I just read Jed McKenna’s (fake name) Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing. It was entertaining but made me want to discuss shallow interpretations of enlightenment that I have come across both in Zen circles as well as writing on the subject. First of all, I want to express that I am no authority. In expressing that, I would like to also express that no one else is any authority either, namely because everyone creates their own reality, or could be said to be a creation of a unique reality created by karma, and hence must be their own authority.
Enlightenment is, indeed, a many faceted jewel. Enlightenment experiences can run the gamut from kundalini awakening, the physical bottom falling out, seeing underneath all selves, seeing through the entire personality, seeing the rapid river of time (counting the atoms in a wall), experiencing yourself as pure awareness, unity/one-solid-block-of-reality-consciousness, experiencing reality as vibration and seeing/understanding impersonal personality and psychic manifestations and synchronicities in the human drama. What abides is a living, buzzing, open, changing, empty world of continued ‘this.’ I want to express that, in my view, these are all valid and extremely “useful” experiences that point directly to an awakened perspective of our reality.
Moreover, I want to challenge those stubborn souls who simply, directly and categorically describe enlightenment as solely seeing that there is no self. To them I say “duh.” In almost every experience described above, there is a clear and concise glimpsing or inference of no-self in a way that is undeniable. In each one is found the death of ignorance. Not only that, but it takes only a dim sliver of mediocre intelligence and honesty to see clearly that there is no separately existing self, if one cares to look honestly. Even seeing no-self in full living color, however, is merely the beginning of seeing what is or what can be. This seeing of no-self is liberation only from delusion of self, not liberation from existence. As Terence McKenna (a completely unrelated McKenna) once eluded to, a Bodhisattva may be truly born out of fear of falling into true non-existence. But this birth of a Bodhisattva is not worthless. What is worthless is falling into non-existence.
The mortal sin in Buddhism is looking for emptiness apart from form, discounting relative reality in the name of the absolute. It is all one reality, all one becoming, one cosmic play unfolding. That matter is energy or that all is mind can only be seen in the context that “worlds happen.” It is precisely because “worlds happen” that “we happen” and it is precisely because “we happen” that enlightenment is possible. The enlightenment that “we never really happened,” that is.
Yes, we never really happened. This is the truth. However, this is a truth we’ve known before (before we happened) and a truth that can only be seen because we did happen, if only in our dreams. Delusion is enlightenment. Now this can quickly get convoluted here, so no sense going on and on. If the purpose of these hard-nosed teachings is simply to wake the most soundly sleeping people up to the fact of no-self then this is fine. However, the hardest-nosed practitioners of all time will tell you it takes a lifetime to truly stabilize and live from such an experience.
‘Stabilizing’ and ‘living from’ are forms of creating. Having an over simplistic view of enlightenment means not honoring the act of creating, not honoring existence, not honoring cause and effect. To not honor existence is to be unenlightened to the fact that “creating” is what we do and what we are. It is also to not honor karma. Part of the difficulty with Eastern spirituality is that the receptive aspect of meditation is favored over the active aspect. To consider the burning out of craving complete annihilation isn’t correct. What is born from the ashes of this cessation of craving is both real and extremely beautiful in its potential. A potential Buddha, actually.
This goes doubly for those in the West who have hi-jacked Zen and turned it solely into some athiest, mindfulness exercise. This interpretation is incomplete and spiritually dishonest. As Adi-Da once said, “in life you make mind. In death, mind makes you.” Practice dying or dreaming or taking drugs and see if it’s true. Do these athiest meditators control their dreams and Ayahuasca/LSD trips? Are they lucid in all things, conscious during sleep, during all dream states, all states of consciousness, all bardos – truly Buddhas living from a state of Annutara Samyak Sambodhi, manifesting the wisdom of emptiness in every universe that arises or in which they arise? Able to surely manifest their wisdom of emptiness after their last breath on Earth? Or do they simply deny that anything but their familiar life and “ordinary consciousness” (which hardly recognizes cause and effect let alone the full matrix of reality) exists?
Insight into no-self coincides with insight into no-escape. This insight of no-escape is discerned because worlds are mind and mind happens. The mind which birthed us and will birth us again. We are birthed by karma, the alternative is annihilation. But these are just concepts. The simplest way to say it is this is always all we got, but it is always something. It isn’t nothing or void, it’s this. Again, no-self is not the same as void. Void may be glimpsed, intuited or experienced as our origin and may disabuse us from notions of separate selves to varying degrees, but we still come back to do the laundry.
Master Dogen, Shobogenzo book 4, Karma in Three Times:
In the country of Sravasti, once upon a time there lived two people, one who always practiced good, and another who always committed bad…
When the one who practiced good deeds came to the end of his life, through the influence of bad karma that receives retribution latterly, a middle existence in hell suddenly appeared before him. Then he thought “Throughout my life I have always practiced good deeds and have never committed bad. I should be born in a heaven realm. What reason is there for this middle existence to appear before me?” Eventually the following thought arose: “I surely must have bad karma which is receiving retribution latterly. Because bad karma is now maturing, this middle existence in hell has appeared before me.” Then he remembered the good actions he had practiced through his life and he profoundly rejoiced. Because of his manifestation of this excellent consideration, the middle existence in hell disappeared at once and a middle existence in a heaven realm suddenly appeared before him. After this, when his life ended, he was born in the heavens above…
When the one who committed bad deeds came to the end of his life, through the influence of good karma that latterly receives retribution, a middle existence in a heaven realm suddenly appeared before him. Then he thought, “Throughout my life I have constantly committed bad deeds and have never practiced good. I deserve to be born in hell. What reason is there for this middle existence to appear before me?” At length, the false view arose: he negated good and bad and different maturation of effects. Through the influence of the false view, the middle existence in heaven realm disappeared at once and a middle existence in hell suddenly appeared before him. After this, when his life ended, he was born in hell…
The World Honored One said, “Even with the passing of hundreds of kalpas, the karma that we make does not perish. When causes and conditions come together, effects and results are naturally received.
“You all should know! If your actions are purely black, you will experience the maturation of purely black effects. If your actions are purely white, you will experience the maturation of purely white effects. If your actions are black and white, you will experience corresponding maturation of miscellaneous effects. For this reason, you should abandon actions which are purely black and that are a mixture of black and white. You should be diligent in practicing and learning actions which are purely white.” Then all in the great assembly, having heard the Buddha’s preaching, rejoiced and believed.
Keep in mind also that the karma and/or fabric of cause and effect is thought to be a far more advanced “download” than the glimpsing of no-self. It is said that the subtleties of karma are known only to a Buddha. To believe that undoing the illusion of personal self or experiencing a minor awakening in the body is on par with complete universal freedom in any world is arrogant beyond reason, in my estimation.
**Update** I stumbled upon this video and I think Bob Thurman attempts to explain a little about what I’m babbling about in his usual, eloquent way here: