Enlightenment is also called liberation, but enlightenment is realizing that you were never bound to begin with. So although nothing was gained by enlightenment, what was lost was the delusion of bondage (an illusion of the mind). In losing the delusions and illusions, we realize our natural state.
As there is nothing to be gained, that is why I think some people mistakenly say “everyone is enlightened.” Or some mistakenly say “everyone is enlightened” because “enlightenment is out natural state.” This too is mistaken because enlightenment is realizing our natural state instead of continuing to think who we think we are…with all of our problems and suffering.
I used to say “everyone is enlightened, but they just don’t know it”, because from a stand point there is no other and no bondage (although this does deny perceived duality). It is like the “others” are playing at being bound and seeking liberation. They complain about being in chains and can’t find or reach the door, but there are no chains, no walls, and no door. Saying this also was a blurring of the term ‘enlightenment’ with the term ‘free’…everyone is free, but they don’t know it.
Over the years, however, I have found just saying, “you are already free/enlightened” doesn’t do much for people. Actually, instead of being pointed to the delusion of bondage (and suddenly waking up)…they become irritated, because they are convinced they are not free. However, saying everyone is enlightened does recognize that there really is no bondage, but it also denies the fact that others do feel they are bound or feel the need to seek something they think they do not have.
Also, I have come to see that saying everyone is enlightened is very misleading. It makes it sound like there is nothing different for the enlightened versus those who are not enlightened. For the enlightened…suffering, seeking, problems, and fear have ceased. The enlightened are content with what is as it is. It should be very clear that this is not most people’s personal experience or attitude.
Most people have problems. Most people fear their deaths. Most people suffer (i.e. anxiety, worry, guilt, regret, etc.). Most people seek to resolve these issues and free themselves from these burdens. As this is the case, when I am now asked “is everyone enlightened?” I say, “no.”
Enlightenment is simply the bringing in of light into the darkness…which then dispels the darkness (of ignorance). There is an insight…a realization…of who/what we really are that makes the difference between the enlightened and those not yet enlightened. This insight/realization is the light brought into the darkness of our prior delusion and misunderstanding. The insight dispels the delusion and we awaken from the unreal to the real. Kind of a…oh, I was imagining myself in chains, but I am free! It is not an easy thing to question the very nature of your “reality”.
You can chain a young elephant to a stake set deep into the ground and it will struggle and struggle to get free. Eventually, it learns it is trapped and can not escape. Then you can change the weight of the chains and eventually go to just a rope. Then the fully grown elephant…with all its might…is held in place with a thin rope tied to a shallow stake in the ground. This is an old analogy from India. But it makes the point that we have learned our limitations and we have learned to not bother pushing against them.
Who are you? What are you? From where does the “I” thought arise? This is self inquiry. Self inquiry is a pushing against and questioning our self-created limitations (i.e. thoughts about ourselves). Once we see our illusory limitations fall way…we are free…then we are enlightened. “I was imagining myself in chains, but I am free!”