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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