I have a great interest in Zen. Now, Zen is not a religion or belief-system of any kind nor is it a philosophy as such. It is a way and view of life. The practitioner of Zen seeks to attain enlightenment---I’ll have more to say about that shortly---through a direct and intuitive insight. Zen is difficult for Westerners to understand as it does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. Now, what is enlightenment---without the bullshit?
The famous Japanese Zen master and teacher Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan, had this to say about enlightenment:
‘Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.’
Hmm, perhaps that is too cryptic. Here’s something less cryptic from Dogen:
‘But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.’
What is spiritually---I use that word advisedly---‘right’ for us is that which unfolds or manifests whenever we are in a state of at-one-ment (that is not a play on words) with whatever is. Whenever we are choicelessly aware and accepting of life unfolding from one moment to the next---that is, whenever we are immovable---we are in an enlightened (mindful) state of consciousness. Whenever we resist and oppose what is, whenever we judge others or events, we are anything but enlightened. It’s as simple as that. Dogen said, 'If you can't find the truth [enlightenment] right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?' Yes, enlightenment is to be found in the here-and-now. Indeed, it is the here-and-now in all its directness and immediacy.
Enlightenment, as the present writer sees it, is not something which, having been gained or achieved, is ours forever. Enlightenment does not mean we will never get angry again, or lapse in other ways. Enlightenment means living mindfully, knowing what is spiritually ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ respectively, and knowing ‘the way home.’ Being enlightened means doing away with self-delusion---indeed, doing away with all illusions, beliefs and dogmas. All of those things prevent us from living fully in the now. I like these words of Jianzhi Sengcan (died 606), who was a Chinese patriarch of Chan (Zen): 'Do not seek the truth, stop having an opinion.' An enlightened person is truly free---free from self-bondage, free from self-will run riot, free from beliefs, dogma and superstition, and free from the past and all conditioning. If you---like millions of so-called religious people---are seeking some supposed 'reality,' whether in this life or in some supposed life to come, ‘promised’ or preached by others, you are definitely not in an enlightened state of consciousness. Enlightenment, in two words, means this---'Wake up!' And it helps to stay awake, too. From moment to moment.
Enlightenment is, as Dogen points out, ‘like the moon reflected on the water.’ It is an immovable state of mind, in which one does not react to changing circumstances. Enlightenment ‘does not divide’; rather, it unites that which is in us, as us. Enlightenment is not even something we ‘achieve’ or ‘gain,’ whatever those words mean. Enlightenment happens freely, and more-or-less instantaneously and of its own accord, when we remove the obstacles to its manifestation. First and foremost among those obstacles is self-will---indeed, the very notion of ‘self’ itself.
My late father, Henry Victor [‘Harry’] Ellis-Jones, who was an accountant and a company secretary, was a most decent man---a man of great honesty, integrity and principle. All who knew him in business and personal life would attest to that fact. Dad was not a formally religious man. He respected those who were religious---as well as those who weren't---but you couldn't really say that he was a respecter of religious belief per se. Well, not those religious beliefs that he regarded as superstitious or irrational. In his final years his two closest friends (one of them a lawyer) were devout Roman Catholics, but he would often say to me that he couldn't understand how these two otherwise intelligent men could believe a number of Catholic dogmas that he thought were downright silly.
Dad was, I think, an agnostic, but he tended to regard himself as a fellow traveller with Christianity at least as respects its moral and ethical content and the man Jesus. The fact that Dad wasn't into formal, organized religion was probably one of the main reasons for his basic decency and uprightness. I truly mean that. Nevertheless, he understood the problem of sin or selfishness. He would often quote his wartime padre who, in a response to a question from another Australian soldier in the same platoon---the question being, ‘What is sin?’---said this: ‘Sin is rooted in selfishness. Sin has “I” in the middle of it.’
My father was an enlightened man. Despite many problems and difficulties, and some very big losses in his personal life (including his mother's suicide, when Dad was still a young man, and the equally untimely loss of my mother, Dad's wife, to cancer), he remained immovable in the sense described above. As already mentioned, he also understood the problem of sin or selfishness---without having to learn it at church---and he lived his life self-lessly. Indeed, not only was he totally unselfish, he had no sense of a separate or independent ‘self’ at all. He would have made a good Buddhist (ha!), but it was more than sufficient that he was a fine human being. I never had a chance to discuss the subject-matter of this post with him, and he probably would have viewed this whole discussion a total waste of time, yet my father knew and understood the true meaning of enlightenment. Stoically accepting life as it unfolded from one moment to the next, Dad was a man who knew what it meant to 'wake up' and stay awake.
Here’s something else about enlightenment. There is no ‘path’, ‘method’ or ‘technique’ that can lead or bring us to enlightenment. Enlightenment happens when we remove the barriers to its happening.
A young man approached his master and asked, 'How long is it likely to take me to attain enlightenment?' 'Ten years,' replied the master. 'That long?' exclaimed the young man. 'No, that was a mistake on my part,' said the master. 'It will take you twenty years.' 'Why did you just double the figure?' asked the young man. 'Alright, in your case it will probably take you thirty years,' replied the master.
We must never ask ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions, at least not when it comes to matters spiritual. Worse still, we must never ask ‘how long’ questions, because when we do we are still thinking in terms of time. Enlightenment---true wisdom---is not of time. It is timeless. It is eternal. And eternity is now---the eternal now. Enlightenment is above time and has no opposite. The state that is eternal is---right now! We live in both time and eternity right now. However, thought (‘how’, ‘why’, ‘how long’) is time itself. We think in time, but thought can never understand ‘something’ that is above and beyond time. That something is wisdom or enlightenment. It can be experienced, but never known or grasped or arrived at.
What, then, is enlightenment? It means waking up---not just once, but staying awake from moment to moment. As such, enlightenment is not so much a destination but the journey. It is also the means of travel. Yes, it is the means and the end.
Enlightenment is not a ‘thing-in-itself’. Indeed, it is actually a ‘no-thing’---no-thing-ness. It is the complete absence of thought, conditioning, materialism and all other limitations of time and space. It is living with choiceless, unadorned awareness. Yes, enlightenment is mindful living. In that regard, I am reminded of what Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, had to say about mindfulness. He said, ‘Mindfulness is about falling awake rather than asleep.’ Falling awake. Yes, and also staying awake. That is mindfulness. And that is enlightenment.
A disciple once asked his master, ‘What is the path?’ The Zen master replied, ‘Walk on!’ Yes, the ‘meaning’ of life lies in the living---that is, the ‘walking’---of life from one moment to the next. Enlightenment is staying awake while we are walking our path. ‘Wait a minute,’ I hear you say. ‘Did you not say that there was no path?’ Yes, I did say that. There is no path until we have trod it. There is no ‘path.’ There is nowhere to ‘go’. There is nothing to ‘believe’. There is no one to ‘follow’ and there is nothing to 'transcend'---except, perhaps, our own limited thinking, and the misbelief that we need some teacher, mediator, messiah, saviour or guru in order to 'find' truth, salvation or enlightenment. (I use the words ‘truth’, ‘salvation’ and ‘enlightenment’ interchangeably.) Just one of the many problems associated with most if not all organised religions is that they assume that there is such a separation or distance between ourselves and truth, hence the supposed need for some sort of guide, mediator or saviour. Worse still, each religion espouses a different path. For example, there is the ‘golden path’ of the Buddha. Then there’s Jesus who, so it is claimed, uttered those much misunderstood words, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6). I could go on.
Yes, there is no path to enlightenment … yet there is one. What a paradox! The so-called path or way is simply whatever presents itself as our reality, that is, as our consciousness and experience. Your path or way to truth (reality, life) will always be different from mine, but in a very profound sense our paths are one and the same, for each of them is ... life unfolding itself from one moment to the next.
So, don’t ask ‘how long’. Instead, ask yourself this question, ‘What is standing in the way of my waking up and experiencing enlightenment right now?’
Note. The substance of this article is based on material contained in three posts, dated 22 October 2012, 17 November 2013 and 28 June 2015 respectively, published on the author’s own blog.