Werner Erhard: You Don’t Alter What You Know You Alter The Way You Know It

JOHN: What I’m trying to get at is your view of whether or not what people get from the training is somehow equivalent to what in Zen, for instance, would be called enlightenment.

WERNER: You’re not going to trap me into saying that, because that’s nonsense. It’s the same kind of nonsense that keeps people from realizing that they’re already enlightened.

(excerpted from https://archive.org/details/YouDontAlterWhatYouKnow)

Here’s an observation that I know will parallel what you’ve seen. People are willing to give up anything to get enlightened. You and I both know people who’ve given up wealth, given up jobs, families, their health people will give up anything to get enlightened. Give up talking, give up sex, give up you name it, they will give it up. There’s only one thing people will not give up to get enlightened. They will do everything they know to hold on to this thing that they will not give up no matter what. The one thing people will not give up to get enlightened is the idea that they’re not enlightened. That’s the big holdout, not anything else.

JOHN: In the traditions there’s a lot of warning about thinking that you’re enlightened, that that’s one of the greatest dangers of them all.

WERNER: Yes, it is. Yes.

JOHN: It’s equivalent. You could get that in two weekends?

WERNER: Yes, it is equivalent, and no, you can’t get it in two weekends. If it takes two weekends, you didn’t get enlightened. Enlightenment does not take two weekends. Enlightenment takes no time. The two weekends are a waste of time. If we could eliminate those, and just have the enlightenment we would do that. By the way, I know that lots of people are infuriated by the suggestion that enlightenment is possible without long practice and great struggle. I consider the notion of the necessity of practice and struggle to be nothing more than a notion. It may be a notion borne out by lots of experience, but so was the notion that the earth is flat.

JOHN: Well, the Buddhists, for example, would say that your true nature is enlightened already, but nonetheless, you still have to practice because there’s a long path to realization. We can act as though we’re enlightened, but there’s still some kind of realization that has to happen, over a long period. You can even have enlightenment experiences, but they’re not particularly trusted.

WERNER: I agree with everything you’ve said, and I’m not simply being nice about it. What you said actually reflects my own experience and my own observations. At the same time, I know it’s possible to put the end of the process at the beginning, and then do the process.

JOHN: So, just to get it on the record, you are saying that the training does the same thing as the spiritual traditions

WERNER: Discussing enlightenment or thinking about enlightenment is not enlightenment. In fact, we don’t talk about enlightenment in the training very much at all. We do talk about it, but not much.

JOHN: I’m wondering why you’re avoiding the question of whether this is the same kind of enlightenment that’s talked about in the spiritual traditions.

WERNER: Because those who know don’t tell, and those who tell don’t know.

DICK ANTHONY: I’d always heard that the training does seem to claim that it provides something that is the equivalent of enlightenment, and is just as serious an experience, just as serious or valuable a state as is provided in Zen or Hindu traditions, and I thought that that was implausible, that it must be some kind of exaggeration.

WERNER: Well, I have never said that, nor would I say it.

DICK: But when I went through the training-

WERNER: Nor would I say the opposite was true.

DICK: When I went through the training, the trainer did in fact seem to be saying that. I don’t know if that was an eccentric trainer, but in fact, that was my understanding, and it was the understanding of the other people in the training that I talked to, that this man was telling us that what was happening to us was enlightenment, and was just as genuine an enlightenment as happened in any Zen monastery or up in the Himalayas, and that there were no degrees of enlightenment; it was enlightenment. Now, that seems like an outrageous claim to me; much of what goes on in that training seems outrageous to me. Now, if I understand that to be what the claim is, then I don’t think that I agree with it.

WERNER: As far as I know, that claim is not made. I appreciate that you were there and I wasn’t. I still don’t think it was made. The reason I don’t think so is that I’ve listened to many hours of trainers doing the training, and they don’t make that claim. At the same time, I do understand how you could come to that conclusion.

But none of that is the point. The point is this: I think that discussions about enlightenment are useless, and I think making enlightenment sacred is even more futile. My question is, what’s all this conversation about?

What I’m trying to get across is that the structure of your questions and our conversation doesn’t allow for enlightenment. We’re not really talking about anything. I don’t know how else to respond to you. You can’t ask, “Is this enlightenment like that enlightenment?” That’s counting enlightenments. That’s nuts! That’s truly nuts!

JOHN: Would the training then be a substitute for any other spiritual practice?

WERNER: No! That’s craziness, that one thing substitutes for another. In the realm of enlightenment, there aren’t substitutions. That kind of mentality can’t hold enlightenment.

JOHN: Would there by any value, for example, in meditating and practicing

WERNER: One of our trainers is a Zen Buddhist. He goes away and spends long times sitting, meditating and practicing.

JOHN: Why would he do that if he’s done the training?

WERNER: He would do that because he’s done the training. Look, can’t you hear what you’re saying? You keep saying that one thing substitutes for another thing; your notions about enlightenment are all tied up with exclusivity and ideas about “one path” and “if this, then why that?” and ideas that there’s someplace to get to. None of that is the way enlightenment works. You need to go back to whomever is talking to you about enlightenment and get them to talk to you about it some more. You’re talking about it inaccurately. I’m not kidding. In Suzuki Roshi’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he said if you are enlightened, then you’re out doing what enlightens people. Enlightenment is not a stage you reach, and your statements seem to come from the idea that enlightenment is a place you reach. There’s no such thing as enlightenment to get to.


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