About Enlightenment

I always thought the Zen masters and the Zen poets, hermits, and wanderers I read about when I was young had some kind of unique knowledge, some unique power or insight that gave them a special edge. The nature of the edge wasn’t clear to me, but they seemed happier and freer than I was as a result of whatever it was. Then I read about the concept of enlightenment/awakening and I figured that’s what it was all about. Enlightenment. Awakening. Somehow, Zen made you enlightened, and then you were forevermore happy and free.

Exactly how Zen made you enlightened I had no idea. That was at least partly because the early reading I did said nothing about zazen or practice. Later, I discovered there was something you could actually DO, so I adjusted my thinking a bit. I thought you just had to do enough zazen and other sincere practice-related stuff, and that would lead to awakening. And then you would be forevermore happy and free.

Eventually, I had experiences like what I’d read about. In my tradition, we don’t talk so much about awakening experiences, so I’ll just say that I was at least partly right: Zen practice does “work.” If you practice sincerely, if you stick with it, things happen. You do have experiences that are wonderful and profound. But as for the “then-you-are-forevermore-happy-and-free” part… not so much.

Not so much, because no amount of enlightenment experience wipes away and resolves all the habits, karma, and conditioning of a lifetime. Let alone of many lifetimes, if you believe in such things. Last time I Googled “Zen scandals,” I got 5,960,000 results in .24 seconds. I rest my case on the innumerable cases of spiritual adepts who’ve surely had profound awakening experiences and gone on to behave like fools. Or worse.

Some Zen teaching implies that awakening resolves or fixes everything, once and for all. I think that’s false advertising. Enlightenment does have the power to change things, just like other big life experiences – falling in love or having a child – have the power to change things. Once you’ve had these experiences, you’re not the same. The world is not the same. Being alive feels different. But falling in love doesn’t make you a supportive, considerate partner. Having a child doesn’t make you a wise, skillful parent. And having an enlightenment experience doesn’t make you an unselfish, compassionate person.

Actually, I think the awakening experience by itself isn’t all that useful in transforming one’s life. However, I do think the practices that can help lead to awakening are where there’s real transformative power. For me personally, the most powerful of such practices is what’s often called doubt – Zen doubt – by which I mean the power of deep, sustained inquiry. This is a practice I learned a lot about doing koan study. In my experience, it’s different from what we normally think of as inquiry. It doesn’t involve analysis or hypotheses or the rational investigative tools we usually associate with serious inquiry. Zen doubt – this kind of inquiry – is pouring all the awareness you can into a deep, patient attitude of “What is it?” Your awareness takes on the essential nature of a question mark and you allow whatever you’re struggling to understand or penetrate to just reside in in this awareness. In my experience, this is a practice that can really open up and even resolve stuck places.

My teacher, Lew Richmond, sometimes talks about “life koans.” These are the big existential issues and questions that arise for all of us over the years as we work to understand who we are and how to live (and how to die!). I think this kind of Zen inquiry – the kind of doubt that helps unlock traditional Zen koans – is the same doubt that helps penetrate and resolve life koans. Passing “Mu” – the quintessential Zen koan – doesn’t actually do all that much by itself to clarify or resolve crises with a boss or a partner or a parent. But the luminous, penetrating Zen doubt that can help unlock “Mu” turns out to be truly helpful in everyday life if you have the fortitude, patience, and courage to develop and sustain it.