Is Enlightenment really possible and what is ‘real life’?

A student writes:

I had an experience where I suddenly realised I don’t really believe complete Enlightenment is possible or that there is rebirth. And thought why should I really believe them as I have no experience of either?

Sometimes the everyday world that most people are fascinated with seems so real as if that is really what life is. Throughout the years I have been practicing I have often battled with the pull of the ‘world’ and my strong yearning for spiritual Awakening, although I have made a real shift and feel very committed to awakening.

Being hit by these thoughts rocked me for a while, but now I feel that I have moved into a new place and have a new confidence to intensify my practice even more. I feel very devoted to Awakening even though I have doubts but perhaps this is a common experience, I hope so!

In the past these doubts about fundamental things have held me back from really letting go because when the path has been difficult I have said to myself perhaps the spiritual life is too difficult and may not be true after all, so I have taken more interest in non-spiritual things again. I would be interested in what you think about this.

Lama Shenpen replies:

In my experience this is actually a pretty common experience. I think culturally we are conditioned to doubt the validity and importance of a spiritual life. ‘Real life’ for us means what is going on ‘in the world.’ I often find myself musing about this expression ‘real life’ and the way it is used in conversation. It is a very misleading turn of phrase.

It implies that ‘real life’ is not based on delusion, projection, distortion, confusion and so forth. It sort of implies that there is a kind of life ‘out there’ somewhere that is ‘real’ and not airy, fairy like ideas about the next life. It’s funny really because there is nothing ‘real’ or ‘down to earth’ about such a ‘real life.’ It’s just more ideas and assumptions, more confusion, blindness, narrow mindedness, ignorance and so on.

It is itself airy, fairy in its way, unquestioned assumptions; living life as if it went on forever. Then when it doesn’t, sort of shrugging and saying ‘Oh well, that’s how it goes.’ It’s not really very real at all, is it? It’s just like dreaming and shrugging off your dreams, but at the same time insisting your dreams are the only reality.

It is good however, to recognise that we do not really know for ourselves, how true ideas about future lives and past lives and a path to Awakening and the possibility of Awakening are. On the other hand we do know for sure what we are exploring in our own experience. It may turn out that we discover something in our experience that goes beyond time and space, life and death, and all the other related concepts.

In that case, maybe we will start to understand how it is we create concepts like time and space and then whole worlds of thoughts and feelings. We might start to recognise that we kind of create the world around us all the time. With that realisation comes the possibility that we have done this before and might continue to do it even once our body has died.

And so bit by bit, from our experience we might find we have moved into a different world view in which it no longer seems that believing in past and future lives is some kind of fantasy. It seems obvious that since we do it now, we probably did it before and will continue to do so.

Having recognised how we trap ourselves in our own projected realities in this life, we can be very open to the idea that perhaps we have a habit of doing this and that if we could wake ourselves up from that habit a bit in this life, maybe we could wake up completely one day and not have to be so trapped by our deluded habits. That is what Awakening is about.

From this perspective the only thing worth doing is working on waking from deluded habits. It seems foolish to just go on and on suffering in the world of delusion. We also might feel it is irresponsible to carry on in that way. People are suffering needlessly and there is a path out of that predicament. What right have we to turn our back on the one sure solution and refuse to follow a path that leads ourselves and others out of all of that, even if it takes forever?

Lama Shenpen Hookham