I was in dokusan again with Katagiri Roshi, just half an hour before the end of another sesshin. Tenderized and open, I asked again, “How can I go beyond self-consciousness?” Roshi bolted forward, “Already you are stuck!” he shouted. Everything stopped. Then he said in a commanding tone, “Turn over a new leaf, NOW!” Figure and ground reversed. Katagiri Roshi’s bushy eyebrows obeyed. They were me. The bell ringing to end the interview obeyed—me. The tan shag carpet under my feet obeyed—me. Norm, the tender giant Zen monk sitting next to me when I returned to the zendo obeyed—me. 

—Adapted from Keep Me In Your Heart A While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri

This experience, almost forty years ago, was a pivotal moment for me, an initial awakening (kensho or “seeing true nature”). Although it provided the basis for faith to continue the Zen Way, I now see it as an intimation of the Great Way, not the Great Awakening in this very life promised by the most vital streams of buddhadharma, including Zen. That is, to deeply accord with the awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha, and through personal experience, directly verify the truth of buddhadharma. Further, if awakenings are authentic, they give energy to the altruistic vow to liberate all beings.   

More about what I mean by “awakening” in a bit, but first a caution. 

Today, the vital streams, the received traditions, that have kept awakening alive through the eighty-some generations since Shakyamuni Buddha, so that it is still available for us now, are threatened by our (Earth-destroying) consumerist proclivity to settle for the cheap and easy, by our (understandable) cynicism in the possibility of any authentic transformation, and within my root tradition, Soto Zen, by those (nice people) who are hell bent on making the buddhadharma about faith and intellectual understanding, while unintentionally abandoning exactly what could most serve the helpless ones in the future—awakening to their true nature. Following the band Crazy Horse, I call succeeding generations “helpless ones,” because, at least in part, they depend on our awakening today in order to awaken in the midst of a (likely) dystopian future with some unforeseeable degree of ecological and societal collapse.

Therefore, in this article, I will offer a Zen view of what awakening is and a little about what it isn’t, offer awakening stories from contemporary practitioners, share a historical interlude that has distracted Soto Zen from its original purpose, point to some of the shadows that come with emphasizing the light, and pray with you for Great Bodhisattvas to appear in the future to illuminate the Great Way for the benefit of all the many beings on this little blue dumpling planet. 

What Is Awakening?

Simply put, awakening begins with an abrupt nondual embodiment. What follows, the path of verification in the nitty gritty details of training and in life, is of equal or greater importance. Awakening, then, is both an empty event and an ongoing full-to-the brim process. But rather than more didactic definitions, let’s instead look at four experiences of awakening by contemporary Zen students, all householders.

Then one day, driving as usual to get groceries, listening as usual to a rather slow and unspectacular aria by Mozart, an unusually brilliant note was heard. All became open, vast, and yet more intimate than my very breath. No me and an outside world, no oneness—indescribable. An eternal expression of being. And my days are no longer filled with inquiries, gnawing questions of existence. Instead, there is boundless resolution. Serene intimacy with the unspoken call of “Just this! Just here, NOW!”

“No me,” “no oneness.” “Serene intimacy.” “The unspoken call.” Here’s another student’s experience that occurred while they were working with the koan, “Does even a little dog have the buddhanature?” Chinese master Zhaozhou said, “Mu”:

It happened in the middle of a difficult seven-day sesshin, I didn’t know how I would go on. But somehow I kept asking my bowls, the trees, and the toilet: what is Mu? On the fifth day, I was sitting in the garden after lunch, inexplicably crying again. This time, I just let the crying be, and a huge wave of fear arose. The thought came: if I let go, who will catch me? I rode the fear, and the image of an outstretched hand appeared in my mind. I let go then and began to shake as waves of energy flooded my body. I disappeared and the world became luminous, each thing just exactly itself, impossibly vivid. The whole universe had always been boundless love, and I was overcome with gratitude. After a while, I had to pee, and as I walked down the garden path back to the center, I felt like I was walking on my own face. 

Notice here how difficulty and intense emotions, as well as the student’s courage to go through the fear, bloomed into an initial awakening. Here’s another student’s experience:

There was an abrupt dissolution. Not so much that I was breaking apart but that the entire universe was breaking apart, and then everything just seemed to blink out. Simultaneously, I felt a huge weight suddenly removed. Then everything was back and I was looking at the wind blowing the grass again. Except that now, I wasn’t looking at the wind in the grass, I was the wind in the grass blowing completely weightless and free. My awareness was no longer in my head looking out at the wind in the grass. Rather, awareness seemed to be emanating from everywhere and nowhere. There was no center to it. Looking up at the sky, the trees, and the buildings, everything was an alive being looking back at me. But yet somehow that which was looking back at me was me.

“Abrupt dissolution.” “Breaking apart.” “Weightless and free.” “No center.” “Everything was an alive being looking back at me.” And finally:

Suddenly, looking up, something burst and flipped over and there were huge waves sweeping up to the sky, extending infinitely in all directions. So vast. Torn apart, the world was now inside. What was me was happily insignificant as part of the vastness. Things and people were glowing, more vivid in color and form in just being, than I could ever have believed possible. Rubbish in the street, the smell of car exhaust, worn buildings, passers-by, all were just so! And it didn’t go away. It was irreversible.

“Something flipped.” “Glowing.” “Irreversible.” 

What Does Zen Have to Offer?

First, a nonsectarian qualifier: although these experiences all happened within the context of Zen koan practice, like an appreciation for Mozart or walking on your own face, no tradition has sole access to these vivifying, verifying experiences. They are an expression, and a gift, of our essential nature. 

What the Zen tradition has to offer is a path of practice that makes initial awakening more likely, if taken up with wild abandon. In addition, if, as Meido Moore Roshi says, instead of adjusting the practice to fit our life patterns, we adjust our life to fit the practice offered to us. 

One thing that all these students shared, predominant in the second example, is that they were all working with the keyword from a koan (“mu,” for example). In my teaching practice, I’ve taught the two main methods of Zen—for the first twenty years, just sitting, the last ten with koan. And from this experience, I can report that although students who practice just sitting do sometimes have initial awakening, the likelihood is much greater when working with the keyword from a koan.

Zen offers a couple more things that are uncommon in the world today. First, a path of practice post-awakening to further open the initial experience through application of nonduality in face-to-face meetings with a teacher, and simultaneously within the vertiginous vicissitudes of daily life, eventually freeing us from the awakening. As we say, Zen practice is like taking a shower. First, we wash with soap. Then we wash the soap off. This is enormously important and provides training in how to support others in the path of awakening.

In addition, the Zen way offers clarity about what awakening is and what it isn’t. After all, human beings have all sorts of spiritual experiences. In Zen we focus on the most practical, those that can be put to use in daily life, and those most likely to lead to compassionate action. 

The initial and even the more definitive awakenings that most of us have today are like opening the door and taking a peek into Buddha’s world. 

Hogen Bays Roshi, co-abbot of Oregon’s Great Vow Zen Monastery, for example, distinguishes “insight” from “awakening.” When one has an insight—and these are very common—the sense of subject and object remains. An example of an insight would be, “Oh! I see that everything is impermanent.” In this insight, there is an “I” who is observing and learning from the flow of impermanence. Insights help us to understand life and are important, but they are limited in their power to reduce our suffering, and they don’t give us sufficient skills to help others awaken. 

Another important distinction here is that awakening is not absorption (samadhi). Absorption can open into awakening, and some degree of the deeply settled heart is necessary for awakening, but they are distinct experiences. In absorption, there is often the sense of the self expanding into a god-like consciousness, so someone who has had an experience of absorption might say, “I am one with everything.” When the absorption ends, human-realm suffering returns, sometimes with a hell-realm like vengeance. 

On the other hand, with awakening—that is, an abrupt nondual embodiment—there is a decrease in suffering. “It was irreversible,” said one of the above students. And through dropping the distinction of I and thou, awakenings also uncover the capacity to profoundly benefit others. 

More on that below, but for now one more crucial point: given our propensity for self-deception, it is essential that we don’t self-diagnose whether an experience was an insight, absorption, or awakening. Work with a skilled teacher who can make these vital distinctions.

It is also important to note that awakening experiences vary in depth and breadth. Robert Aitken Roshi has described initial awakenings as poking a hole in the wall that separates the self and the ten thousand things. More definitive awakenings knock the whole wall down. Granted, initial awakenings rarely seem “small” for the one experiencing them. For example, the initial awakening that I described at the beginning of this piece was profound for me at the time. Only through continuing practice-verification, though, did I get an inkling of what’s possible beyond that early intimation. We know from our lineage teachings, as well as the Mahayana sutras and commentaries, that the initial and even the more definitive awakenings that most of us have today are like opening the door and taking a peek into Buddha’s world. 

Henry Shukman Roshi, in his wonderful memoir, One Blade of Grass, tells about one such more definitive awakening that happened during a sesshin with his teacher, John Gaynor:

As my mind struggled to construct an understanding, suddenly that former moment was immediately present. Time vanished. That time and this had never been separate. Then what had I been doing through all these years of “Zen”? As I heard John speak just now, I felt as if I were perched on the edge of a great cliff. Before I had time to think about whether I might step off, a thunderbolt dropped on the crown of my head. FALLING OFF THE CUSHION. LYING on the floor. Weeping. Everything gone. All the hard work of holding together the world as Henry knew it—gone. No more Henry, no more world. Nothing. No more Zen. Truly, nothing. True nothing. 

Later, Shukman Roshi describes this experience by saying, “Everything in between has been erased.” Everything in between past and present, self and other. What remains? Shukman Roshi writes that at the end of the sesshin, “At the celebratory lunch, when we were each asked to speak a few words, all I could say was ‘Thank you, thank you,’ over and over again.”

The Effects of Awakening

However, whether an awakening is initial or more definitive, it isn’t magic. We all still have much work to do. I certainly do. Philip Kapleau Roshi said that awakening doesn’t transform us overnight, but it establishes the basis by which we can go on endlessly transforming ourselves. 

One student expressed the practice of awakening, often referred to as post-kensho training, like this: 

It took me many years, though, and quite a lot of pain, to find someone who could show me how to navigate this, to learn to play with it, to laugh at/with/as it, to throw it away (it never goes away), to see what it is for. Turns out it is completely ordinary and simple, nothing special after all. But I don’t know where I would have been without it, given where I started. It saved me. All I really want to do now is take care of people around me and the world as I meet it, and through this I have a way, a practice.

One point this highlights is the importance of the teacher-student relationship, an essential ingredient in the ongoing work of cultivating verification. Especially after an initial awakening, the teacher not only verifies the experience, but also provides an indispensable mirror. In my own process, Katagiri Roshi was especially tough with me in this stage of practice, and I’m very grateful to him for that. 

Another student writes this about their post-kensho process:

This awakening experience was so overwhelming, that the impulse was to preserve it, to build a new wall around it. After a time, I came to see that holding on to it wouldn’t work, and set about deepening this understanding, continuing to raze and demolish walls rather than build up new ones. And a natural desire that others could see and feel this for themselves grew in me, so the question arose, how can I best do that? The vow to liberate all beings, which had been just words, became an expression of my deepest desire.

Notable with both of these students is the movement to helping others. Here’s another student’s experience:

[Initial awakening] unlocked a kind of gentleness in me that wasn’t functioning very well before. There is also a blooming of faith that resulted from the experience. We are always in the midst of freedom even if we can’t see it. On some level, I no longer feel like Zen practice is a choice that I’m making. Rather it is how one proceeds in this reality. At the same time, there is a much deeper commitment to working to transcend my ego-centric habits and live for others.

But Didn’t Suzuki Roshi Say…

“It’s not that [awakening] is unimportant, but it’s not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed.” 

Yes, he did. And recently one of his fourth generation successors, a teacher at a large Soto center, described the attitude of his institution as “rabidly anti-kensho.” On the other hand, my main koan teacher, James Myoun Ford Roshi, often says, “First and foremost, Zen is about awakening.” So which is it? 

Clearly, it is fair to say that not all Zen folks agree about focusing on awakening. To understand why that is, it might be helpful here to take the short historical interlude I promised above. In 1853, you see, Commodore Perry steamed into Edo Bay with a squadron of US Navy ships, some twenty-five times bigger than anything that the Japanese navy had at the time. This unleashed a stream of cause and effect that eventually took the steam out of the Soto tradition’s focus on training and awakening monks, and shifted it to a model inspired by Western Protestantism that appealed to householders with practices based on faith in Dogen (a convenient substitute for Jesus Christ) and karma teachings. 

According to the Bukkokuji monk Kogen, the tension between this movement and the traditional emphasis of Soto Zen burst into public view in 1928 when Professor Kaiten Nukariya published a front page article titled “True Faith,” taking the position that by using scholarship, studying the doctrine, and having faith it is possible to clarify the principles of Zen. Professor Nukariya’s article was the first of many in what became known as “The Showa Dispute About True Faith.” 

Professor Nukariya’s article prompted a strong response, largely from senior monastic teachers, especially from Daiun Harada Roshi. Harada Roshi’s position was that only through practice and great enlightenment is one able to grasp the truth of Zen, and that scholars without experience of actual practice and actual awakening are simply followers of common sense and science, and have no authority to speak about and define Zen. Harada Roshi’s first article articulating this traditional position was titled, “We Have to Get Rid of Worms Inside the Lion.”

 Unfortunately, at this point in the digestive process, the worms seem to be winning. It is a phenomena way up near the height of irony that a version of Soto Zen, largely the result of desperate efforts to modernize by imitating what some Japanese Soto Zennists thought was Western, was copied by Westerners as traditional Japanese practice. 

Yet, there is hope. Regarding Suzuki Roshi’s “…it’s not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed,” a third generation successor in his lineage, Kokyo Henkel Sensei, says, 

“Maybe this was true for a bunch of acid-soaked hippy seekers looking for total enlightenment on their first day of zazen in 1967. But it might be more appropriate to emphasize awakening in the corporate and society-fixing Zen world of today.”

With Light Come Shadows

Emphasizing awakening is not all luminosity and bliss. As Bodhin Kjolhede Roshi, Co-Director of the Rochester Zen Center recently noted, “There’s a risk that if you talk about awakening, people who haven’t experienced awakening will feel inadequate. It could exacerbate their delusion that they’re not fundamentally awakened already.”

Talking about awakening can also trigger some practitioners to either double-down in their belief that zazen itself is enlightenment, an artifact of the Showa Dispute mentioned above, or respond by reiterating their insistence that awakening is a fantasy, despite all the first-person accounts from Shakyamuni Buddha through the current generation of practitioners.

Another issue is that although it is appropriate for most students to practice with hair ablaze, sitting for a couple hours a day, practicing with continuity in daily life, and engaging in frequent retreats, it isn’t appropriate for everyone. All of us sooner or later will have physical challenges to navigate, but it is primarily our psychological challenges at any given time that might indicate that a less rigorous practice schedule is more fitting. It is always wise and necessary to work with a qualified teacher who can advise us when physical or psychological issues arise, and support us in tapping the brakes, or taking a break, when that is fitting, something that has been appropriate for me in my own practice several times.

Finally, a challenging issue that arises when emphasizing awakening is the troubling truth that not everybody seems inclined to abrupt nondual embodiment, at least of the dramatic variety. Although many students will have an awakening experience during their first five to ten years of intensive work, not everyone will. Even when intention, skill, and application are all present, some people just don’t seem to be prone to pronounced experiences. Still, there are enormous benefits from intensive practice, including experiences of absorption, psychological insights, and the powerful sense of belonging that arises in the teacher-student relationship and with the community of practitioners.

This is another opportunity to pray to the Great Bodhisattvas. 

Rolling Up Our Sleeves… 

Seventeen years after Katagiri Roshi ordered me to “Turn over a new leaf NOW!” I was sitting a solo retreat in a small cabin at a Catholic retreat center and having a wonderful time, moving through the subtle phases of settled zazen and into one-pointed absorption. To my surprise, during the evening of the second day, everything started to shatter, and break into bliss. Energy coursed through my body, sometimes seeming like it might be more than I could handle. The then-recent movie Contact came to mind with Jodi Foster’s character strapped into a wildly vibrating time-space machine and repeatedly telling mission control, “Good to go, good to go!”

I did feel so good and ready to go. 

During a zazen break, I found the workout room in the main building. As I sat down on a machine for the pectoral muscles, everything completely dropped away. There was only complete absorption with no witness. Then a gentle and sparkling returning. As the old Zen song goes, “I was not it, but in fact it was me.” Everything was the same, and yet everything was luminous with no-me apart from it all. 

I slowly walked the grounds of the retreat center and found a bench just opposite a twenty-foot tall crucifix, where I sat for a long time, completely at ease, delighting in a strangely familiar and simultaneously newfound sense of radical intimacy, vast-sky openness, and the luminous beauty of each and everything. 

Then the thought came, time to go back to work. And so I did. 

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