I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating,
And still I’m suffering, but that’s my problem.
Enlightenment: don’t know what it is.

— Van Morrison1

Enlightenment. Don’t have it; haven’t seen it; can’t imagine it. Wouldn’t know it if it hit me over the head—or on the shoulder, jikijitsu-like. Don’t know what it is.

Reputedly, enlightenment “fixes” people. That seems appropriate, because I’m certainly broken—all the way down. But the hopelessly broken is not a candidate for repair. And I really don’t want to be put back together. Although it occasionally chokes my heart, brokenness is welcome to me in this world of suffering and failure. The liberation I want is not from the brokenness, but from the constriction. And I know where that liberation lies: it’s when I fear to feel the broken edges that I choke. But that’s my problem.

Enlightenment? Not here; not now; not for this writer. This fellow is a fraud; a shameful absurdity; a corpse preening in a mirror; a mirage obsessing over human error, fuming over intractable facts, shivering over survival. It seems that even we walking dead want to walk a while longer, look as good as possible, be admired for tricks like playing dead. At least, we want such things when we think we’re somebody. What is my original face before my parents conceived me? This I am even now: nihil sub aeternitatis specie.2 But I forget. Brokenness can do that.

And this brokenness does, indeed, go all the way down. Unlike the estimable Leonard Cohen, alchemical hero of my cohort, I’m not singing “Hallelujah!” Let the Lord of Song be serenaded as he will; the spirit groans within me as I wait with the creation for the revelation of the children of God,3 weak and broken though they be. Groaning and longing don’t appeal? I understand; “I don’t expect that you should follow me.”4 To borrow Eliot’s words, I “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”5 Hopelessness has few friends.

Enlightenment eludes me, but endarkenment: that I know. It is my spiritual condition, a kind of seeing in and by the dark. Maybe it’s the other side of enlightenment; maybe it’s a synthesis of enlightenment and ignorance; maybe it’s madness. In any case, one doesn’t get it by taking thought, nor does one get it by not taking thought;6 one simply opens one’s eyes in the unity of light and dark, good and evil, life and death, yes and no. So it’s all the same to me? No, it isn’t; perhaps if it were I’d be enlightened. But it’s all “not-two”7 to me, and that makes all the difference. I can’t rest in half-measures.

And so I rest in endarkenment, simultaneously seduced and repelled by the dark beauty of our Darwinian world. Or, I should say, I unrest here: I cannot “say ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”8 It may be that “all manner of thing shall be well,”9 but not yet, not now. Life is suffering,10 and the end of suffering is the end of life: surely, no satori could switch off all pain sensors, confer immortality, or take the anguish of the world from my heart. Life is suffering, and the less suffering I bear, the less deeply I live—and the more other creatures bear for me. Where is the light in that? What spirit would move me so? Yes, “I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating, and still I’m suffering,” but that’s not my problem.

Endarkened here and now, I am a failure as a Buddhist; degodded long ago, I have failed at Christianity as well. I belong nowhere, a solitary broken heart who wanders through life working and writing, poorly but never poorly enough, from a longing to love. Understanding that, I no longer hope for enlightenment; I want only to become ever more faithful to what I am—to be better attuned to not-twoness, more courageous in accepting brokenness, less limited in offering love. Those who feel a similar longing will know what I mean.

1. Van Morrison, the title song from Enlightenment (1990), an excellent collection. (Excerpt punctuation provided by me.)
2. “Nothing from the point of view of eternity.” Quoting the Latin phrase here probably qualifies as Spinoza-abuse; it’s lifted from Prop. XXXI of his Ethics, where he uses it in a very different way.
3. See Romans 8.
4. Justin Hayward, “Shame,” from The View From the Hill (1996), another recommended collection of songs. “Shame” seems to express a sense of the “not-twoness” mentioned later in this essay.
5. T. S. Eliot, “East Coker.” From Four Quartets, first published as a collection in 1944.
6. See Eicho (1429-1504 C.E.), Zenrin Kushu.
7. See Chien-chih Seng-ts’an (d. 606 C.E.), “On Believing in Mind.”
8. Jeremiah 6:1: “They have healed also the hurt of my people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace.”
9. Julian of Norwich.
10. The Buddha’s “First Noble Truth.”

5 thoughts on “Endarkenment

  1. As always, a thought-provoking bit of writing from you; thank you! As I reflected on “enlightenment” and “endarkenment” these familiar lines came to mind:

    “Not destroyed, not defiled, not pure, and they neither increase nor diminish. Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness; no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or dharmas; no field of the eyes, up to and including no field of mind-consciousness; and no ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no accumulating, no extinction, no way, and no understanding and no attaining.

    “Because nothing is attained, the Bodhisattva, through reliance on prajna paramita, is unimpeded in his mind. Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid, and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind.”

    Perhaps “endarkenment” is “no enlightenment nor absence of enlightenment?”

    • I’ve been acquainted with the Heart Sutra for about 40 years, but I confess that my attention has usually been caught by the phrase that this version renders as “up to and including”: I’ve liked the condensation, the elimination of all elements of a long chain other than the first and the last. In addition to making me smile at the verbal husbandry, it led me to conclude that the sutra was written for people who already knew that entire chain (of 18 elements, it turns out) and the analysis that produced it. And so I guessed that perhaps this sutra was written, somewhat as some say specific gospel books may have been, in order to correct what the author(s) felt was an erroneous position held by co-religionists. But I’ve never investigated that.

      And I’ve never reflected deeply on the sutra’s meaning. (Maybe I focused on that little phrase as a way of avoiding the difficulty.) I get the sense that it wants to tell me that things (including us) and our experience of them are neither real nor unreal, neither exist nor do not exist, because they are all emptiness—and therefore that emptiness is not a quality in things, and that things are not “in” emptiness, for “in emptiness there is no form….” If so, “no enlightenment nor absence of enlightenment” would seem to fit: “in emptiness there is … no ignorance or ending of ignorance … no attainment and no non-attainment.”

      But wouldn’t “endarkenment” of necessity be subject to the same dialectic as “enlightenment”: in emptiness there is no endarkenment nor no endarkenment? I suppose it can all be seen as “skillful means”? Maybe someday I’ll know what this talk is about. Or maybe not. Thanks for reminding me of the sutra and leading me to give it some thought.

  2. You express this beautifully. I am not quite there but close enough to feel the vibration. I have noted in my time among atheists that there are always relatively few women among them. I have wondered quite a bit about this. At one conference, I was surrounded by dozens of intelligent, kind-hearted, humanistic men, but I could count the women on one hand. Is it socialization, education, the brain itself? Perhaps, (I say fully aware of my embarrassing bio-deterministic simplicity) my female brain will never allow me to stand where you bravely and authentically stand. It continues to provide experiences of connection to a “sense of that which is Beyond” and I can no more escape those experiences than I can escape my belief that they are illogical. What does one do when one’s conscious, rational brain mocks one’s most profound experiences? *shrug* I ruminate and ponder and grumble. Anyway, thank you for writing as you do.

    • Thanks for your comments. You raise interesting questions. I don’t know about gender differences in this regard, but I might be able to cast a somewhat different light on the question of the rational mind seeming to be at odds with non-rational, profound experiences. In my case, I think the conflict was more between emotional experiences themselves, with the rational part often playing an almost supplemental role. Sometimes I would experience—feel more than think—the world as beautiful and deeply meaningful; at other times, I’d be appalled by the built-in horrors and mechanistic operation. Both feeling-responses felt true, and the intellect was able to justify now the one and then the other as being key. (If you look at the brief story of my spiritual development called “The Making of a Quaker Atheist,” that process might be discernible there.) Eventually, though, they all began to work together, each response seeming to assume its proper weight, and the intellect, respecting that weighting, making progress in analysis and synthesis.

      I don’t know if that’s at all useful. But I’m grateful for your writing about your own process.

  3. Some time ago I read the book “Bringing Nature Home” about invasive species and native plants. It points out that decorative plants in our yard that are “immune” to insects are simply plants that are not native, and therefore aren’t food for the native insects. Immune to the life around them, they ironically damage that life.

    The only way we can avoid being broken, chomped up, by the world is to be detached, and then in the metaphor suggested by the above, we are actually damaging others. (At the same time I’d like to believe that more love, and less craving, would help reduce our suffering, or give the suffering meaning. I’ve found the Buddhist message convincing about the craving, but confusing about non-attachment. It’s not obvious to me that non-attachment should lead to compassion, but I feel as though I am probably misunderstanding something).

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