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What is Enlightenment? Series Part 2.- Questioning “Spiritual Evolution”

I am an ardent, rigorously honest, spiritual seeker, the owner of Sakura Designs, and offer Mala Beads for meditation and yoga. I have a degree in Contemplative Psychology from Naropa University and with a minor in Buddhist Studies, and have been looking to find a viable spiritual path since I was a teen. I’ve recently been reading The Guru Papers- Masks of Authoritarian Power, and some noted spiritual training “churches” and self help groups can have as many as 30 or more levels of training.

Many of these may show signs of definable cult-like organizations, and use common tactics, namely that we are sick, unwell, need healing, improvement, and offer the solutions through a tiered path, that only they can provide. The general premise is that we are not enough as is, we doubt ourselves and must follow their spiritual formulation to evolve. My seeker question now is… is this all true, can and should we change and become something better?


I’m looking at our a basic Buddhist path, Buddhism is about 2,500 years old and the scholars seemed to love to create lists. We have : 4 Noble Truths, 6 Realms, 12 Nidanas, and 52 stages of a Bodhisattva. As far as to become a Buddha, or fully awakened being, there these 10 enlightened stages called Bhumis, a progress of purification to get to “enlightenment.” A friend recently asked today do we even need a Guru, and my question even before that is, what really is “purification and progress,” and are any of us “accomplished” or showing “signs”? In all of my time in retreat and with Dharma friends, I never experienced anything like a stage.

It’s like if I told my pre-teen daughter, you aren’t ok as you are, you are karmically sick, someday of you practice a LOT of meditation and yoga, you’ll evolve, become better, some idyllic image of a better maha-human. It reminds me of the Dove beauty ads, we see that the idealized version of these women was unattainable and not real. We have to culturally undo unrealistic notions of beauty to ourselves and our daughters, and accept ourselves, as we are, perfectly imperfect.

To suggest something or someone greater, would be cruel and make her doubt herself and feel that she’s not good enough as she is. Furthermore if I told her, living your life, well that’s a form of wasting it, you should really withdraw become a yogini and use your human life as an opportunity to spiritually evolve. We are told that “obtaining” a “precious human life” is very rare and it’s the only vehicle for attaining enlightenment, and we should focus in on our spiritual development, over fettering this life in the workplace or as a mundane “householder.” It’s akin to the old Christian adage:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do no break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Should we rather invest in what is “permanent,” spiritual vs. what is worldly? It seems the Buddhists and Christians concur that the former is of more value.


The folks that went “all the way” in some famous religious self-help, “clearing” groups are they really showing amazing spiritually evolved “signs,” clairvoyance, power, compassion? (no, I haven’t see it) Are we as Buddhists? I have a long term yogi friend who’s done all of the more secret retreats, alone in the dark for weeks, an expert yogin, and still at times, he has a semi-violent, mercurial temper even to this day, 30 years later.

I must be honest and say that many more, just use their experience for spiritual credential to feel superior, or to not really live this life and use their practice to find solace as an escape. With all due respect, I see many of my “dharma” friends even after a lifetime of practice and empowerment not really showing such amazing signs, and some no signs at all. We, including me, seem to have a lot of suffering and attachment even more than non-practitioners. Life does get harder as we age, and we often get less patient, we have physical pain, etc.


I wonder if the “spiritual path” might be more of a radical honest and acceptance and being ok with who we are, as we are, the beauty and the imperfection. In the Dharma we call it ‘Maitri,’ or self love. I’m not sure that people really change their learned karmic imprints, *ever* and maybe, just maybe we should fully live this life, without us “never being good enough,” the dubious the promise of something in the next life or being something unattainable more amazing? Of course, we can get healthier, change bad habits, and the way we live and how we treat others matters. I just don’t want to live a life of an eternal, self improvement project, there must be some middle truth.

I’m raising a daughter and I want her to have a full, meaningful life, be a basically decent person, not have her put on a shrine holier images of a “female Buddha” something better that she could eventually be, and make her feel bad about her self, right? Maybe, simple kindness and appreciating the vivid magic and preciousness of our lives, *this one life,* forgiving and even accepting our flaws, with a light aspiration to improve and help, is the very most practical “spiritual attainment” of all?

Here’s to Stage 2 of my reductionist discrimination. Questions-

  • What is really there?
  • Historically, how do spiritual traditions and self-help groups monetize the “path,”or bait people to start with a promise.
  • Is there even such thing as real spiritual evolution?
  • Are our teachers really exhibiting authentic and genuine spiritual qualities that show that this is all working?

I will continue to ask, research and explore, and will post findings, please stay tuned and join me in asking these important questions.

Dawn Boiani,

Mother, Dharma Practitioner, Mala Artist and Political Activist in a curiously dark but hopeful time, Boulder, Colorado.


  1. Further reflections:
    I have been with my husband for many years, and have requested many changes, “improvements”, and he has made exactly…0. :) I could spend my whole life hoping that he could be “better,” or just love him for who he is, as he is.

    Likewise with myself, I can’t live with the constant feeling that there is some “purer version of myself” that I could attain somewhere, someday, but it’s near impossible/will take countless lifetimes. They give the image that ‘as soon and the mirror is clean it gets dirty,’ it creates for me, a crazy making internal struggle, and I don’t want to to do that to myself anymore.

    I feel it’s the age of simple love, I accept my husband and love him, as he is, and likewise myself and us all? Dropping the need to constantly improve, upgrade mentality (which is actually quite aggressive), would indeed be an accomplishment. Yes, there are still ways we can be healthier, more calm, work to help the world, but it shouldn’t be predicated on an unrealistic illusion, ‘magical thinking.’

    If I have a wrong view, please let me know, but not from doctrine but from your experience. I’m reexamining *every single tenet* now about what we value, the path, the “afterlife” with fresh eyes to see what is really there, or not.

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