This post is based on a teisho I gave on May 7, 2020.
My Mom recently encouraged me to begin watching The Voice, one of the many talent shows on TV these days. Amazing, undiscovered singers are mentored by big name artists, performing throughout the season for viewers like me, who eventually whittle down the group and pick their favorite from those who survive to the final round.
James Taylor was the guest uber-mentor this season. I’m a huge JT fan—have been since my early teens. JT and his music were my companion through some dark and happy times. I don’t watch much TV, but JT was the hook that got me to watch a first episode. And hooked I was! The show is wonderful. I became so invested in the contestants and so moved by how each of them gave it all up for us.
At the end of one of the mentoring sessions, JT said to two of these contestants, “I was so lucky. I didn’t have a Plan B. My wish for you is the joy of a life in music.” This was so moving. James said it so sincerely. You know this guy. He’s nothing, if not sincere.
Those of you who know JT’s story—he was an addict early in life, who came very close to the edge—will know he really meant it: “I was so lucky. I didn’t have a Plan B.”
No Plan B. This is the perfect way to think about enlightenment in Zen.
Giving a talk on enlightenment these days is sort of a risky thing. It isn’t talked about much anymore. There’s a teaching logic to this, I suppose, and there always has been. Through the ages, the notion of enlightenment has been dangled relatively sparingly, and often rather playfully—as bait, as catnip. In truth, the call of enlightenment is omnipresent, voiced by rice fields, gardens, pillars, hedges, and walls, as Dōgen proclaimed.
Today, however, there’s also something else going on. Talk of enlightenment is disfavored, perhaps even radioactive, in some circles, and mostly for other reasons.
One of these reasons is that, in some Zen sanghas, pursuit of kenshō experiences has been promoted with almost militant zeal, and that vibe feels oppressive to many students. Kenshō means “seeing into one’s true nature,” and sometimes this happens suddenly and powerfully.
These experiences do happen. The Zen literature attests to them. In the koan collection titled Transmission of Light, for example, we read of “an open awareness, wondrously clear and bright” (Case 24); a “realm of open clarity [that] is brighter than the morning sun” (Case 35); “mind [that] has no borders, no boundaries, no sides or surfaces” (Case 23) and “an independent view that dissolved the universe” (Case 36).
These experiences are profoundly transformative, yet the Zen literature also regards them as an initiatory awareness, not as an end in themselves. They’re like stepping through the door, into the vestibule. They must be integrated, seasoned—over many years. Fetishizing these experiences is counterproductive.
In fact, one of the oldest debates in Zen is about whether such sudden illumination experiences are essential, or whether enlightenment is something that happens gradually. “Sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly” is the shorthand way of expressing the consensus view on how that debate has come to be resolved. Both experiences are valid, in other words. My own view is a bit different: “Sometimes swiftly, always slowly,” is how I would put it.
In this era, in our cultural context, there has been a shift away from militant pursuit of kenshō; of fetishizing that which we’re told not to fetishize. In our era, we tend to focus almost exclusively on another key teaching: That we are all, already Buddhas; that ordinary mind is enlightenment, as Dōgen emphasized.
This shift in emphasis is appropriate. As Zen reached the West, some of the teachers who transported it here, who were weary of what the tradition had largely become in Japan—a system of performative rituals, divorced from authentic practice—found a generation of seekers eager to devote themselves to contemplative spiritual practice. Perhaps the monastic intensity and strictures that were features of the communities many of these teachers trained in and later established, and the zeal with which they promoted the notion of enlightenment to the receptive audiences they found, was overdone.
But where we are today strikes me as something of a counter-reaction, and I think there’s a risk of losing touch with something immensely valuable—something that is not mutually exclusive with current efforts to present Zen in kinder, gentler, and otherwise more accessible and approachable ways. These enlightenment experiences can be immensely meaningful.
And, in fact, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and not only on the cushion. One teacher I know had his big breakthrough experience eating a grain of rice during a meal on retreat, feeling a profound sense of connection, grounded-ness, and gratitude, as he did.
These experiences bring insights; they help us cultivate wise hearts. In a flash, we know we’re at home in the universe. The film has melted and we have merged, if only for a timeless moment, with the light that projects all images. It’s like walking through a door into a room, and, once through, the walls, floor, and ceiling disappear. There is no inside or outside; no up or down. An experience like this is not a thought; it’s an undeniable and unshakable realization. An awakening. Dōgen, and his teacher before him, called it “body and mind falling away.”
Though we can be too precious about these experiences, we shouldn’t be dismissive of them either. We need more wise hearts in this world, and we should welcome these experiences for what they contribute to the cultivation of wise hearts.
At any rate, it’s not in vogue at the moment—dare I say it’s not PC—to say that kenshō is the point of Zen practice, or its cresendo moment. There’s surely wisdom in this. And, yet, I also think it’s a mistake to deny or ignore these experiences as one important feature and function of Zen practice. We can’t mechanistically induce them; nor should we amplify them or regard them as essential or exclusive. As a former teacher of mine, James Ford, is fond of saying, however, “Accidents [by which James means kenshō] do happen, and Zen practice tends to make us more accident prone.”
There’s another reason why talk of enlightenment has become disfavored. There’s been another shift—a good and important shift—away from an emphasis on enlightenment as an individual thing and toward an emphasis on enlightenment as a collective thing in the broadest possible sense. In our era, we tend to focus primarily on another key teaching: That enlightenment is a quality of the universe, not something we attain personally. It’s not a private possession, but a quality of existence that inspires compassionate action.
Today we emphasize the environment, the collective, and racial and other social and economic justice concerns. Engaged Buddhism is about holding up, bowing deeply to, and acting in the service of, this key feature of the teachings: our radical interconnectedness, or interbeing, as Thich Nhat Hahn calls it.
But, again, just as finding new ways to elevate and serve this feature of the tradition is critically important in this time and place, we risk losing touch with something valuable if we focus solely on social and environmental engagement. In fact, we risk losing touch with something that must ground and guide our own actions.
Indeed, Buddhism’s founding story reminds us that these two perspectives are not opposed. At the time of his own awakening, we hear that Shakyamuni Buddha looked up to see the North Star, touched the ground, and said, “Oh, I see. The universe and I arise together.”
Perhaps talk of enlightenment would be more welcome, and less burdened, if its association with sudden kenshō experiences were relaxed just a bit.
I recently heard another teacher—Daniel Doen Silberberg, Roshi, who worked closely with Maezumi Roshi—say that the official definition of enlightenment with the Soto Zen tradition actually is quite different. It’s to be at one with our own karma. To me, this simply means living your life as if there is no Plan B.
To the Western ear, the word “karma” sounds metaphysical, and probably weirdly so. It evokes thoughts of reincarnation. Whatever its metaphysical implications, the notion of karma points to the practical reality that effects have causes. Our experience right now is conditioned by innumerable events and circumstances that preceded this moment, even before one’s own lifetime, as well as our own conduct, speech, and thought prior to this moment. One practical implication of the notion of karma is that the intended and unintended ways in which we show up right now will affect our personal and collective future—though the precise effects of our conduct, speech and thought can’t always be foreseen clearly, in part because a vast confluence of causes influences our experience right now.
Still, it’s probably fair to say that we usually have a pretty good sense of whether our conduct, speech, and thought is wholesome, and so relatively more likely to be beneficial. The notion of karma is, in a sense, encouragement to show up in an upright way. We can think about the precepts like that: Less with a heavy overtone of moral prescription and more in terms of probability function. Over time, people have found that honoring these precepts, or principles, tends to enhance individual and collective wellbeing.
Anyway, to be at one with our own karma is to accept our life as it is right now—even as we also commit to changing what must be changed. To accept myself as I find myself. To appreciate my life, as Maezumi Roshi constantly encouraged his students to do. To trust my experience, my talents, my quirks. My challenges. My growing edges.
Sometimes a felt, growing edge is a nudge to look at something about oneself. Sometimes it’s a nudge to look at and meet—to accept or work to change—something about the world. It’s really always both. My growing edges are the universe’s growing edges.
Don’t spare the Dharma assets—the ingredients of one’s life—as the Bodhisattva precept encouraging generosity sometimes is expressed.
In other words, go with Plan A, because it’s the only plan going. Submit to your life. There is no Plan B.
Or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, I’d might as well be myself, because it seems everyone else is taken.
This is what it means to be grounded.
Kenshō experiences are profoundly, and paradoxically, grounding. They ground us in the reality of no-ground. They can help liberate us to be ourselves; to end the search for someplace, or someone, else to be. They’re a homecoming. We find ourselves at and as the heart of the universe. Home. Always, everywhere, home.
Anyway, all of these ways of thinking about and manifesting enlightenment are right and good. All of the above, I say.
Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures are a useful touchstone as we think about all of this. In this series of images, which is a metaphor for the spiritual journey, the kenshō moment—the eighth picture—is not the terminus. The series ends with a picture titled “Entering the Marketplace with Extended Hands.” In other words, everyday life is where the journey resolves, with us meeting everyday life, and others, openly and generously. Offering up what we are uniquely capable of offering up. Manifesting as oneself. “The God wants to know itself in you,” as Rilke wrote, expressing all this from a theistic perspective.
Back to James Taylor. A few weeks ago, I listened to his new autobiography, Break Shot, which I highly recommend. His is quite a life story. He had an intense youth; he experienced some intense things. Yet, JT’s autobiography confirmed what I’ve always sensed from his music and the handful of interviews I’ve heard or read: He ultimately sensed how the forces of the universe were bending him, much like those notes he bends. He submitted to his own karma; he quite literally played the music that is his life—made use of all of the ingredients of his life, even the hardest stuff—and found joy there.
JT sums up much of what I’m trying to say in the chorus of one of my favorite songs, The Secret of Life: “Try not to try to hard. It’s just a lovely ride.”
My wish for you is the joy of a life in music. The music that is your life.