Tuesday, October 30, 2007


As you know, in the context of Buddhism and, particularly in Zen, I try to sidestep the word “enlightenment.” That word has become so trendy—especially in the Western world—that many individuals believe enlightenment is the goal of Zen.

And that misses the whole point of living Zen.

Instead of “enlightenment,” I prefer “awakening,” or even such terms as illumination, or edification, or insight, or awareness, or self-perception. Those concepts are what Zen is about.

In a talk I gave three or four years ago, I mentioned reading a statement to the effect that Zen practice consists in gaining enlightenment. That’s a common thought among people who don’t know Zen, and on the surface it sounds pretty good because it contains that old buzz word, enlightenment.

But on second thought gaining enlightenment sounds too much like a logical, rational process. Remember, Zen balks at logic, and Zen certainly isn’t rational if rationality implies reasoning because Zen goes beyond reasoning. To separate Zen from awakening is to create a “this” versus “that” dualism.

I prefer to say Zen and enlightenment—or awakening—are identical.

In the year 1200 the mislabeled founder of Soto Zen, Master Dogen, spoke about what he termed the eight awakenings of great beings. These awakenings are not stages to run after, and they aren’t benchmarks. They represent underpinnings in the process of realizing awareness.

And they are interrelated.

What Dogen had to say 800 years ago to a group of Japanese monks is relevant today to everyone.

The first awakening is to have few desires.

Having few desires is to avoid the craving for “stuff.” Stuff such as a commanding position among people, wads of money, a five-bedroom house, a Ferrari.

I once knew a fellow who craved a Ferrari and was wealthy enough to buy one. Every day he’d open his garage and sit in the car’s driver seat. Just sit. He never rolled the car out of the garage because there were no highways where he could crank it up over a hundred miles an hour. Also, he was afraid of getting a scratch on the red paint.

What he coveted, he had, but it was of no real use to him.

People who have hardly any desires are free from the never-satisfying hunt for importance, and riches, and stuff.

People who have few desires don’t feel the need to use others to acquire celebrity status or pile up more money.

People who have few desires are comfortable with what they have, and are not constantly agonizing about not having something else or gaining more of something.

The second awakening is to know when enough is enough.

The Buddha is quoted as having said, “Monks, to be free from suffering, mull over knowing how much is enough. If you know how much is enough, you will be satisfied. If you don’t know, you will be discontented.”

Even if you are wealthy you may have a disconcerting feeling of being poor, and will desire to have more.

This is called “knowing when enough is enough.”

The third awakening is to enjoy serenity.

This is the ability to be away from crowds and be happy alone.

The Buddha said to his monks: “If you want to have the joy of calm nondoing, be away from crowds and be alone in a silent place.”

Now, this is a difficult undertaking in today’s world. Between noise-belching cars and motorcycles, and clattering television sets in almost every restaurant—and if a public place doesn’t have television it blares out irritating background noises, euphemistically called music. There are few public places that enjoy quiet.

Such torments are diminished by making one’s home in a quiet place. That’s why I live in the woods. Only squirrels and armadillos bother me.

But if you do enjoy crowds, when you’re in them, you may sweat and stew, and—as Dogen said—you’ll be like a tree that attracts hordes of birds and is eventually killed by the racket.

The fourth awakening is to give what Dogen called diligent effort.

Diligent effort. What is diligent effort?

Dogen said the Buddha said that diligent effort is holding to natural efforts. It’s a sort of constant fine-tuning without being mixed with other actions. It’s a going forward without any sort of turning back.

If you make diligent effort, nothing is too difficult.

It’s like a tiny trickle of water wearing through a large rock by constantly seeping.

The fifth awakening is to uphold mindfulness.

In the Buddhist Eightfold Path mindfulness is also called right thought. But the term “right” may evoke the term, “wrong,” which is a dualism. Let’s stick with one thing at a time, and never mind opposites.

To uphold mindfulness.

The Buddha said, “There is nothing like not neglecting mindfulness. Do not lose mindfulness. Mindfulness is like wearing armor when going into a battlefield.”

Now that is somewhat flowery because it’s couched in metaphor. The point is to be totally aware, whether you’re reading a book, or preparing a meal, or drinking a glass of water, or sitting in zazen.

Uphold mindfulness.

The sixth awakening is to practice meditation.

Practice meditation?

That’s another common term in Zen writings.

To practice something is to do it over and over again in order to acquire skill at it. Like practicing a dance step, or a golf swing.

Meditation isn’t a golf swing. Meditation is not repetition. Meditation is full-time being. Meditation is full-time awareness.

Dogen said meditation is awakening.

Meditation is remaining in dharma—that is, in Buddha knowledge—without flip-flopping from one approach to another.

Dogen said the Buddha said, “If you gather your mind it will abide in stability. Then you will understand the birth and the death of all things. When you have stability your mind will not be scattered.”

This is what’s called the sixth awakening.

To maintain meditation. To constantly be alive, and awake, and aware.

The seventh awaking is to cultivate wisdom.

That means to listen, to contemplate, to meditate, and to realize.

If you have wisdom you’re free from craving, from self-indulgence, from excess desire, from materialism.

No more thoughts of gaining “stuff.”

Doesn’t that sound good?

Finally, the eighth awakening is to steer clear of hollow discussions.

To steer clear of hollow discussions is to be free from prejudiced thinking, and from pointless cocktail-party babble.

Have you ever seen a desert dust devil? They’re miniature tornadoes. They swirl across the landscape, picking up loose trash, carrying it for a while, and then scattering it all over the place. Hollow discussions are like dust devils. They cause the mind to collect pieces of dry weeds, and scraps of paper, and dead cigarette butts, and then spread them.

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According to Dogen, by nurturing these eight awakenings, you can arrive at insight, and share your insight with all beings, just as Shakyamuni Buddha shared his awakening with anyone who was interested.

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According to Dogen, the last words of the Buddha, before he died, were, “You should always endeavor wholeheartedly to search for the way of liberation. All things in the world are insecure and bound to decay.”