Enlightenment is Not a Dirty Word
To some, this month’s topic is a bit of a dirty word: Enlightenment.
Despite being one of the significant milestones of Zen practice, it’s often given vague descriptions and unclear parameters. Some even act as though it is a “sin” to claim anyone (especially oneself) is enlightened!
Much of the confusion about enlightenment is probably because the term doesn’t come from Buddhism.
There are many terms that one encounters in the teachings. Some over-simplified definitions include:
Bodhi means awakened intellect (and is the most likely to be translated as enlightenment.)
Vimukti points to freedom from the fetters/hindrances.
Moksha is liberation from relative conditioning up to identification with the sublime.
Nirvana means the extinction of craving.
Prajna is transcendent wisdom.
Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi is something like unsurpassed and all-pervasive unity of being with awakened intellect.
Satori is the verb “to awaken.”
Kensho refers to seeing one’s true nature.
Vidya is “higher knowledge,” in contrast to its absence, called “ignorance” (avidya).
Enlightenment as a term is essentially a western European attempt to translate their understanding of Buddhist teachings to make sense in a Christian worldview. It was the dominant term for spiritual awakening beginning in the late 17th century and relates to the idea of ending ignorance.
Be that as it may, we now have enlightenment as a popular term referring to the primary insight of our practice. What do we actually know about it?
For all the ensuing complications, it boils down to having a skillful view, establishing oneself in virtuous self-discipline, mastering meditation, and using the meditative mind to examine reality and thus end delusions arising in the human experience. The actual enlightenment experience is non-conceptual and subtle, yet it is definitive and known. It is not in any of the factors of enlightenment (see below) and is greater than the sum of their parts. In this way, it is un-thinkable and un-attainable – but that doesn’t make it unknowable.
Siddhartha Gautama did not hem and haw about whether or not he was awake. Neither did his disciples leading to Bodhidharma, Huineng, Layman Pang, Linji Yixuan, Hakuin, Torei, Junpo, or take-your-pick of famous Ch’an/Zen personalities. They knew what it was. They recognized enlightenment (and its absence) in others and taught the method of attaining it, even though enlightenment is not something to be attained. There is even a particular set of factors to cultivate if one wants to attain this unattainable state:
Four Foundations of Mindfulness
Four Supreme Efforts
Four Means to Accomplishment
Seven Factors of Enlightenment
Noble Eight-fold Path
Interestingly, much in these lists overlap with the Five Strengths/Faculties (effort/energy, mindfulness, wisdom, concentration, and faith).
Perhaps even more interesting is that Zen, especially post-Hakuin but certainly long before, considers enlightenment the entry point of practice. Think about this. We’re not practicing Zen until we’ve awakened to this deeper truth of empty, compassionate awareness!
Hakuin also asserts that only the egoic aspect of consciousness can be enlightened. It is, in fact, our “I” that sees its insubstantiality and incorporates that truth into its story. Pure selfless awareness does not need enlightenment practices! It’s wonderfully paradoxical that one must train the self to realize selflessness. Or, as Junpo put it:
Remember, to maintain the experience of a separate self; the ego must continually reference itself – me, me, me, me, me, me, me – with an ongoing stream of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If you stop this self-referencing, as we are training ourselves to do in concentration-meditation practice, you will “die upon your cushion” and discover the truth of empty, compassionate awareness (Dhyana). Do you think you can be reborn without dying?
With all of this background in place, we can turn to page 5 of the Mondo Manual, where it states:
What is Enlightenment? Enlightenment is awakening to the pure selfless awareness within us that is deeper than our thoughts, emotions, or feelings. Enlightenment is experiencing and understanding emotional feelings as information. Enlightenment is the experience of the deep truth of clarity and unconditional loving compassion within the human psyche.
It is the first line that is most essential to our main topic. “Enlightenment is awakening…” begs the question, “what awakens?” The only thing that can, “me!”
What do “I” awaken to? “…the pure selfless awareness within…” The higher knowledge and transcendent wisdom of the sublime within which there is no separation and infinite space for all thoughts, emotions, and feelings to arise.
As you may have noticed from the list of classical terms, this is only part of the teachings. There is also liberation from fetters/hindrances/samsara (moksha/vimukti) and the extinction of craving (nirvana). The relationship between these practices is emphasized differently by different traditions.
In Hollow Bones Zen, we have both in equal measure. First, we shift our perspective from ego-centric to awareness-centric (Budh-centric), and then we apply this awakened intellect to recondition our hysterical historical. Enlightenment and liberation/extinction are mutually supportive ascending spirals, and it’s crucial to take advantage of that.
are you ready to allow yourself to get enlightened and take this massive step toward liberation?