Practice Enlightenment

(Ongoing Project) Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Edited and Translated by Kaz Tanahashi and others.  Shambhala.  2010. 1171pp.

One of the periodic alternations in my meditation practice is between wanting to get something out of it, especially some kind of exalted perfected state, and understanding that such wanting is a hindrance, and is actually poisonous.  The only way to really practice is to sit and want absolutely nothing.  It is when you do that that the true riches of practice open up, and you can’t see why you’d ever want anything at all.

The wanting comes from reading someone like Ramana Maharshi, which I’ve been doing lately; I sometimes think I’d be happier if I never read such teachings at all (except that they’re so clear, and so helpful, and genuinely enrich my life[1]).  Maharshi, as an adolescent, famously had a moment when he was deeply afraid of death, when he imagined his own death.  Something about doing that made him break through into another state; he got to what one Zen teacher called the other side of nothing.  Other people have glimpses of that state; he fell into it and never left.  He made a pilgrimage to a mountain where he felt a particular luminous power, stayed there meditating in such a deep state that he felt no need to eat and slowly wasted away, while insects ate at his legs; he would probably have died if other pilgrims hadn’t looked after him.  He spent years in silence, then eventually began to teach verbally, so that many seekers came to him, though he continued to feel his most powerful teaching was in silence.  He lived the life of a saint, full of luminous power.  He was the living power of love.  Or so the story goes.

How come nothin’ like that ever happens to me?

That’s the feeling that I get when I read such teachings.  I can get the same feeling from Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj[2], or even Eckhart Tolle.  For that matter, there are any number of people on the Internet who write in detail about truly remarkable enlightenment experiences.  They’re all over the place.

How come I don’t have one of them remarkable enlightenment experiences, so that I’m completely transformed as a human being, I become a human embodiment of love, I never have a doubt about anything again, and I’m staring at you from the back of one of the better spiritual magazines, a broad confident smile on my face, urging you to try my way to enlightenment, so you can find true inner peace?

I’m only halfway kidding.  I don’t want to be smiling on the back of one of those magazines, I’d rather be eaten at by insects in a cave, but I wouldn’t mind feeling incredible inner peace, not a shred of doubt.  24/7, as the expression goes.


Eihei Dogen, credited as the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, was famous for saying that practice and enlightenment are one thing.  That’s how people know that, either he was a great spiritual master, who was speaking from the absolute at all times, or he was a certifiable lunatic, who spent so much time staring at a wall that he went totally nuts.  He expresses that opinion most famously in the early piece Bendowa (“On the Endeavor of the Way”) where he says, “When even for a moment you sit upright in samadhi expressing the Buddha mudra [form] in the three activities [body, speech, and thought], the whole world of phenomena becomes the Buddha mudra and the entire sky turns into enlightenment.”[3]  Those of us who have sat upright for such a moment read this sentence and think, Gee, I didn’t notice the sky turned into enlightenment.  Dogen follows this sentence with further and further raptures about zazen, it is one of his most over the top passages; we chant it from time to time at our Zen Center.  Zazen sounds like a cross between a roller coaster ride and the greatest orgasm of your life.  He saves us with the capping sentence, perhaps the most relieving statement in all of spiritual literature, “All this, however, does not appear within perception.”  Where it does appear is anybody’s guess.

I have sometimes thought that Dogen makes this statement because of his famous tendency to see things from the absolute.  He seemed in a way not to believe in time; he expressed his views on this subject in the rather knotty essay, The Time Being.  It’s as if all of human history does not unfold in time; it’s happening at one moment.  “So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today.”[4]

From the standpoint of time, practice and enlightenment are on a continuum; you practice over a period of time and at some point attain something called enlightenment.  Seen from the standpoint of eternity, however, it’s all one thing, aspiration, practice, enlightenment and nirvana are one continuous cycle, so Dogen ran the words together, in the large word practiceenlightment.[5]

One thing my teacher Larry Rosenberg tells me every time we talk is that practice keeps getting deeper.  He’s been sitting for, I don’t know what, fifty years now, and he never fails to say that.  If that’s true, if the continuum goes on and on, it seems that people pick some arbitrary point and call it enlightenment.  The practice continues to deepen, but they’ve passed the point of no return, and they’re certifiably enlightened (or certifiably nuts.  You make the call).  The person who seems to make this judgment, most of the time, is the person who had the experience.  At least in the three cases I’ve mentioned, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Eckhard Tolle (dare I add the towering example of Byron Katie?  Perhaps not), no one else certified them.  They all just knew.  They had an experience, and they knew.  It was unmistakable.

In other words, we’re taking their word for it.

It has occurred to me that Dogen may have intended something rather simpler, and less spectacular, by saying that practice is enlightenment.  If you take a glance at the Four Noble Truths, the second states that suffering—the overwhelming feeling of unsatisfactoriness that all human beings seem to feel, that nothing is ever quite right—is caused specifically by desire.  Human beings screw themselves over by wanting, whether it’s a beautiful car, a beautiful girlfriend, a great night out, a magnificent spiritual experience.  It’s all just desire.  And the answer to that suffering—the fourth noble truth—is not some simple statement, like the other three Truths.  It’s something you do.  It’s the path of practice.  The way to bliss, to Nirvana, is not by hearing some statement, or wanting some state, but by practicing day after day.  Practice is nirvana.  The happiest people I know are those who practice.

It’s in that sense that practice is enlightenment.  It’s not that you’ve reached some particular state.  It’s that you just do what you do, with the fullest awareness you can give it.  You don’t stop to wonder about it.

[1] One of the things that led me to Maharshi, weirdly enough, is a page on Amazon that I discovered more or less by accident.  A woman named Laurie from, of all places, Christchurch, New Zealand, had one year—2008—when she reviewed any number of books.  I can’t believe that she actually read all the books that year—if she did, she’s an incredible reader—but she at least took the time to review them, and every review is a gem.  She reviewed in particular a number of spiritual books, and has fascinating opinions on all of them.  She seems widely read in the religions of the East, and seems to be a practitioner.  It’s well worth reading every review she wrote.

[2] I was standing in bookstore years ago with Larry Rosenberg when he picked up the most famous book of this man’s teachings, I Am That, and told me it was a great book.  It turns out that this massive volume was published by The Acorn Press in my own home town of Durham, North Carolina.  That’s even weirder than discovering that an authority in Eastern spiritual literature lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.

[3][3] Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.   p. 5

[4] P. xiv Roger Ebert, of all people, had an experience of the same thing right before he died

[5] How you do that with the Japanese characters I do not know.