Puerto Vallarta Zen Group


Zen Meditation: It's not what you think!

Enlightenment: Don't Know What It Is

There's a song by Van Morrison that I like entitled, "Enlightenment, don't know what it is." I like the song and I especially like the title. After talking about "not knowing" last week it seemed like a good time to talk about Enlightenment in terms of not knowing. Since I don't know what enlightenment is, I'm going to try to say some things that I think it isn't. I hope that what I have to say gets you to thinking about this a little, but if you don't find my talk helpful at all, please just forget about it.

But first I want to share something from the teaching of Zen master Homeless Kodo.

"We don't practice zazen in order to get enlightened; we practice zazen being pulled every which way by enlightenment."

Many of us came to Zen practice looking for some magical experience that would instantly clear up all our confusion, solve all our problems, and end all our pain and suffering. We figured that's what enlightenment was and we wanted to get it. I know I did.

Here's DT Suzuki talking about satori, the experience of enlightenment in the Introduction to Zen Buddhism. He said,

Satori is the raison d'etre of Zen without which Zen is no Zen. Therefore every contrivance, disciplinary or doctrinal, is directed toward satori...[with satori] All your mental activities will now be working to a different key, which will be more satisfying, more peaceful, and fuller of joy than anything you ever experienced before. The tone of life will be altered... The spring flowers look prettier, and the mountain stream runs cooler and more transparent... life becomes more enjoyable and its expanse broadens to include the universe itself...

Wanna get me some of that!

The dramatic enlightenment stories that we read about usually involve some sudden and powerful experience which often comes by surprise and transforms the person's whole being. The zen koans contain story after story of how some experience or encounter leads to this happening. We use words like realization, awakening, dropping off body and mind, and of course seeing the light, enlightenment, to describe this event. Hakuin Zenji, the great 18th century Rinzai teacher, is said to have had numerous "small" and several "great" enlightenment experiences. Our great ancestor Dogen told of his experience of dropping off body and mind when his teacher, Rujing, shouted at the sleepy student sitting next to Dogen in the zendo. Dogen mentions "the bringing about of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a hossu, a fist, a staff, or a shout." These are all references to dramatic moments in some of the enlightenment stories in the history of zen.

In our library we now have a copy of Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen. Kapleau makes a point of saying that enlightenment is a living possibility and not just something found in books about the ancient masters. The book contains several very inspirational stories about the enlightenment experiences of modern day practitioners.

So this kind of experience has happened, and it still does happen. The literature isn't lying about it. Some teachers like to share enlightenment stories to encourage practitioners. So they make this a part of their teaching, the way that Kapleau did.

In the soto tradition which has come through Suzuki-roshi (Suzuki Shunryu and not Suzuki Daisetz), we almost never talk about enlightenment in this way. In fact we talk so little about it that it seems almost taboo to do so. But at the same time, we still read about it and so many of the traditional texts encourage it. Sometimes it seems that there's a contradiction or at least a mixed message. I wondered why that is. I talked to some teachers and friends to explore this idea some more and I found that really helpful. This talk is kind of a report on where that wondering has lead to so far.

Sometimes in zen teachings enlightenment does sound like something to "get", especially in the koan literature. But other times the texts undercut or de-emphasize it. In the same text that I cited before, Dogen also said, "going forward in practice is a matter of everydayness." And one of my favourite lines in Dogen's Genjo Koan is, "When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas."

When we read stories about enlightenment, it usually comes at the conclusion. Something happens and then we read "At this point, the monk was deeply enlightened." It's kind of the zen equivalent of saying "And they all lived happily ever after."

But sometimes we also hear stories of a person who has had the experience of enlightenment and who still behaves in ways which are arrogant or even harmful. How can this be? Sometimes we try to excuse them since we think they are enlightened and we aren't. Or sometimes we think that enlightened people can't make mistakes and so we blame ourselves. Either we were wrong to believe they were enlightened or we were wrong to think they made a mistake. Is there another way that we understand that enlightened people may do un-enlightened things?

I think we need to do away with the notion that enlightenment is a state of being in which one is somehow inoculated against mistakes or confusion. I think it's very important to realize that enlightenment is not something that anyone can "get" and then "have." It's not like a piece of art that can be hung on the wall to admire. Sometimes we'd like to believe that it is like that though. It's very seductive to think we could clear up all our problems and confusions by just getting enlightened. It's kind of like the fantasy of winning the lottery. We think, "Oh if I won that $5,000,000 all my problems would disappear." Even though we know that research on actual lottery winners shows that it doesn't even work that way in the lottery. I'm not trying to say that enlightenment is anything like winning the lottery, but I do think that fantasies about enlightenment and fantasies about winning the lottery have something in common.

The first teacher I studied with, Joshu Sasaki-roshi, was fond of saying that there are no bathrooms in heaven. But even in heaven, sooner or later, you'll need to go to the bathroom, and so you have to leave heaven. You can't stay there forever.

Jack Kornfield has a book titled, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry." Like Sasaki-roshi, he asserts that there is no permanent bliss-state that one enters through enlightenment. One chapter is called "No Enlightened Retirement" to remind us that a person's work is not complete once they have had an enlightenment experience. In our usual fantasies we'd like to think that once we "achieve" this rare experience, we will "have" wisdom and that's that. Not so. It's not something I can get for myself. It's not some thing. Kornfield describes two visions of awakening. One is the idealized vision of total perfection; the other is the ongoing practice of realization while still acknowledging and accepting one's flaws. However he doesn't say that one vision is wrong and the other vision right. Maybe I've made it sound like I think differently, but I don't. There is the ideal, and there is practice. Having an ideal to aspire to is a good thing. Accomplishing an ideal would actually be kind of sad, what would there be left to do? My teacher, Norman Fischer once said,

"Ideals should inspire us to surpass ourselves, which we need to aspire to do if we are to be truly human, and which we can never actually do, exactly because we are truly human. Ideals are tools for inspiration, not realities in themselves. The fact that we have so often missed this point accounts for the sorry history of religion in human civilization."

As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to use the word enlightenment. And I've been using it in a lot of different ways. This adds to the confusion. Sometimes we use the word to describe an experience. The Japanese words satori and kensho are also used to name this enlightenment experience. When we use it this way, we might want to call someone who has had one of these experiences "enlightened." This is the kind of enlightenment that we find in so many koans, and the enlightenment that we rarely talk about in our tradition. It has been described as "a shattering of the sense of a separate self, a transcendent experience of unity, surrendering the ego to pure awareness." It may be very intense and it may lead to a complete re-evaluation of the way we understand ourselves in the world. It may come after periods of intensive practice, like in sesshin, or it may just sneak up and surprise a person. One doesn't need to be a Buddhist to have it. But the person who has had this one of these experiences can still return to old habits and modes of being.

The other day I was listening to a recording of Pema Chodron. Much to my surprise, she said that she had never had this sudden and profound experience of opening that we hear so much about. She said that sometimes when her students would tell her about there own amazing and powerful experiences of opening, she would actually feel a little jealous. But she noticed that only a day or two after these profound experiences those students were once again right back where they had been before, in the midst of the same old confusion and trouble.

In the preface to Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Huston Smith recalls that D.T. Suzuki emphasized the importance of the satori experience, but that Shunryu Suzuki hardly talked about it. Smith recounts a conversation he had with Suzuki-roshi, Shunryu Suzuki:

When, four months before his death, I had the opportunity to ask him why satori didn't figure in his book, his wife leaned toward me and whispered impishly, "It's because he hasn't had it"; whereupon the Roshi batted his fan at her in mock consternation and with finger to his lips hissed, "Shhhh! Don't tell him!" When our laughter had subsided, he said simply, "It's not that satori is unimportant, but it's not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed."

Another time, when someone kept pushing for him to talk about enlightenment he replied, "What do you want to know for? You may not like it."

Uchiyama roshi said that there are two different views of enlightenment in Japanese Buddhism. He said one is like falling in love, and the other is like marriage. Falling in love is wonderful, ecstatic, even transcendent. And it is a transitory experience. Marriage is like everyday life. In everyday life there are sunny days, windy days, and stormy days. I would say that married life is one way to express being in love. And I would say that we can talk about having enlightenment or being enlightenment.

In the soto tradition, it is more normal to talk about enlightenment as an activity rather than as an event. We frequently talk about enlightenment in this way. Once Suzuki-roshi said, "Strictly speaking there are no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity."

This is not to put enlightened activity in opposition to the experience of satori. Really I think it's just saying that enlightenment is not true enlightenment without expression. I would say that satori finds its expression in whole-hearted practice. Dogen's fundamental question was: If all things already have Buddha nature, why practice? Why try to "get" something we already have? As I understand it, his answer was practice-realization. He didn't say that first you need to practice and then you'll be enlightened. He said that the reality of enlightenment is practice. Whole-hearted practice, no matter what it is: walking down the street, caring for someone in need, sitting zazen, listening, singing, talking, when it is done purely and un-self-consciously, can be seen as nothing other than enlightenment expressing itself. I think this is like being enlightenment instead of having enlightenment. This kind of enlightenment can't belong to you or to anyone else. There's no separate self or entity there saying "That's it!" There's no holding on to it. If there is no fixed or essential self, as Buddhism teaches, then where could there be for enlightenment to stick?

Unfortunately, meeting one occasion with enlightened activity doesn't guarantee that every occasion will be met with wisdom and that every activity will be skillful. Hui-Neng, the 6th Chinese ancestor said, "One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is again an ordinary person." That is what we have to practice with. This doesn't excuse enlightened people behaving badly, but it does warns us that it's possible.

In Remembering the Dragon, Mel Weitsman wrote,

I want to suggest that Suzuki Roshi was not infallible and that he had faults. We should be careful not to deify him. I don't think he would feel good about that. He used to say, 'Each one of us is half good and half bad.' And he included himself. Because he was always working on his shortcomings, we didn't see them as shortcomings. We saw them as his practice.

Well that's a little disappointing. I don't want to practice with my shortcomings. I want to remove them all. Wouldn't that be enlightenment? How about having shortcomings, but viewing them with a compassionate curiosity that leaves out judgement and allows space for me to hear what they are trying to tell me. Is that enlightenment? The truth is I really don't think it matters. The labels, "enlightened" or "not enlightened" don't matter. Practice matters. If anything, getting caught up in the labels impedes practice.

"Enlightenment cannot be asked for in your ordinary way of thinking." said Suzuki-roshi.."We practice zazen to express our true nature, not to attain enlightenment. Bodhidharma's Buddhism is to be practice, to be enlightenment."

Now I can see that talking about enlightenment is not really taboo, but it's still very difficult to do. In spite of that, I think it's good to try. When we shy away from talking about it the word gathers a kind of magical power. I think it's good to discharge some of that power by not being afraid to speak of it. At the same time, we do need to speak carefully, it's a delicate issue. Making strong assertions closes off honest awareness as much as ignoring does.

In the Genjo-koan, Dogen said:

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion. When Buddhas are truly Buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are Buddhas. However, they are actualized Buddhas who go on actualizing Buddhas.

I think the phrase, "To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion." is talking about me having my experience: seeing things from my individual point of view. I'm here; things are out there. And this is delusion. The next phrase: "That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening." is talking about just being a part of this great symphony of causes and conditions arising and falling. Among these causes and conditions is this body-mind. But there's nothing and no-one outside watching or interpreting. There is no outside.

"Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas." If you don't ignore what happens when the self comes forward and asserts, you're not ignorant, then you can see how the self interprets and evaluates everything on its own terms and you can understand that this is delusion. This is the understanding of a Buddha.

"Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings." Thinking that you can know and understand what enlightenment is, is being deluded about realization. And both of these activities - realizing or being deluded - can extend out further and further, realizing beyond realization or being in delusion throughout delusion. "When Buddhas are truly Buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are Buddhas. However, they are actualized Buddhas who go on actualizing Buddhas."

One more time:

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion. When Buddhas are truly Buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are Buddhas. However, they are actualized Buddhas who go on actualizing Buddhas.

If now you think you have a better idea of what enlightenment is, I apologize for misleading you. My hope in giving this talk was just to try to make the idea of enlightenment a little less heavy, a little less intimidating, than we usually find it.

I'd like to close with a story that I heard from someone at the San Francisco Zen Center:

Norman Fischer was answering people's questions after one of the Sunday public talks at Green Gulch Farm. Someone - let's say a "spiritual seeker" - asked: "Is there a fully enlightened master here?"

Without skipping a beat, Norman answered, "I sure hope not. We have enough trouble already ."

Thank you very much.

© 2006, Burai Rick Spencer