Some see it as something like the ultimate college degree. You go through your course of study, you get your enlightenment, often with a certificate of completion, and you're done. It's all smooth sailing from there on in. No more crackin' the books, no more term papers to write. Finshed. Done.
For others "Enlightenment" is something which they believe can be defined for them. Lots of supposed "Masters" set themselves up as arbiters of Enlightenment. They'll decide who's got it and who hasn't. If you measure up to their criteria they'll declare you Enlightened. If you don't, you'd better work harder at living up to what they think you ought to be.
For some Enlightenment is envisioned as the ultimate peak experience. The biggest roller coaster ride ever. The thrill of a lifetime.
Well, first of all, as a guy with a Ph.D. in engineering, I tend to see getting the ultimate college a bit differently from Brad; in my case it means that I'm able to do certain things, that will consign me to a lifetime of further education. And, in a sense, I can understand why some branches of Zen authorize folks to present and "teach" what can't be taught: precisely because it's so easy to mischaracterize enlightenment.
But in a sense, getting a Ph.D. is indeed a bit like the journey to enlightenment. Both involve large amounts of solitary hard work whose end result is always in question until a certain point in time, which may or may not be reached when the journey is begun. Pretty much all the Ph.D.s I know describe or acted like their doctoral studies represented some of the darkest moments of their lives.
Luckily the journey to enlightement has been different, because in is a journey to transcend suffering, there is success now and then, even if the earth and heavens are not shattered.
Brad also writes:
Another of the ways I used to envison Enlightenment was, finding out for sure whether or not God exists.
I can understand that point; like many people who started out at Zen, there was a dark time in my life devoid of answers, which was not being fulfilled by relationships with deities, real or imagined.
I thought - perhaps from reading Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen - that practice of Zen might resolve the question, or at least trigger "my" conversion experience. But the reality is as I practiced more I became aware of the many fires to extinguish, and so the gnostic questions were shelved, much to the chagrin of religious apologists.
I can agree here:
These days Enlightenment is one of the biggest scams going. Some guy says he's got Enlightenment. He has a story to back him up about how wonderful the day was when he finally understood everything about everything. He has a guy who has certified him as a member of the Enlightened Beings club. And now he's ready to help you learn to be just like him. You go to the guy. He trains you to imitate the things he says on cue, or if he's real clever he teaches you how to rephrase his pet phrases in your own words.
My outlook differs a bit here, though:
In effect, when a legit Dharma Transmission/realization of enlightenment happens, it is in effect a recongition of what already exists, what has already been appropriated into the marrow of one's bones, the "core of one's being". Or perhaps better put it is the realization that you have understood the core of your being. The Ten Oxherding Pictures (十牛画 ) describe stages on a path of one's spiritual develolpment. If you are sincere and dilligent you'll know where you are, and I'd agree with Brad you won't give much attention to those who would sell you some other picture, because it's not really for sale.
When I say that I'll never be Enlightened, I mean that I will never make my efforts to conform to what someone else has defined as Enlightenment. I will never ask anyone to conform to what I define Enlightenment to be, either. I'll never play along with that game because it's useless...
Dharma Transmission is not the transmission of a set of intellectual ideas. Nor is it the transmission of some kind of great experience. It is the transmission of a particular outlook, a particular attitude. At the moment that attitude becomes clear, there is no need for anyone to define it for you, to certify it for you, or to approve it for you.
But thankfully there are those out there who aren't scamsters. Caveat emptor, though.
Finally, I should point out that Brad's narrative is in fact a pretty common one in the Zen sphere; narratives are like flypaper; it's hard to get unstuck from one.