Meditation Isn't What You Think
Enlightenment is probably the single most written-about subject in all of Buddhism. But it's a damn tricky subject. In Philip Kapleau's famous book The Three Pillars of Zen there are several descriptions of people's "enlightenment experiences." This was a bold move on Kapleau's part, since such experiences are generally considered "secret" and not appropriate for talking about, and had rarely been published up until then. In that book there were stories of guys watching the sky open up and start laughing with them, and there were tears and shouts and drama all over the damn place. This was one of the first books I read about Zen, so I walked around for the first year or two of practicing zazen waiting for the moment when something like that would happen to me. Once, while strolling around the campus of Kent State University, I thought I'd got it. I just suddenly got all giddy and laughed like an imbecile at everything. Later I talked to Tim, my Zen teacher at the time, saying stuff like, "Y'know, was that, like, um . . . it?" again carefully avoiding the e-word. Nope, he'd said, laughing like an idiot was just something that beginners in Zen sometimes did. Beginner?! I'd been practicing for almost two whole years, dammit!
By the time I ended up at Nishijima's retreat, though, I'd had eight more years of practice. For the year or so prior to that retreat I'd even been pretty good about practicing. I was starting to believe in it again for some reason. But zazen is a pretty hard thing to believe in since the results appear so slowly. In fact, I'd be inclined to tell you these days that the results never appear at all. Well, it isn't that there aren't any results. Not exactly. The problem is in the concept of what constitutes a "result." But let's not go there just now.
I've met people who've fallen ass-over-teakettle in love with zazen after only a day or two, maybe even one lecture. Those people always strike me as airheads, the kind of goofballs who could just as easily go for crystal healing or angels. Enthusiasm is fine but too much is never a good thing. Folks who get too hot on zazen right at the beginning rarely stick with it long. Pretty soon the fervor cools, the crush passes, and they lose interest. Me, I hated zazen from the start and still do sometimes. I did it the way people go on diets or give up smoking. It sucked, but I could tell it was somehow good for me. Hating zazen, on the other hand, is no impediment to coming to real understanding. In fact it's a time-proven method.
In my years of zazen nothing like what was written in Kapleau's book had ever happened to me. I kept waiting and waiting, but no dice. There's an old Zen tale about a monk who got enlightened when he heard the sound of a pebble hitting a tile. So every time I heard a sharp little sound like that I'd think, "Okay! Maybe I'll get it right now. Wait for it, wait for it.... Nope. Nuthin'. Crap!"
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Really though, I've come to see it's useless to talk about "enlightenment" at all. Our man Dogen said it best by saying that zazen itself is enlightenment. For along time I hated that statement with a real passion: Yeah, right! Sitting in Zazen is pain and boredom, that's what it is. It's your head hitting the wall in front of you when you can't fight off sleep any longer. It's your brain full of thoughts so asinine you hate to believe they're really yours. It's feeling like your knees are going to seize up permanently at any second and thinking you'll never walk again. It's looking at your watch when you thought you'd been going for a solid twenty minutes and finding out you've only been at it for three. If that's enlightenment, I thought, then maybe I signed up for the wrong course.
For everyone --- everyone --- who first takes it up, zazen is tedious and awful. Your brain is in constant motion like there's a hive of angry wasps in your head. There are moments when you're certain you're going to have to leap right off your cushion and run around the room singing the chorus of Hello, Dolly! just to keep from going utterly bananas. Anybody who doesn't feel that way about it, at least sometimes, is not doing the practice very sincerely. Zazen isn't about blissing out or going into an alpha brainwave trance. It's about facing who and what you really are, in every single goddamn moment. And you aren't bliss, I'll tell you that right now. You're a mess. We all are.
But here's the thing: that mess is itself enlightenment. You'll eventually see that the "you" that's a mess isn't really "you" at all. But whether you notice your own enlightenment or not is utterly inconsequential; whether you think you're enlightened or not has nothing to do with the real state of affairs.
We all have a self-image and we call that self-image "me." I do. You do. Dogen did and so did Gautama Buddha. Their enlightenment didn't change the fact that they had a self-image. Nor did they stop referring to that image as "me" when trying to communicate to someone else. Obviously you can't talk about anything at all without socially accepted and understood words to use to refer to it. The problem with our self-image is that we don't see it for what it really is: a useful fiction. The idea that our self-image is something permanent and substantial is so basic to us that we would probably never even think to question it. We believe in it; we believe that because it's such a useful fiction it's really real. It may be the only thing most of us actually believe in. The truth comes when you can see that your self-image is just a convenient reference point and nothing more, and that you as you had imagined yourself do not exist.
This is another way Buddhism differs from religion. Every religion in the world starts off from the premise that the self is a substantial entity and builds from there. They all start off on a foundation that isn't just wobbly, it's entirely absent! It's like trying to build a house by stacking bricks in the sky.
I'd been searching for enlightenment for all those years without realizing that the "I" who wanted to be enlightened wasn't real. I was looking at the problem in completely the wrong way. I was expecting some great change to happen to "me." It doesn't work that way at all. But neither is it the case that realizing the self isn't real somehow destroys you. In the Shobogenzo Dogen says, "Realization doesn't destroy the individual any more than the reflection of the moon breaks a drop of water. A drop of water can reflect the whole sky."
So I spent the first night at that temple avoiding Farting Man and being baffled by what Nishijima said about enlightenment; then it was time for bed. Just as I was about to roll over for the second half of a good night's sleep, there came a tremendous clanging, like cold ice picks being driven into my ears. The kid with the thankless job of doing the morning wake-up ritual was making the rounds of the temple shaking a noisy brass bell. This is what passes for a friendly call from the reception desk in Zen. Nishijima was up and folding his futons in seconds, with Jeremy quickly following suit. Farting Man yawned, stretched, then got to work on folding his up too. I lingered in bed a bit longer, trying to fend off the inevitable, but gave up after the rest of them had stepped over me a few times.
I went through the rest of the retreat remaining thoroughly unenlightened. Farting Man remained oblivious. And Jeremy remained, well, bald and Buddhist-looking. But I was pleased when once, after Farting Man left the room, Nishijima whispered to me and Jeremy, "You know, he is a very strange man."
It would take several more years of struggle and frustration before I got any glimmer as to what the answer to the whole enlightenment question might be, or to even properly understand the question itself. I'd formed a pretty clear image of What enlightenment ought to feel like and I kept waiting for that image to become reality. Unsurprisingly, it never did. Now I'm sure it never will.