When Enlightenment Fails to Enlighten

I’ve been reading Wild Ivy, the spiritual autobiography of Hakuin, one of the most important figures in Japanese Zen. Unfortunately, outside of Zen circles he is not well known in America. In the 16th and 17th centuries Buddhism generally and Zen in particular was in danger of fading away. Far too many of its practitioners had fallen into the trap of confusing meditation (Zazen) with enlightenment and thinking that all they had to do was sit in the prescribed way, at the prescribed times, and for the prescribed length of time, and they had it. Thus they had become attached to both Zazen and sitting and missed the point of both.

Zazen is a tool to awaken the heart/mind. To be thus awake is to be enlightened. But the goal of Buddhist practice is not even to achieve this enlightenment, this awakening. The point is the letting go of the power attachment has over us. An “enlightenment” that we are attached to is just another attachment, and not true enlightenment after all. Hakuin, more than anyone else in that period of Japanese history, is responsible for the rescue of Zen and Japanese Buddhism from this confusion.

It may strike people that my claim that enlightenment is not the end of the matter, but in fact, it is no more than a tool, a way of getting somewhere. It is, as The Buddha is reported to have put it, the raft and not the shore. If your enlightenment gets in the way of your actual liberation from being attached to the temporary, (to the transient, as Theodore Parker named it), to that which comes together only to come apart again later, then let go of that enlightenment. (“If you meet The Buddha in the road, kill him!”) Because even enlightenment comes apart.

What?! Even enlightenment comes apart?! Of course it does. It is impossible to live constantly in enlightenment. Image what it would be like to live constantly in kensho, satori (two different Japanese terms for the experience of enlightenment). It would be hardly distinguishable from catatonia. We have to come back into the ordinary, day-to-day world of things, of that which is also not-me. Thus the wisdom of the Chinese proverb, “Today enlightenment, tomorrow the laundry.”

Think about it. The Buddha achieved his Great Enlightenment, but in spite of great temptations, he did not stay there. He returned to the ordinary world and lived there for years, teaching his wisdom. A similar story is told of Jesus. He spent 40 days in the wilderness where he found his Jewish version of enlightenment, but he did not stay in the wilderness. In spite of huge temptations, he returned to the ordinary world and spent the rest of his (short) life teaching his wisdom. And a similar story is told of Mohammed. He had several transporting visions, but he did not live in those visions. He always returned to preach his wisdom. And Hakuin? He had his Great Enlightenment and spent the rest of his life teaching his wisdom.

And that is the way it is. We cannot live in kensho. Satori comes to an end. We have whatever enlightenment experience we may have, but we cannot live there. We have our mystical experiences, but we cannot live there. Enlightenment is not meant to be the end of our lives, but the beginning.

Now, I am not a Buddhist scholar. I’m not even a practicing Buddhist, even though my own spiritual practice is based in Zazen. I have even done a little koan work, though since it has been done primarily on my own, I make no claim to have passed any koan. My practice lies somewhere between Rinzai and Soto with a strong dose of my own independent thought and experience mixed in. These remarks are simply my own understanding. I may be wrong, but this is what I think. What do you think?


1 thought on “When Enlightenment Fails to Enlighten

  1. birdieq

    A similar explanation was given to me, years ago when I was reporting on a Buddhist monk, visiting at the University of Iowa. “But what is enlightenment like?” I asked.
    He looked at me, then said. “It’s like traveling to Iowa. I can be here for a while, but I don’t live here. The same is true of enlightenment. You can ‘be there,’ but then you’ll return to your ordinary life.”


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