Friday, December 18, 2009

A Zen Perspective on Enlightenment

The concept of enlightenment is often confused with altered states of consciousness and alternative belief systems. In truth, enlightenment might better be described as "supreme awareness" and awareness does not require us to "believe" in anything. In fact, all that is required of us to become enlightened is that we accept reality without enshrouding it in a belief system at all. Likewise, there is no real need to alter our state of consciousness, we just a need to lift the veil from the consciousness we all ready have. In Zen, this is known as "a direct pointing to reality" and is the very essence of Zen Buddhist teaching.

The name Buddha means the "Awakened One"; the one who awoke from the pervading dreams of belief systems to the ultimate reality of human existence. This understanding of what actually is, rather than believing in something that may or may not be true, is why Zen Buddhism is often called the "Religion of no religion." Unlike other religions in which one must subscribe to a particular premise based on some speculation, Zen only requires that the aspirant simply pay attention to the surrounding world. If observed openly and free from a perspective not influenced by preconceived notions, the world can be seen for what it is, rather than for what we might otherwise hope for.

It was from this perspective that Gautama Buddha recognized what he described as the Four Noble Truths. This four-part description of how he came to understand the ultimate reality of human existence, is actually based on the single premise subdivided into four parts in order to offer both solace and explanation. What the Buddha observed was a continuum where everything in the world operated just as it should. What he concluded was that humanity had simply thrown itself out of balance by collectively desiring some form of alternate reality.

In describing the human condition the Buddha used the word "dukkha". This term is usually translated as "suffering," but it actually has a much broader meaning than just the physical suffering we may endure. Dukkha actually refers more closely to the mental suffering we endure while dealing with the starkness of reality. Dukkha is a borrowed term that originally referred to a wheel that is out of balance and in this example, the wheel that is out of balance is our personal understanding of reality.

Being out of balance with reality, the wheel of our understanding finds constant resistance in all it perceives. This resistance continuously strains against the natural flow of the rest of the universe and the resultant friction is the root cause of our suffering. Our mind, which is how we refer to our wheel of understanding, is constantly reminded that the real world is not at all how we would like it to be. This causes us to resist what we view as the inequities of life and this resistance in turn is what causes our primary experience of dukkha. This mindset combined with the more obvious forms of suffering- pain, disease, old age, fear and death are what led the Buddha to say "life is suffering." Our existence as sentient beings combined with our awareness of everything life includes, leads us to reject the unpleasant aspects of reality and vainly attempt to mentally subjugate them. Such mental wrestling only adds to the friction of imbalance leading us further into dukkha.

Our fear of losses turn even the pleasantries of life into suffering as we realize that everything we value is impermanent and any state pleasure that we may derive from them is only temporary. This realization of impermanence comes from knowing that the universe is constantly in a state flux and everything is continually changing. When things change from what we want to what we do not want, we suffer mentally from the loss. Even when things are going well it is desire that keeps us suffering, for it seems that even when we have everything we need, we have this endless desire for more. Not just more in the sense of more volume, but more in wanting those things and feelings we desire to remain forever. Thus, we are dissatisfied with what we experience as pleasurable because we know (in reality) that it cannot last forever, and with what we experience as un-pleasurable because it seems unfair or unwarranted.

The reason we see things as being unfair or unwarranted is because we witness them from a personal perspective. Even though we may understand that in the overall scheme of things there really is no gain or loss, we take our own gains and losses personally. As long as we see ourselves only as separate, independent individuals, the ebb and flood of things and events appear to come toward and go away from us individually. Seeing ourselves as isolated egos, we suffer these gains and losses. In fact, their shifting has caused no net change in overall reality. Further realization tells us that our own existence, our sense of personal being, is just one more form of impermanence. So, as it is described here, life is indeed dukkha, the suffering we cause ourselves by rejecting reality and intentionally being out of balance with the rest of existence. This is the “first noble truth” and it is not something to believe in, but rather an observable phenomenon available to anyone.

The "second noble truth" has actually already been noted in the descriptions of the first. It states that the primary cause of our suffering is our desires. These are not just the desires for sensual pleasure, but also the desire we all harbor to live outside the universe of constant flux and personal suffering. Primarily, we want to reject what is true and replace it with something we believe we would rather experience. The Buddha called this trishna, or thirst, a constant craving or clinging to what we have or want, as well as a clinging to the notion that we can ignore or reject unpleasant realities. If we honestly investigate what is causing most of our personal suffering, we will find that it is ultimately our cravings, unfulfilled desires and our insistent clinging to things unreal.

Ironically, in the beginning, it is our initial understanding of reality that causes our mental suffering, whereas in the end it is our ultimate understanding of reality that brings us to enlightenment and the end of this suffering. Thus the "third noble truth" is the fact that we can free ourselves from dukkha by letting go of our desires and accepting the realities of existence that we initially rejected. By realizing that we can accept and live in reality as it is and that this is actually easier than living in constant conflict with it, we become enlightened.

Many people misunderstand what it means to accept reality and they misinterpret acceptance as a totally passive acceptance of all conditions and inequities. This notion is patently false. Accepting the realities of the universe does not mean blindly accepting inequities and injustices that are imposed on us by others, or those unfortunate events that happen in the natural world that we are capable of correcting. Accepting the realities of the universe simply means to accept the fundamental workings of existence and our own physicality within these workings. Accepting reality and reprogramming our minds to work in harmony with it rather than fighting it is the principle of the "third noble truth" According to Gautama Buddha this is achieved by participating actively in the universe in a fully aware and fully involved way.

Opening our eyes to reality is the initial realization that ultimately leads us to enlightenment. It is like awaking suddenly from a slumber in which we were forever in the bed of reality and suddenly realizing for the first time that it was even there. The startling thing about ignorance is the realization or revelation we experience when we escape it. We discover that we actually had knowledge all along; we just simply preferred to ignore it. This is why in Zen Buddhism we say that we are all already Buddhas. The primary difference between a person who is a Buddha and one who is not is the fact that the second has not realized his or her Buddha-hood. In short, they are equals with the only notable difference between them being that one of them is awake. This is also why the historical Buddha is called "The Awakened One".

The secondary difference between Buddhas and those who are not yet fully enlightened is the principle of "the fourth noble truth." This is the application of their understanding to their lives and the way they live. Knowing that the universe is as it truly is and accepting this is only the first step. Integrating this most valuable information into the very fabric of our personal existence takes considerable effort. This is because we (human beings) have spent countless lifetimes and generations in the "slumbering bliss" of ignorance and to stay awake and alert requires special attention that the slumber did not. It seems contradictory to say that "ignorance is bliss" in knowing that "all life is suffering" but this only points out that the bliss of ignorance is only another form of self delusion. Like all other transient illusions the bliss of our ignorance is all too soon shattered once reality is unveiled.

Thus, Gautama Buddha taught that once we understood the first three aspects of the "four noble truths" that we should keep our "eyes open" and live a life that reflects an understanding of what is seen in the revelation of ultimate reality. To accomplish this he proposed living our lives in accordance to what he coined the "eightfold path." Each aspect of this eightfold path is prefaced with the Sanskrit word samyak, which is usually translated as right or correct. These terms are often confused with the dualistic notion of right verses wrong or correct verses incorrect. In truth, the term samyak could more appropriately be translated as "holistic", right or correct in this context subsequently means complete, or fully integrated.

Thus, in the example of the first aspect of the eightfold path, which is usually phrased as Right Seeing or Correct View, we could more accurately use the term Holistic Seeing or Holistic View. This would convey the intent of right or correct from the perspective of an enlightened individual. All eight aspects of the eightfold path are simply selected itemized examples of one fully integrated worldview. Each example reminds us of karmic law where everything in a fully interconnected world implicates everything else. So, like fish in the water, our every move sends out waves or vibrations in every direction. Some actions are minor, others more severe but all will have proportional karmic consequences.

Mistakenly, karma is oft thought of as being linear in a sort of a "tit-for-tat" theme. However, in a non-linear universe, which this one certainly is, the cause and resultant effect of most actions go undetected. Unless the cause is unmistakably obvious, the ripple effect of karma usually distributes the effects over a large area and is more often than not, simply undetectable. Over time however, repeated actions cause the waves to build and the momentum to increase, affecting everything and/or everyone in the end. The law of cause and effect makes no distinctions between good or bad actions, so it is up to enlightened individuals to be mindful of everything they do.

Right or Holistic View

The holistically viewed world is radically different from a world that is perceived from a purely personal perspective. Things and events are understood as happening with the perceiver rather than for or against the perceiver. To see the world holistically is to see everything, whether thought, object or action as being interconnected. The enlightened individual should try to see things and events as they apply to the whole of existence and should not try to rationalize favored opinions or beliefs to make them what they are not. This is not to totally negate one's personal perspective, because that would also be incomplete. The holistic view would include personal and impersonal perspectives and would weigh them out proportionally.

Right or Holistic Intention

Since intentions are the same as thoughts, and since thoughts are interconnected along with everything else, one's intentions are similarly intertwined. Doing right actions for ulterior motivations is not the way of the enlightened individual. Those who are awake understand that hidden motives are self-defeating when it comes to karmic consequence. The primary victim of deceit is the perpetrator, who creates personal delusion in believing that false intentions can bring about true results. Thus, enlightened individuals are honest with themselves and try to understand the true motives for their own words and actions. Being holistic in their thinking, they strive to align their intentions with the overall good and work as best they can to keep a proportional balance between the world and personal needs. Additionally, enlightened individuals must be forever willing to admit to themselves when they have slipped back into ignorance and clinging, and recognize these opportunities to shed their delusions.

Right or Holistic Speech

Speech is thought turned into words. Thus false or faulty statements are false or faulty thoughts. Honesty is necessary for personal peace of mind, and since speaking is the same as thinking, false speaking lacks holistic intention. The enlightened individual understands that lies, slander, and gossip cause harm and since everything is interconnected the ramifications permeate everything to some degree or another. Because we are part of this totally interdependent system, the karmic consequences of false speech are ultimately self-harming. One of the greatest harms done in the frequent practice of false speech is that of loss of trust. This is not just the loss of trust by the victims of false speech, but also the reciprocal loss of trust felt by the perpetrator.

Right or Holistic Action

All actions should reflect the understanding of the fully integrated worldview. Since we understand that thoughts and words have ramifications that permeate everything, it is easy to see how much more our actions will somehow affect everything including ourselves. From a fully integrated perspective it can be seen that actions that cause harm to others and our environment will in some way do harm to ourselves. The effects of harmful actions may not be immediately experienced, but as with all other karmic consequences, they will build over time. In situations where similar harmful actions may be practiced by many, every individual contributes to the overall karmic reaction, which could grow to catastrophic proportions. The term "environment" as used here includes any and all descriptions of the term including physical, social and political environments.

Right or Holistic Livelihood

Once it is understood that all actions should reflect our understanding of the fully integrated world, it should be natural to include our professional choices and actions along with our personal ones. Professionally, we usually have more influence and impact on our overall environment than we do as individuals. Our choice of occupation, and business decisions within that occupation, will probably have far greater implications than we can imagine. As a member of a company or corporate structure we join with many others in becoming a collective entity with its own karmic consequences, subsequently our wish to practice right livelihood is greatly compromised by the practices of that corporate entity. Practicing Right or Holistic Livelihood in these modern times is far more complex than it was in the time of the Buddha. However, it is still possible to make individual choices that are the least harmful of the available options.

Right or Holistic Effort

Understanding that all actions cause karmic consequences, the enlightened individual realizes that even actions of good intent can have negative karmic responses. Usually we are faced with choices that have varying degrees of probable negative impact and whenever possible we should always opt for the choice that we judge the least harmful. Right or Holistic Effort requires that we forever strive to make the best possible choices based on our wholesome state of mind. In effect, we are nearly always forced to "choose the lesser of two evils" because we know that karma operates on the principle of equilibrium, where by lesser evils have proportionally lesser ramifications.

Right or Holistic Mindfulness

All of the previous aspects of the eightfold path are successfully accomplished through the process of mindfulness. Holistic Mindfulness includes not only that we try to be mindful of everything we say and do, but also that we be mindful of how we receive our information. We must be observant and aware each moment, so that we do not fall back into the habit of interpreting observations and events from a purely personal perspective. Keeping an open mind and allowing experiences to enter without interpretation from a singular point of view will help maintain holistic thinking.

By being forever mindful of everything we say and do, we avoid the pitfalls of guilt that accompany careless speech and actions, and we rid ourselves of additional and unnecessary suffering caused by this guilt. Such right mindfulness also includes how we treat ourselves when we discover that unintentionally we still cause suffering and harm. As we make such discoveries, we should attempt to rectify what is within our power to change and accept without guilt that which is not in our power to change. To cling to the guilt of unintentional and non-rectifiable wrong actions is self-defeating and contrary to Right or Holistic Effort.

Right or Holistic Meditation

Unlike the western concept of meditation, which should more correctly be called contemplation, Zen meditation is a practice of actually avoiding contemplation. In contrast to the notion of reflecting on deeper meanings, Zen meditation is the process of freeing the mind of preconceived notions and actually not thinking about anything in particular. By practicing Right or Holistic Meditation, the enlightened individual intends to still the mind in order to allow for a fully open perception of reality.

Through self-effort and practice, this meditative state of mind can become free of desire and subsequently abandon the pleasures and pains of dukkha. Those who enter this state of transcended consciousness during meditation attain a clear perception of reality and a peace of mind that they describe as mental perfection and being in bliss.

Thus, the eightfold path as professed by Gautama Buddha is a way for those who are awakened to the realities of the fully integrated universe to live as enlightened individuals. In living in such a way they should be able to minimize self-induced negative karmic reactions and substantially minimize their personal suffering. Even though such individuals will continue to experience and suffer those ordinary discomforts and pains that accompany living in a physical world, they are less likely to compound this suffering with cravings, thoughts and actions that only lead to further suffering.

In the end, just as happens with all transient phenomena, enlightened individuals will face their demise and their individuality will be extinguished. Like everyone else, enlightened or not, they will reach final Nirvana, where there is no suffering or karmic action, no birth or death, no being or not being. But unlike those who never awoke to the realities of the living universe, they will have suffered far less and enjoyed a life where their every action and thought really did make a difference.


  1. Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! (that's Pali for "Amen", I don't know how it is said in Japanese :P).

    I liked this post, thank you for it. Your reinterpretation of the Noble Eightfold Path as "Holistic" instead of "Right" is very interesting :)

    Best wishes

  2. Gassho! Thanks for doing this for the lonely practitioners.

  3. Dear Miles:

    I am thinking it would be a fine thing if you
    could get a grant to write a book, and take a year's sabbatical from the regular 9 to 5
    employment to give yourself completely over to
    zazen and writing. How fine it would be for your disciples to have a hard copy handbook
    of your writings to guide them on their path.

    As in all your essays, there is much to ponder here, and one or two or even ten readings won't suffice. Your essays must be
    read again and again, as each state of mind
    the returning reader is in will allow further insight into the depths.

    My own eyes get weary of computer screen reading. How fine to have a bound book of all your essays assembled by you, and woven together with bridging essays to tie all the themes into one holistic work: The definitive teachings of the Boundless Mind Zen School!

    Anyhow, I am glad I searched this one out.

    Thank you much for the depth of your insights and for the unique perspective you offer.