No Plan B: On Enlightenment

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.

Meditation

Meditation is what’s happening now.

Sitting meditation (zazen) is what’s happening now, while I’m sitting.

Whatever is happening.

 

The Answer

This weekend I was sitting near the fire in the main base lodge at Mt. Snow, contemplating life.

Looking up, I noticed for the first time the circular object in the lower right hand corner of this photo, with its “What is it?” inscription.

Then I noticed the word above it and to the left.

This is it.

2015/01/img_0937.jpg

Remembering Mandela

I never met Nelson Mandela, which I regret, because that probably would have been possible even just a few years ago. Mandela was one of the five Nobel Peace Laureates who gave the Peace Appeal Foundation its original mandate. That was late-1999/early-2000.

I became involved in late-2000, when Hannes Siebert, who served in the South African Peace Secretariat under Mandela, and was the driving force behind formation of the Peace Appeal, walked into our office at Groove Networks to request help tuning the product to his needs as the new external advisor to stakeholders in the peace process in Sri Lanka. After we sold Groove to Microsoft in 2005, I joined the Peace Appeal’s board.

We could have traveled to South Africa years earlier, when Mandela was in better health. It wasn’t possible to see him when we were there this March. He was too frail.

The Peace Appeal Foundation is a small part of Mandela’s legacy. He has certainly touched and influenced my life by helping launch it. I have heard Hannes say that he has devoted his life to Mandela and his legacy by committing himself completely to conflict resolution work (at considerable personal cost, in his case, I would add).

We sent a reflection on Mandela’s life to our supporters via email (copied below) and devoted our homepage to him.

The Power of Forgiveness:
Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela

By Shirley Moulder and Derek Brown

A generation from now when parents, teachers, politicians and others seek to describe moral courage and distinguished leadership, there will be one person from their lifetimes whose name will rise to their lips: Nelson Mandela. There are very few true global heroes; Mandela was one.

Though millions across the globe have been awed and inspired by a man who chose reconciliation over revenge, moral leadership over personal gain, and justice over tyranny, Mandela was first and foremost a South African, whose dedication to his country has only been matched by his countrymen’s reverence and dedication to him.

In 1990, upon his release after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela gave a speech in Cape Town demonstrating the qualities that would cement his reputation. He concluded his speech with the same words which he spoke at his own trial in 1964:

“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela thankfully lived, leading his country in one of the 20th century’s most profound political transformations. In the process he has become an icon to much of the world for his statesmanship, his dignity, his tolerance and ability to forgive, and his commitment to non-violent political change.

His status as a global hero is all the more remarkable in our media obsessed age, where leaders are subject to intense scrutiny of their personal lives, not just their political careers. No statesman or woman today has enjoyed the near uniformity of approval which was bestowed on Mandela.

Despite this seemingly heavy burden of respect, Mandela wore the label of hero lightly. He took the limelight when it was necessary, but was happiest when stepping back to let others take the lead. He often described himself as just “a country boy.” Those who worked with him spoke of his ability to identify what was needed and to pursue it with single minded determination. In his post-presidential years, he was a tireless advocate for children’s education, devoting much of his time to raising funds for new schools and education programs throughout South Africa and the world.

The most important legacy of Nelson Mandela, in his life as well as in his death, may well be his remarkable ability to bring parties of all persuasions together, ultimately transcending the deepest divisions, suspicions and even hatred – a skill which only grows in importance in our world.

His cohort of political activists, many of whom were defendants with him at the time of the Rivonia Trial in 1964, represented a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious panoply of South Africa; black, white, Asian, Xhosa, Zulu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian. Following his release from jail, this cohort was transformed into a remarkable coalition that included representatives of the government which imprisoned him – a coalition that brought a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa into being.

Mandela’s ability to work across political divides in South Africa would have warranted him a special place in history by itself. Yet it was his extraordinary ability to inspire and connect with people that vaulted him into the rarest pantheon of global statesmen and women. One of his many acts of political genius and moral leadership was portrayed in the movie “Invictus.” When racial divisions still threatened the dream of a united South Africa, Mandela donned the captain’s jersey of the South Africa’s newly minted world champion Springboks rugby team, and walked onto the field post-game – amidst thousands of white fans, many waving the nationalist flag of 1928 – to present the trophy to the team. With this simple act, he managed to win over millions of skeptical white South Africans to the cause of a new, multi-racial and democratic South Africa.

Even in these past months of his declining health, he brought unity amid diversity in his nation. Across South Africa, from the Johannesburg to Mandela’s ancestral home community of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, people have publicly honored the man many call “Madiba” (his ancestral clan name), or simply “Tata” or father. In the all-white Afrikaner community of Orania in South Africa’s Northern Cape province (home until her death of Betsie Verwoed, widow the former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed who was architect of the apartheid system), the community began praying for Mandela daily this past summer.

The collective reverence that has gripped most of South Africa these past months, and indeed much of the world, comes at a time when tremendous political divisions threaten to divide the country. (Less than 12 months ago, the cover of the Economist magazine featured South Africa with the cautionary heading “Cry, the beloved country” raising questions about South Africa’s political and economic leadership). These challenges serve as a reminder that the South African national journey will be an ongoing project as it seeks to fulfill the vision that Mandela so tirelessly pursued.

The highest honor we can pay this extraordinary man, whether we are citizens of South Africa, the United States or elsewhere in our world, is to renew a commitment to his vision of democratic and free societies in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. Let Mandela’s dream live on.

The authors, based in Johannesburg and Charlottesville, Virginia, are board members of the Peace Appeal Foundation, founded in 1999 with the support of five Nobel Peace Laureates, including Nelson Mandela,
F.W. de Klerk and Desmond Tutu.