On Sunday I led a workshop at the Austin Zen Center. I had a swell time. During the workshop the group and I became involved in an interesting discussion about enlightenment. I didn’t record my talk. I never record the best ones. But I’m going to try to write from memory some of what I think I might have said.
There’s a phenomenon that lots of people call “enlightenment experiences,” or “satori” or “kensho,” or “awakening,” or “opening,” or whatever. My teacher used to call that phenomenon “solving philosophical problems.”
It’s a moment when you see with perfect clarity that all that stuff about you being one with the entire cosmos, about the individual self being identical with the Great Self of the Universe, about there being no real difference/separation between subject and object, and all of that isn’t merely an abstraction or a philosophical position. It’s actually a better description for how things really are than the story you’ve been told by pretty much everyone who ever taught you anything, the story you have believed in absolutely and unquestioningly for most of your life.
That’s an important moment. It’s profound and significant. It’ll turn your head around. It’s a big deal.
But in a lot of ways it’s sort of like losing your virginity. You can only lose your virginity once. And no matter what kind of sex you have after that, your first time is something you’ll always remember.
Because you’ve crossed a boundary. Before you have sex for the first time, sex is an abstraction. You may have read about it, watched videos of it, imagined what it would feel like, etc. But once you actually do it you discover tons of things about sex that no video could ever show you, that no piece of writing could adequately explain, that were not part of your imaginary version of the activity. Oh! That’s what it smells like!
One of our problems as Westerners who are just now being introduced to a tradition in which such experiences are even regarded as possible, is that we have a tendency to get far too impressed by those who have had them. For example, we’ll say that a person who has had one of these experiences is now Enlightened and we’ll go on to create all kinds of mythology around what that means.
This is not confined to the West either. In Asia there’s also a strong tendency to attach a lot of weird unrealistic stuff to someone who has had such an experience. Often it’s even worse over there because they’ve had a lot more time to develop these myths.
But it’s kind of like when you’re a teenager and that one person in your little group of nerds who hang out by the front door of the school before the bell rings manages to get some for the first time. He becomes a bit of a celebrity. He’s the guy in the know. Like the Fonz. And everybody wants to ask him what it’s really like and hear the juicy stories.
The thing is, though, just because you’ve had sex once doesn’t make you an expert in All Things Sexy. In fact, you’re probably kind of a dunce about it. But your friends don’t know that. They’re still terribly impressed.
And just like there’s nothing about losing your virginity that suddenly makes you an expert at navigating all the ethical implications of having sex, there is nothing in a so-called “enlightenment experience” that teaches you all about ethical behavior as a whole. Seeing clearly that you are literally one with everyone and everything can impart to you the understanding of why you ought to be ethical. You see clearly that hurting someone else, or stealing from someone else, or whatever other bad thing you might do to anyone or anything is just something unpleasant you’re doing to yourself. And vice-versa.
But this doesn’t mean you won’t do those bad things or that you’ll always do right. The habits you formed when you didn’t see this for yourself are still very strong. You still have all the dark urges and screwed up personal history that you had before your “awakening.” All you’ve really got now is a new perspective on your neuroses. That doesn’t make them go away.
In fact it might make things worse. If you suddenly become aware that it’s all me, me, me as far as the eye can see, you might conclude that anything you do to anyone else is OK because — hey! — it’s all just me and I can handle it! I see lots of so-called “enlightened people” who appear to me to be acting as if that’s the way they think things are. But they’re not.
This is where the precepts come in. In the San Francisco Zen Center version of the precepts ceremony you’re asked, “Can you keep these precepts from now on, even after attaining enlightenment?” I like that. It’s a damned good question. But you’re not supposed to answer, “That’s a damned good question.” You’re supposed to answer, “Yes!”
At the workshop on Sunday a guy asked me, “Are you enlightened?” It’s a fair question, I suppose. I wrote about my loss-of-virginity experience in two books, Hardcore Zen and There Is No God And He Is Always With You. I did my best to try to convey what it was like, though I feel I did a hatchet job both times.
I know there are people running around on the spiritual circuit who’ve had experiences similar to my loss of virginity and will boldly claim that they are Enlightened. But I wonder what that means. What does it mean to them and to the people they say that to? Does it imply that they’ve crossed some kind of spiritual finishing line? Because I don’t feel like I have or ever will. So from that standpoint I am not enlightened and I can’t imagine I ever will be.
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Registration is now OPEN for our Spring Zen & Yoga Retreat March 18-20, 2016 at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, California
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March 9, 2016 El Paso, Texas Eloise Coffeeshop/Bar 7:00pm
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 7, 2016 San Francisco, California Against The Stream
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
June 2, 2016 Los Angeles, CA The Last Bookstore 7:00pm
September 9-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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