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​​​​Illumination or Inner Awakening

In Christian theology, illumination is the mental openness, both convenient and necessary, for the mystical experience of divinity to happen. In the secular Buddha's teachings, inner awakening is the cessation of the emotional suffering that results from the releasing of attachments and aversions. How different are these two states of mind? Quite different. Do they demand spiritual Masters? Inner awakening does not.

According to Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century ascetic monk, Christian life revolves around three aspects -body, mind and spirit- and the path to mystical experience must to go through an equal number of stages associated with such aspects: body purification, mental illumination and spiritual union with the divine. This latter stage is the final and irrevocable purpose of would-be mystics.

Mystical experiences happen only to unyielding obstinate believers, from all kinds of religious traditions, with substantial variations in the techniques they apply and the effects they perceive. All mystical encounters have in common the fact that they result from altered states of consciousness during which the devotees' firm beliefs are sensorially projected as reality. Anyone's blind faith in angels ends up in that such person 'actually' sees the images of these fictitious beings.

Unlike the metaphysical nature of religious illumination, inner awakening is earthly and mundane. In one of his best known dialogues, when a monk interrogates him about his identity, the Buddha describes himself as an 'awake'. "Are you a God? Are you a spirit? Are you an angel? ", asks the curious monk in insistent sequence. As all responses are negative, the monk demands: "What are you then?" "An awake", says the Sage. Awake is the exact translation of 'Buddha'; in Sanskrit, the verbal root 'budh' means to 'wake up'.​

​​​Despite its frequent use, it is not appropriate to refer to the Buddha as the illuminated one (the enlightened one is more commonly used) and to the extinction of suffering as illumination (enlightenment). Although Buddhism is an age-old tradition, its entrance to the West did not occur ​until the nineteenth century, when 'enlightenment’ was already a widespread word.

The previous linguistic and chronological references point out historical differences between illumination and awakening as approaches to meet the human need for transcendence; they are not intended as lines of reasoning for any of them. "Dictionaries are artificial repertoires that appear much later than the languages they are organizing," says argentine essayist Jorge Luis Borges.

The searches for mystical experiences and the cessation of suffering, despite being quite contrasting, have in common the considerable determination demanded by both. Still the path to religious illumination is much more arduous. "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the body you will live," says Paul. The road to the end of suffering is mindfulness meditation and its permanent exercise. During its early practice, meditation requires significant discipline but not as much, by no means, as it is demanded by asceticism.

​Are spiritual Masters necessary? For the mystical journey, which generally pass through long when not permanent stays in monasteries, my guess is affirmative. For the secular path of the Buddha, they are not. On one occasion, someone asks the Sage about why so many people who have listened to him remain lost in their lives. The Buddha replies that he has explained a correct path to achieve a valuable destination but the compliance with the instructions is the sole responsibility of each person. He adds: "The Buddha has nothing to do if someone goes astray in their journey; the Buddha is only the pointer of the road."

Our inner awakening  is our own responsibility and does not require of any Master to enlighten us; we would not know how to recognize them and, in the search, we could easily go astray. Obviously some honest guiders could help us; they may well be the pointers of the way.​

Gustavo Estrada
Autor de 'Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation'​ 

Atlanta, December 13, 2015