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Dharmakāra’s Enlightenment Trick? – Modern Koans

By Andrew Furst @a_furst


Ask Dharmakāra: Is the fact that a person can spend their entire life practicing meditation without enlightenment proof that most people can never achieve what the Buddha or gurus talked about?


What is enlightenment? It’s either something that we have or do not have, right?

If we don’t have it, how do we get it?

If we do have it, what then?

I want to tell you a story about how enlightenment in Buddhism is hidden (and taught) in plain sight. It’s a little sneaky. Buddhists aren’t trying to be sneaky, but they will resort to anything for the benefit of sentient beings.

The Story

My story comes from the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism. The Pure Land or Sukhavati school is centered on a Buddha named Amitabha. There are 2 main Sutras on Amitabha and his western pure land. This story derives from the Larger Sutra of Immeasurable Life.

It starts with Dharmakāra – a Bodhisattva of an absurdly distant past.  Dharmakāra laid out a path to enlightenment for himself, in the form of 48 vows. The vows would have to be met before he would achieve enlightenment, .

Three of the vows are known as the vows of deliverance.  My story is tied to them. I’ll paraphrase them:

Vow 18: I will not attain enlightenment, if all beings who aspire to it, are not reborn in my pure land and achieve enlightenment

Vow 19: I will not attain enlightenment, if all beings who aspire to it are not brought, by me, to the pure land.

Vow 20: I will not attain enlightenment, if any being who is in the pure land does not achieve enlightenment.

Surprise Endings

My story starts a little unexpectedly. It provides a unfamiliar narrative on how we achieve enlightenment. According to this Sutra, we have very little to do in the matter. It all hinges on Dharmakāra success.  If he succeeds, he becomes enlightened. If he succeeds, then all we need to do is aspire to become enlightened and poof all the work has been done for us.


Well, if you buy this story, I have good news for all of us. That’s how it ends. Dharmakāra succeeds and becomes the Buddha Amitabha. Clever.  Do you see the trick here?

I’m going to boil this down as simply as possible. I want to set aside much of the hyperbole and magic that’s mixed in and get to the point.

How to Become Enlightened:

Step 1: aspire to become enlightened

Step 2: by no additional work of your own, you are enlightened.

Here’s what I think this story is telling us. Our ideas of enlightenment and the work required to achieve it are mostly mistaken or irrelevant. Our enlightenment is already secured, it is up to us to set aside our personal efforts to achieve it and accept that it has been granted to us. We only need to receive it, welcome it, know that it has been there all along.

To put it the most simply: Enlightenment is not achieved, it is discovered. And it can only be discovered by getting out of our own way.

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Modern Koans is an ongoing series that recognizes that good questions are often more important than their answers.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. ― G.K. Chesterton

Dharmakāra’s Enlightenment Trick? – Modern Koans
Dialectic Two Step, Modern Koans, Verse Us, Say What?, and Minute Meditations all copyright Andrew Furst

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