What is Enlightenment?

I gave this talk on Saturday, November 5, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.

This is Case 6 in The Gateless Gate, The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower:

Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakūta, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahākāśyapa broke into a smile.

The World-Honored One said, “I have the eye of the treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.

The title of this talk is “What is Enlightenment?” I want to respond to this question very directly today. This always has been a tricky thing to do, and it’s especially tricky these days.

It’s always been tricky because—as so much Zen literature tells us—words can’t capture it, even as they are it. We can never get our minds around it because we are trying to make subject object, and there ultimately are no objects; no subject either, really. It’s sort of like wrapping paper trying to wrap itself.

Speaking about enlightenment is especially tricky, or maybe even dangerous, these days because the Zen tradition is evolving in important and necessary ways in response to justifiable critiques of how some of our predecessors have represented and related to the notion of enlightenment. Enlightenment sometimes has been portrayed as a personal attainment that elevates one above others in presumed worldly and metaphysical hierarchies.

This representation of enlightenment is misaligned with Western Buddhism’s growing—and very welcome—emphasis on social justice, on the natural world (with us very much just one feature of it), and on less hierarchical, more egalitarian forms of community life. Zen’s core teachings arguably always have pointed us in these directions, but there’s too often been an element of pride, elitism, and authority games in how enlightenment has been represented in practice. The notion of “Zen stink” is a corrective to all that, but also proves its existence.

Anyway, like others who have been aware of the challenges and dangers of addressing this topic directly, I feel compelled to do so periodically. People frequently ask me some version of this question, and maybe the same happens to you. The word enlightenment is so magnetically attractive to so many people, there’s so much confusion surrounding it, and this confusion carries real potential for harm. As one of my favorite law school professors used to say, there’s good confusion and bad confusion; productive, generative confusion and unproductive, even harmful confusion. The idea of enlightenment, as opposed to the reality of it, seems to produce both types of confusion.

I guess this is all a way of saying, here I go. I’m doing the best I can, and I hope this is useful to some of you.

I could have opened this talk with any number of readings, but I chose the famous koan I read earlier for several reasons. In Zen lore, this is where it all begins.

In the second part of this koan we hear that Zen is “not established upon words and phrases.” It is a “special transmission [from teacher to student] outside [Buddhist] tradition.” I think it’s very likely this stuff about the Buddha making self-aggrandizing claims about his own insight and authority and his transmission of that authority to Mahakasyapa was added to reinforce the credibility and claims to authority of early Zen teachers in whose footsteps we walk. There were a lot of disagreements among schools of Buddhism and emerging sects of Zen in those days. There still are disagreements today.

So let’s focus on the first part of the koan. The Buddha “twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile.” I think it’s much more probable that something like this really happened.

Heard from one perspective, it sounds like this is a story about an esoteric, secret teaching only Mahakasyapa gets; a realization he alone attains. But is this the best reading of the story? This clearly is a koan about enlightenment as a core feature of our tradition. But what is enlightenment?

Here’s my understanding: Enlightenment is this unfathomably vast and wonderous universe; multiverse, perhaps. Boundless. Enlightenment is this vast and wonderous universe just as it is right now, with me as a feature of it. You and I and all features of this wonderous universe are distinct, but in no sense are we separate.

When the Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it, that is what he’s saying. This is it! Behold!

We can also talk about enlightenment experiences, and that is what Mahakasyapa’s smile of recognition represents. When we are aware that this wonderous universe, with oneself as part of it, is enlightenment, that is an enlightenment experience. The universe is looking itself in the mirror in these moments. The wrapping paper is unwrapping itself; recognizing the unity of giver, receiver, and gift, as we chant during Oryoki practice (meal practice during susshin).

But—and this is important—all those listening silently to the Buddha who didn’t flash a smile of recognition are no less enlightened—no less enlightenment, that is to say—than Mahakasyapa with his knowing smile.

Talking about all this renders the notions of enlightenment and enlightenment experiences too noun-like when what I’d really like to convey is more of a verb-like quality— changing, awakening, interbeing. That verb-like spirit is conveyed in the dedication verse we heard chanted earlier this morning: “Infinite realms of light and dark convey the Buddha mind. Birds and trees and stars and we ourselves come forth in perfect harmony.”

Have you ever seen a lava lamp? You know what I’m talking about, right? Imagine a large blob floating around inside the lamp. It’s shaped like one of those inflatable punching clowns kids play with. The blob has a large, oblong body, a thin neck, and a small head.

We can think of our conventional experience and awareness as a view from the head of this floating, shape-shifting blob when the head is all the head knows. But the whole blob is the realm of enlightenment, and the head is not separate from it. When the head realizes that— really realizes this, experientially, not just grasps it conceptually—that’s an enlightenment experience. That perspective and experience can sink into our bones, becoming pervasive and ever-present. We realize everything is the center of the universe, myself no less or more so.

What’s more: This realm of enlightenment, Indra’s Net, the Great Robe of Liberation, isn’t a blob. Not only is everything center, there’s no inside or outside. It’s boundless. It isn’t an it. Physicists like Carlo Rovelli, who have found inspiration in Buddhism, are discovering the universe is boundless and nothing exists apart from anything else. So I’m just describing the natural order, mind-blowing as this may seem from the perspective of our conventional awareness.

So what? What is this realization good for?

Well, here’s the negative response; what it’s not good for. It’s no good if we seek it and, once glimpsed, hope to possess it as a personal attainment, though many of us will try. It can’t be grasped that way—which is only to say it can’t be grasped at all.

I’ve titled this talk “What is Enlightenment?”—as a question in this specific form—for a personal historical reason. When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the mid-1990s, there was a modern-day New Age guru in the area that I used to see around Harvard from time to time. His name is Andrew Cohen, and his organization used to publish a magazine titled “What is Enlightenment?”

That question struck me as pompous then, at least when coming from Cohen, because Cohen himself struck me as pompous. I heard that question, coming from him, in a bait-and- hook sort of way. Like: “What is Enlightenment? Sure, let me tell you, since you’re dying to know but obviously don’t get it. It’s this thing I’ve got that you don’t have, but if you hang with me it may rub off on you.”

I saw Cohen around Cambridge a couple of times, always with a few fawning acolytes in tow. He clearly was as impressed with himself as they seemed to be with him. He was quite rude to them, in fact. Cohen’s organization ultimately collapsed as students, and even his own mother, came forth with allegations of psychological abuse and financial impropriety. If you relate to the notion of enlightenment that way, you’ll eventually get what you deserve—and those around you unfortunately won’t get what they deserve. It’s just rotten.

So don’t conceive of enlightenment as something in the realm of personal attainment. If we seek it that way, with neurotic compulsion, delusions of grandeur, and subtle or not-so- subtle aspirations for control, nothing good will come of it.

Many people who manifest as profoundly grounded, wise, and compassionate never have a dramatic enlightenment experience. I’m pretty sure that those of us who do are on the remedial plan. Some of us seem to need a cosmic jostling more than others. If you do have a dramatic enlightenment experience—well, good for you. That and $3.00 will get you a cup of coffee. Stabilizing, plumbing, and integrating that experience will be the journey of a lifetime.

And the positive answer to the “So What?” question? What is this realization good for, positively speaking?

It’s about the relationship between this realization and action—how we show up to life. As Torei Enji wrote in the verse Bodhisattva’s Vow, “Realizing this, our Ancestors gave reverent care to animals, birds, and all beings.”

In Western religious and humanist traditions, “contemplation” is a common word for the experience and embodied perspective we call “enlightenment” in Zen. Though he was no fan of religion, I think the great 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell got it right when he wrote about the relationship between action and contemplation; the relationship between the fruits of his own reflections and practice and how they compelled him to show up to life. In an essay On the Value of Philosophy, Russell said contemplation—or enlightenment as a personal experience, we might say—is that:

quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists [our] true freedom, and [our] liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.