BY ALISON SMITH
When an idea has evolved over more than two and a half centuries, there’s bound to be a few different ways of looking at it. The spiritual state of enlightenment, pursued by all Buddhists for more than 2,500 years, isn’t immune to these discrepancies.
Chang-Seong Hong, MSUM professor of philosophy, hopes to clarify the general understanding of the idea in a colloquium this Wednesday entitled “The Many Faces of Enlightenment.”
Hong grew up in Korea as a Buddhist and came to America when he was 28 to attend graduate school at Brown University where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy.
Hong considers himself a “philosophically-oriented Buddhist,” thinking of Buddhism as a philosophy and way of teaching for enlightenment rather than worshiping the Buddha as a deity.
The concept of enlightenment holds high importance to any Buddhist seeking nirvana or salvation. Hong explained that there have been multiple ways to view and understand the concept of enlightenment in the evolution of Buddhism throughout history and recognized the importance of clarifying the concept.
The question Hong raised was, “If they do not really know what is enlightenment, how could we achieve enlightenment?” Hong will use the colloquium to compare, contrast and clarify the three types of enlightenment. Hong described them as follows:
1. Philosophical enlightenment: “The idea is that you get enlightened if you understand the philosophical tools of the world and our life in it.”
2. Nirvanic enlightenment: “You have achieved a deep level of meditation. You have achieved some tranquility and composure of your consciousness and that you are in nirvana … a state of enlightenment.”
3. Zen enlightenment: “(An individual) practices meditation in a number of different ways, and when they reach some deepest level of meditation, they experience something mysterious … it’s supposed to be beyond description.”
The first part of the colloquium will be spent discussing how the philosophical and nirvanic enlightenments may seem to differ, but that the two actually promote each other.
Hong plans to use the rest of the colloquium to discuss the issue of Zen enlightenment. “I claim that this kind of private experience cannot be recognized as an enlightenment from a philosophical point of view because there is no way to verify it,” Hong said.
“In order for us to claim we have knowledge, the knowledge must be something objectively verified, but our private experiences may not be objectively or inter-subjectively verified or communicated,” Hong said, further explaining, “We cannot say that, ‘I have a knowledge about my personal experiences.’”
Even though Hong grew up in Korea, he holds a western view of education, having attended graduate school in the U.S. He said his teaching will be done in an analytical, logical way, whereas if he were in Korea, he would teach it with a lot more cultural anecdotes, insights and intuitions.
Hong said if an individual understands the basic concepts of enlightenment, nirvana and karma they will understand the talk.
The hour-long colloquium, open to students and the public, will be at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday in MacLean 165 and will include a discussion period.