What is Enlightenment?


Investigate the nature of mind and it will disappear.
Ramana Maharshi 

A Zen master once said: ‘There is nothing in particular to realize. Only get rid of [the idea of] Buddha and sentient beings. [self and other]’ The essential thing for enlightenment is to empty the mind of the notion of self.
The Three Pillars of Zen, p.185, Bassui (in part, quoting Rinzai)

To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas. To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to bring about the dropping away of body and mind of both oneself and others. The traces of enlightenment come to an end, and this traceless enlightenment is continued endlessly.
Dogen, Flowers Fall, p.35

Realization doesn’t destroy the individual any more than the reflection of the moon breaks a drop of water. A drop of water can reflect the whole sky.

Perhaps the single, most radical teaching in human history is the Buddha’s teaching of No Self; and the actual experience of no-self lies at the very heart of what we call Enlightenment. Though the Buddha’s own ‘Great Enlightenment’ is the touchstone for all the Buddha’s teachings, it’s really an experience that transcends Buddhism – it is the essence of all spiritual awakening. Though enlightenment itself exists outside of all description and explanation, it is not beyond direct experience. Leaving the rest of this page blank might actually be the best way to proceed; what follows are merely intended as pointers.

In Zen, awakening refers to an experiential opening into non-duality, however brief and tentative it may be. With it, the sense of a separate self–entity abruptly falls away and we experience a kind of seamless freedom where everything is just as it is – you might say there is a merging with an all-embracing suchness. In some fundamental way we are aware that there is nothing to know, and no one there to understand. The Buddha himself declared that even with full awakening he got nothing at all – and yet we have all the Sutras, commentaries, and writings of the masters. In a real sense, all of these teachings are only footnotes to this singular instant, explanations that explanations won’t do.

In the end, this falling away of self-and-other leads to an ‘understanding’ which doesn’t fit the world of conceptualization — it’s somehow simpler, more immediate. We see into the world of Shunyata, which, as the Prajnaparamita Sutra tells us, is in reality no different than the world of form. Though there may be nothing to ‘attain’ in this realm, a genuine experience leaves us not only with this inexplicable kind of freedom, but also with a kind of deep caring and affirmation for the whole of existence.

Deep and refined experiences are, of course, rare, but many lives have been transformed through smaller initial openings — particularly when these experiences are supported by on-going practice.  Because initial openings, or kensho experiences, are usually not that through-going, the initial koan-based Zen practices offer a means of testing for, and clarifying, the depth and transparency of an experience. Subsequent koans offer a systemic way of working that individually and collectively help refine and integrate these openings into our lives. On-going practice helps keep us from becoming attached to experiences of any kind, and from getting lost in explanations. A first experience may well be followed by deeper experiences that clarify and extend an initial opening.

Of course, people have had all kinds of experiences where the sense of self falls away. Such experiences can arise out of meditation practices, drugs, crisis, and so forth; clearly not all of them constitute ‘Zen awakenings.’ Some are more freeing, and some can actually be quite threatening; some are more ‘spiritual’ in nature, and others more ‘psychological;’ ((Miller, William PhD and Janet C’deBaca PhD. Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary. New York: Guilford, 2001.)) almost always they have ties to the unconscious. Even within what might legitimately be called Zen enlightenment experiences, there can be various other elements, mixed experiences with strong psychological, and even unstable, elements. These can be incredibly complex areas with mixed conscious and unconscious forces; they are often filled with a rich potential for insight and change.

As with so many Buddhistic terms, the term ‘enlightenment’ has come to be used in many different ways, which easily leads to confusion. Further, there are teachers who, apparently overlooking the Buddha’s own efforts, seem to minimize the value of aspiring to genuine awakening, saying that since we are intrinsically enlightened, striving for enlightenment is unnecessary, and perhaps even egotistical. On the other side, there are those who seem to maintain that Awakening is everything, and that such things can ultimately resolve all our psychologically-based problems. To my way of thinking, these views represent false extremes. Buddhism does teach that real transformation is possible — aspects of change reveal themselves over time, and others happen in the blink of an eye. As Zen Master Lin chi said, ” It is not that I understood from the moment I was born of my mother, but that, after exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline, in an instant I knew myself.” You don’t have to go very far to find diverse, even contradictory teachings related to Buddhism; what’s important is the practice itself — so it always seems best to keep it all simple, and to trust in one’s own intuition and experience.