I’ve heard this question different ways and sometimes with additional information. For example, the Self is always Awake, and there is only the Self & the Self has always been free.
Let’s start with the Self is always Awake. The massive fallacy with this concept is that we experience directly that this is not the case. This is not even the case when you are dreaming at night. You are asleep in your bed and a world is created from the mind. You see other people, trees, rocks, etc. It is all from one mind. There is no other. All in the dream is only you.
However, the dream character is not who you are when you are awake. Your face and body could be vastly different in a dream. You could have other powers, like flying. You feel like yourself in the dream…but the dream character is not who/what you really are. You may be a sword-fighter tonight and a dancer the next night. You may not actually do either when awake.
If the Self is always Awake, then we should always be Awake when we are dreaming at night (in analogy). Obviously we are not. We have no idea that the waking world exists when we are dreaming. While in the dream, what we see and experience seems very real. We are dreaming and when we “wake up” to the realization we are dreaming and become lucid dreamers…the dream is seen and understood differently. But you can never say we had been lucid dreamers all along. The difference between a lucid dreamer and normal dreamer is that the lucid dreamer knows he or she is dreaming while the normal dreamer does not.
Now to say, “there is only the Self & the Self has always been free” is to deny the experience of the dream entirely. This denial is a form of duality really…that what we experience is something other than the Self.
Say one night you had a dream of being trapped in a very small space with no escape. After waking up in the morning after such a dream, wouldn’t it seem kind of hallow to say “I was really free the whole time”? That would be a denial of the experience and suffering that came with it – even though it just happened. If you were to dream it again, the same thing would happen again. So the direct experience is not of freedom when you are dreaming.
It was the illusions of the mind that were believed that caused the experience of being trapped and the suffering that went with being trapped. While you are in the illusions (and believing them), saying you are really free is not very helpful. Your experience is of being trapped. You want to find out how to find freedom…not be told who you really are is already free. This just reinforces a split and creates more duality…I experience bondage, but who I really am is free.
And so, if there is a difference between “being trapped in illusions of the mind” and “not being trapped in the illusions of the mind”…then Enlightenment does exist. There is a happening in which there is a realization…and this realization is seeing through the illusions of the mind. This happening is called Enlightenment. So prior to Enlightenment, the illusions of the mind are believed and cause problems. After Enlightenment, the illusions of the mind are not believed and no longer cause problems.
The illusions of the mind, when believed, cause suffering and discontentment. So prior to Enlightenment, we experience suffering and we are not truly (permanently) content. After Enlightenment, we no longer experience suffering and are ever content.
I apologize if this sounds repetitive, but I want to be very clear. Too often I hear people say “Enlightenment is realizing there is not such thing as Enlightenment.” This is an ongoing myth. They are deluding themselves. If this concept is accepted and believed…then there may be a feeling of relief due to losing the need to seek any further…and there may be an inflated sense of self now that “I” have figured out the secret and all these other seekers are chasing a mental concept. In this way feeling superior to others…and a sense that “I now got it.”
But it is false, if they still believe in the illusions of the mind that cause suffering and discontentment in life. Now some of these same people will continue to build the house of cards by saying it is just a matter of accepting and/or disidentifying with suffering…and that suffering continues after Enlightenment. For them, suffer never ends. In this way, the concept of ‘Enlightenmentless-Enlightenment’ and ‘still suffering’ can co-exist logically.
There is definitely such a thing as Enlightenment. It is a happening. A sudden and complete realization. A seeing through the illusions of the mind (and seeing who/what you really are), so the illusions no longer fool you and you see them for what they really are. This causes the immediate cessation of dukkha…the cessation of suffering and discontentment. So if one still suffers, he or she is not yet Enlightened.