Several years ago in the practice leaders study group, we were questioning what to study. Ken Ford said, “Let’s study enlightenment!” We all laughed and balked. Balked because it’s a tricky or scary question. We all should understand this thing we search for, ‘enlightenment’, but who does? Can enlightenment be understood? And yet, if we don’t have some understanding or framework, we can get remarkably off the track of an unselfish or non-“self”-oriented spirituality. So, we began to study Dogen on enlightenment and we especially studied “Daigo, Great Realization” from the Shobogenzo. Since then, I have been studying this fascicle, right side up and upside down, trying to clarify this essential question.
Dogen does not want us to have a fixed conceptual idea of enlightenment. He does not want enlightenment to be a noun, a fixed state of mind, or worse yet, some experience that one has “once and everything is changed forever” or that you enter a vermillion tower in the sky, or that you transcend ordinary reality, never being mud-covered again. He does not want “enlightenment” to have a solid space or a fixed time which would be counter to the desire to really taste open, boundless, timeless reality. This reality is continuously combusting in every 6 and a half billion moments in the 24 hours.
Expounding in Dogen’s wonderfully poetic and non-linear literary style, he tries to show all the many facets of how inherent enlightenment is felt by humans. He is like a 20th century cubist as he writes. (How irreverent to compare him to Gertrude Stein!) But his use of the combination word - practice-realization, is the beginning of trying to show enlightenment from every angle and particularly a non-dualistic point of view.
The different facets of enlightenment are seen from a Cubist view as different angles of the same thing and expressed by Dogen thus:
1. The Great realization is manifested (kensho or satori). This is the actual moment in life perhaps we could say the peak moments of life, when body-mind-heart are completely one. When mind and environment are completely one. When you have entered into non-thinking and wholeness. This is often such a startling experience that we tend to cling to it and thus, unbeknownst to the experiencer, stumble into clinging and desire, the 2nd Noble Truth, and increase our suffering.
2. The way is reached through no-realization (emptiness). We might call this mu-realization. This experience is beyond conceptualization and beyond achievement. The “enlightenment” disappears and we very naturally follow the practice of leaving no trace. No person, no event, no path, no cessation, no enlightenment.
3. Reflecting realization and freely utilizing realization. We might call this u-realization or realization in form. In Daigo, Dogen calls this returning to delusion. One is able to reflect or utilize realization effortlessly in our ordinary life of the form world and the laws of cause and effect. This is often reported as going into the briars and brambles and being covered with mud. Dogen writes, “The Buddha ancestors freely played with mud-balls”.
4. Losing realization and letting the practice go. In the end, enlightenment is a lot about being able to let go over and over and over and over in each moment. Dogen writes, “Lose is enlightenment, gain is delusion.” Living with the view of timelessness, we can relate to each moment’s arising with freshness. In order to be fresh, one has to let go of the previous moment. This is learning to be fresh in the flow of time. This is learning to relax and let go completely, surrendering yourself to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Entrusting ourselves to the waves.
This many faceted expounding of the dharma of enlightenment, helps me let go of my previous notions and my linear sense of development. It allows me to be free to receive this moment as it is as enlightenment. This frees me from the burden of centralizing life around my self-centered needs and security and to be able to participate in life with a fresh wholehearted presence and with composure based on a very large, universal understanding of what’s going on.