I think what we’re grappling with here is the necessary mysteriousness of “enlightenment,” of the moment when conventional ignorance is transcended. A sage who had seen through the matrix and who lacked any delusion or self-deception would have to be in some sense alien to ordinary people. Indeed, the sage would have absorbed the inhumanity of the real world, whereas the unenlightened herd is ensconced in the refuge of human delights—cultures and civilizations—which we create to flatter and distract us.

By analogy, we could say that the relation between the unenlightened and the enlightened is like that between the human and the posthuman, the latter pair being separated by the technological singularity. We can’t now predict what we’d do or be like if we were given technological omniscience and omnipotence.

Similarly, there’s the mystery of how a spiritually enlightened person would think and behave. This is why sages are treated as odd characters in movies. Think of Yoda, Oogway from Kung Fu Panda, or Pai Mei from Kill Bill Vol. 2. I take it these characters derive from Buddhist or Daoist literature, which presents the sage as a lovable taskmaster who mystifies his pupil until the moment of satori when the pupil finally realizes the hidden truth and the reason for the master’s seemingly-bizarre outbursts: the master isn’t trying merely to indoctrinate, but to shift the student’s mindset.

Thus, the sage seems strange to the unenlightened just as technology seems magical to the uninformed.

Notice that the strangeness of being beyond good and evil, in Nietzsche’s sense, entails that certain comforting depictions of the enlightened state are whitewashes or propagandistic distortions. As in the Tao Te Ching (and Ecclesiastes), “Heaven and Earth are impartial. They regard myriad things as straw dogs (for sacrifice). The sages are impartial. They regard people as straw dogs” (ch. 5).

Is the enlightened, psychologically-posthuman sage entirely happy, tranquil, and compassionate? Nonsense, I say! Either such a person hasn’t fully grasped the truth or we’re deceiving ourselves in characterizing enlightenment in those reassuring terms.

I’m inclined to interpret the optimistic take on enlightenment as being as political and dubious as the exoteric, literalistic theist’s personification of “God” or of the First Cause. If I’m mistaken about that, I’d like an argument for why we should expect a Buddha figure to be happy (content), compassionate, and basking in inner peace.

I can supply part of this argument, since such a figure would have surpassed egoism and thus one major cause of stress. That much I understand. But why wouldn’t a Buddha be forced to suffer on behalf of everyone else, having given up on his or her self-centeredness? How could any selfless person be at peace until the whole world had been repaired and everyone had been liberated?

If the sage were impartial or heartless, he or she wouldn’t be compassionate. Compassion entails empathy, which entails suffering on behalf of victims, which entails a lack of inner peace, given the predominance of victimization.

Presumably, the full spiritual answer is supposed to feature monistic ontology: the Buddha doesn’t see the world as consisting of suffering selves, but as one interconnected whole or as a single flow of illusory events that testifies to an underlying, unified source.

In that case, if enlightenment depends on such mysticism, I pose these questions: Why would the Buddha (or any spiritual sage) care more about one illusory part of the whole than another? Why be compassionate towards a fake self? Why deem suffering to be something important which needs to be ended, if suffering is unreal? If enlightenment is about the one universal Self awakening to itself via the puppet or avatar of a particular human, why would the Self’s awakening be better than its slumbering?

The real problem is that this monistic scenario is as absurd as monotheism. If ultimate reality consists entirely of a single Self, surely that Self dreams up universes to avoid going mad from being the only thing that really exists! In that case, ignorance, delusion, selfishness, and suffering would be laudable, and the spiritualist’s utilitarian reason for mindfulness would be merely a timid defense of conventional, egoistic morality, after all.

Those who prefer happiness to suffering do so because they’re self-centered and unenlightened, so why should an enlightened person share those parochial values? Why would God share them? The same question afflicts the monotheist: Why would the transcendent Source of nature share the values of one species of glorified ape, namely those of justice, morality, love, and so forth?

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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