Sam Ghandchiسام قندچي Wakefulness and Enlightenment

Sam Ghandchi

بیدار اندیشی و روشن بینی

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Let me first say that in this paper I am not advocating any religion including Buddhism. In fact, I suggest to readers to see the movie 'Anna and the King’ which shows how Buddhist religion was related to some cruelties in history. Also I would suggest to watch a movie called 'Water' which shows how Hindu religion too has had its share of some cruelties lasting to this day. It is interesting that the fanatic followers of Buddhism and Hinduism also try to ban these movies.  The other schools of nonreligious ideologies from Fascism to Communism have also shown similar cases of cruelty.  I wrote all this so that to make it clear that my goal is not to sanctify any religion or ideology rather is to discuss some ideas that have been proposed by Buddha that I find to be interesting.


More than a year ago in my article entitled Iran and Wakeful Reflection (1), I explained what I mean by *wakefulness*.  Wakeful reflection is not a certain kind of thinking, and it is not even limited to thinking and is, the way of our attention to the whole of existence, in other words what I mean by wakeful reflection is being awake, aware, and in better words is to live mindfully.  The following story by Krishnamurti shows the difference very clearly:


"Attention is not the same as concentration.  Concentration is exclusion; attention, which is total awareness, excludes nothing.  It seems to me that most of us are not aware, not only of what we are talking about but of our environment, the clouds, the movement of water. Perhaps it is because we are so concerned with ourselves, with our own petty little problems, our own ideas, our own pleasures, pursuits and ambitions that we are not objectively aware.  And yet we talk a great deal about awareness. Once in India I was traveling in a car. There was a chauffeur driving and I was sitting beside him. There were three gentlemen behind discussing awareness, and unfortunately at that moment the driver was looking somewhere else and he ran over a goat, and the three gentlemen were still discussing awareness-totally unaware that they had run over a goat. When this lack of attention was pointed out to those gentlemen who were trying to be aware it was a great surprise to them" (2).


"The above words show that wakeful reflection is about our way of attention to the world, and not just about a way of thinking, and thus awareness cannot be thought of as equal to learning, the same way that many know cigarettes are poison, but are unable to quit it.  In fact this truth, has been stated whether by astute thinkers of the East such as Buddha, or by scientific minded Western thinkers like René Descartes.  In relation to Buddha, the following story is very interesting, where in reality the essence of Buddhist meditation is explained in wakeful reflection, and I should note that the term 'vipassana' in the following text means seeing everything as they are:


"It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?" "No,"said the Buddha. "Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?" Again the Buddha answered, "No." "Are you a man?" "No." "Well, my friend, what then are you?" The Buddha replied, "I am awake." The name Buddha means "one who is awake," and it is this experience that is the very heart and essence of vipassana, or insight meditation" (3).


As noted, the above truth is the essence of meditation, has not only been acknowledged in the piercing thoughts of Eastern thinkers like Buddha but has also been acknowledged by great scientific minds of the West such as Rene Descartes which I have discussed in details in my paper "Descartes and Laity" (4) as to why in my view the root of Descartes' meditation which is the foundation of scientific method is in Buddha's teaching.


In that paper I wrote about Descartes' view that he has the same approach to "cogito principle (I think, therefore I am), which in my opinion is similar to this Buddhist thought, that when we ask "who am I" and find out that 'me' has meaning only when we think of *ourselves*, and that otherwise the person *himself/herself* is a collection of feelings, movements, etc. which are the reality, and not anything by the name called 'I' as a concept!" 


My assessment of Cartesian scientific philosophy is not universally accepted, for example, it differs from Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist scholar who writes:


"..we cannot fail to notice how this Buddhist view [that there is no thinker behind the thought and thought itself is the thinker] is diametrically opposed to Cartesian cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am " (5).


Contrary to Walpola Rahula's view, I have explained thoroughly in “Descartes and Laity,” Cartesian view also means that the "I" has meaning only when we start thinking, otherwise “I” is just a collection of things, atoms, whatever.  Thus in my view Descartes' starting point in his meditations to found the scientific method has the same starting point as Buddha when looking at the meaning of *self*. Also for further explanation about my understanding of practice of meditation in Buddhist thought please see my article entitled "Conference of the Birds" (6).


But what I want to discuss in this paper is enlightenment.  Is enlightenment achievable?  Is enlightenment in contradiction with science?  Is enlightenment equivalent to mystical thinking and not identical with scientific thought?


In contrast to the understanding of enlightenment among the Western rationalists and scientists like Descartes that I noted, in my opinion in Iran basically a wrong understanding of Buddha's teaching has existed which has been perceived as equivalent to mysticism and in contradiction with science.  This is why on one side our scientists have passed on the discourse and on the other hand our mystical thinkers have viewed enlightenment as opposed to scientific thinking and have advocated it as such.


Why in Iran enlightenment has been understood in a wrong way?


In my opinion, in the pre-Islamic Iranian thought, in the views of Zoroaster, and after Islam in the Islamic thought, the monist view of the world has had popularity and dominance, and has been supported by the state.  And this has been the reason that the thinkers of Iran have explained everything in the framework of a monist thinking.  The most important component of this monism has been the belief in a God who is responsible for this world and thus even the mystics who want to perceive everything in a pantheism, consider this position for the man to reach the status of God.  For my detailed discussion about the Medieval philosophy, please see "Modernism and Meaning of Life" (7)Also for more explanation of my views on the discussion of God and Metaphysics, please see "The God and Us" (8) and "Metaphysics & Religion" (9).


The Sufis were not able to remove the discourse of God from their subject of thought in the discussion of spiritual matters, the work which is the most important achievement of Buddha's philosophical thought.  In fact, the most important aspect of Buddha's ideas was in the fact that contrary to all the Hindu thinkers of his him, he believed that discussion of topics such as God and Soul, the universe being eternal or not eternal, the existence to be finite or infinite, body and soul to be one of two things, was *not* necessary to enable him to define the moral and spiritual views he intended.  In fact the priesthood of Hindu religion of Buddha's time were basically busy with these discussions whereas Buddha did not see these discussions useful and did not spend his time with these discussions.


In the words Walpola Rahula may be we can say that Buddha was the only founder of a major religion who neither claimed to be a supernatural being nor that he has any message or mission from a supernatural world.  The truth that Buddha claims has found under the tree of wakefulness (Bodhi-tree), says that any human can find.  Of course Walpola Rahula also writes that Buddhist religion for 2500 years has been away from violence because violence in any shape and form is against the teachings of Buddha.  Although I agree with the second statement, but I do not share the optimism of the second claim about Buddhist religion.  The reason for my view I noted at the beginning of this article when noting the two movies, and even the wars of Hindu Tamil-Tigers of today with the Sri Lankan Buddhist government are another reason for my view.


Let's return to the discussion of the understanding of an ordinary person of Buddha's thought.  Let me explain this discussion very simply.  An ordinary Buddhist individual does not see the spiritual goal of her that like the believers of most religions of the world, to be the servant of some God and to worship that God, or like the Sufis and mystics, to see God in everything in the world and to want to reach the position of God.  The discussion of God is not his issue.  The moral goal in life is to reach the level of Buddha, not as some cult of personality of Buddha, but as an achievable goal that anyone can reach, in seeing the truth, meaning to be someone who is wakeful, enlightened.  In other words in view of this thought, human in enlightenment, sees the truth, reaches higher levels, and at the same time characteristics like compassion become internalized in him/her.


Thus the fact of how an enlightened person explains the nature and structure and origin and future of the world for herself or others at any time, is the issue of science and knowledge of any era and is not the issue of his/her spiritual growth.  Thus this knowledge for ordinary people may be very limited and for more educated people may be broader and may reach the scientific explanation of their time.  In other words, the explanation that there is or there is not a God, whether the world is evolved or not, what has been the past and what future has in store for us, are issues of knowledge, and are not the main problem of spiritual growth for Buddha to look at them from that angle.


Then what is the subject of attention of the truth that an enlightened individual attains?


Before discussing this let me note that my focus on this philosophical topic is like a non-religious person.  Otherwise the various sects of Buddhist religion, just like all other religions, are confined to the knowledge of the various eras that their particular sect has been formed, and many of them like other religions, are dogmatic in the obsolete knowledge that they have inherited, and the same way their understanding of the world is in the same way backward, and their views of particular subjects belongs to the times when those explanations of their sect have been written.  These specific takes of particular issues of the world and society by different Buddhist sects is not of interest to me here and my goal here is the way of approach in the Buddhist thought towards the spiritual growth, which in contrast to the founders of most other religions including the priesthood of Hindu religion, does not require an acceptance of a God or Brahman and a specific metaphysics to define its intended spiritual path.  Yet I repeat that Buddhism as a religion in history is not much different from other religions and the scientific understanding of a specific era that a particular sect has formed in, has turned into the dogma of that sect and the Buddhist religion as I noted at the beginning of this article has had and still has as much problems as other religions, and basically the sects and religions of Buddhism are not the subject of my interest.


It is interesting that at first the truth that he had seen after enlightenment is doubtful whether can be interesting for an ordinary individual but the experience of Buddhism shows, the layman's potential of grasping the truth with all its complexities and accepting this complex view did not remain in the confines of the educated elite in society.  Although I should note that the spread of Buddhism as a religion among the ordinary people, made some simplistic aspects of the view, that are basically inherited from Hindu religion, such as Karma and reincarnation to gain more attention.


Buddha's interpretation of "Karma" and reincarnation is not his main discussion but the karma and reincarnation in his view simply mean that the same forces that in every moment can kill and bring to life the individual's life will continue after the life of the person in the current body, and can still cause the birth and death.  Basically Buddhism neither believes in any soul separate from body nor is the existence or non existence of any God the subject of its thinking.  In Buddha's view to reach the highest levels of spiritual growth namely Nirvana, is the end of this birth and death cycle, but it does not mean the joining of soul with God that many Sufis of Iran have understood it.  As noted there is no soul separate from body for Buddhism, and even Buddha when talking of what happens after life for those individuals who have reached higher consciousness, the Arahants, he does not say much, and his emphasis is that he himself is a human like all other humans who is dying and is not going to come back.


Why is it interesting for me that Buddha till the last minute of his life says that he is a human like all other humans who is dying although he is someone who has reached Nirvana but repeats that he is not coming back?  In my opinion the experience of Buddhism has proven that contrary to the perception of some intellectuals, ordinary people are able to understand such a difficult and complex view, and they did not expect Buddha to be a supernatural entity to revere his spiritual ideas.



Let's go back to the discussion.  The main discussion of Buddha is "truth" which he reached enlightenment after six years of personal efforts and seeing the truth is his enlightenment.  What is enlightenment or seeing the truth?  I am going to give an example here.  Perhaps this example of mine is like saying the prima facie trial events but in my view it is an illustration of enlightenment:


Let's think about the tsunami of the shores of Indian Ocean.  Can it be said that there is a merciless God who decides innocent children of the shores of Indonesia to be killed?  One cannot say that those children did not seek God and this was why they ended up with such a fate.  Any kind of common sense shows that no justification of Divine Wisdom can explain such a catastrophe.  Of course, I do not want to say that some people of the world will not prefer to think that way.  But if the justifications are not acceptable, then this reality, is a harsh bitter reality, and it is also true that thinking about such reality and understanding this truth will first cause despair.


If no God can be condemned for this event and if on the contrary can not be said that there is a powerful God but it has been in the Divine Wisdom and for example all those killed will go to heaven, in that case, a painful feeling accompanied with emptiness of life can take over us.  Of course one can believe in a God which is like a prime mover but does not interfere in the details of the universe afterwards, such a a prime Force, which again ends in the same result and again the harsh reality of this event is with us which even if we think the God later to be able to do something about it to compensate, when He was not able to do anything while it all happened!


But enlightenment means that it is in any case a reality, a painful reality, but how is the higher understanding?  Will the painful feelings or the feelings of emptiness still continue after seeing enlightenment?  Yes!  And even more than before.  Then what is the difference between the human who is more enlightened who understands this event, in comparison to others?


In my opinion, what Buddha is saying means to acknowledge the suffering, is the first step.  Acknowledgement does not mean not to seek the ways to remove the results of the mishap or not to try to prevent tsunami damages in the future.  In other words acknowledgement, does not mean giving up.  Acknowledgement means transparency and not to be afraid to face the harsh reality of this painful truth and this unfair suffering.  It is true that later Buddha talks of impermanence but that does not mean not to do anything about these catastrophes and not seek ways to counter them.  But it is again the explanation of the prima facie fact that pain is not permanent the same way that happiness is not permanent.  And finally when he says that *self* does not exist, it is again statement of facts as I discussed it in my discussion of meditation and Descartes.


My late friend Jack Li (Little Rock) narrated the following from Buddha which is a very concise description of enlightenment:


"Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise from outward things, whatever you may believe. There is an innermost center in us all, where truth abides in fullness; and around, wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in. This perfect clear perfection which is truth" (10).


In my view, enlightenment is attainable and its meaning is not to have ready made answers to the questions of science and technology, which experience and knowledge can solve.  An enlightened person needs all these tools to seek knowledge as much as anybody else.


But why in Iran, enlightenment has been misunderstood?  Why our Sufis in facing the Islamic clergy who saw humans as the servants of God wanted to take humans to become God.  Was the reality of human life and suffering so difficult to endure after throwing away the myth of Shari'a and they preferred to take the road of another myth?  I do not know, but it is obvious to me what they had reached was not enlightenment and especially offering a monist view in place of Buddha's pluralist view of truth, meaning to see the truth as reduced to some kind of monistic entity, God!  For detailed discussion about Sufism please see "Sufism and Fatalism" (11).


Moreover, in Buddha's view, enlightenment carries with it the compassion, and in my opinion this is the spiritual essence of enlightenment whereas one would not see any Buddhist thinker to keep talking about love, kindness, and compassion and to advise people describing these good characteristics. In fact in the spiritual view related to enlightenment, alongside understanding the common suffering of not only all humanity but all life and existence, these characteristics will also become ingrained in the individual alongside seeing the truth to be compassionate to those who are also suffering from the same pain and this way compassion becomes an inseparable part of enlightenment.


The following quotation from Roshi Philip Kapleau is in fact a koan that shows the difference of Buddhist compassion with religious advice about kindness and empathy and can be useful for meditation on all these discussion about enlightened view of truth and the ingraining of sympathy and compassion:


"Once the governor of a province in ancient China spent several days in the mountains with his Zen teacher, a famous master. As the governor was preparing to depart, the master asked him, When you return to the capital, how will you govern the people?  With compassion and wisdom, replied the governor.  In that case, commented the master, every last one of them will suffer" (12).


Hoping for a democratic and secular futurist republic in Iran,


Sam Ghandchi

July 26, 2006




1. Iran and Wakeful Reflection
ایران و بیدار اندیشی


2. Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known, Page 31
کریشنا مورتی، آزادی از شناخته شده، متن انگلیسی، 1969، ص31

3. Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, P.3
جک کورنفیلد، جستجوی جوهر فرزانگی، متن انگلیسی، 1987، ص 3

4. Descartes and Laity
دکارت و لائیکات، مردم عادی غیر روحانی یا غیرمتخصص

5. Rahula, Walpola, What Buddha Thought, 1958, Grove Press, P.26
والپولا راهولا، بودا چه فکر میکرد، 1958، انتشارات گروو، ص. 26


6. Toilet paper and Conference of the Birds
کاغذ توالت و کنفرانس پرندگان


7. Modernism and Meaning of Life
مدرنیسم و معنای زندگی


8. The God and Us
خدا و ما -ویرایش دوم


9. Metaphysics and Religion

متافیزیک و مذهب 
Is there Room for Metaphysics in Modern Sciences, Second Edition

آیا در علوم جدید جایی برای متافیزیک وجود دارد، ویرایش دوم


10. Jack Li, Zen Meditation, Winter 1989


11. Sufism and Fatalism- A Brief Note
صوفیگری و تقدیر گرائی- یک یادداشت کوتاه


12. Roshi Philip Kapleau, Zen-Merging of East and West, 1979, P. 199

















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