Enlightenment! That’s been what most committed Buddhist meditation practitioners have aspired to since the historical Buddha had his awakening under the “Bodhi” (enlightenment) tree. In this piece I am going to discuss enlightenment as it is typically understood, and in my next piece I am going to discuss it from the stance of the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, and those who have followed in his footsteps.
The promise of enlightenment is a promise that we can return to our own home, tapping into a calm sense of spaciousness that the complexities and entanglements of our mind cause us to forget. Through our meditation practice we can let go of those elaborate structures of habitual thinking and reacting, the palace and prisons in the air that we spend so much of our time living in.
I have been enjoying reading the new book of talks by Katagiri Roshi, the founder of our Zen Center, called The Light That Shines Thru Infinity: Zen and the Energy of Life.
Enlightenment is the way each of us thinks, feels, and acts when we’re aware of and participating in this huge energy manifesting as us. But enlightenment isn’t something that can be obtained, as this ancient Vedic story points out:
A doll of salt came to the sea and discovered something she had never seen and could not possibly understand. She stood on the firm ground 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 her foot forward and touched the water. 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. 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!”
When this happens, we tap into a natural empathy, which Tolstoy described as, “the day I came across my own inside, I came across everybody’s inside.” Our life doesn’t necessarily change that much afterward. Bananas still taste like bananas and harsh words are still harsh. But we’re aware of how everything permeates everything else and how everything is lit from within by the same undivided light. We still have bodies that break down and we still face conflict. We still create palaces and prisons in the air through our limited thinking.
But Tim (or Zentetsu, my dharma name) no longer is confined within with his palaces or prisons. Instead, the melting of his limited identity enables him to fully appreciate and participate in the dynamic flow of life.
In Zen parlance we refer to this as opening to heart-mind. Heart-mind is said to have two gates: the first opens to vastness, and the second to compassionate engagement. Only by continually going through the second gate (what I call turtle practice) do we learn to embody the sense of interconnection with everything and everyone which the salt doll discovered when it dissolved into the sea.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher