What is Enlightenment?
Zen & the Nature of Awakening
James Ishmael Ford
31 December 2017
Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church
Costa Mesa, California
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Little Gidding
It was sometime in 1969. I had been living in a Zen monastery in Oakland, California for a while. And we were deep into sesshin, which literally translates as “encountering the heart/mind.” A sesshin is an intensive Zen meditation retreat of three, five, or seven days, in this case seven, centering on about ten hours of seated meditation each day. So, a sesshin is extremely difficult, physically demanding, and psychically, well, psychically it is all about being stripped naked before the universe. Something powerful, if not always comfortable.
Although, what I mostly recall from those days so many years ago was being hungry. I was twenty-one, and pretty much always hungry. It certainly didn’t help that the main feature of those sesshin dinners was a thin miso soup with some vegetables. I vividly recall how I quickly slurped down the vegetables. Carrots added a little crunch. I recall that, even pushing on fifty years from the moment. Quickly every bite was gone. Feeling sorry for myself I swirled the spoon in the broth and lifted it up. And there was a large cabbage leaf resting in the spoon.
I felt waves of gratitude wash over me. First for that cabbage leaf. Then for the spoon. Then for my companions. For the room, itself, containing us. For the planet that supported us all. For the whole blessed cosmos. And. Then. Then, just gratitude. Wave, after wave. And then even that gratitude fell away. Everything fell away. No cabbage leaf, no spoon, no companions, no room, planet, or cosmos. With that sense of everything gone I put the spoon to my mouth and ate the cabbage leaf.
As soon as I could I reported all this to the roshi, the Zen master who was guiding our retreat. Now, at the time I was most taken with the expansive experiences and my feelings of gratitude. However, the teacher wasn’t particularly interested in that part. Instead she questioned me closely about the falling away thing, the “no” thing,” and that moment when I put the spoon to mouth and just ate that cabbage leaf.
This was my first “awakening” experience certified by a Zen teacher. In the moment I thought I’d arrived, I’d put the great matter to rest. That was sort of what was promised in the books and dharma talks. But, I was wrong. It actually didn’t take long for me to get my first comeuppance. As we say in Zen it really is all one continuous mistake. But, also something began. While I’d already made any number of commitments, and had engaged the disciplines of Zen with a lot of energy and dedication for several years, it was at this moment my Zen practice actually started.
While Zen is a particular path with its own forms and traditions I gradually understood I’d actually embarked on something that is as ancient as our humanity. The Unitarian Universalist divine Forrest Church once observed that all religion, all spirituality births out of two things: knowing we are alive. And knowing we will die. I would add in two things. First, our noticing how it is all so fragile. And, one more thing. Beating like our hearts, some longing, some calling toward something. Words fail. But, “home” feels closest to right.
I had been born into a fundamentalist Christian family. I found the Jesus of my childhood religion something beautiful and mysterious. But God seemed different. Too much a storm deity. I began to have trouble distinguishing him from Zeus and no more likely. And, by my mid-adolescence, I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. And I launched on a quest. This was the San Francisco Bay Area in the late nineteen sixties. And what can I say, there were a lot of options. And, I tried a lot of them. However, I quickly found Buddhism making the most sense.
What caught me at the time was a teaching called the “three marks of existence.” The first mark is anicca an assertion that everything is impermanent, everything made of parts will fall apart. Second, anatta asserts this truth of impermanence extends even to us, you and me. And last dukkha, often translated as suffering, but that’s not quite right. It’s the relentless buzz of anxiety, the sense of dissatisfaction that sours everything. I first heard this and I knew, I knew in my bones that I’d found a spiritual path that spoke truth. This was a description of what really is, of the real.
Or, almost. There was still one more thing for it to be a complete description of the real. That second thing is called “original awakening.” Original awakening is the term put to another aspect of reality equally important to the impermanence of all things and the buzz of unsatisfactoriness. And that is everything is connected. Our true reality is that everything even within its passingness is also intimate. Intimate. This teaching is developed a little later in Buddhism’s history, but is central to the Zen project.
Now words quickly fail. Words really are maps and not the territory. So, at some point we need to put down the map, let go of our stories about the real, and simply taste that cabbage leaf. And, yes, I get the contradiction of using a story to point to dropping our stories. You might notice this will become a theme in this reflection.
Now just about equally important to this wisdom birthed in the East, at least for me, has been the wave of insight that has emerged in the West, starting with the Greeks and running through the Enlightenment and birthing as modernity. I find two critical gifts within our Western approach to reality: Most importantly a full-on embrace of naturalism. That is an embrace of the world we actually encounter. And with that, with all its fits and starts, our emergent scientific method. If it exists, it can be examined. As someone said, science is just like magic, except it works.
And these things all come with shadows. As all important things do. The danger that accompanies the Western approaches to reality is reductionism, spiritually manifesting as a bare materialism. While the dangers of the Eastern approaches is literalism, confusing the stories with what they are pointing to. So, both perspectives, Eastern and Western, bring gifts. No doubt. But those gifts must be held lightly.
And for me, my path, born as I was at the cusp of the Age of Aquarius, amidst the collapse of many boundaries, including those sharply dividing East and West, has been all about bringing it together. The old order is dying. All the old orders are dying. Actually, maybe the world itself is dying. Or, at least we humans have very possibly exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet for creatures like us. Unpacking that is for another time.
What matters here, in this moment, as we live between the dying of an old and the birthing of some as yet uncertain new, is to share some good news. And I have some. It turns on those fifty years since I tasted that cabbage leaf. What is an enlightenment that is both East and West, that is neither East nor West? Finding it might be helpful in these dangerous times.
It starts as something deeply personal. Awakening, enlightenment disrupts our dreams of certainty and with that seeing through our desires and aversions. The Zen teacher and psychiatrist Barry Magid summarizes much of what I understand to be the basic truth of the matter.
“Awakening is the progressive – or sudden – loss of one fantasy after another of “awakening” – until one is left with one’s ordinary mind, just as it is, with no self-centered project of becoming more or other than who one is in the moment.” The way I prefer to phrase it, is that awakening is not a thing, nor is it a thought, nor is it even an experience – rather it is noticing what is: the first time perhaps dramatically, but then over, and over, and over, and deeper and deeper and deeper, in each undramatic moment of our lives.
The rhetoric attached to Zen’s awakening is that it is once and forever. I have a sense of that. There is some truth in it. But. It isn’t actually a steady state. Everything is in motion. No exceptions. No magical other place where our poop doesn’t stink. And no state or experience that isn’t fully a part of the given moment and the circumstances that create that moment. Awakening isn’t an escape from our place in karma, the great play of cause and effect.
Although, this insight into our intimate reality brings with it a moral compass, a reminder that we are not here alone. Never have been. And, with that knowing comes some responsibilities. I talk about that elsewhere. It’s deeply important. But, here, I just want to hold it up, while continuing to walk with the most intimate, with what a life on this way might be.
What awakening is, is an existential stance of radical openness. It does not mean there are no blind spots. It does not mean one is free of the play of those endlessly arising constellations of grasping, aversion, and death-grasping certainties that are the very stuff of our humanity. But, it does mean some part of the person who has had this experience of opening sees or knows deep freedom as well as being fully within the play of life and death. So, yes, once and forever. And, no, not free from karma or even stupid or possibly evil actions.
What this all reveals is a life of mystery and engagement. And, one more thing. While this is all about awakening in Zen with a strong dose of Western rationalism flavoring the matter, we need not, nor should we be bound by either of these approaches. Here we discover the many gifts of Universalism, of the insight that every religion carries wisdom. And with that I think of the Medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart.
He said two things in particular that appear relevant to understanding what awakening actually is. One was “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” And with that, “we are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” Wondering about that moral compass I alluded to? Well, there’s a pointer.
And, with that just one more story. About what happens with those fifty, plus years. After many things, successes and failures, including after many experiences, small awakenings and large, living into what it might be, I found myself sitting in the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, a church which I served for eight years.
The congregation is sheltered within a lovely building, a gem from the ecclesiastical architectural genius, Ralph Adams Cram. The building is a little English-style cathedral, technically an English perpendicular Gothic church. Unusual for a Unitarian church, it had an altar, complete with seven steps leading up to it. And above the table a lovely stained-glass window of Jesus with all the little children.
One afternoon, I took a break from phone calls in the office, and I was sitting in the third pew facing the altar and stared up at that window with Jesus and the children. I’d long loved it, sort of the best of Christianity, or, at least my dream of my childhood Christianity. And then out of the blue I recalled that line from Zen master Zhaozhou, when, after his teacher had died and he had embarked on a pilgrimage, declared, “If I see deeper than a hundred-year old sage, I’ll teach him.” And then added, “But, if a seven-year old has something to teach me, I will listen humbly.”
In a moment, everything I had accumulated and knew, knew in my bones, dropped from me like an unnecessary winter coat on a clear Spring morning. In that moment, there was only me sitting on that hard pew, the slight chill of the air, and the unique mix of smells in that old sanctuary, a perfume of forgotten days. And, of course, that window illuminated from behind. Jesus. My lovely childhood Jesus. And, the children. All the little children. Us. All of us. No high. No low. No exceptions. My first awakening. All those that followed. Life. Sadness. Joy. Successes. Failures. All of those things so completely different. And, yet, no differences.
As T. S. Eliot sings to us.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
So, what is awakening? What is enlightenment? Well.
Just this. Just this. Intimate. Intimate.