Both of my teachers, Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi, had a slightly different take on enlightenment than the traditional one I talked about in my last piece. This take came from the 13th century Soto Zen pioneer, Dogen.
For Dogen, enlightenment is a process rather than a spectacular event. It is not something that may happen later on. All we have to do is completely give ourselves to an activity and we will immediately experience a sense of intimacy with our activity and the world surrounding it.
He calls this “practice-enlightenment.” As each event occurs we completely engage over and over with what is happening. Practice-enlightenment enables us to approach each activity with what Suzuki Roshi calls, a “beginner’s mind.”
As I write these lines, if I am absorbed in my writing, it engulfs all other activities and swallows up past and future. This is what Dogen means when he says, “The time when continuous practice [gyoji] is manifested is what we call ‘Now.’”
Consequently, there can be no practice without enlightenment and no enlightenment without practice. As we engage in each activity over and over, endlessly, we begin to experience each activity in selfless openness. And this is our natural way of being. “Intrinsic enlightenment,” says Dogen, “is wonderful practice.” The smallest details of meditation, ritual, manual labor, eating, bathing, and social engagement are all opportunities for practice-enlightenment. Meditation is totally stripped of its older, traditional, “in order to” function. This seems to be particularly hard for Americans, who are so result oriented.
But it works! Whether we are meditating, eating, going to the toilet, or planning our day, we have the opportunity to feel a deep freedom which comes from simply giving ourselves to each activity.
In our meditation practice this means, as Katagiri Roshi used to say, “not kicking out” any thought or emotion, but just shining our gentle, nonjudgmental light on it, i.e. enlightening each delusion, with no hint of comparison or judgment.
Through this radical acceptance of what is, we tap into heart-mind, that still dynamic center of being, with its two gates, the gate of spaciousness and the gate of compassionate engagement with the world around us.
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.
Lately, I have been thinking about the emphasis that my root teacher, Suzuki Roshi, placed on embracing “things as it is.” To do this we need to relinquish our hold on an image of how things need to be, or should be, or might have been. By practicing not resisting what is over and over again, we begin to say “yes” to life as it is unfolding.
The well-known psychiatrist Milton Erickson referred to this as the “yes set.” In his work with clients who had an overall negative attitude, he found that if he could get them to say “yes” once, that single utterance could be an entrée into a series of yeses and that series could result in the individual beginning to say “yes” to life.
Suzuki Roshi used to talk about the expectation in some Zen monasteries that a student immediately say “yes” to whatever his teacher asked him to do as a way to move out of yourself and fully embrace whatever activity is at hand. Saying “yes” can be a powerful spiritual practice.
Embracing “things as it is” doesn’t mean bypassing our disappointment, sadness, or anger about something that has happened. It means accepting both the situation and the negative feeling we might have about it, without suffering about our suffering by talking to ourselves about it, which drains our energy and is a total waste of time.
Suzuki’s combination of the singular and the plural in “things as it is,” while grammatically incorrect, underscores his teaching that everything is separate and yet undivided from everything else. Take the poem by the Japanese Zen master, Ryokan:
the thief / left it behind, / the moon at the window
Ryokan had lost all of his belongings in one fell swoop. And yet, rather than needlessly complaining about his loss, he used it as an opportunity to poetically express his embracing of “things as it is.” The moon is often used in Zen as a symbol of the enlightened mind. This mind is like the moonlight that enlivens everything it shines on. Everything is separate, and yet everything is undivided since each object bathes in the same warm glow.
The neighborhood around Zen Center has become somewhat gentrified in the last couple of decades, so that it has become almost impossible to find an affordable place to rent. Someone said to me recently, “I can’t stand that our neighborhood has become so chi-chi. It shouldn’t be this way,” and then went on and on about how unfair it was. But his ranting and raving was not getting him anywhere and I began to feel exhausted listening to him.
So both of us began to suffer needlessly, rather than saying, “Yes, this is the way things are,” what some Vipassana teachers have referred to as radical acceptance. Radical acceptance does not mean being a doormat, however. Once we have fully accepted something, we can move on to decide if we want to try to modify it in the future. “Yes, the neighborhood has become chi-chi and I feel sad about it, but instead of complaining I am going to do something to try to make it more livable.” Even the term “radical acceptance” is insufficient to express the warm, calming glow we can all feel when we fully embrace "things as it is."
In my last blog I mentioned that a meditation practice provides us with an opportunity to notice how dominated we can become by fear, especially when our external culture is so fear based, as ours seems to currently be.
As you deepen and strengthen your sitting practice, fears, which you may not even know were present, may gradually show themselves. I have found over the years that it can be very healthy to bring an attitude of curiosity toward this type of experience.
Being alert and curious allows fear to become your teacher. “Curiouser and curiouser,” cried Alice in Wonderland as she saw her body grow larger and larger and larger.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” said my student Wendy, who had the courage to see the depth and breadth of the fear within as she persisted in her meditation practice. Wendy’s persistence in this process resulted in her coming to realize that none of her fears were absolutely true and most of them were memories from childhood or adolescence that were deeply buried in her psyche and body.
I had another student who I will call Jethro who was about 6’6” and very gangly. He looked very placid during his sitting in the meditation hall day after day, but gradually he let me know that he lived in a frozen, fear-based state. He sat and walked with his shoulders slightly hunched, something he had learned as a kid to continually avoid drawing attention to his size and to help armor himself against verbal blows from other kids’ teasing. My support for him was very simple, helping him bring attention to all of the sensations in his shoulders. Jethro spent two years noticing and being curious about tightness, unease, or numbness in his shoulders and how these sensations manifested themselves in fear-based thought and emotion. Eventually, his shoulders relaxed and opened up. His sense of separation from the world around him diminished, and fear lost its grip. During the time Jethro worked with me he began and ended each sitting with the following loving-kindness practice:
“May I find freedom from fear in my life. May I also help others find freedom from fear. May I meet the fear with the courage of the open heart, acting with decisiveness rather than divisiveness.”
By doing this practice over and over and over, he not only let go of his fear, he liberated the natural happiness, which is the bedrock of our existence- his so-called Buddha Nature, or T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world.” If Wendy and Jethro can do this, so can you!
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher