What is your goal?

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Recently I had an opportunity to speak to a group of Western Buddhists and I asked them why they practice and what is their end game. A good 90% of them said enlightenment. I always find it a bit disconcerting when people offer up this as a goal. I pushed them a little further and they spoke about going to a different place, such as nirvana, not being born again or residing in a Buddha field in some celestial realm. They seem to regard this place of enlightenment as a paradise full of all the nice things they like, and devoid of anything they dislike. All of which I feel is a misunderstanding of what Gautama Buddha actually wanted us to aim for.

I believe Gautama Buddha’s main point was that life is suffering and we ourselves are the main cause of this suffering. The paths he spoke about in his teachings, such as the eightfold path, are a way for us to alleviate this suffering and live a calmer, more responsible life.

I do not believe he meant for us to dream of going to a different place, such as nirvana, paradise or heaven, once we die or to project all the things we like in this world onto these places. Heaven, nirvana and so forth are states of mind and not actual places.

Gautama Buddha never said he was enlightened. The word enlightenment is a mistranslation of the Sanskrit word bodhi, which actually means awakened.

Once Gautama Buddha was asked if he was a god, a sorcerer, a magician, angel or a celestial being and he answered no to all of these. He said he was awake. Being awake is very different to being enlightened. When we are awakened it is right here, right now, in this very life. It is being awake to or having an awareness of the way the world really is.

When Gautama Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, “awareness.” This awareness is based on our experiences and is not achieved through blindly following a teacher or some teachings. The highest authority is our own experiences. It is not enough to rely on faith or understanding Buddhism intellectually. We have to experience it as Gautama Buddha did. His teachings are all based on his own personal experiences and he strongly encouraged us to do the same.

I strongly believe that if we want the most out of Buddhism we should keep our goals realistic. This way we are not going to get disappointed. I would love to hear your views on this topic. Please leave a comment and I promise I will reply.

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  1. Iris Flythe

    Nice… I just want to be a better person today then I was yesterday… I don’t expect perfection.

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Yeah, that is a great way to be. If we are mindful of our actions of body, speech and mind, we can improve ourselves day by day.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Dear Matthew

      Thank you so much for this. I found your blog so interesting, especially about post traditional Buddhism. I am a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition and have been fully trained in all their beliefs and dogma. I am now sorting through what is relevant for me and what is just baggage. I find the idea of post traditional Buddhism very interesting.

      I also like what you say about enlightenment – if it is true why isn’t anyone getting enlightened.

      There is a lot to think about in this posting. I have shared it all over the place – hope you don’t mind. I will follow you with interest.


      • Matthew O'Connell

        You are most welcome and I am glad, and pleasantly surprised, to find you enthusiastic about my writings there as you are in robes and have a Tibetan name. I hope at least it’s clear that the work is not designed to be disrespectful to traditional approaches to Buddhism, but merely contextualise Buddhism in modern western society and point to many of the collective assumptions and blind spots amongst western Buddhists, and spiritual but not religious types in general. Thank you for the kind comments.

      • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

        I look forward to your whole article and do not worry, I didn’t find it disrespectful. Religion is failing people, so we have to find a way to get Gautama Buddha’s teachings across to people, without the dogma and superstitions. My first book was traditional, but my next one, which I am working on now, is a secular guide to the Mangala Sutra. Thank you for taking the time to send me a comment.

      • Matthew O'Connell

        If you send me an email address, I’ll email you directly the whole article on Enlightenment that I recently edited. I’d be happy to hear your views on it.

  2. Leticia

    Great post. Personally, I practice vipassana meditation to coexist better with myself and try to hurt others the least possible…

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Hi Leticia

      Thank you for your comments. I think you are on the right track with your vipassana meditation. If we can go through life without intentionally harming others, we will have a calmer, more peaceful life.


  3. Prue Plumridge

    I’ve never been looking for enlightenment whatever that means – only a better way to live my life whilst admitting also that it’s a journey of a lifetime. There will never be easy answers and I won’t always get it right but I can try not by beating myself up but by learning to be mindful in everything I do. I don’t think there is someplace else where it’ll be better (which is why I am attracted to secular buddhism) there’s only here in this life. When asked what I was looking for in meditation in a buddhist group I used to attend I said equanimity and that is I guess what I am seeking – life will have always its ups and downs but I am hopeful that I can learn through mindful behaviour how to develop a more equanimous approach to living.

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Hi Prue

      Thank you for your comments.

      You raise an important point here. We are not always going to get things right. We will have good and bad days, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up on bad days, and we shouldn’t get too carried away on good days. There is a middle path to tread.

      I am a Buddhist monk and so have been trained the traditional way, but I see a need for a different approach in the West, and that is why I like to read the secular Buddhist postings and blogs. They help me put things into perspective.

      I think your answer to the Buddhist group we spot on. If we all strived for equanimity, what a better world we would live in.

      Great comments, thank you.

  4. Zaga

    I never considered enlightenment the goal. I appreciate increased awareness, being present. The lessons of how there is no good or bad – just what is. I strive to embrace all moments. If I find myself wishing time would hurry through something I find unpleasant, I question myself: should I stop doing this? If I should stop – I stop. If I should keep on, I embrace the moment – second by second if I must. I’ve even done this while jogging on a treadmill – it was one of the best runs I’ve ever experienced. I work with the dying, so myself and my colleagues are constantly reminded of the brevity of our lives – every moment is infinitely precious. Meditation helps keep me grounded, in the moment. It also helps me through dentist appointments 🙂

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Dear Zaga

      Thank you for your comments. I found them very interesting. I like your outlook on life and feel you are on the right track. Being mindful moment by moment is going to bring us calm, peace and help us be a responsible member of society. It is harder to harm others if we are aware of our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  5. Sarah

    About six months or so into my meditation practice I would have said the same thing as the Western Buddhists you speak of – that my goal was enlightenment. By then I had had some nice experiences during meditation and felt that there was more to be had if I just kept up my practice. However I quickly realised that yearning for enlightenment was just a new package for an old “disease”. Now, a few years later, I would say that my goal is to learn how to be more present, to be more conscious of my thoughts and emotions, and to transfer these skills into my everyday life.

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Hi Sarah

      Thanks for your comments. I love the bit about new package for an old disease. It is so true.

      I think your goal is very useful. If we are present in the moment and are aware of our thoughts, feelings and emotions, we will never knowingly do anything to harm another being. This will make us a calmer and more responsible person.

      It is great to hear from you.


  6. John Hardin

    I just want to become a happier person, little by little, day by day. When I’m happier, I engage with others more positively and they seem to go away happier, too. I can get into dark moods where I play out worst-case scenarios in my mind. My meditation practice helps me notice when this is happening and just put it aside. I spend less time stewing about the past or worrying about the future. I guess my goals are pretty small, but I can see evidence of the benefits of my practice every day.

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      Hi John

      Thanks for your comments. They are very helpful to me, as I am writing my next book and it is great to hear what others are thinking.

      I believe if we improve, or strive to improve, each day we will see great results in the end. I do not think your goal is small. I think it is practical and doable.

      Thank you for your comment.

  7. Mark Johnson

    Good one about the difference between awakened and enlightened. The latter is a loaded term, full of lots of baggage. As far as the goal of practice, if we aim for a state of total happiness and somehow imagine that when we are “enlightened” we will be in bliss all the time, then I think we are adding to ego’s game, and the (illusory) self is directing our practice. The Buddha’s teaching of Dependent Origination shows us that wanting to maximize our pleasant feelings and push away our unpleasant ones is the basis of our problem. It is called craving and is associated with self-grasping. So if we aim at some sort of Nirvanic Bliss or Pure Land where everything is just ducky, no problems at all, it seems like another layer of illusion is being added. Who says the Awakened One didn’t have problems? If he did, they didn’t seem to get him down. He didn’t suffer over them, just solved them, or maybe not, and let them go. Perhaps if we can see through the whole game and let go of the me who sets up goals, achieves them, and thinks it is the doer and the experiencer, we might find a different perspective on life.

    • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

      That is a good point Mark about Gautama Buddha having problems. He was human and so of course he had problems, but with his awakened state of mind he dealt with them by letting go. This point is not usually mentioned and so I am very grateful you brought it up. I think you should do a blog because I believe you have a lot of helpful things to say – what do you think about that?

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