Enlightenment is Buddhism’s summun bonum—the highest level of well-being human beings can aspire to— but there are ways in which traditional understandings of enlightenment are problematic for most modern people. First, many Buddhist texts suggest enlightenment is a fixed and distinct entity. It is perfect and complete, and once attained there is nothing more to be accomplished. Enlightened people are perfectly wise, content, equanimous, mindful, compassionate, and free from desire, attachment, aversion, and delusion without the possibility of back-sliding.
There seems to be something terribly wrong about this model of human perfection. First, despite having been in the presence of many esteemed Buddhist teachers—from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh to a long list of Insight Meditation teachers, Tibetan Lamas, and Zen Masters—I have never met anyone quite like that. While I have met many exemplary and admirable people, I have met no “perfectly enlightened” people. If perfectly enlightened people are so exceedingly rare, what are the odds you are likely to become one? If the odds of perfect enlightenment are infinitesimally low—perhaps even non-existent— maybe you should aim towards some other target.
Second, human fears, desires, and attachments are a function of the limbic system—part of our evolutionary heritage. While we can alter limbic activity in any number of ways, the limbic system can’t simply disappear or “turn off,” nor can fears and desires permanently cease. All this suggests it would be better to think of enlightenment as a horizon one may orient towards but not a shore one can actually reach.
But even if we think of enlightenment as a North Star we might orient ourselves to, we still can ask, “is this really the shore we wish to go towards?” Do we really want to be without desires, attachments, and aversions? I suggest not. Most of us want to sustain our lives, realize our potentials, and live lives that are psychologically rich, fulfilling, and worth living. This means seeking opportunities and experiences that enrich our lives and avoiding ones that are harmful to our well-being and that of others. “Desire” by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I desire, for example, to be a better husband, father, friend, and citizen. I desire to contribute to my community in whatever ways I can. “Aversion” by itself isn’t a bad thing, either. There are all sorts of things it makes sense to be averse to—spoiled food, child abuse, cruelty, oppression, and disease.
Finally, attachments—wise attachments—are a crucial part of the well-lived life. It is human nature to desire close and special relationships with one’s parents, spouse, children, and friends—one’s that are qualitatively different from one’s relationships with coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. While it is possible to act benevolently and compassionately towards virtually everyone, it doesn’t seem possible to feel the same special attachment to everyone, nor does it seem we would be better off without our special attachments. All the evidence shows people are happier, live healthier and longer, and are more likely to retain their cognitive abilities into old age when they are surrounded by people they are loved by and love.
Rather than ridding ourselves of desire, what we really want is to be able to correctly judge when fulfilling a desire is likely to lead to greater long-term happiness for oneself and others, and when fulfilling a desire may jeopardize one’s long-term higher-order goals and well-being. We want to aspire to wise desire, attachment, and aversion, and to go about desiring, attaching, and avoiding in the right sort of way—not rigidly or compulsively, but discerningly and reasonably.
Aristotle, who lived in roughly the same era as the Buddha, proposed a different model of superior well-being, which he called eudaimonia, or “human flourishing.” Eudaimonia is his version of the best life a human being could aspire to—a life that is ethical, wise, and happy. The eudaimonic person is not perfectly happy, but unless pursued like Job by a series of terrible misfortunes, is never utterly miserable. He or she lives life by practicing the moral and intellectual virtues, contemplating wisdom, and contributing to the flourishing of all the members of their society. Aristotle’s model was like the Buddha’s in that it viewed well-being, virtue, and wisdom as part of an integrated package, but unlike the Buddha’s in being this-worldly, and neither self-denying nor perfectionistic.
A model of eudaimonic enlightenment
In my book, Buddhism and Human Flourishing, I outlined a model of eudaimonic enlightenment that integrates the best of the Buddhist and Aristotelian approaches. This ten-facet model describes what I think most Western Buddhists actually believe and are trying to accomplish:
- The gradual development of discerning wisdom and skillful behavior regarding desire and aversion.
- A gradual movement toward non-attachment to thoughts, that is, regarding thoughts as “mere” thoughts and not habitually assuming their truth-value.
- Increasing skillfulness regarding desires and thoughts leading to increasing equanimity.
- An increasing ability to attend intimately to moment-to-moment embodied experiencing.
- An increasing acceptance of things-are-as-they-are, acceptance signifying neither approval nor passivity, but simple recognition.
- A growing recognition that our ideas about our “selves” do not reflect the fullness of our being as social organisms-in-process-with-the-universe.
- An increasing recognition that all things exist by virtue of their profound interconnection with everything else.
- A growing appreciation—punctuated by possible sudden realizations—of the non-dual nature of reality.
- A gradual translation of one’s realization of emptiness/non-duality into spontaneous caring and benevolence towards all.
- The promotion of collective ﬂourishing through civic engagement.
These ten facets reflect where practice has brought me and continues to guide me. It is a version of Buddhism that is pragmatic and naturalistic, and that has the enhancement of individual and collective flourishing both within a single lifetime and over the course of long-term social development as its ultimate goals. It focuses practitioners on achievable goals rather than on unattainable perfections. I invite readers to investigate their own personal beliefs about enlightenment and discover whether a traditional or eudaimonic model better describes their own personal understandings of Buddhist practice.
Critics of the eudaimonic model complain something important is lost in its demystification of Buddhist practice—perhaps some of the furthest reaches of human potential. Does the absence of some grand, final, transformative apotheosis impoverish Buddhism? Not in my opinion. I find the promise of gradual improvement in mindfulness, discerning wisdom, equanimity, kindness, and compassion sufficiently motivating. I invite readers to investigate their own personal beliefs about enlightenment and to discover whether the traditional or eudaimonic model better describes their own personal understanding of and motivation for Buddhist practice.
Segall, S. (2022). Meditation in the context of a naturalized eudaimonic Buddhism. In Richard Repetti (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Meditation. New York: Routledge, pp. 297-310.
Segall, S. (2021). The Best Possible Life, Tricycle, 30 (3), 50-55; 99-100.
Segall, S. (2020). Buddhism and Human Flourishing: A Modern Western Perspective. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Segall, S. (2016). A more enlightened way of being: The entrance of Buddhist ethics into the modern world, Tricycle, 27 (2), 54-59, 97.