Thursday, January 19, 2012

Enlightenment, Commonalities, and Differences

Found Ensō on Formica

We had a zazenkai last Sunday. It was very well attended; lots of new faces as well as familiar ones. Ari held a dharma talk about the notion of enlightenment, the way it's seen in our tradition, and some comparisons with other traditions, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. There was some conversation about the topic over tea as well.

It got me thinking.

One feature of Buddhist practice is exploration of a dimension of human experience that's often labeled 'mystical.' It consists of subjective, internal experiences that are extremely difficult to describe. There's art and there are descriptions that may or may not seem familiar, but conventional categories break down pretty quickly. It becomes increasingly problematic to say anything at all about them. People can compare notes, as it were, but I think this process only works at all face to face. Second-hand accounts—written down, sung, painted, whatever—are suggestive, but easily misunderstood.

These experiences can be powerful, even transformational, and to make things even more complicated, some traditions—including the one I practice in—make them a focus of the practice, which adds a quite a bit of baggage to them. Kenshô—the 'breakthrough' or 'enlightenment experience' or 'experiencing nonduality'—is kind of a big deal in Sanbô Kyôdan, perhaps more so even than Rinzai and certainly more so than in Sôtô, which also recognize the phenomenon and discuss it in similar terms.

Each of these approaches comes with its own neuroses. Rinzai can devolve into gung-ho macho 'leatherneck marines of mysticism' posturing, Sôtô can devolve into buji Zen—denial that there is any such thing as awakening or anything to awaken to—and Sanbô Kyôdan can devolve into neurotic socially-pressured chasing after kenshô. Eido Tai Shimano is Rinzai gone wrong, just as Genpo Merzel is Sanbô Kyôdan gone wrong, or funeral-director Zen is Sôtô gone wrong. Yet many manage to steer clear of the reefs.

The way I see it, mystical experiences in and of themselves aren't very worthwhile. At least they're no more worthwhile than any intense experiences. Their value comes from what they do. Being transformational, they have the potential to transform. Enlightenment as such isn't very interesting, but the enlightened activity that is said to flow from it is.

I think we're capable of a huge range of mystical experiences, as varied as the full range of our "everyday" experience, perhaps more so. However, because of the difficulty of sharing or discussing these experiences, and the baggage associated with them, it's easy to fall into all kinds of traps when attempting it. Here are a few I've run across more or less frequently that I believe are problematic:
  • Mystical experiences are all the same. What Zen Buddhists call kenshô, Catholics call theosis, Pentecostalists call being touched by the Holy Spirit, Sufis call fana, and so on.
  • Perennialism: the further idea that all religions are fundamentally 'the same,' as they are based on 'the same' mystical experience.
  • Mystical experiences are worthless. They're just brainstorms, no different from getting high on LSD or having some kind of epileptic fit.
  • Mystical experiences are the whole point of the exercise. Everything else is of secondary importance, the only thing that really matters is how "far" you've gotten.
'Spiritual' traditions induce, direct, describe, and interpret these mystical experiences. They do this in deeply different ways. Pentecostals touched by the Holy Spirit appear to acquire a set of behaviors that's rather different from those of enlightened Buddhists, or liberated Hindu yogis, or Sufi masters. They also describe the experiences in widely divergent terms. A Mahayana Buddhist will experience emptiness; a Hindu yogi will experience unity with iśvara, a Sufi will experience annihilation in God, a Pentecostalist will experience a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Even within single traditions, words may mean different things—kenshô, satori, and anuttara samyak sambodhi are all often translated as 'enlightenment,' but they clearly don't mean the same thing.

Relatively few people have had mystical experiences in more than one tradition, and even the few who had may simply be reinterpreting their old baggage, as it were. This makes it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible to compare mystical experiences. Whether the touch of the Holy Spirit and kenshô are 'the same experience' may be a fundamentally irresolvable question. All we have to work on are the secondary sources—the interpretations, the practices, and the descriptions. I don't even think it's a particularly interesting question.

The traditions that direct and make sense of them are very interesting, however. These traditions pose themselves very different questions, provide very different answers, and produce very different behaviors. These are worth looking at. For Christianity, the problem is sin and the solution is redemption; for Islam, the problem is pride and the solution is submission to God; for Buddhism, the problem is suffering and the solution is enlightenment. Different problems, different solutions, different interpretations, different behaviors. Even the importance accorded to mystical experiences varies enormously. It is, in my opinion, dangerous to carelessly blur the differences. Commonalities matter, but so do distinctions.

Yet I find the Zen approach of de-emphasizing interpretation also fruitful. The views are there, and they do matter, but they are held lightly. One effect religions often have on people is getting them to latch tightly onto the explanations or interpretations provided by the religion they practice. Relative truths become absolute; signposts become dogma, the map becomes more important than the terrain.

Vasubandhu wrote that all views are false. Yet he also wrote volume after volume of such views. Something to consider, that.


  1. Interesting post, Petteri, especially the last two paragraphs--different problems addressed, different approaches and solutions, yet somehow the same need to transcend the material, personal, and quotidian into something perceived as, endowed with the qualities of, more, or better or perhaps just beyond=something larger than one's current state. Perhaps we all want/need to be 'saved' from this life.

  2. socially-pressured chasing after kensho is not necessarily a bad thing, it might lead to kensho! Of course it might also be problematic, but then so might almost anything.

  3. You think? I've always assumed that the process that leads to kenshô is internally driven; the practice only gives tools to direct it. If you don't have the internal need to resolve the great existential question, social pressure to 'achieve kenshô' can't help; all it can do is make you feel like a failure, or perhaps deceive you into believing that you have that need.

    If you do have that need, though, no doubt social pressure can help keep your eye on the ball and get through the tough bits that you wouldn't manage on your own. Not what I had in mind though.

    And the pressure 'achieve kenshô' has demonstrably led to some pretty stupid, even dangerous shit—monks trading 'answers' to kôans for favors, Genpo's Big Mind scam, and so on and so forth.

  4. Well, I think there is going to be some social pressure always. Certainly the teachers very much emphasize awakening as the true purpose of meditation practice. Whether and how you respond to the pressure depends on your internal needs. Of course there is no need to develop a neurosis about it, or create some mental object called awakening and chase after it.

  5. Oh, I agree. If I didn't, I'd go practice somewhere else.

    I was just pointing out possible ways each of these different approaches can (and demonstrably do, sometimes) go wrong. Whether they stay on the rails or not depends on the sangha and the teacher(s), and IMO we're doing extremely well on both counts.