From the beginning, it’s been clear that the highest rewards of Buddhism are experienced through a fundamental and radical shift in the way you understand the world and your place in it. Throughout time, and among different forms of Buddhism, this shift in understanding has been called different things, including awakening, enlightenment, Right View or Right Understanding, realization, satori, or kensho (a Japanese term which means “seeing one’s true nature”). In this episode I explore “awakening” in Buddhism: What’s meant by the term, attitudes we take toward awakening, why it’s so elusive, and how we can make the process of seeking less painful.
Quicklinks to Content:
The Concept of “Awakening” in Buddhism and Zen
Individual Attitudes Toward Awakening
The Reality of Awakening
The Misery of Not Yet Knowing
Why Realization Is So Elusive
Practicing with Not Knowing
For those of us no longer beginners to Buddhist practice, the concept of awakening raises a troubling and dualistic question: Do we know the essential truth yet, or not? When we conclude we know, a good teacher challenges us. When we conclude we don’t know, they tell us the truth is not separate from us. When we decide we don’t care one way or another, they implore us not to waste our lives living in a dream. If you really want to awaken, the whole process of longing and struggling to realize the essential truth for yourself can be filled with frustration, confusion, and anguish – one reason some Buddhists choose to opt out of the effort entirely, postponing it until a future birth or simply cultivating satisfaction with their lives just as they are.
The Concept of “Awakening” in Buddhism and Zen
What is this fundamental awakening experienced by the Buddha, and by subsequent generations of practitioners? Of course, there isn’t just one awakening. Or, that is, there isn’t only one truth to awaken to. We benefit from insights into the nature of dukkha, or suffering; into impermanence, and into our own karmic entanglements. The valuable – and truly liberating – things we can learn along the path are infinite. However, it’s clear from the Buddhist teachings, stories of the ancestors, and the experience of modern-day Buddhists, that there’s a pivotal and essential shift in perspective at some point in a person’s practice. Before that shift, we don’t really get it. We may think we do, but those who have awakened say we’re really just wandering around as if in a dream. After that critical shift in perspective, it’s as if we’ve woken up.
Putting words to the fundamental awakening in Buddhism is, not surprisingly, extremely difficult. Right Understanding itself is beyond words, so any words we choose to describe it are like – as the old saying goes – just fingers pointing at the moon, where the moon is reality itself. Still, the Pali Canon describes Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening in great detail, as I discuss in Episode 9 – Shakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment: What Did He Realize? Although the Buddha had spent many years in full-time, hard-core spiritual striving, he didn’t find the answers he was seeking until he directly perceived how suffering was created and perpetuated based on particular kinds of views we hold about ourselves and the world. The Buddha then awakened to Right View (or Right Understanding): His perspective radically shifted such that he was completely liberated from suffering and from the cycle of its perpetuation. It’s impossible to adequately summarize Right View in few words, but essentially it means you are freed from delusions that drive you to create suffering.
In original Buddhism, distinctions were explicitly made between those students of the Buddha who awakened to the essential aspects of truth, and those who didn’t. When someone really got it, they were called an arahant. The Pali Canon repeatedly tells the stories of practitioners listening to the Buddha and then, at some pivotal moment, realizing for themselves the truth of what the Buddha said in a direct, person, experiential way. In the Buddha’s very first sermon, conveyed in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he shares the Four Noble Truths with five monks, and then:
“Gratified, the group of five monks delighted at his words. And while this explanation was being given, there arose to Ven. Kondañña the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: [he saw] Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation…
Then the Blessed One exclaimed: ‘So you really know, Kondañña? So you really know?’ And that is how Ven. Kondañña acquired the name Añña-Kondañña — Kondañña who knows.”[i]
Eventually the other four monks also awaken, but after the Buddha’s first sermon we have Kondañña who knows, while the other four monks – who have just heard the exact same teaching – do not yet know.
I call awakening a “koan” in the sense that it’s something for us to wrestle with spiritually, and in the sense that it cannot be understood with our ordinary, discriminating mind. The koan of awakening figures prominently in the Chan, and later Zen, lineage of Buddhism, which eventually began to compile (supposedly) biographical accounts of the awakening experiences of each and every significant person in a Dharma lineage. The practitioner is described before and after they “get it,” along with the circumstances of their awakening. Sometimes the moment of waking up is catalyzed by the words or actions of a teacher, sometimes by a moment of meditation, sometimes by an apparently random, mundane event like a stone swept across a courtyard striking a piece of bamboo. After awakening the person is usually overcome with joy, gratitude, and wonder. They’re able to satisfactorily respond to their teacher’s Dharma challenges, and their teacher acknowledges the student as having joined the ranks of those who know.
The extent to which the concept of awakening is taught or valued in modern, western places of Buddhist practice varies widely. Certain lineages, particularly Chan, Zen, or Korean Seon lineages that employ formal koan study, tend to emphasize the reality and importance of seeking a fundamental and radical shift in your view of the world and self – and in some cases, when a practitioner experiences that shift there’s a publicly acknowledged, or even celebrated, before and after. Many other lineages, including Theravada and Vipassana but also many Chan and Zen lineages, place less of an emphasis on awakening experiences. They can’t deny Buddhism points to such a possibility, but teachers and centers encourage people to embrace their lives as they are and practice diligently without a particular goal. Many Buddhist teachers feel that as long as someone really practices, awakening – if it happens – will happen on its own, and that deliberately striving for it can actually just get in the way.
Individual Attitudes Toward Awakening
Even within a given place of practice, however, attitudes toward awakening will vary greatly by person. Some people are convinced they’re just not up for the task, so instead concentrate on whatever they can do and are satisfied with the not-insignificant rewards of practice like reduced stress, greater peace of mind, and a more harmonious life. Some people are intrigued by the idea of waking up to some great and revolutionary way of seeing the world and the self, but are also rather afraid of what waking up might mean and therefore dance around the edges of it. Some people just ignore the whole idea of awakening, or regard it with skepticism, despite the fact that at many Zen practice places they end a day of meditation with this ancient chant (this melody from Zen Mountain Monastery)[ii]:
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance
Life swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost
Each of us should strive to awaken… awaken
Take heed! Do not squander your life!
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been intrigued and even obsessed by the possibility of awakening, liberation, enlightenment – whatever you want to call it – since the first time you heard about it. Perhaps you’re one of the many people who encountered Zen through Philip Kapleau’s book The Three Pillars of Zen, originally published in 1965. It was one of the first widely available books on Zen, and someone I know who was practicing in the 60’s told me it was common for people to skip right to Kapleau’s chapter on kensho, which literally means “seeing one’s (true) nature.” In that chapter Kapleau tells real-life stories of the dramatic enlightenment experiences of eight modern lay practitioners, such as “Mrs. A. M., an American Schoolteacher, Age 38.” Part of me hesitates to even mention the book in case you haven’t read it, because I think it’s bound to get you all wrapped in confusing thoughts about striving for particular experiences. (I disagree with many of the things it says, particularly about shikantaza, although who am I to argue with Roshi Philip Kapleau?)
The Reality of Awakening
That caveat offered, the utility of talk about dramatic awakening experiences is how it strongly suggests there is something important to awaken to – something that goes far beyond our usual, habitual perceptions of the world. I personally know quite a few people who have had kensho experiences – experiences which have been subsequently verified by qualified teachers. They say before and after are very different, that they are forever changed, that their understanding of the nature of self and the world is turned upside down. Now, that’s not to say people who have “awakening” experiences have had all their questions answered and problems solved, and forever after it’s been smooth sailing for them. Not at all – there’s still a lot of work to be done after achieving fundamental insight in Buddhism, as I discuss in Episode 91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?
Plus, insight – or Right View – is only one of the eight aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. You also have to integrate and manifest your understanding, and behave morally and compassionately. It’s considered noble, valuable, and rewarding to act in an enlightened way before experiencing a fundamental and radical shift in the way you understand the world and your place in it – or even if you never experience such a shift. Still, it’s understood that the rest of the path flows out of, depends on, and feeds back into Right View. According to Buddhism, unenlightened beings, no matter how morally upstanding or diligent in their practice, are missing out on the transformative and irrevocable liberation experienced by those who have awakened.
If we don’t yet know for ourselves the pivotal realization of the Buddhas and ancestors, how do we even know awakening is real? This is actually a very good question; one we should ask ourselves. Is all of this enlightenment stuff just wishful thinking, or a group delusion? Each of us who believes in awakening probably has our own reasons for our faith, but those reasons usually include a deep intuitive sense that it really is possible to see reality in a completely different, liberating, way. Our intuition arises from experiences we’ve had when it’s like the clouds have parted for a moment and we’ve been able to see the clear blue sky beyond.
Our faith in awakening may also be based on the behavior of people who are supposedly part of the “knowing” club: At their best, people with deep realization seem to operate in an alternative reality to most of us – always keeping a large perspective, nonreactive, undefended, and serenely confident without any dependence on dogma or position. Each individual manifests their supposed enlightenment differently, but in general you get the sense they know themselves and are at peace with themselves. Although not free from the pain and difficulty involved in being human, people who are respected by their spiritual communities as having achieved some level of awakening are much less likely to fall into despair, and much more likely to live with a sense of profound gratitude.
The Misery of Not Yet Knowing
And so, some of us believe in the possibility of awakening. Unless we’re one of the golden children like Ven. Kondañña, or someone who experiences kensho during their first meditation retreat (these folks are extremely rare), we practice year after year, hoping to understand the Great Matter for ourselves. We try to deepen our meditation, striving for that fundamental and radical shift in the way we understand the world and our place in it. We go through the Dharma teachings with a fine-tooth comb for the words that will unlock our minds. A love-hate relationship often forms with teachers or senior practitioners who have gone through the essential Dharma gate; we may admire them and hope to curry favor with them so we can glean their secrets, and we may relish every description they offer of the great and luminous Reality they’ve managed to glimpse. On the other hand, we may envy and resent them, compare ourselves to them, and feel permanently excluded and judged by them.
Believing in and longing for awakening can be a place of great misery. Such misery probably accounts for a great many people who once practiced the Dharma but do so no longer. Here’s a poem I wrote about 15 years ago, when I was training as a junior monk, that reflects this stage of practice:
Even after all the effort,
the grief is not gone.
Having tried everything,
having mastered nothing,
there is no hope even
for temporary relief. And no one else can help.
(Consumed as they are by their own struggles, or,
their encouragements falling, echoing,
into the abyss that separates
sanity from despair.)
And yet it seems there is some shred of faith left:
on an aimless barefoot walk in the cold rain,
careless of broken glass
and unyielding pavement,
stooping to pick up two fallen camellias,
cradling pink rain-dropped petals
all the way home,
finding a shallow glass dish
and filling it with water,
setting the camellias afloat in it, poignant,
If we have the patience or stubbornness to just keep practicing no matter how long it takes, and no matter how inadequate we turn out to be as practitioners, eventually things shift – just not necessarily in the way we expect. For example, it used to be a source of great frustration, shame, and anguish to me to think that no matter how hard I tried to break through the Dharma gate of awakening, I remained stuck on the side of delusion. It was maddening to hear that “It” was right in front of me, couldn’t I see it? And even more maddening to hear that it was my own perceived sense of separation from It – along with my subsequent striving to perceive It – that was the problem! What on earth is someone supposed to do?
Over time, I came to accept that this whole enlightenment deal was a completely different ball of wax from any other endeavor I’d ever undertaken. Something else was required, and I wasn’t sure what it was. In the meantime, I could at least stop making myself miserable with all of my “me-centered” thoughts – I don’t understand; I am not a good enough practitioner; I am lacking something fundamental; I am missing out on the fun, kudos, and status enjoyed by the enlightened people. I may not have had the kind of knock-your-socks-off change in perspective called awakening, but I did know personally and intimately how dukkha is generated by our desire for things to be other than what and how they are, and I knew how to release that desire. Of course, in releasing one’s resistance to one’s unawakened state, it’s a little tricky not to also release the desire for transformative realization, which would be a little like taking the sour grapes approach (“Realization probably isn’t all that special anyway”).
Why Realization Is So Elusive
Why is awakening in the Buddhist sense so elusive? I guess it’s because the realization we’re aiming to have is unlike any other realization or understanding we experience in our lives. It’s breaking free from the fog of our own assumptions, not grasping something new. Enlightenment is not what deluded beings think it is, which is why Dogen says in Genjokoan:
“Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.”[iii]
What does it mean to “know” something? This question must have been foremost in the mind of the Buddha’s disciple, Ananda. Throughout the Buddha’s teaching career, Ananda was his constant companion, probably hearing every one of the Buddha’s teachings multiple times. What’s more, it’s said he had an eidetic memory – after the Buddha’s death, the Sangha called Ananda to recite all the sermons he had heard so they could be included in the Canon and maintained through the oral tradition. What’s notable is that, according to the traditional story, Ananda was not invited to the convocation of monks who were deciding what the Sangha should do after the Buddha’s passing because he was not yet an arahant. In other words, there was nothing in the teachings Ananda didn’t, in one sense, know – and yet, despite his years of practice and dedication, he still didn’t “get it.”
“Ananda was foremost in learning, intellectually brilliant and broad in understanding. He was the Buddha’s attendant for twenty years, propagated all of the Buddha’s teachings, and studied all of the Buddha’s manners. When the Buddha entrusted the treasure of the eye of truth to Kasyapa, he also instructed Ananda to help communicate the teachings. So Ananda accompanied Kasyapa [the one person Buddha acknowledged as having received the transmission of Dharma, according to this story] for twenty more years and became thoroughly familiar with the entire treasure of the eye of truth.
“This should document the fact that the way of Zen is not in the same class as other schools. Ananda was already foremost in learning, having studied widely and gained a broad understanding, with the Buddha himself giving him approval many times – yet he did not hold the transmission of truth or attain illumination of the ground of mind.”[iv]
Can you imagine studying side by side with another student for 20 years, watching them acknowledged as having awakened, and having to study with that former fellow student for another 20 years? When reading all the enlightenment stories of the ancestors, I don’t think anyone wants to be Ananda. Poor, clueless, too-smart-for-his-own-good Ananda.
Ananda eventually awakens, according the Denkoroku, with the following exchange:
“Ananda asked Kasyapa, ‘What did the Buddha hand on to you besides the golden-sleeved robe?’ [the symbol of Dharma transmission]
Kasyapa said, ‘Ananda!’
Ananda said, ‘Yes?’
Kasyapa said, ‘Take down the banner pole in front of the gate.’
Ananda was greatly enlightened.”
So, Ananda asks his Dharma brother, “What am I missing?” Kasyapa’s answer, “Take down the banner pole in front of the gate” refers to an ancient Indian tradition of raising a banner in front of a monastery when teaching and debate were going on there.[v] Kasyapa encourages Ananda to give up his position of knowing. Finally the moment is ripe and Ananda wakes up to the essential matter.
Okay, but if you give up knowing, how do you respond? What good are you to the Buddhadharma if you don’t know? Isn’t knowing the point? What kind of knowing is this? Is it possible to know with one’s body instead of one’s mind? How do you bring that about?
Practicing with Not Knowing
If you buy the idea that you can experience a radical, transformative shift in your view of the world and self, it can be tricky to keep your practice vital when you haven’t yet experienced that shift. If you grasp for awakening too hard, you can distort practice into yet another source of self-absorption and suffering. If you get too self-satisfied or lackadaisical about awakening, your practice can stagnate. This is what Chan master Hongzhi was talking about in his poem “Guidepost of Silent Illumination,” written in 12th century. In this passage, illumination can be thought of as insight, while serenity is calming the mind:
In other words, if we strive after enlightenment and don’t bother to work on stillness and letting go – on a profound acceptance of our life just as it is – we’ll get agitated and cause misery for self and other. On the other hand, if we just accept our life as it appears to be without trying to look more deeply at the true nature of our experience, our understanding will remain clouded and we’ll lose a wonderful opportunity to awaken.
Sometimes the whole “awakening” scenario in Buddhism sounds very black-and-white, either-or: You’ve experienced the truth, or you haven’t experienced it. You’re in the club, or not. It’s helped me to adopt, instead, a non-dualistic way of thinking about knowing versus not knowing the essential matter. I think of it like this: Let’s say you’ve never been to New York City but you hear about it and you’re fascinated by it. You read lots of stuff about the city, look at lots of pictures, and carefully study a map of it. At this point, your knowledge of New York is purely intellectual, but it’s still not negligible or shameful. Then you read some novels set in the city, and watch some cool movies and documentaries, and you start to get more of a feel for the place. This is nothing compared to your first visit, though. Walking the streets, smelling the smells, riding the subway, watching the people… now you have a sense of New York, which gets deepened on every one of your subsequent visits. Maybe you even stay for a month some time. Still, what is your understanding of New York, really, compared to someone who was born and lived their whole lives there?
It’s said in Zen that awakening experiences like kensho are just the first stage of waking up. There’s always more to see… and in my experience, the little insights all along the way in practice – experiences my Dharma grandmother Roshi Kennett used call “moments that make us dance” – these little insights are not in essence different from the big, transformative insight. That is, the little insights are moving you in the direction of enlightenment, and no time, effort, or experience is wasted. One of my teachers, Kyogen Carlson, had a big, dramatic kensho experience in his early years of practice, but he maintained that someone people’s practice matures like a flower that pops open overnight, while other people’s practice is like a flower that gradually opens, petal by petal. Different people experience realization differently.
Finally, if we’re still among the ranks of the unawakened according to our own estimation or the estimation of our teachers, we can take heart from Ananda’s story. No one wants to be like Ananda – practicing diligently 24-7 for forty years before awakening. But you can also look at the story as encouragement that no one is excluded from it, no matter how long it takes them.
[i] “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html .
[iii] Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo (Kindle Locations 2379-2380). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Cleary, Thomas (translator). Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment /by Keizan. Berkeley, CA: North Point Press, 1990.
[v] Thomas Cleary, Thomas and J. C. Cleary, Translators. The Blue Cliff Record. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2005. (Endnotes to case 15 on page 103)