What Is Enlightenment?

WhatIsEnlightenmentOver the past couple of days the question of what constitutes “awakening” has come up a lot in the comments section of this blog. A correspondent called Petrichoric said:

“I don’t think that every single person in a sangha or every zen master is a wonderful, kind person, but, um, they fucking should be or should at least try to be! I started going to the local Zen center because (1) I wanted to stop suffering and (2) I wanted to become a better person. I just don’t understand how a spiritual leader can possibly be so deluded and lacking in self-awareness to take advantage and manipulate others. How can any spiritual awakening they’ve had possibly be genuine? And, yes, the question does remain about whether there is a relation being ‘awakening’ and ‘morality.’ And I still think there is.”

I’m going to present an expanded version of what I wrote back in the comments section. Apologies to those of you who have already read the short version.

The relationship between wakening and morality all depends upon how you define “awakening.”

A lot of people, especially nowadays, define “awakening” as a kind of experience. Much of what I see in contemporary magazines, books, websites and suchlike does. The spiritual master in question has some kind of profound experience that zaps her/his consciousness and then he/she goes out to tell the world about it.

There are plenty of examples of this. Genpo Roshi justifies charging folks $50,000 just to hang out next to him based on a profound awakening he had while on a solo retreat in the Mojave Desert some time in the Seventies. Eckhart Tolle claims to have had a grand awakening that enabled him to write a bazillion selling book and charge tens of thousands of dollars for lecture appearances. Shoko Asahara had a massive download from on high that supposedly made him the new Buddha for the modern age. The list goes on and on.

It all goes back to a certain reading of Buddha’s life story. The most common telling of it has Buddha meditating under a tree for 40 days at the end of which he had a deep awakening experience that turned him in one moment from plain old Siddhartha to the legendary Gautama Buddha. Sort of like how Japanese superheroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider transform in a flash from regular human beings into giant bug-eyed alien monster fighters.

But experiences like that do not necessarily have any direct one-to-one relationship to any kind of moral maturity or sensibility. They’re just experiences. Like getting into a car crash or seeing a UFO or having a near-death experience. There’s no specific moral content to them.

People tend to forget that Siddhartha engaged in various practices and worked hard on himself for decades before his awakening. It happened in an instant. But the ground had been prepared for a lifetime, dozens of lifetimes if you believe those stories.

On the other hand, “awakening” of the type that occurs as a sudden peak experience, is just the conscious realization of the underlying ground of all of our experiences. It’s not that something new happens. It’s just that we notice what’s really been going on all along.

It is possible to have this kind of experience without properly preparing oneself for it. Sometimes a severe trauma like an accident or illness can do it. Sometimes drugs can induce it. Some so-called “spiritual” practices are designed just to cause these kinds of experiences to happen. Sometimes nothing seems to induce it. It just sort of happens.

In cases like those, the experience is still genuine and can still have value. But there’s no real basis for it, no real ground for it to land on. As I said before, the ego can latch on to absolutely anything — including the realization of its own illusory nature — as a means to enlarge itself.

These so-called “awakenings” do contain a sense that we are all intimately connected, that we are all manifestations of the same underlying reality. But the ego can latch onto that and make it something terribly immoral. It can decide that since I am you and you are me and we are all together, it’s fine if I fuck you over or lie to you or cheat you or steal from you because ultimately I am only doing that to myself. And what’s the problem if you do something to yourself?

It’s dangerous to point this kind of stuff out because there is a whole multi-billion dollar industry based on the notion that these kinds of experiences transform ordinary people into spiritual superheroes. But they don’t. Not in and of themselves. Becoming a moral person is a matter of transforming one’s habits of thinking and behavior. That is not easy to do. It takes time. It cannot possibly happen instantaneously no matter what sort of experience one has. An “awakening experience” can often be helpful in making a person more moral because it provides a new way of understanding yourself and others. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

This is why it’s very good to have a teacher who can help you through these kinds of experiences. It’s good to interact with someone else, or if you’re really lucky a number of other people, who have gone through these things. When, on the other hand, people have these experiences and then end up surrounded by admirers who want to gobble up the power such an experience confers the results can be disastrous.

So, yeah, the people you meet at a Zen temple ought to be at least decent people. And most of them are. Cases like that of Joshu Sasaki, Genpo Roshi, Eido Shimano and so forth are exceptional. They’re not the rule. You don’t have to be a genius to spot people like that either. It’s always obvious. Just don’t allow yourself to be blinded by fantasies of magic miracle men.

The foregoing is why Soto style Zen training tends to emphasize moral grounding and balance much more than the gaining of “awakening experiences,” so much so that one is often told it’s not important even to have such experiences at all. Dogen says this many times in his writings. Most teachers who followed in his lineage also say this. Which isn’t to say that Soto is good and everything else is evil. It’s just one of the things that really attracts me to the style I have practiced much more than any of the others out there, even though those others often sound a whole lot sexier.

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330 Responses

Page 7 of 7
  1. My_name_is_Daniel
    My_name_is_Daniel May 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm |

    Thought I’d share what I’m listening to tonight. EverydayZen is a great resource and I’d suggest it to anyone who isn’t familiar.


  2. HarryB
    HarryB May 22, 2013 at 9:04 pm |

    Re Precepts,

    ‘Zen’ often seems to privilege insight over standards in right conduct as if they were two separate things: making ‘the absolute’ remote from ‘the mundane’, despite the clear teachings to avoid this in zen tradition.

    That sort of realisation might be realisation as a personal, psychological experience of the ‘well, I’m enlightened, so fuck you losers’ sort… and that would be a very small sort of realisation, if any at all. Worst case scenario is psychotic delusions where everything the sufferer feels is considered some sort of legitimate universal will, or the voice of god, cos he/she has transcended worldly affairs and has a hotline to the Ultimate. Next thing you know you have a harem and are saving up for nerve gas and cyanide pills. Seriously, kids: Don’t use zen… it kills!

    I’m vamping up the gist of it here (or am I?), but there may be a point.



  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 22, 2013 at 9:28 pm |

    I’ve heard it said (by Reb Anderson) that the precepts are the gateway to the practice. I know in the Pali Canon, Gautama said, “making self-surrender the object of thought, one lays hold of concentration, one lays hold of single-pointedness of mind”. In the sense that self-surrender is the fundamental principle of the precepts (and by that I understand him to mean the surrender of willful activity of speech, of body, and of mind), I would agree with Reb.

    Can a person make self-surrender the object of thought in such a fashion as to lay hold of single-pointedness of mind and simultaneously swear to act in a certain way or to abstain from acting? When Gautama said that which we do, or that which we intend, or that which we deliberate on results in ill, whether the intention is meritorious or demeritorious, was he blowing smoke from somewhere?

    The rules were made up instance by instance for the survival of the order. The three rules that the monks were to observe after Gautama passed away, nobody could say for sure. The one who received the bowl and robe got them at the funeral pyre, I’m pretty sure from the Mahaparinibana Sutta. When I’m in need of guidance, I look to the golden rule.

  4. TheTempleWithin
    TheTempleWithin May 22, 2013 at 10:27 pm |

    Okay so harry and mark, just to clarify with you guys what do YOU consider a “Genuine insight into the absolute”? how would you define that from your experience. Give me an example. I’m asking you in a testing matter to satisfy my own curiosity/questioning .So be careful.

  5. HarryB
    HarryB May 23, 2013 at 3:39 am |

    Hi TempleWithin,

    Well, speaking for myself, and as mentioned some time earlier, a ‘genuine insight into the absolute’ can be gleaned quite quickly when I, or anyone, sits zazen and let’s thoughts and feelings just come and go as they do. After a while this stabilizes into a clear and unhindered state where can be starkly seen the coming-and-going nature of the various functions and sensations which usually give rise to a mistaken sense of separate identity, including the thinking facility which likes to, for example, carve the flow of things up into designations like ‘the mundane’ as opposed ‘the absolute’, or ‘inside’ as opposed ‘outside’, or ‘me’ and ‘the world’, or ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘here and there’ etc etc etc.

    When I stop that thinking activity then it is quite clear to see that those habitual designations don’t hold up and that the nature of our existence is rather more inclusive, and also quite inscrutable in terms of a ‘source’. Some times the person observing this will just sort of seemingly stop happening, and things like the usual perception of time might be effected. There are various experiences that can arise from the practice of it, but I think the whole gist of it can be appreciated pretty much from the start when that bit of stability has been established. So the practice of it is actually very accesible, and, while I think it’s a great thing for anyone to do, it’s also no big remote accomplishment or obscure metaphysical realm.

    BTW, here’s one of the old koan that I was thinking of that contextualises the teaching on ‘shunyata’ in a particularly zennish way (i.e. with dubious, or old school, morality!):

    Sekkyo said to one of his monks, “Can you get hold of emptiness?”

    “I’ll try,” said the monk, and he cupped his hands in the air.

    “That’s not very good,” said Sekkyo. “You have nothing there!”

    “Well, master,” said the monk, “please show me a better way.”

    Thereupon, Sekkyo seized the monk’s nose and gave it a hard yank.

    “Ouch!” yelled the monk. “You hurt me!”

    “That’s the way to get hold of emptiness!” said Sekkyo.



  6. Fred
    Fred May 23, 2013 at 4:46 am |

    Very good, made me laugh

  7. HarryB
    HarryB May 23, 2013 at 5:11 am |

    Sore nose, Fred? 😉

  8. Andy
    Andy May 23, 2013 at 5:48 am |

    “Maybe so. I wonder, however, if there is ever a time when we are not expressing something, whether we realise it or not.”

    And you can wonder all you want, Harry! Which is polite of you – maybe even very polite. I may, however, get back to you on that small matter when I’m finished wallowing in all these red-herrings. They are seemingly, manifestly, resigned to themselves. They express, inevitably, and necessarily, signs of life – as one might expect from such squirming potsherds in a puddle. Indirectly direct as rain-patter, nonetheless, or such bed-wrinkles of resignation that one might then just wonder: if those sheets betrayed liver-spots, the onset dementia in their re-read contours, and a fishmonger to fillet daylight over the spineless folds.

    But, aside from such narcotic sprinklings over what slinky-like tautologies my self loops the loop through…

    Your post on metta. When I first starting sitting, I used to do something similar – though not from any knowledge or guidance – as a way to clear the crap from my head before I sat. I’d stopped doing it at some point. I’m not sure why, but it does seem a worthwhile thing to reintroduce.

  9. HarryB
    HarryB May 23, 2013 at 6:09 am |

    “They express, inevitably, and necessarily,
    signs of life — as one might expect
    from such squirming potsherds in a puddle.

    Indirectly direct as rain-patter, nonetheless,
    or such bed-wrinkles of resignation
    that one might then just wonder:
    if those sheets betrayed liver-spots,
    the onset dementia
    in their re-read contours, and a fishmonger
    to fillet daylight over the spineless folds.”

    Andy, you are really quite the poet. The is great musicality in this (couldn’t help trying to put line breaks in… sorry). Do you write in some other context?



  10. HarryB
    HarryB May 23, 2013 at 6:17 am |

    “Your post on metta. When I first starting sitting, I used to do something similar — though not from any knowledge or guidance — as a way to clear the crap from my head before I sat. I’d stopped doing it at some point. I’m not sure why, but it does seem a worthwhile thing to reintroduce.”

    Yeah, in the old Buddhist scheme of things it was considered somewhat of a prerequisite. It’s said that it can propel the practitioner straight into the jhanas in the Theravadan side of things and is connected in particular to the second samatha jhana.

    All that Buddhist jive aside, I have found it a good thing to do. I was initially wary of it myself, thinking it to be wussy, or merely playing with the imagination. But after practicing for some months it slowly revealed to me what it was all about.



  11. HarryB
    HarryB May 23, 2013 at 7:01 am |

    W.H. Auden – Their Lonely Betters

    As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
    To all the noises that my garden made,
    It seemed to me only proper that words
    Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

    A robin with no Christian name ran through
    The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
    And rustling flowers for some third party waited
    To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

    Not one of them was capable of lying,
    There was not one which knew that it was dying
    Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
    Assumed responsibility for time.

    Let them leave language to their lonely betters
    Who count some days and long for certain letters;
    We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
    Words are for those with promises to keep.

  12. Andy
    Andy May 23, 2013 at 8:04 am |

    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    (from ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert frost).


    Interestingly those line-endings brought out the underlying voice: looks like some Elizabeth Bishop came shaping through. Makes sense, what with the fishy imagry, as “At The Fishhouses” introduced me to her work. She’s the poet, I’m the ventriloquist. Sweet, sad Elizabeth:

    One Art (by E.Bishop)

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    –Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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