Is Zen Enlightenment Real?

Is Zen Enlightenment Real? February 8, 2021

By James A. Haught

I’m intrigued by Zen meditation as a supposed path to enlightenment. I’ve tried repeatedly – lying silent in bed, blanking out my mind, hearing nothing but the rhythm of my breath, seeing nothing but dark blurs behind my eyelids. But all it does is put me to sleep. In the end, I never get a smidgeon of enlightenment. I’m still just the same old me.

I wonder whether anyone finds enlightenment – or whether the quest is self-deceptive, a fantasy leading nowhere?

I never knew any meditator who seemed enlightened – did you? Did you ever see amazing insights or remarkable creative output by an enlightenee?

American Buddhism is a billion-dollar field with many gurus. It’s followed by intellectuals such as brilliant atheist Sam Harris. Researcher John Horgan says:

“The number of Buddhist centers in the United States has more than doubled to well over 1,000. As many as four million Americans now practice Buddhism, surpassing the total of Episcopalians. Of these Buddhists, half have post-graduate degrees.”

Horgan wrote in Slate that he plunged ardently into the exotic pursuit, but –

“Eventually, and regretfully, I concluded that Buddhism is not much more rational than the Catholicism I lapsed from in my youth. Buddhism’s moral and metaphysical worldview cannot easily be reconciled with science – or more generally, with modern humanistic values.”

Buddhism’s insistence that suffering is an illusion theoretically could make followers less concerned when bigoted white police kill unarmed black men, or women are victimized by male predators, or other outrages occur.

Horgan added that supposedly enlightened gurus can be unappetizing: “Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987.”

Another guru, Bhagwan Rajneesh, created an Oregon commune that committed the worst bioterror attack in American history. Trying to control a local election, Rajneesh followers cultured Salmonella in a lab and sprinkled it in salad bars at ten restaurants in The Dalles in 1984, hoping to make townspeople too sick to vote. It worked, and 750 became ill. Forty-five were hospitalized, but none died. Two women leaders of the commune were convicted, and Rajneesh was deported to India, where he died in 1990.

Dr. Robert Fuller, former president of Oberlin College, made an intense study of meditation gurus and their adoring followers. Writing in Psychology Today, he summed up:

“Getting a close look at several individuals who were advertised as enlightened led me to conclude that there’s a lot of hype and hypocrisy in the business. A good many of them, not unlike a fair number of academics I’d known, seemed to be in it primarily for the lifestyle. Many gurus are treated like deities and hold absolute power over their devotees. As ‘enlightened beings,’ they’re accountable to no one, and their foibles, appetites and excesses are given a pass.”

He continued:

“Fraud is a stranger to neither science nor religion. Its presence invalidates neither, but its ubiquity warrants skepticism…. The language of enlightenment tended to be esoteric, obscurantist and elitist, and the teachings attracted more credulous dabblers than credible seekers…. In my quest, I did not come across anyone who could be said to dwell in a state of permanent enlightenment.”

Writers shouldn’t pontificate about subjects they don’t understand. I truly don’t understand meditation and enlightenment – but I wonder whether anyone does. This essay can serve as an invitation for some Ph.D. Buddhist like Sam Harris to write a rebuttal saying how ignorant and shallow I am to ask whether meditation is a trip to nowhere.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. This article originally appeared in Free Inquiry, February 2021.)

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