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Getting Rid of Enightenment

October 16, 2012

by Stephen Damon

A couple of weeks ago, someone in our sangha asked if “our enlightenment needed to be corroborated.” We then got into a long conversation about how teachers have tested their students to see their level of realization. But the more I gave historical accounts of various practitioner’s enlightenment experiences and examples of how a teacher might test a student, the more I began to sense that we might be better off if we removed “enlightenment” from our vocabulary.

In fact, “enlightenment” is not as accurate a translation of “satori ”as “enlightened activity.” In this sense, satori is not a thing to achieve or a place to arrive as it is a process of ongoing awakening. As Dogen said in the Genjo Koan, Buddhas keep on becoming Buddhas. Satori is not so much a unique experience as it is an ongoing way of living as a buddha.

Our practice is not about achieving anything nor is it about reaching anywhere. As the Zen master, Nanquan said, If you try to aim towards [enlightenment], you turn away from it. Any time you turn towards something other than yourself at this very moment, you are heading in the wrong direction. As Suzuki Roshi often cautioned: No gaining idea! No goal-seeking mind! He said, Our effort in our practice should be directed from achievement to non-achievement…When you are involved in some dualistic practice, it means your practice is not pure. We do not mean to polish something, trying to make some impure thing pure. By purity we just mean things as they are.The Heart Sutra says there is no attainment because there is nothing to attain. Sawaki Kodo Roshi said, Zazen is good for nothing.

There is no need to go anywhere or do anything—everything you need is inside you, just as you are. Our life is fundamentally perfect and reaches everywhere. We do not sit zazen to change what we are; we do not sit zazen to gain enlightenment or anything else. Sitting is an expression of our original nature, which is hidden from us by layers of delusion. When we sit we breathe in total awareness and let everything else fall away. When we breathe out, we let go of our thoughts, memories, emotions—everything—and we are left with our self.

And yet, Zen literature is filled with writings about enlightenment and realization. Sometimes, such allusions to enlightenment are specifically non-dualistic. Suzuki Roshi, following Dogen’s statements that there is no distinction between practice and enlightenment, said that to take the posture of zazen is already enlightenment. But I’d like to suggest that we can speak even more simply than this. We can just say, “practice,” or “straighten your back.” In Zen we are cautioned not to distinguish, not to judge, and not to name. So why give our deepest experiences of ourselves and of the world a name at all. Why not just try to describe our experiences in phenomenological terms such as “hot” or “cold,” “fast,” or “slow,” “dry” or “wet.” In this sense, I remember talking to a teacher about finding the “source beyond the source” in regard to a koan, and he shot back, “is the ground muddy?” Speaking like this is very direct and misunderstanding or exaggeration is impossible.

Enlightenment is so profound an experience that it is really beyond all definitions, all human judgments, and distinctions about what is beyond all classification. Dogen wrote about enlightenment as beyond all classifications in his fascicle, Daigo or Great Enlightenment. The Zen understanding of the character, dai doesn’t mean “great” as opposed to “not so great”— as in “this is great,” and “that is not so great.” It means great in the sense of “without limit, beyond definition, beyond distinction, without boundary.” This is not the enlightenment that we usually think of, because it is really impossible to think of that which is beyond classifications of any kind. This unlimited enlightenment can’t be reduced to saying, “I had an enlightenment experience. Now I’m enlightened.” That kind of enlightenment is very small compared to Daigo, Great Enlightenment.

Now, if you think about this for a moment, if something is beyond limit, without boundary, then it can’t be something, because every something is limited by not being something else. So when Dogen says that Great Enlightenment is without boundary, he is saying that it isn’t anything. Every something has some sort of boundary. So even being itself— any sort of being— is always limited. So if enlightenment isn’t a thing then why do we need to give it a name? Why do we need to try to distinguish it from something else? Instead of talking about it, maybe we need to be silent. What better way to express the inexpressible?



From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. I try to make a joke of it: when I get home from sitting, I tell my wife “I”m still not enlightened!” The very word “enlightenment” makes it sound like we’re trying to achieve some special, permanent state, as if all you have to do is cross over to the other shore and you’re done. And, of course, the word “enlightenment” comes with plenty of baggage of hype.

    The places where we need the special words are for discussing experiences, like “makyo” and “kensho”. I quite liked one passage In Zen and the Brain, where James Austin relates how Irmgard Schloegl (aka Myokyo-ni) talked to him about a kensho experience in London: “I’m very happy for you. Now, move on. Leave the experience behind. Don’t hold onto it like you were keeping a picture or a photograph. Regard it as you would a scene you’d glimpsed out of the window of a moving train. There it is; there it goes. Now it is the past. Others will come. Do not grasp them tightly. Just take them to indicate that you are on the Way.”

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