Enlightenment is to be found right where you are!
In Buddhism, there are many sects that all have their own take on exactly what enlightenment is, and the different stages of it. In Pure Land Buddhism, for example, enlightenment is the result of meditating in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. This is achieved after surrendering to Amitabha in this life and being reborn in his heavenly realm in the next, where the conditions are considered more conducive to realizing nirvana. This is not the approach of this author, however, although I would not criticize them for doing so. However, it seems to me that suffering is so prevalent in this life that to postpone enlightenment to some later life would seem to be a bit of a waste of this one, when there are so many other schools of Buddhism that declare enlightenment is possible in this very life. In this article, we will evaluate two such types of the Buddhist path, and look for ourselves to see if such a (non-)thing as enlightenment exists, right here & now.
The two forms of Buddhism that have appealed to me the most over the years, and have formed the basis for my practice, are Theravada Buddhism & Zen Buddhism. Theravada is generally considered the oldest extant form of Buddhism, and is found in such places as Sri Lanka, Burma, & Thailand, the latter being my home. Zen is found in China & Japan amongst other countries, and is one of the newer major forms of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. There many points of disagreement amongst many - perhaps most - adherents of these traditions, ranging from the nature of a buddha to the role of monks in society. This will not be our current concern, however, for we will attempt to get to the heart of Buddhism with the help of both Theravada & Zen Buddhism. And this heart is, according to the Buddha, our heart, which is enlightenment. But, first, let's take a very brief look at their origins.
Theravada Buddhists generally consider their tradition is directly descended from the Buddha and that it continues to reflect his teaching (essentially) as he taught it, and puts much emphasis on empirically-proven truths, as opposed to faith-based religion. The central focus of this teaching are the four noble truths (cattari-airya-saccani). The first truth is dukkha - variously translated as angst, pain, discomfort, unsatisfactoriness, and most commonly, suffering. This blog generally uses the last of these.) The Buddha taught that no matter what we do, it contains some amount of suffering, whether because we don't have what we want, have what we don't want, fear losing what we have, or fear getting what we don't. He considered this the primary reason that we don't enjoy life as much as we could, and so he sought a way out of suffering. The second noble truth states that the cause of suffering is desire (tanha), or more precisely the clinging (upadana) to desire. Therefore, if we let go of desire, we end (nirodha) suffering; this is the third noble truth, which is widely known as nirvana (see below). But how to realize such a state of being? This is the fourth noble truth, the noble eightfold path (airya-atthangika-magga), which is described a little later.
Mahayana Buddhism, from which Zen derived, is made up of many different schools and teachings, and contains doctrines & practices that many scholars consider to be additions to those mentioned above. A few of the differences between these two branches of Buddhism appear above, but there are many more which we won't go into here for two good reasons: lack of space, and their irrelevance to our present concern. As to Mahayana Buddhism itself, it seems that it metamorphosed as it travelled across the orient, developing new and innovative ways to communicate and practice the Buddha's way. One result of this ever-changing branch of Buddhism was Zen, a fusion of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. Taking the essence of Buddhism, and mixing it with the sagacity of Chinese figures such as Laozi and Zhuangzi, Zen cut through much of Mahayana Buddhism's often complicated doctrines, although retaining its outer forms and sutras. Zen focuses on an immediate experience of the same awakening that the Buddha experienced - called satori in Japanese - and has developed some novel methods to this end, which we'll hopefully have time for below.
Despite their different routes out of India, Theravada going south through Sri Lanka and then onto mainland southeast Asia, and Zen, spreading across the far east, these two types of Buddhism have much in common. Apart from the aforementioned possibility of enlightenment in this lifetime, they also share an emphasis on mindfulness and meditation as paths to awakening. The historical Buddha, as opposed to figures like Amitabha mentioned above, is also the central person in both traditions, despite the presence of many other revered beings. Monasticism has retained its importance in Theravada & Zen alike, too, although there are some important differences here. As to the subject of enlightenment itself, again there are similarities in the two traditions' accounts of what it actually is, but there also exist some differences, as will be seen below. However, the essential explanations contain the same 'flavour,' indicating that they are referring to the same experience. So, according to Theravada and Zen, what exactly is enlightenment, and how are we to achieve, recognize, and sustain it? Below, we will explore these questions, comparing and contrasting the two approaches and experiences of enlightenment, before coming to some necessarily tentative conclusions.
In Theravada Buddhism, enlightenment is the main focus of much of the teachings attributed to the Buddha in its scriptures which are known as Tipitika ('Three Collections') in Pali, the language in which they were originally recorded, and as the Pali Canon in English. It is not, however, the only subject that he explains, others being karma & rebirth, welfare & happiness in this life (dittha-dhamma-hitasukha) and welfare & happiness in the next life (samparayika-hitasukha). The latter two aspects of the Buddha's dispensation are part of a traditional threefold division of his teachings, the third being the one that concerns us at present: the supreme goal (paramattha), which is also known as enlightenment or awakening (bodhi), or extinction (nibbana in Pali, nirvana in Sanskrit). We will now take a look at the Theravada view of enlightenment, and see what we can make of it.
The Buddha, or to give him his full title Sammasambuddha ('Fully-Self-Awakened-One'), famously awoke to his true nature under the bodhi tree roughly two-and-a-half millennia ago in northern India. But, what was this awakening that triggered the founding of one of the world's greatest ever religions? Well, nirvana & nibbana translate as extinction or 'snuffing out,' which many have taken to mean the extinction of the self or personality, as Buddhism holds that ultimately there is no self. However, this is not quite right, for the Buddha taught that the self never existed in the first place to be extinguished. This is summed up in the teaching on anatta ('not-self') which is found throughout the Pali Canon, along with two other so-called three characteristics of existence (tilakkhana): dukkha (discussed above), and anicca ('impermance'). So, it's not that we have a self that we extinguish, but rather, it is the delusion of a self that is 'snuffed out' upon enlightenment, along with the three poisons that feed it: greed, hatred, & delusion.
Nirvana is described as unconditioned (asankhata), which means it is not the product of previous actions (karma), nor does it cause any future results of present actions. Therefore, for the enlightened one, there is no more rebirth into this world (or any other), and their state is said to be indescribable upon the body's demise, so it cannot be characterized as existence, nonexistence, both existence and nonexistence, nor neither existence or nonexistence. In other words, it's beyond words! Enlightenment, according to accounts in the Pali Canon and modern masters, is said to be wonderful, free of suffering, happy and peaceful. More than this, it is full of compassion, for when we see that all have their being in the unconditioned, and that their suffering is our suffering, on the level on interdependent beings. A child's hunger is our hunger, a mother's grief our grief, and an animal's pain our pain, all viewed in the painless 'zone' of awakening. We reach out to all who suffer, helping in whatever way we can, one way being to help them to see beyond their clinging, suffering selves. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves, somewhat; now that we know approximately what enlightenment is, just how do we realize it?
According to the Pali Canon, we achieve enlightenment by practicing the noble eightfold path, which briefly made its bow above. This isn't to say that we cannot have glimpses of awakening outside this path, but that if the Buddhist understanding of full enlightenment is to be realized, this is the way to do it. This 'glimpsing' of enlightenment, or partial awakening, is also found in Zen, which we'll check out shortly. Anyway, the eightfold path is named such for its factors which are right view (samma-ditthi), right intention (samma-sankappa), right speech (samma-vaja), right action (samma-kammanta), right livelihood (samma-ajiva), right effort (samma-vayama), right mindfulness (samma-sati), and right concentration (samma-samadhi). Again, lack of room in this article will have to live this particular subject here, apart from to state that nirvana, which is unconditioned, remember, is not the result of this path, but is revealed as this way is practiced, much as the moon is not the result of parting clouds, but shines forth upon their parting.
As the eightfold path suggests, awakening is a gradual process (for most of us, at least), and therefore the various aspects of the path combine to assist us in letting go of the fetters that bind us to an unenlightened state of being. The fetters are dealt with in a moment. The path itself is grouped into three main trainings: virtue (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (panna). The first of these includes right speech, action, and livelihood, and governs our interactions with others, reducing harmful acts - or eradicating them altogether if we really perfect this training. The training in concentration includes right effort, mindfulness, and (funnily enough) concentration. This includes the practice of meditation, an important aspect of Buddhism without which enlightenment is nigh on impossible, according to Theravada tradition. In the Pali Canon, all the enlightened people, including the Buddha, are seen to meditate regularly, even after full awakening. Next, we will examine the different kinds of enlightened people, or 'noble persons,' that are found in Theravada Buddhism.
There are four stages of noble persons (ariya-puggala) according to the Buddha. These persons are characterized by the fetters (samyojana) that they have let go of. The first kind of noble person is the 'stream-enterer' (sotapanna) is one that has abandoned the fetters of identity-view, doubt, and attachment to rules and rituals. The second kind is the 'once-returner' (sakadagami) that has loosened the bonds of sensual desire and ill-will. These two fetters have completely been abandoned by the 'non-returner' (anagami). The last stage of noble person is the 'worthy-one' (arahant) who has abandoned five further fetters including conceit and ignorance. We can recognize which one of the noble persons we are by the fetters that remain.
In truth, there's nothing to be done to sustain the experience of enlightenment, for even if we are not yet an arahant, if we have already glimpsed the truth as one of the three other kinds of noble being, then we will definitely continue our awakening all the way to nirvana…eventually. However, if we are already on the path, we will surely be inspired by our experiences of freedom from at least some of the fetters to further realizations, and there is a sense in Theravada Buddhism that this process from stream-enterer to arahant is a wholly natural one once it has begun, and all we have to do is get out of the way, so to speak. So much for Theravada Buddhist teachings on enlightenment. Now we turn to Zen Buddhism, and see what it has to say about the nature of awakening and how we realize it.
Zen Buddhism purports to be "A special transmission outside of scriptures," and yet the scriptures that it refers to and finds its philosophical origins in are numerous. As a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, the Zen schools refer to a variety of texts from the Tripitaka (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali Canon), including the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra, Chinese Daoist texts such as the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi, and the records of many Zen masters like the Record of Huang Po, and the Record of Linji. Added to these are works by Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese Zen masters, including Dogen's immense Shobogenzo. So, although the "transmission" may take place "outside of scriptures," words have, and continue, to exert a profound influence over the lives of Zen Buddhists. Nonetheless, all these texts contain the subject of enlightenment as the most important subject, and declare that it is realizable in this very lifetime.
As already mentioned, Zen is the product of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. Indeed, in the early Zen texts, the Chinese word 'Dao' is often found to indicate nirvana, as later the word Zen itself would come to indicate. Etymologically speaking, the original Chinese term for Zen is Chan (or Channa in its long form), which derives from the Sankrit word dhyana (jhana in Pali), which means absorption or 'meditative state.' Zen (long form zenna) is the Japanese version of the Chinese. So, Zen both indicates meditation and enlightenment, which sits well with the Zen Buddhist teaching that to do zazen ('sitting meditation') is to experience nirvana. It's not that nirvana is the result of zazen, but that it is zazen, and vice versa. This is because Zen Buddhism teaches us that enlightenment is already present and that zazen enables us to see true nature (kensho in Jappanese).
Kensho, then, indicates a person's initial glimpses or experiences of enlightenment. Another term for which is shogo in Japanese; daigo ('great enlightenment') describes a deeper, permanent experience of nirvana. This, in turn, is a contraction of daigo-tettei, which literally translates as 'great -enlightenment-that-reaches-to-the-ground,' which is a colorful way as saying 'complete enlightenment.' The more common word for dig is satori, which is usually translated as 'understanding.' Sometimes, as in the writings of many Zennists, satori is used as a general term indicating all types of awakening, bit dig and shoji. The problem here, is that someone might presume that an initial enlightenment experience is actually a complete one, as the same word can be used for both. This vagueness is found in many aspects of Zen Buddhist language, in contrast to the more methodical Theravada lexicons, and is a double-edged sword.
When Zen Buddhists describe enlightenment, then, they tend to be vaguer than their Theravada counterparts, which also leads to a similar situation with regards to those that rate said to have realized it. The four noble persons of the Theravada tradition are not found in Zen, with the exception of the arahant, and that in a usually negative context. The ideal Buddhist in zen, and Mahayana Buddhism in general, is the bodhisattva, a word reserved for someone on their way to becoming a buddha, as with the historical Buddha prior to his enlightenment. A bodhisattva in the Mahayana sense of the term is someone that puts off full enlightenment so that they will be reborn again and again until all other sentient beings are enlightened also. This ideal is promoted above that of the arahant (or arhat in Sanskrit), and is a bone of contention for many Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. For this writer, they mere labels, or concepts of what we might be, and both can will short of our true nature if clung to, for enlightenment is the ending of clinging.
Anyway, let's return to the subject of satori, or enlightenment, for that is the focus of this article. In Zen, satori is often referred to as the realization of emptiness (sunyata in Sanskrit, ku in Japanese), which is an extension of the understanding of not-self (anatta) found in the Pali canon. All things are empty of self, and to see this completely is to be awakened to the truth. This may sound somewhat pessimistic or negative upon first hearing, and if it is only a concept or belief, it may remain so. However, those that have claimed to realize satori have described it as a great freedom from suffering and unhappiness. There is no longer the delusion of anyone 'at home' to suffer, so one lives in this world without any angst or regrets. When seen this way, satori seems anything but pessimistic or negative; quite the contrary!
The way to achieve enlightenment in Zen is not that different to that found in the Pali Canon, with an emphasis on meditation and living a virtuous life. The eightfold path is also there, although often not highlighted as much, and a long training is usually required for a deep-set awakening to be achieved. The role of the Zen master is paramount, with the aforementioned transmission taking place between such a master and his pupil. It is not enlightenment that is transmitted, however, for this is impossible; rather, it is recognition that is bestowed by the master, and a 'transmission' of authority within the tradition to teach others in Zen. Because of this close relationship, Zen masters have been noted to resort to 'shock tactics' such as shouting or even mild physical violence to inspire awakening in their disciples; something that would never take place in the Theravada tradition.
Zen Buddhism has also developed the koan as a method to stimulate satori in its followers. This is a phrase or short story normally from the records of the Zen masters that is used to create a condition of mind whence all discursive thought is transcended and the Zennist breaks through into a spontaneous realization their true nature. A famous example of a koan is "Show me your face before your parents were born." (We'll return to this 'original face' a little later.) Alternatively, there is the practice of shikatanza ('nothing-but-precisely-sitting'), when the aspirant sits without any particular focus of meditation, but simply rests in their 'buddha-nature' (a Mahayana term meaning nirvana). These, and other unique methods have been developed in Zen Buddhism to assist its practitioners to achieve satori, which continues to be of primary importance in this unique sect to the modern day.
So, in this article, both Theravada and Zen Buddhism are shown to have enlightenment at their very heart, even up to modern times. Sure, if one travels to Thailand, traditionally a Theravada Buddhist nation, monks and laity will be seen to be engaged in rituals, festivals, superstitions, and much else not directly concerned with awakening; in Japan, also, Zen priests are often concerned with performing rituals such as funeral rites, and lay Zennists are not all striving to see true nature, let alone actually seeing it. But, on the other hand, seek out a forest monastery in Thailand, or a Zen mountain monastery, and enlightened folk are waiting to instruct you. Moreover, in small groups and centers across both countries - and beyond - enlightenment is waiting to be pointed put…if you want it, that is. Which brings us to the final part of this article, and by far the most important: seeing the original face. This isn't solely to be read about, however; you need t follow the instructions to benefit from them. So, please play along and see what happens.
Point at what's in front of you. It may well include a computer screen, a wall, a window, or a million other things. But, whatever's there, please point now. Notice the colours, shapes, sizes, and dimensions of what's there. Recognize the sheer opacity of it all. (If your seeing window, noticing the solidity of what's behind it.) Now point at your body, again taking the time to note the colours, shapes, sizes, and dimensions present, as well as its opaqueness. Now, the next part of this exercise, please be totally honest. Point at where your face is. What do you see? Does it have colours, shapes, size, and dimensions? Is it opaque…or transparent? Is there a person's face where your looking from now, or a spaciousness that's lacking in any features to call your own? Is what you see there the 'original face' of Zen Buddhism, and the unconditioned of Theravada Buddhism? Is, indeed, a thing, or rather a no-thing free of features or conditioning? If your answers to these queries is an empirical yes, then congratulations, for surely you've just awakened to your true nature, and are now on the way to enlightenment.
Now, there may be many objections to the above exercise. However, how many of them are based on our ideas of what enlightenment is, or must be? How many of them come from the feeling that this can't be it? How many are born of fear or attachments to who we believe we are? But, ideas, feelings, fears, and beliefs cannot be allowed to obscure what's as plain as the nose on this original face, can they? And, yes, there may be a vague blob of a nose detectable in your view, but does it negate the emptiness that lies behind it? Furthermore, what is in this emptiness if not your face? Well, isn't it the face or faces of whoever may be present with you in this present moment? Or, it's the myriad things of this universe that occur in your facelessness, your capacity. Ideas also arise here, as do feelings and attachments, but they are unable to affect this central emptiness, which remains peaceful and without suffering. Enlightenment, anyone?
*All major terms in italics can be looked up in A Buddhist Glossary; just click the link beneath the banner at the top of this page.