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Only a lucky few attain enlightenment, but there is nothing special about them—or you.
By Ken McLeod
One of the fundamental teachings of Mahayana Buddhism is that every being has the potential for awakening—buddhanature. Yet out of the billions of people on this planet, the overwhelming majority are locked by necessity or by choice into a materialistic approach to life. In all probability, no more than a few million have even a possibility of spiritual practice, and of those, probably only a few thousand may actually touch the mystical experience we call buddhanature.
We are deeply conditioned to think and feel that those few thousand people are in some way special. Many of us want to be one of them. Most religious traditions would have us believe in some form of specialness, whether they view the specialness as due to the grace of God, the ripening of efforts made in previous lives, or the result of our own efforts here and now.
What if it is just a matter of chance—plain ordinary chance? It is a much simpler explanation, and I’ve always been a fan of Occam’s razor.
How many seeds does the average tree produce each year? It’s almost certainly in the thousands, and possibly in the tens of thousands for some species. How many of those seeds become trees? Probably less than one seed per tree. Mother Nature is nothing if not redundant, but when it comes to growth processes, redundancy is vital. In growth processes, the aim is not to maximize output and reduce costs (as it is in manufacturing) but to maximize potential and reduce the likelihood of disaster. In evolution, disaster is the failure to reproduce. Thus, Mother Nature goes overboard when it comes to reproduction, counteracting low probabilities with very large numbers and producing thousands if not tens of thousands of seeds to ensure that one germinates and carries on the species.
The few seeds that do germinate are in no way special. They are not different from those that fall on rocks or into rivers. They just happened to land in a good place, even if that good place is between a couple of rocks on a granite outcrop on a windswept mountain or a crack in a sidewalk in a concrete jungle.
We assume the seeds that germinate were lucky, but we really don’t know. Maybe the life of a germinating seed is hell, and a seed would be better to land on rocky ground and never have to deal with the whole growth process. Rilke felt this way about poetry. And I’ve heard more than a few teachers, myself included, say to prospective students, “Only take this path if you have to. If you can live your life in another way, do so. But if you have to make this journey, this is what it is like.”
In any event, the seeds that do not germinate haven’t done anything wrong, which means that the seeds that do germinate haven’t done anything right, either. That’s just what happened.
This whole business about being special is a problem in practice. It reinforces a sense of identity. Teachings such as buddhanature were intended to inspire people to enter a mystery. They may have served to encourage people in much harsher circumstances than ours and open them to greater possibilities. They were probably helpful and effective in their original cultural settings, at least for a time. But in our hyper-individualistic culture, the same teachings often have a different effect, reinforcing the beliefs in identity and independence that we are trying to dismantle.
Basically, any idea that you are special in some way and destined to be awake is a sign of delusion. Any idea that you can bring about your awakening through your own efforts is a sign of delusion. And any idea that awakening comes from some force outside as blessing or grace is also a sign of delusion. These are all stories we tell ourselves to explain what is a mystery.
When we practice, we often fall into the idea that we are the active agent, that we are making something happen, and that we are going to achieve something. I thought this way, too, for a long time. Eventually, however, I came to understand that it is a completely wrong-headed way of thinking…