I received a letter from a moq.org poster the other day, Smith, asking me what I personally thought "enlightenment" was. That is a good question. It's a question that people should think about in their relationship to Pirsig. Something that I'm glad I did think about a little bit more. One thing that is evident about my relationship to Pirsig is that I don't know all that much about Eastern philosophy. I know some surface things, but my range of acquaintance and depth is lacking. So when I talk about mysticism, it isn't from a lot of first-hand experience (which is true enough for when I talk about anything, including Western philosophy, but more so for Eastern). That's something I hope to someday correct, but as of now, all I have is what I got. So when I write about mysticism, as poetry or metaphor and the like, I like to think of what I'm doing as clearing space for the activities of others. Someone like Paul Turner certainly has a better grasp than I do, and we are in a real sense working the same vineyard, but I hope my clearing efforts aren't so forlorn as to be useless.
What is enlightenment? To contextualize my thoughts, I'd like to do a quick comparison of two parties who have adopted the word to their uses. If we compare, roughshod, the European cultural phenomenon in the 18th-century, the Enlightenment, to the Eastern or Buddhist conception of attaining "enlightenment," I think we can see a surface similarity and dissimilarity. The similarity is that Enlightenment philosophers took "enlightenment," what they achieved, to be an epistemological achievement. They thought, with the New Science and the shrugging off of "superstition," that they were now in a position to know things as they really were. Likewise, the traditional Buddhist idea of enlightenment also seems to be an epistemological achievement—an "enlightened" person now knows how things really are, they've cut through maya, the illusory nature of perceived reality, to reach nirvana, enlightenment. The difference between the two is that Buddhist enlightenment is also depicted as a state of bliss, the "laughing Buddha" who has seen through the suffering of this world. Losing our attachments, we relieve suffering and so reach a state of bliss in which we are not perturbed by anything. There is no accompanying state of bliss for European enlightenment (unless you count the haughty laughter of Voltaire). The idea of a philosophically significant "state of bliss" was thought, for the most part, to be a remnant of the superstition of religion that they had finally, through exalted reason, left behind. Unlike the laughing Buddha, European philosophers are serious about what they do. (The elevation of seriousness over playfulness can be seen as true today in Western philosophy when we look at many philosophers’ reaction on both sides of the Atlantic to Derrida.)
Naturally, I would jettison both sides' pretensions to having made an "epistemological achievement." However, I would still hold on to "state of bliss." And that's how I would describe "enlightenment": a state of bliss. Having said that, I think there are as many ways to reach enlightenment as there are people. Reaching a state of bliss can be achieved by just about anything, all depending on who the person is and what could cause them to achieve it. I think of the two views on "enlightenment" as two different views on two different topics. One way to firm up the difference is to look at the 19th-century reaction to Enlightenment philosophy—Romanticism. The Romantics (like Hegel, Schiller, Pater, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, etc.) thought there was more to life than cold, hard Reason. They thought imagination and aesthetic bliss was important, too (though they all come off as devaluing reason just as the Enlightenment devalued imagination). I think the two can and should be balanced when understood in a certain way.
The clash between these two conceptions of enlightenment (which I view as two different topics) occurs because of their mutual epistemological assertions. The two parties don't just define enlightenment differently (and so talk about different things), they say that what they're talking about is the right thing to talk about. Once you jettison epistemology, you won't get a clash between these definitions because you aren't setting these definitions up as getting at Reality As It Is In Itself. Once you do that, you get an argument about how you could say that. That's an argument that Plato started when he said the "dialectic" would prove he was right about the Form of the Good, Descartes when he said that "introspection" would prove he was right about sundering the world into two substances, mind and matter, Kant when he said that the "transcendental deduction" would prove he was right about sundering the world into the noumena and phenomena, the logical positivists when they said that the "scientific method" would prove they were right about saying it’s all atoms in a void.
Once you start forwarding theses about the Way the World Really Is, you have to generate an epistemological method to prove that you are right. Nobody's ever been able to do that without begging the question over their opponents who forward different theses about the Way the World Really Is. When you get to that root level, where all you can do is beg the question, then you basically end up resorting to "my definition is better than yours" without any way to resolve it, at least not a way that is epistemological in the requisite way. Because pragmatists have to do the same thing for their own definitions. The difference is that pragmatists no longer think there is any way to argue for their definitions, views, except for the pragmatic, practical ways of pointing out upshots and deficiencies of various definitions for getting what you want. This isn't a method, this is just living life.
What differentiates me from traditional Eastern philosophy (so thought of as cutting through maya) is that I don't think a state of bliss has anything to do with knowing, or cutting to reality, or anything else like that. It is simply a euphoric state of bliss. Saying that, I think we can see what the Buddha was right about: reaching a state of bliss is about losing your attachments. Attaining a transitory state of bliss is about suddenly forgetting where you are, who you are, all your problems and desires, and simply being still. Where I may differ yet from Buddhism (so roughly defined as being obsessed only with reaching nirvana, bliss (not because they all are, but simply because I don't know enough to know any better)) is the idea that bliss is a state that should be something we have all the time. I don't think reaching nirvana will help the starving children of the world very much. Something doesn't seem right if we no longer care about starvation, because we are in bliss, even if the starving children themselves don't care that they are dying, because they've reached a state of bliss. Pirsig himself expresses this sentiment clearly when he raises his hand in the Benares classroom and asks coldly, "Do you mean to say that the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were all an illusion?" (This exact sentiment is also satirically displayed, brilliantly as usual, by the Onion this week (www.theonion.com) with its article "Poverty-Stricken Africans Receive Desperately Needed Bibles," which later shows a picture of a horribly emaciated man with this caption: "Moussa Yaouli derives spiritual nourishment from his handcrafted leather Bible.")
There needs to be a balance between the attempt for a private state of bliss and the public achievement of the alleviation of material suffering. But when it comes to private enlightenment, I think it can be achieved through any number of routes, from watching sunsets, seeing a rare orchid, reading a poem, or writing a poem. I think what all those things have in common is that they send us out of our skins, they effectively cause us to shed our linguistic ability. I think that's one of the pinches of insight in Eastern philosophy. By shedding our linguistic ability, we sometimes return saying really weird shit. That meaningless refuse is what our metaphors are, that with which we build new vocabularies and meanings out of. Metaphors don't get at reality, but they do open up new vistas of knowledge by producing new ways of talking.