Hell is other people, Jean Paul Sartre wrote. So is enlightenment.
I don't usually think of it that way, but I was prompted this week to re-examine my view by -- what else? -- other people.
Last week I gave a talk on the Buddhist view of enlightenment at the Unitarian-Universalist meetinghouse my family belongs to. I talked about enlightenment as a state that is always accessible to us, but that we're usually not connected to as we go through our mundane life. But we do have moments of enlightenment, whether or not we call them that.
After the service, there's an ongoing online discussion, where people can comment and reflect on the service. One of the questions I posed was whether or when people notice those moments. I expected to get comments about connecting in nature -- we're big on nature -- but most of the stories were about feeling the oneness, the interdependence -- what UUs call "the interdependent web of all existence" in the Seven Principles -- in connections with other beings. When the walls fall and we step out of our small selves and let others out of the cells of their small selves, we experience our buddhanature and theirs.Enlightenment does exist. It is possible to awaken. Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace – these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: They don’t last. Our realizations and awakenings show us the reality of the world, and they bring transformation, but they pass. -- Jack Kornfield
I had proposed that our enlightenment happens when we see that all beings are enlightened, in their nature if not their actions, and we meet their enlightened nature with our own. My friends reminded me that it happens the other way too: We become enlightened when someone else sees that we are.
Sartre's familiar phrase comes from his play "No Exit," in which three damned souls are brought to the same room in hell by a mysterious valet. The room is nothing special; there are no torture devices or torturers, only the three people, left alone to tell their stories and delusions about themselves. One of them, Garcin, concludes, "Hell is other people."
The play ends with the three joining in prolonged laughter before resigning themselves to spending the rest of eternity together.
There's a thin line between heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and confusion. Laughter, honesty, acceptance, and kindness help move the latter to the former.