am sorry you didn’t find it relevant.

  21. @ Shengchen
    I can see some relevance but only in that it sounds like very sound “pragmatism” in Nyingma clothing. All fine and good, but not very special. But since many Buddhists buy into the one size fits all, I infinitely prefer this Nyingma model, not because it is creatively brilliant, but because I have alway thought pragmatically about such things since I was younger — One-size-fits-all has repulsed me from my early years.

    But once you got your favorite, best-fit Buddhist techniques that fit you, the question is how far can you go. I think myths abound on this issue.

  22. Hi Sabio

    As it goes, this afternoon, taking a nap, having in mind a certain question I was thinking about, waking up again, enlightenment suddenly hit me: there is no enlightened being! The proof was irrefutable and laid before me in glaring light. It nearly blinded me. It might work with every other X-Enlightenment you mentioned. May it serve the illumination of mankind =>


  23. Very, very nice, Matthias. May satori continue to sparkle your consciousness and generate many many more fine posts.

  24. Great post and identification of 5 global-enlightenment myths. I shared your post on my facebook page and appreciate what you write.

  25. Thanks, Scott. And to people still following this thread, click on Scott’s name “Skeptic Meditations” and see his WordPress Blog. He was a meditating celibate Monk in a Hindu Guru-centric group in the USA for 14 years.

  26. rautakyy

    I find myself unable to meditate. Seriously, I have tried and tried, and what always happens is, that I fall asleep right away. That path to “enlightenment” is blocked for me.

    Before I take the step to believe someone has truly been enlightened, I would prefer some form of as objective as possible demonstration, that they indeed have achieved as much. I do think, I can recognize my limitation to not be able to take too big leaps of faith in such matters. To me enlightenment means realizing, that the way to evaluate reality is through as objective methodology to observe the reality as we ever are able to achieve, rather than to reach inside to seek the most “harmonic” subjective view of the reality around us – regardless of how ever fullfilling that may feel.

    Perhaps part of this phenomenon is that we should also be able to realize that we can never truly dissect subjective from objective, but in contrast to that people simply like easy, black and white and even absolute answers to much more complex questions. It seems only natural…

  27. @rautakyy:
    You said, “we should also be able to realize that we can never truly dissect subjective from objective”
    I agree

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