142 - Direct Experience Is Liberation: When There Are No Stories, There Is No "You"
144 - Lotus Sutra 2: Wake Up! The Parable of the Burning House

Whether you are personally intrigued by the concept of enlightenment or not, it is absolutely central to Buddhism. However, enlightenment – to use a kind of corny phrase – is not what you think. I’ll discuss sudden and gradual experiences of enlightenment, the changes such experiences bring about in us, and why it’s important for all of us to seek enlightenment.

 

 

Striving for Enlightenment

A classic story about Enlightenment:

“When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free. In commemoration she wrote a poem:

 

‘In this way and that I tried to save the old pail,
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!’”[i]

Kyogen Carlson, one of my teachers, mentioned this poem in an essay, “The Paradox of Effort and Non-effort,”[ii] saying it was central to his practice at Shasta monastery for the first several years.

He describes throwing himself into practice, wet only up to his ankles after a year, knees after two years, etc.

Roshi Kennett, his teacher, would say in order for awakening to occur, “student has to hit bottom, to get to the end of their rope.” – Kyogen: That would drive me nuts. I hated that idea… “How was I supposed to hit bottom when I was going the wrong way?”

There was a naturalness and ease he recognized, though, in the people who had “done it.” Who had been recognized as having had the kensho experience (the experience of seeing one’s true nature)

Awakening was not something he could do, but it was also not something he could walk away from

Then one day, toward the end of an intensive, focused 90-day Ango period, he and another monk take a grueling hike up Black Butte near the monastery in order to get some aerial photos of the monastery: Steep path up pile of loose volcanic rock. Exhausting. Ill-fitting boots, blisters, get back late to the monastery with bloody feet and a limp, miss dinner, pounding headache.

OK to miss early morning zazen if you’ve had a day like that, Kyogen indulges himself the next morning, shows up for breakfast. Roshi Kennett loudly praises another monk who, “despite everything he had to do the day before, was in the zendo that morning, first thing. She said, ‘Now there’s a monk who really wants the practice.’” Kyogen is furious, thinking about how he’s opened his veins for this practice and this place, and now someone else is better because he misses one sitting period. From his essay:

“I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I do remember burying my face in my hands. I felt empty in a numb sort of way, thinking “what the hell is the point?”  Roshi asked me what was going on, pressing me, and I said, “There’s just no love here.”  What I meant was that I felt completely unseen.  That’s what I felt.  At that point she got up and walked across the room and looked into my eyes, muttered “hmmm,” and went back to her seat.

About then breakfast arrived and the bell was struck.  The other monks hadn’t made it down from where they were doing the morning cleaning, so it was the two of us, and one other monk in the refectory.  I sat there staring down at my bowls.  She said to me, “Kyogen, look up.”  I thought, “Yeah, right.”  I’d heard that before.  She said, “No, I mean it.  Look up.”  So I straightened up a bit, but kept looking down at the table.  To me this meant “Come on now, look on the bright side.  Be cheerful.  Be a good little monk and do everything with a bright shiny face!”  I thought, “Oh, thbbbt.”  She said “Listen to me.  Open your hands palm upward and look up.”  She came around behind me and took my hands and turned them over.  I turned my gaze upward and ka-boom!  I was overwhelmed by release and affirmation.  I won’t try to describe it all, but I ended up under the table, laughing my fool head off.”[ii]

 

Enlightenment as Waking Up

What did Kyogen experience? What is awakening?

The idea of “enlightenment” has been central to Buddhism since the beginning. Called liberation, awakening, etc., but it generally means the same thing.

Shakyamuni practiced as intensely as any person ever had (according to the stories) for 6 years, and then had an experience which gave him what he sought:

In Majjhima Nikaya Sutta number 36, Siddhartha gains insight into the Four Noble Truths, and then:

“My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the fermentation of sensuality, released from the fermentation of becoming, released from the fermentation of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done…’”[iii]

There was a moment of understanding… but understanding beyond the intellectual. An experience of knowing, a transformative insight. Afterwards Siddhartha was called a Buddha, or “awakened one,” and – according to our stories – was never again troubled spiritually by anything, but displayed immeasurable generosity, diligence, and compassion in teaching anyone who asked for another 45 years.

 

Enlightenment Does Not Depend on Any Particular Practice or Skill

In our Zen tradition, many similar stories, one of the most central is that of the 5th ancestor in the Platform Sutra:

“Hui Neng’s stern father was originally from Fan Yang. He was banished to Hsin Chou in Ling Nan, where he became a commoner. Unfortunately, his father soon died, and his aging mother was left alone. They moved to Nan Hai and, poor and in bitter straits, Hui Neng sold wood in the market place.

“Once a customer bought firewood and ordered it delivered to his shop. When the delivery had been made, and Hui Neng had received the money, he went outside the gate, where he noticed a customer reciting a Sutra. Upon once hearing the words of this Sutra: ‘One should produce that thought which is nowhere supported.’ Hui Neng’s mind immediately opened to enlightenment.”

(https://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Translations/PlatformSutra_DharmaJewel.pdf pg. 91)

At this point of enlightenment, Hui Neng was an illiterate young man. Uneducated, not a monk, hadn’t sat zazen or practiced Buddhism. Now, it’s true that in order to become our sixth Chinese ancestor in Zen he later immersed himself in the Zen/Chan tradition, but that’s another matter.

Hui Neng’s experience makes it clear enlightenment is not dependent on some particular practice or status or way of operating.

 

What Does Enlightenment Feel Like? What Happens?

Let’s look more at the experience of enlightenment. What happens? What is it people awaken to, and what does that awakening feel like? Why is it a positive experience? Why is it important?

Here’s a description of a woman’s experience after a “kensho” in the Rinzai tradition (from Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen, pg 296), Mrs. D.K., a Canadian housewife, age 35, after sitting an intensive sesshin):

“Too stiff and tired to continue sitting, I slipped quietly from the main hall and returned to the bathhouse for a second bath. Never before had the road been so roadlike, the shops such perfect shops, not the winter sky so unutterably a starry sky. Joy bubbled up like a fresh spring.

“The days and weeks that followed were the most deeply happy and serene of my life. There was no such thing as a ‘problem.’ Things were either done or not done, but in any case there was neither worry nor consternation. Past relationships to people which had once caused me deep disturbance I now saw with perfect understanding. For the first time in my life I was able to move like the air, in any direction, free at last from the self which had always been such a tormenting bond to me.”[iv]

 

Dualistic Views of Enlightenment

This kind of description, of course, along with our anticipation of the ego boost that would happen when our “enlightenment” was officially recognized by a Zen teacher, definitely objectifies the experience.

Enlightenment becomes an attainment that some people get and some don’t. We long for it, secretly envy it, think we deserve it, vow to attain it

We might conclude we’re not capable of it and we need to settle for less – happy with a little less stress, a little more acceptance, compassion, wisdom, equanimity, etc.

We might conclude enlightenment is BS, has nothing to do with our practice, just a myth that some poor sods fall for.

 

What Enlightenment Really Is

But enlightenment, awakening, is very real. It’s absolutely central to Buddhism.

Enlightenment means knowing the truth, and in this case, we’re not just talking about some limited truth. We’re talking about the truth of our life.

Waking up to the truth of our life is not only an end in and of itself, it also results in the kind of joy and freedom described earlier.

It’s helpful if we stop viewing enlightenment in a dualistic, binary way, but more as an opening up, a deepening of intimacy, a widening of perspective, an increasing willingness to let go of our mental map of reality, a growing familiarity with things-as-it-is

 

Sudden Versus Gradual Awakening

Sometimes this opening, deepening, widening, increasing willingness, growing familiarity is experienced in fits and starts – a relatively dramatic insight or opening or transformation

But most of the time this happens gradually, even imperceptibly, like getting wet by walking in a mist

Charlotte Joko Beck in Everday Zen, chapter called “Pushing for Enlightenment Experiences,” something people did hardcore at ZCLA and other places she practiced in the 60’s and 70’s, and apparently at her center in the 80’s. People intensely drove themselves during sesshin in particular… (pg. 36, Beck, Charlotte Joko. Every Zen:  Love and Work.  New York, NY: Harpercollins,  1989.)

Enlightenment is not a one-time deal, and it doesn’t necessarily have to happen suddenly

Kyogen talked about a Lotus flower that opens suddenly, or a flower that opens gradually, one petal at a time

He even speculated that it’s people who are blocked – because of some aspect of their karma, particularly past trauma – who might open suddenly, rather like water bursting through a dam

When there’s less blockage, things flow more naturally with less drama

 

Right Effort When It Comes to Awakening

We see what we’re ready to see, but we also need to keep up effort

This is what these line from our chant “The Precious Mirror Samadhi” are about:

The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors;
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow; a heron hidden in the moon.
Taken as similar, they are not the same; not distinguished, their places are known.
The meaning does not reside in the words, but a pivotal moment brings it forth.
Move and you are trapped; miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like massive fire.[v]

Translation from Shasta Abbey that Kyogen and Gyokuko trained with:

“This is as if a giant fireball; Never come too close, nor put yourself too far away.”

The truth we are seeking is not something we grasp through sheer force of will; if we’re able to, we’re liable to get burned, or confuse our practice. On other hand, if we just walk away, we’ll never find what we’re looking for.

How do we carry out this balancing act?

We make great effort while knowing our effort in and of itself will not bring about enlightenment.

Returning to the poem by Chiyono:

‘In this way and that I tried to save the old pail,
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!’”[i]

Our effort – our zazen, precept work, karma work, work with relationships, our study, our exploration of the Dharma together… it’s binding the pail. It’s putting everything we have in the pail. But, as Kyogen says in his chapter, we can’t break the pail.

Kyogen talks about there being an understanding in Japan that there’s an important relationship between Pure Land and Zen, the two biggest schools of Buddhism – they are two ends of the same tunnel! Go in by “other-power,” need to come out by self-power, go in by “self-power” (Zen), come out by “other-power.”

He says:

“It takes this effort to penetrate to your own heart, the effort of binding the pail, before we understand what no-effort really is.  Now mind you, however, we can understand this in small ways in daily life.  I think all of us have.  Have you experienced trying and trying and trying something, then stepped back and relaxed a minute, and then had the answer come?  That is a moment of non-effort, a small example of the same principle.  We chew away on a problem and then just take a day off.  The next day, the answer comes easily.  The same principle applies in a lot of different ways, but it also applies to this major cycle of our relationship to practice and to the Dharma.”[vii]

 

Have You Experienced Enlightenment?

Have you experienced any enlightenment? Try not to consider this from a dualistic perspective.

“Yes” is not right, “No” is not right.

Have you experienced opening up, a deepening of intimacy, a widening of perspective, an increasing willingness to let go of our mental map of reality, a growing familiarity with things-as-it-is? I’ll bet you have. Do you want to experience more? Have you committed yourself to continuing this process of enlightenment for the rest of your life?

How do you know whether what you have experienced is what we would call “enlightenment” in Buddhism? You can know and you can’t know. You can know at a level you can’t grasp.

Roshi Kennett described this in a lecture on Dogen’s essay Shin Fukatoku, The Mind Cannot Be Grasped. (Roar of the Tigress pg 54):

“‘Shin fukatoku,’ which is usually translated as “the mind cannot be grasped,” could be translated as “the Heart or Buddha Nature cannot be grasped.” In other words, we cannot know, we cannot weigh, we cannot understand our True Heart or Buddha Nature. I think that “Buddha Nature” is a lot better term than “Heart,” and certainly than “soul,” but the point is that It can be experienced, It can be known, but It cannot be held onto. Dágen’s famous metaphor of putting one’s hand into the water and feeling the water flow through one’s fingers is highly applicable here: you cannot take your hand out of the water and hope to hold onto a handful of water. But when you have your hand in the water, you know what water is, as it flows past. And, for the true trainee, it is enough to know Buddha Nature. It does not need to be grasped, held onto, or attached to. All these lovely highfallutin’ philosophical words like “attachment” and “non-attachment” all sound so wonderful, but what matters is that it is enough to know Buddha Nature. It is enough to know the Unborn. Don’t try to hold on to It. Don’t try to grasp It. Just let It flow. And be content.”[viii]

 


Endnotes

[i] Reps, Paul, and Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1957, 1985.
[ii] Basic Elements of Zen Practice: Teachings from Dharma Rain Zen Center. Portland, OR: Dharma Rain Zen Center, 2008. https://zenstudiespodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Basic-Elements-of-Zen-Practice-2018-Edition.pdf
[iii] “Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html
[iv] Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1965, 1989.
[v] https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/01/06.pdf
[vi] Reps, Paul, and Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1957, 1985.
[vii] Basic Elements of Zen Practice: Teachings from Dharma Rain Zen Center. Portland, OR: Dharma Rain Zen Center, 2008. https://zenstudiespodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Basic-Elements-of-Zen-Practice-2018-Edition.pdf
[viii] MacPhillamy, Rev. Daizui. Roar of the Tigress The Oral Teachings of Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett: Western Woman and Zen Master, Volume II. Mount Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press. Click here for a pdf.

 

142 - Direct Experience Is Liberation: When There Are No Stories, There Is No "You"
144 - Lotus Sutra 2: Wake Up! The Parable of the Burning House
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