Zen first developed based on two underlying premises: 1.) Buddha had an experience of enlightenment which radically changed his life and became the basis of his teaching over the next 40 years; 2.) If we practice meditation with continual effort and determination, we can both have this experience and develop the ability to act out of our so-called Buddha nature, our quiescent nature, which is our true home.
We are so caught by the elaborate structures of habit that we create palaces and prisons for ourselves. These palaces and prisons exile us from an awareness that our true home, bodhi, in Sanskrit, is always at the center of our being and all being. When we have tapped into bodhi, oranges still taste like oranges and harsh words are still harsh, but we’re aware of how everything permeates everything else, lit from within by same light.
The moon is a frequent symbol of enlightenment because of its warm, calming glow. In China, and later in Japan, it became the custom to write an enlightenment poem. Here is one from a Japanese practitioner in the 12th century.
Watching the moon
I knew myself completely:
no part left out.
When we have this kind of experience our sense of being isolated, limited, within our own hard shell, is replaced by feeling joined to all life. This can only happen when this fear-based self cracks open. As Nagarjuna said,
When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.
This “wisdom of awakening” occurs in all meditative traditions. I am especially fond of the following story from the pre-Buddhist Vedas:
A doll of salt, after a long pilgrimage on dry land, came to the sea and discovered something she had never seen and could not possibly understand. She stood on the firm ground, a solid little doll of salt, and saw there was another ground that was mobile, insecure, noisy, strange and unknown. She asked the sea, “But what are you?” and it said, “I am the sea.” And the doll said, “What is the sea?” to which the answer was, “It is me.” Then the doll said, “I cannot understand, but I want to; how can I?” The sea answered, “Touch me.” So the doll shyly put forward a foot and touched the water and she got a strange impression that it was something that began to be knowable. She withdrew her leg, looked and saw that her toes had gone, and she was afraid and said, “Oh, but where is my toe, what have you done to me?” And the sea said, “You have given something in order to understand.” Gradually the water took away small bits of the doll’s salt and the doll went farther and farther into the sea and at every moment she had a sense of understanding more and more, and yet of not being able to say what the sea was. As she went deeper, she melted more and more, repeating: “But what is the sea?” At last a wave dissolved the rest of her and the doll said: “It is I!”
We all have the capacity to crack open our small selves and experience this kind of awakening. “There is another world,” Paul Eluard said, “and it is inside this one.” Chinese Zen stories in particular often have as their climax the awakening of a practitioner when she unexpectedly sees or hears a natural phenomenon like the tok of a stone hitting bamboo or the sudden appearance of cherry blossoms across a ravine.
However, having an opening like this doesn’t necessarily mean that much in and of itself. Some people have openings and still behave like jerks. The glow of the moon has to both penetrate us completely and spill over into our everyday lives. Real transformation can only take place as we let life teach us how to embody this wonderful glow.
My teacher said, “There are no enlightened people, only enlightened activity.” The test for anyone who has this experience is whether or not it enables them to be both more compassionate and more resilient. We still have delusions, butthey’re no longer capable of binding us to their limited view. They arise; we see them for what they are and feel compassion for our own limitations as we do for others. And we still face conflict and have bodies that break down or wear out.
Many people misunderstand what enlightenment entails. Japanese scholars who have studied his life and writing have debated whether Ryokan was a true Zen master, since he did not transcend normal emotions and instead wrote openly about his moments of both sadness and loneliness. But Ryokan’s transparency about his own emotional vicissitudes make him, at least for me, more enlightened rather than less.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher