Uniting the two kinds of enlightenment

Kant clarified

Kant clarified

The English word enlightenment can have two quite different contexts:

  1. The (Western) Enlightenment of the 18th century. You know: Kant, Voltaire, Hume, reason, the American and French Revolutions and all that.
  2. The (Eastern) Enlightenment that the Buddha, Patanjali, and various Zen masters and bodhisattvas have achieved through meditation and Yoga. Samadhi, nirvana, satori and all that.
Buddha illuminated

Buddha illuminated

The two are completely different, of course. The former is largely a collective phenomenon, one in which ideas elevated all of society. The latter is largely an individual phenomenon in which one person, through sudden insight (Zen) or hard and prolonged work (Ashtanga Yoga), achieves inner peace and freedom.

In fact, the same exact difference came up when I talked about freedom: There is:

  1. the (Western) Enlightenment view of freedom: Latin liberLiberalism, Liberty, and
  2. the Existentialist and Eastern views of freedom (moksha in Sanskrit).

Anyway, what this means is mainly that the limitation lies in the English word Enlightenment. German, for instance, has two separate words:

  1. The Western Enlightenment is called Aufklärung. The term was coined by Kant and means literally clarification (Auf-klär-ung = Up-clear-ing, for you fellow linguists. Incidentally, it can also refer to a young person learning about the birds and bees).
  2. The Eastern Enlightenment is called Erleuchtung, which means illumination, often symbolized with the halo (ie, ring of light) on the crown chakra of the Buddha or Jesus.

Why I bring this up

That difference between Aufklärung and Erleuchtung came up in 2007 when I was talking with Michael Murphy, one of the two founders of the New Age retreat Esalen. I was interviewing him for a profile of Esalen in the Christmas Issue of The Economist that year. Murphy is now in his seventies and lives in Sausalito, so I went there to see him. We sat by the waterfront and talked about absolutely everything except what we were supposed to talk about. For instance, he was the first person other than my agent, parents or wife whom I told about my book idea, and that really got him going. It was the best kind of conversation.

Anyway, so Murphy and I talked about the two kinds of Enlightenment, and to my surprise this Irish-American aging Hippie delves into German etymology. But it was appropriate. An oversimplified summary of his life work–at Esalen and in his books–is that he tried to unite Aufklärung and Erleuchtung, West and East, in an effort to liberate our full “human potential”. Hence the Human Potential Movement, which he helped to found at Esalen in the 60s, when folks like Abe Maslow were teaching there.

Instinctively, that is what I also aspire to: Uniting the two kinds of Enlightenment in my life. You see it when I call Diogenes a “Greek Buddha” or Abe Maslow a “Jewish Buddha,” or when I draw parallels between the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Feng Shui.

Somewhere between East and West (though perhaps not in the “middle East”)–somewhere between reflection and science, eternity and progress, mythos and logos–there must be something worth finding. I’m sure of it.

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14 thoughts on “Uniting the two kinds of enlightenment

  1. The way I see it, is that “Aufklärung” deals with our conscious intellect; and “Erleuchtung”, our unconscious “emotional” side. True “enlightenment” is a marrying (or synthesis) of the two.

    Does the Jungian “individuation” describe best this synthesis? Could it be that it is the “individuated” man (person) who occupies the top of Maslow’s pyramid?

    • Thanks for this. I can never get enough of him.

      There you have him (Erhard) in the picture, and next to him Adenauer, the Cato to his Scipio. (Only very regular readers, admittedly, will know what I mean by that.)

  2. Fascinating and enlightening post – love the German etymologies. I’ve long used/abused/bemoaned the distinction (including on your last Maslow post).

    Though the Western “up-clear-ing” was major progress over what preceded it, it has left us now burdened by some of its errors.

    On a related theme – did you read Brooks’ column in today’s NYT?

    He compares philosophical vs psychological insights & science

    “we [each] are a community of competing selves”

    “[Human b]ehavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”

    and ending with

    “these two views of conduct are in conversation, not conflict. But it does seem we’re in one of those periods when words like character fall into dispute and change their meaning.”

    • What errors do you think the up-clear-ing left us burdened with? I can’t think of any.

      Yes, i did read Brooks’ column and liked it. He’s a blogger, really, who happens to have a column. I found myself agreeing that character is situational and contextual. But that was in the context of his column.

    • Hi Andreas – I’m encouraged that a Renaissance-man such as yourself, can’t come up with some (Western) Enlightenment errors off the cuff… it give me hope that there might be a market for my ideas… which I hint at in Hanging Noodles….

      So I hope you’ll forgive my evasive response, I’m in the process of putting together a proposal for a book to explain how science is now challenging some cherished assumptions of our Enlightened age.

      Hopefully will be able to reveal more soon.

    • Well, now you have my attention. I do hope you will tease us more.

      Since you got me thinking:

      – If you’re going to blame the latter parts of the French Revolution on the Enlightenment, I don’t think you can.
      – If you’re going to criticize the scientific method you’ll find it difficult but you can certainly blame the Enlightenment for giving it to us.

    • More teasing definitely in the offing.

      Beginning with the fact that the burdens of the enlightenment of which I shall say more later, is related to neither of your guesses.

  3. The two types of Light seem to have very different characteristics and spheres of action. One is absorbed the other absorbs. One makes the mind active the other stills the mind. They seem to compete for attention and a choice must be made; either or… as I understand them, each awakens to a different reality. One might reward you with a Nobel price the other will give you nothing to show for your attainment. I do not see them converge.

    The differential diagnostic is appropriate.

    It also shows the emphasis on different values between East and West.

  4. I am a trance channel for a Seraphim Angel by the name of Saron. His main purpose is to put people on or keep people on the pathway to ascension or enlightenment. I channel publicly weekly at the Ganesha Center in Las Vegas, NV. You can find my blog at:

    I love your blog!
    Thank you for doing what you do!


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