This is a teisho I gave on July 2, 2020.
My last couple of talks have been about enlightenment in Zen. I want to bring this series of reflections on enlightenment full circle for the time being. It’s always a broken circle, of course—an enso. We come full circle, but there’s never closure. The universe, and our lives as the universe, are always erupting. We’re dynamic activity, not a thing that can be grasped or contained.
The first of my prior two talks provisionally resolved around the idea that enlightenment ultimately is about being at one with our own karma. Accepting ourselves as we are, and living as if we have no Plan B. I’ll extend that theme tonight.
In that talk, I also suggested that there’s a trend these days to deemphasize kenshō (or sudden awakening) experiences, and I expressed some misgivings about that. I suggested that kenshō can help ground and orient us, potentially helping us show up to our lives more awake, effectively and compassionately, including work we may do as agents for social and environmental change.
In the second talk, I focused on the great faith, doubt, and determination that generations of Zen adepts have seen as necessary ingredients of practice, if we wish to realize our true nature as the dynamic activity of the universe, not as a subject in a realm of objects. In other words, to experience kenshō—not as an idea, but as an experiential awakening.
Tonight, I want to talk about refinement and integration of these powerful awakening experiences, should we have one. In retrospect, I probably should have flipped the order of my first two talks—but then, I really didn’t have a destination in mind when I began these reflections.
I’ve been listening to a series of Dharma talks by Joseph Bobrow Roshi, a Zen teacher in Los Angeles, that are featured at the moment on Tricycle’s website. Bobrow Roshi was a student of Robert Gyoun Aitken, Roshi, who, together with his teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, produced the translation of The Gateless Gate—the collection that contains Mu—from which I read from during my last talk.
In his series of talks, Bobrow Roshi outlines a traditional progression, or way of thinking about our journey in Zen practice, that I’m also addressing in these talks on enlightenment. It’s a progression from (1) sitting with great determination and absorption in our practice, which puts us in harm’s way of (2) sudden realization (a kenshō experience), followed by (3) the ongoing refinement and integration of that experience.
It’s this third stage of the journey—the progressive refinement and integration of that glimpsing of our true nature—that I’m focused on in this talk. Yamada Roshi himself was implicitly referencing this part of the journey when he summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as ultimately about the refinement of character.
Before I go any further, I want to reemphasize something you’ve heard me say several times before, and which Bobrow Roshi also emphasizes in one of his talks. There are many people who are present in the ways I’m about to describe, who either aren’t Zen practitioners, or who are, and yet never report having a kenshō experience. I regard the progression I just described, as you’ve heard me say before, as the remedial plan, even though many Zen types tend to think of themselves as doing something advanced and esoteric; as holier than thou. At least we’re sane enough to sign up for the remedial plan! Many people who might benefit from it don’t.
How can you tell someone who is awake, but doesn’t report ever having a kenshō experience? Someone who is not on the remedial plan? They have a twinkle in their eye, and they are completely at home in their own skin, from situation to situation, and with others and the skin they inhabit. When you are in their presence, you never question whether they are present. Whether they truly see you, are listening and responding to you . . . in a way that makes you feel seen and heard. You are being received, and you feel that way. The whole world is their comfort zone—even the situations that make them uncomfortable. They are full of life, in their own unique way, and yet never filled up. They’ve already arrived at the place of forgetting to which the remedial plan leads.
What do I mean by that? Let me read you a few passages from the chapter on Dogen’s own spiritual journey in Transmission of Light, another koan collection from which I’ve been reading in these talks. It’s hagiography, and likely part fiction, but it conveys important truths, even if so.
We read that, “[w]hen he lost his mother at the age of eight, Dogen’s grief was most profound. As he watched the smoke of the incense rising at her funeral, he realized the transience of life, and from that point on he determined to seek enlightenment.”
Many of us take up Zen practice, or get serious about it, finally practicing with great determination, when something rocks our world. Shakes us to the core. This can be a confrontation with mortality, like it was for Dogen (and also for me), or it can be some other sort of profound loss through which we’re forced to see that familiar ways of knowing oneself and functioning cannot accommodate the whole of reality. Try as we might to force reality back into the box that we want to contain it, it won’t be contained. This is a profoundly uncomfortable experience.
Dogen deeply explored every strain of Buddhism that existed in Japan in his youth, searching for answers. Nothing satisfied. In his searching, we see Dogen’s great, desperate faith in the reality of his discomfort and where touching it might lead him.
One teacher told him to visit the one Zen teacher in Japan at the time, the Rinzai master Myozen. He studied with Myozen for three years, and even received Dharma transmission from him, but still continued to search. Dogen traveled to China, visiting teacher after teacher. We read that, “[h]aving thus engaged with various teachers, Dogen became very conceited and thought there was no one in Japan or China equal to himself.”
As he was about to head back to Japan, someone suggested he visit the old master Rujing. Dogen recognized immediately that this man was different. We read that “Dogen went to him to resolve his doubts,” presenting himself humbly. Great doubt, despite all his apparent certainty and confidence!
One day, after Dogen had spent years practicing with Rujing, Rujing entered the meditation hall to find a group of monks, with whom Dogen was meditating, dozing on their cushions. Rujing admonished them, saying, “`Zen study is a matter of shedding body and mind. It does not require incense burning, prostrations, recitations of Buddha names, repentance ceremonies, or scripture reading. You accomplish it by just sitting.’ Hearing this, Dogen was suddenly enlightened.”
In other words, the props to which many of these students were clinging, and the way they supposedly were practicing—just going through the motions, sleeping rather than sitting—wasn’t actually about showing up. It was just for show. Rujing saw right through that. Meeting life that way must drop away. Body and mind, the reified, but ultimately insubstantial, ways in which we know ourselves, also must drop away. Rujing’s admonishment was like a sword that cut through Dogen’s “body and mind” as he sat there, and he suddenly experienced his true nature.
Rujing encouraged Dogen to return to Japan, to live in obscurity for a time “and mature your enlightenment.” Dogen did so, and the rest is history, as they say. He eventually became a great religious innovator, founding the Soto school of Zen and attracting a large following that includes all of us, as we sit here now.
As this story of Dogen’s journey ends, Keizan, our storyteller, reveals what it means to “mature your enlightenment,” to refine one’s character. He writes, “If you have any thought at all of having some enlightenment or attainment, it is not the Way.”
Having strived for enlightenment, we ultimately must forget about it. Having crossed the river on the raft of “Zen,” we must leave it behind (even as we continue to give our hearts to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).
But, let’s not kid ourselves: If we’re on the remedial plan, its stages are pretty much un-skippable. We must practice with determination and humility. We must surrender everything we cling to; everything familiar that gives us false comfort. We must let go of our certainties and truly not know. Only then will be in harm’s way of seeing our true nature.
Our true nature is radiant and boundless. Anyone who experiences this will experience it as such. And, when one does, one knows that the whole of existence is one’s home and comfort zone.
But this realization must become integrated and seasoned. That radiance is not a flame that completely burns away our sense of personal identity or immediately melts all of our attachments. (To paraphrase Rilke, God, or the universe, wants to know itself in you, after all.) The old self dies hard, and will try to claim the realization as its achievement. We ultimately must drop all thought of enlightenment or attainment to attain enlightenment.
If and as enlightenment deepens and matures, as it did for Dogen, we increasingly will manifest as someone who is at home in the universe. As we do, or conduct will increasingly align with our highest values. We will be able to distinguish between a genuine value worth serving, and a feature of our comfort zone that isn’t really a value to be served.
If we instead fetishize a kenshō experience, mistaking it for mature enlightenment, we will surely do harm. I am convinced this is why some senior Buddhist monks in Myanmar can be so jingoistic, treating people deemed not to be ethnically Burmese as subhuman. I am convinced this is how some spiritual teachers become sexual predators.
“What is it like after enlightenment,” a student asked a teacher? “Same old me,” the teacher said. Same likes and dislikes; same quirks; same proclivities and hang-ups. We are stuck with them, but no longer stuck there. We have our feelings of resistance and discomfort, our likes and dislikes, but we are no longer paralyzed by and captive to them in quite the same way.
This is liberating. We meet the dog as Buddha, forgetting we ever questioned whether it has Buddha nature.
One sheds one’s own doubts about having Buddha nature or not, while still feeling empathy and being a resource for those who doubt it; who can’t yet quite see their own true nature. One feels even more empathy for those who don’t doubt; who cling to their fragile certainties, so evidently in pain. Those who aren’t even moved to sign up for the remedial plan. In the Asian imagery of Zen, these are the restless and hungry spirits, lurking among, and trying to hide behind and cling to, thin blades of grass.
We want the whole world and all beings to awaken in the way all Buddhas, past and present, have, and our relationships with other beings and all of nature to accord with this awakened nature.
Social and environmental action that flows from mature enlightenment is powerful. We are seeing some amazing examples of this today.
Angel Kyodo Williams, another teacher in our lineage, is one of these examples. She was the second black woman to become a Zen teacher. She is sharing Zen with people of all colors, something white teachers largely have failed to do, and otherwise functioning as an enlightened advocate for racial justice and social change. Here is an excerpt on enlightenment from her first book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace:
“Any intention at all toward enlightened being has to have a foundation in moral consciousness. You cannot walk tall and master your life without morality, no matter how skillful you are in every other area. Without morality, enlightened being is not possible. Without a strong moral foundation, whatever we think we know about being compassionate and honest falls apart.”
The point here isn’t that enlightenment reveals a rigid, universal moral code to us or inscribes it in our DNA. The point is that a genuine determination to practice and aspiration toward what Kyodo Sensei calls enlightened being arises from turning toward what is unsatisfactory, what is painful, about our own life, and about our collective experience.
A strong moral foundation arises, and our character is refined, as our sense of self extends endlessly in the ten directions. We begin to see how a narrow view of who and what we are has had us clinging to and hiding behind blades of grass—be they unjust social structures that have privileged us at others’ expense or limiting narratives about who we are that we absorbed in childhood, in either case causing us to produce (often unintended) harm to others.
As Kyodo Sensei said in a recent interview, “This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious. [We] can afford to be okay with people who are really, really different. We can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished. Because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness. . .. Our sense of thriving is [now] embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness.”
May we all realize our true nature so, so thoroughly that we forget it. Just are it.
The world depends upon it. Never more than right now.