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How To Recognize Enlightenment
By Alex Bunard, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Copyright © by Alex Bunard. All rights reserved.
To obtain the written permission for using or reprinting the portion of
the material found in here, please write to the author: Alex
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I have originally posted the following
article on June 24 1998 to the alt.zen newsgroup (after reading
numerous discussions related to the possibility of recognizing this most
uncontrollable experience). There is quite a number of people today who
seem to distrust any spiritual authorities (and in a way, it's hard to
blame them). The pressing question nowadays is: since I don't want to
subject myself to the potential brain-washing and mind-controlling personality
cultists, how can I know if I'm on the right track?
It is important to remember that it was
the historical Buddha himself who left us the simple, sincere message:
be the lamp unto yourself; personally examine and verify by experience
anything that a spiritual authority (a guru) may tell you. And also,
in the spirit of authentic Zen: do not confuse the finger with the moon
that the finger is pointing at!
I am re-posting the original article here
because I think it may be useful for clarifying the overall discussion
At the very outset, this question (How can
one recognize enlightenment?) may be meaningless to the core. However,
repeatedly we come across people who ask such questions, and it really
doesn't help if we try our best to enshroud this issue in the cloud of
ineffability. The experience of enlightenment
may be incommunicable, but the "finger pointing at the moon" may, in some
circumstances, make all the difference in the world. Also, Katsuki Sekida
(in his book "Zen Training") expressed his unwavering
faith that one day, a zen genius will appear who will be able to elevate
the practice to even higher grounds and to
tear asunder some widely accepted barriers. This proposal sounds very reasonable
to me, although, as of this moment, no such
geniuses have made themselves known to us.
With this in mind, let us first dismiss with
some of the cliché answers. Like,
the perennial one: "if you have to ask for clarification
or verification, then you certainly don't have it", or the other answer
that is a staple of all spiritual debates: "it
is self-validating beyond the trace of a doubt", etc.
The fact of the matter is that the experience
of enlightenment is so overwhelmingly rich and devastatingly fulfilling
that it takes a lifetime to digest, incorporate
and integrate into one's everyday life. It is a small wonder, then, that
volumes have been filled with the afterthoughts.
Let us start with one thought from Bhagavad
Gita; in it, Krishna says to Arjuna: "What is day for me is night for
all beings, and what is night for me is day
for all beings." In my view, this is the best description of the enlightened
mind in everyday terms. It is extremely difficult,
though, to understand it thoroughly. People don't like that quote. People
frown when you bring it up. It goes against the
grain, and it undermines the very fabric, the very root of human
However, human beings who have reached the other
shore and returned to the source (that is, to everyday life) all
testify that this is true. Still, it is very hard
to grasp, and it's even harder to embrace it.
Consider this: in our everyday state of consciousness,
we regard our body to be extremely limited. What's more, we feel
that this body is the major source of all our sufferings -- the feelings
of pain arise in the body, the fear of illnesses and
death are intimately connected to the body, etc. On the other hand, we
think bright, encouraging thoughts about our minds, and our imaginative
capabilities. Whilst the body is weak, limited and prone to breaking down
easily, the mind is sovereign, it is our
sanctuary and can give us a glimpse of the victory
over our humiliating conditions. Our conscious thoughts seemingly
know no bounds -- we can fantasize to our hearts content about ideal conditions,
distant lands, nice, heartwarming events
and circumstances. We can easily imagine pigs with wings -- something that's
impossible for the nature itself to accomplish.
What can possibly stop our imagination? And
look, it's not only idle daydreaming -- all
the achievements that the science, technology, art and philosophy can boast
of, all have their origin in our imagination.
Well, the experience of enlightenment changes
all that. Strictly speaking, it turns things on their heads. Upon opening
our mind's eye, we see that it is our conscious
mind that is extremely limited, feeble, and
prone to easily break down. Our body, which we have despised
so much, turns out to be the wondrous limitless reality -- we can go anywhere,
climb any mountain and hill. Our body enables us to truly live. With this
provisional introduction, I'd like now to briefly outline some of the characteristics
of the experience of enlightenment that are
hard to find in other areas of our existence:
1. The experience of nothingness.
No other state of human existence gets to be
permeated with the all-encompassing feeling
of nothingness. Regularly, we go through life by experiencing the feelings
of gain or loss. We reach for something and
attain it, or we fail to attain it and then have to cope with the rejection.
Or, the flip side of the coin would be that
we try to avoid the unpleasant situation and manage to succeed doing it,
or fail and have to face the consequences
of enduring the unpleasant ordeal. Whichever the case may be, there is
no place in this busy enterprise of ours
for any feelings of nothingness to creep in.
Upon suddenly seeing into our true self-nature,
we are left with that unique 'aroma' of nothingness. Some people
think that it is a literal, black-and-white nothingness
(meaning either everything becomes pitch black, or totally white,
with no discernment and differentiation.) Not true.
Everything is as it is, and if at that moment a car is rushing toward
you, you would see it and you'd move out of its
way. So, in this respect, it is important to stress that enlightenment
is not a state where all the cortical neural
activity has ceased. You continue to function as every other sentient being.
What is this nothingness business then all about?
It is the very clear and vivid realization of nothingness of having
nothing to learn, nothing to attain, nothing to
explain, and nothing to do. There simply is no way that you could ever
gain something or lose something. No attachments
and no rejections.
In this respect, and from the standpoint of
everyday consciousness, enlightenment is a very unsophisticated state of
affairs (if one can use this term). To the mind
that used to harbor lofty ideals and grand plans, it is a very disappointing
incident indeed. You may be saying to yourself: "All these years I have
spent building a more perfect head to put
on top my own head, and now I see how it's been totally in vain!"
2. Everybody else is also enlightened
The insight that everybody and everything has
surfaced to the enlightened state of mind
simultaneously with you is definitely accompanying
the very moment of realization. This is why you know that the reality is
perfect. It is not perfect in its potentiality,
it is perfect in its fully actualized state, standing with you hand in
hand, face to face.
3. Immediate welcome
Somebody, something, somehow welcomes you. It
is a silent welcome (a thundering, deafening silence), but you definitely
feel it in your marrow -- your liberation is being silently celebrated
throughout the reality. This is probably why
we read that on many accounts people, upon attaining liberation, have exclaimed:
"The patriarchs and the Buddhas have not
deceived me!" Or, that people say how fish swim in the trees, birds chirp
and flutter in the depths of the ocean, and
mountains straddle the river.
4. No need to talk about it
This feeling is extremely pronounced in the
first several weeks following the enlightenment.
Talking, even thinking about it is felt to be as superfluous as asking
a fellow passenger on a train: "Are you,
too, traveling in this train?" It's meaningless. Since everybody else is
also enlightened, what's there to talk about?
You just live.
5. The profound body of spiritual literature falls
short of capturing it
You may start developing a mild urge, after
several days or so, to go and re-examine and compare your experience
with the accounts recorded in the holy scriptures.
Prepare yourself for a very disappointing experience. All the exalted
words will look very pale and lifeless when put side by side with what
you've been through.
Actually, the entire body of the world literature
that was accumulated in thousands of years of written history looks
like no more than twenty six letters of the alphabet
when compared to the richness of the experience of enlightenment.
Learning and mastering the entire human thought, as it is recorded in the
world, would amount to no more than grasping
the alphabet. From there on, you'd have to learn to form the words, sentences,
paragraphs, chapters, books. Immeasurably
much more work lies ahead.
No wonder then that accomplished zen masters
speak about the stink of enlightenment (or, the sickness of it). It can
get unbearably grand.
6. The realization of the sublime cosmic joke
Earlier we said that the all-pervading feeling
of nothingness means that there is nothing to transmit, nothing to get,
nothing to lose, nothing to achieve, nothing to
learn, etc. Now is the time to discuss how the enlightened being
realizes that the enlightenment is just a first
step, and that the learning has just begun. This is the paradox, or the
cosmic joke, but only in the linguistic sense.
In actuality, it is something of a koan.
Another way to look at it is to recognize that
what is characteristic for an enlightened being is to be in the state of
the perennial beginner.
This, of course, has to do with the freshness of the general attitude,
and with the mind's emptiness (or the lack
of experience thereof) which is making the process possible. But, the beginner
can exist only in relation to the accomplished
master. So, one realizes that at all times, one is the beginner and the
accomplished master simultaneously. Since
there is no way to express it otherwise, we refer to it as a cosmic joke.
7. All the questions have been answered and exhausted
Typically, a person who experiences the wondrous
enlightenment is a person who's been on a long, intense journey,
searching for something. Usually, such person has
some pressing questions, something approaching
the matters of life and death in its seriousness and importance. In addition,
it is very likely that such person has been
through some inordinately strong, long phase of suffering. This may not
always be the case, but it's more likely
than not. What the enlightenment does to
such person is it dissolves all those things. Everything's gone up in a
puff of smoke! The search is once and for
all over (but don't fool yourself -- the new one begins!) I will make a
very bold statement here and say that if,
after attaining what seems to be an enlightenment, you still have some
of the old questions pressing as hard as
before, you may have to work some more on your breakthrough.
Not to be mistaken, though, we should stress
that usually the first breakthrough is somewhat shallow and will not
manage to uproot all the seeds of the habitual consciousness.
So, the pressing questions will most definitely return (although
they've been so gracefully dissolved), but
never with the same life-and-death intensity. This time around, the suffering
such thoughts may give rise to will be similar
to the suffering we feel upon waking from an unpleasant dream: there are
all the symptoms of suffering and uneasiness,
but at the same time we don't really care, knowing that it's only a dream.
As the great guitarist John
McLaughlin once said: "Everything's there but nothing is traumatic."
Yours in faith,
All original material in these
web pages copyright © Alex Bunard.