Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.
Strictly speaking, there is no enlightened person, only enlightened activities people do. Some do it more than the others. But no one becomes “permanently enlightened” simply by figuring out some cosmic secret. It’s not a degree you earn; it’s a state of being you need to work pretty hard to maintain.
Nowadays enlightenment is popularly portrayed as some sudden state of rapture usually accompanied by luminous shapes and a profound unity consciousness. True, this is enlightenment; but just like all candles (or for that matter stars) require energy to keep shining light into darkness, that state of unity consciousness also requires energy to stay that way. And that energy comes from constant spiritual discipline and focus.
Now here’s the biggie: it’s actually EASIER (in a very ascetic way) to maintain this so called state of enlightenment in a monastery or up in the mountains far removed from the challenges of modern life! It’s tremendously harder to serve the world in an enlightened way when you have to live in everyday world of mortgage and credit cards, school homework and divorce lawyers. But it is here that we learn the hardest of the lessons. It is here in the every day life amidst people we grow the fastest. Why?
Because it’s ALL God. God is not only found somewhere in Himalayas hiding in a temple, nor in a thousand year old church somewhere in Ireland. God is everywhere and interacting with us through everyone. God is here and now. God wears 10,000 masks. And some of those masks include your mother-in-law, ex-husband, tax officer, boss, brother, sister, lover…
It’s so much easier to stay enlightened when you don’t have to fall in love so madly that you could die for the other, only to be scarred so badly that it hurts to even breathe. Its so much easier to be enlightened when all you have to worry about is your own robe and a rice bowl – yes its simple and its difficult to attain this level of simplicity, but its easier too – its so much harder to act with perfect enlightened attitude when you have to deal with traffic jams and politicians, have a family to feed, children to send to school, and want to take them on a little vacation once in a while so they may smile and grow. Its so much harder because there are so many challenges that come on the way.
Now I am not saying there is anything wrong with the monastic life or people who dedicate themselves to a life of simplicity and strict spiritual pursuits in seclusion. Those choices can be compared with going to school or university. Sometimes we need to study for many years in seclusion or in an institution before we are able serve the world in a bigger and better way. Depending on how much you want to study you may take 5 years or 30 years. But it’s important to realize that it’s not significantly better or worse to be a monk or a stock broker.
You can be a monk or a yogi for all the wrong reasons (fear of dealing with the challenges of the world) and obviously you can be a police man or stock broker for all the wrong reasons too (being driven by never ending hunger for money and power). Both are valid in their own way. But when you live a life of seclusion, it’s definitely easier to maintain a state of rapturous unity consciousness of perfect love and compassion.
I remember hearing a story in a monastery in Nepal (where I lived for a month last year): the story is about this great yogi who lived in a remote cave all alone for 27 years. Finally he was discovered by the village people nearby and they started to offer him food once in a while and he’d give them teachings sometimes. Soon his name became famous and many people began to visit him regularly from villages all around the place. Everything was fine until one day someone invited the guru to come down in the village carnival in the valley below to impart his wisdom. Nobody really expected him to accept the invitation but the great guru said yes.
So it is after 28 years of seclusion, meditation, discipline and devotion, the great guru came down to the village carnival… and then something happened!
Because many people came to the carnival and some of them did not have any idea who the great guru was, there was commotion all around him and mistakenly someone bumped into him and he fell to the ground. Angry, the guru got up and yelled “Do you not know who I am?” And the moment the words came out the great yogi realized his mistake. He asked forgiveness and moved along.
He taught many people in the carnival and when it was time for him to leave, a disciple asked him where he would go now, back to his cave? Could he not stay just for the night in the village?
To this the guru answered, “The days of being in the cave is now over. I realize that my true learning will happen here among the people. It is here that I shall learn what I truly need to learn.”
And so the guru began to live within the people, learning to adjust to the struggles of everyday life, discovering all the hidden aspects of his self that he could not see all this years in the seclusion of his cave.
This story reminds me of a simple truth: God is not just the light, but also the darkness; not just the pleasure, but also pain; not just success but also the failures; not just life but also death. There is nothing that God is not. And I feel that living within people is one of the most effective ways to practice the discipline of remembering that simple truth.
Here’s a quote I read a while ago: “God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly, not one.” Opposites are part of this physical reality; you can’t have light without dark…
Remember: it is the people that cause the greatest “dis-harmony” are the ones that teach the most profound lessons as well. Something I think is valuable to remember on our ever increasing quest to ONLY attract the “positive”. Remember, on a magnet, you can’t have the positive without the negative. No matter how many times you try to chop the negative off.
So coming back to your question “where do the enlightened go from here?”, the enlightened goes no where really but simply realizes that after all has been said and done, its all God, all perfect, all One, despite the seeming two-ness and apparent broken-ness. So where do you go when you are already there? You don’t.
You simply do what you do but never put anyone out of your heart. You play your role in this drama with all enthusiasm and seriousness but you NEVER forget the truth. It’s all One. It’s ALL God. We are ALL in this great journey together. The bad guys are serving the perfect role and so are the good guys. All the obstacles and disappointments in life are nothing but guidance for us to fulfil our chosen destiny, to learn all the lessons we are here to learn in this life time, to be all that we are destined to be.
All the wars and the cruelty, all the disease and the poverty, are simply calls for the heroes to rise, for the warriors of light to awaken and unleash their magical powers, for the timid princes to slay the dragon only to fulfil his destiny to serve as the great ruler…
But here’s a question that the enlightened never forget to ask: “How would the heroes realize they are heroes if the villains never challenged them to arise?” Who then, are truly the heroes? The ones who get all the kudos for slaying the dragon? Or is it the dragon who served the role of the bad guy so the hero could become the hero?
The enlightened do not go anywhere or do anything special. They neither fervently seek the light nor do they remain inactive in the darkness. They simply do what they do – in their monasteries or stock markets, marriages or nightclubs, serving the roles of patriots or dictators, saving lives or killing many – but they never put anyone out of their hearts. They see the unity beyond the illusion of material separation but they act with perfect compassion and empathy. They serve the world but not with the illusion that right now is anything but perfect. They do what they do, wherever they are – prisons, hospitals, carnivals or battlefields – but they never put anyone out of their hearts.
They remember this simple truth – Love is the recognition of God in the other.
And in the end… it’s all Love.