Digression #3 Attempted Extrapolations as to the State of the Non-Suffering Conscious

Same caveats as the original post and Digression #1 and #2

The title means I do wild speculation upon what it would be like to be enlightened. Or more aptly a short history of said speculations throughout my Buddhist career.

K-PAX– the film. Have you seen it? Kevin Spacey is great as Prot, a guy who is a psych. patient and may believe he is from another planet. He’s all happy and peaceful and helps people with their problems and so forth.

It seems like a good thing until you realize he’s dodging his own psychological reality by this disassociative state. Not consciously, of course and then Jeff Bridges straightens him out on that one and he becomes like a sack of rice being wheeled around. Is his “reality” any better for having been disabused of the happy alien notions? Well now he’s like the rest of us- admitting his damage and therefore normal even if completely catatonic. Is someone suffering if they don’t believe they are suffering?

When I was a kid I used to think that “wise people” or “enlightened” people were like Prot at the beginning of the movie. But you know I hear Mother Teresa had a hell of a temper and was not beyond bullying those around her to get her way. (I know a reporter who used to live in Kolkata at the time and covered her activities a lot) Gandhi was also incredibly stubborn and had some interesting sexual proclivities.

It’s kind of weird how these icons get set up to be viewed as perfect.

A while back I did a post called A Big Mistake and quoted a lot of wise people who cautioned against wanting any sort of glimpses of kensho or whatever you may call it. The consensus seemed to be “It’s not what you think” which could be taken more ways than one.

But I’m going to imagine it anyways. And take into account that everything I’ve ever thought about it has been wrong. And that even this will be wrong.

The Bodhisattva Tangent to the Digression

It strikes me that as Buddhism spread and more people caught onto the thing, that the Bodhisattva practice had to be invented. Image knowing what’s real and pretty much everyone you encounter is suffering from their own self-inflicted dream/drama state. Could be really depressing (or evoke some compassion). Could feel like a heavy burden of responsibility if you’re feeling all non-dual and non-self-ish and so on. So why not invent this Bodhisattva thing so everyone who gets stung by some realization has some place to sort of fit in.

Imagine a bunch of monks just going around helping people, teaching them stuff that lets them live a little more free. In any age that gets demarcated as kind of weird. (even now) The prevailing zeitgeist has been ignorance, anger and greed since long before Buddha’s time and then a bunch come along who don’t go along with that. What the hell do you do with them?

As cultures develop, when a certain element becomes noticeable (reaches a tipping point)  they get incorporated somehow. Same in religions as they are part of culture.

So as more people began to get outside of all the conditioning something had to be done, for the still-relative folks to explain what’s going on. Bodhisattva ideals and practice fit nicely with a lot of cultures and could be wedged into prevailing value systems without too much shoving.

So that’s my theory about the development of the Bodhisattva ideal. Not that it was something to strive for at the time but that it was describing a situation that had already begun. That we may not currently have Bodhisattvas at such a tipping point yet may be the reason why it remains an ideal for the majority of us Mahayana types-though with modern and historical hype mixed into it I think it has become somewhat distorted towards both an unachievable, absolute perfection thing or a mundane aspect with a lot of folks just using it for a label for kindness or general good works.

Back to the Light

It seems I can’t imagine the existence of enlightened folk hence that tangent.

There have been times in my life where I’ve encountered people who may well have been in that category. But I didn’t ask them much about such a thing. It seemed too …. personal.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

This first one is in part inspired by some things about beginning practice written recently by James Ford Roshi.   Zen 101: Counting One’s Breath  and Zen 101: Just Sitting.  As well memoir class , caught off guard , popping the bubble posts by Genkaku Adam Fisher provided some impetus. The latter are about writing in a memoir class. It was suggested during that class that he writes about that the participants write their own obituary. While I did not attend this class I found that suggestion to be an interesting idea.  Taking a broad view of the whole shebang. But I’m not going to write an obituary.

Additionally in a recent issue of Shambhala Sun (maybe from Sept.09?) on the last page was an autobiographical piece by a woman who was struck with “Dharma Love” (I’ll explain that later) in a fashion similar to the way I was. It was a shock to read it as the experience was so similar.

[This is a little bit of a writing experiment as by recollecting some of this stuff I also want to try to access and convey the particular frame of mind or world view I had at the time. I realize that it has shifted in many ways and by outlining a few of these moments I want to construct what might be the meta-narrative or story arc that I’ve created with this existence thus far. Yeah it’s a bit of a self-indulgent thing but I think there may be some kind of lesson in doing it about how a lifetime is constructed by every one of us consciously or unconsciously. So try to bear with me.]

The Early Years

[That subtitle does not auger well for an abbreviated version of anything.]
About 25 years ago I formally encountered Zen Buddhism after reading about it since high school (Suzuki, Watts, Kapleau, whatever was available).

Some group rented a classroom at the local university for a “Zen Seminar”. Or that’s what I took the description of the event to mean.  Friends I knew at the university pointed out a mimeographed poster to me as they knew my interest. They kind of joked “Going to see the Zen Master-haha?” At the time I was a full-on drugged-out hard-core punk rocker. But I went anyways.  Sober too. It was taking place over a weekend.  I had very little idea really what would be going on but decided to go along with it just to see what happened. And it didn’t have any admission price. Just donations.

There were perhaps 35 people in this class room to attend the first evening’s lecture, or I thought it was a lecture. Some were Japanese folks, a couple more appeared to be professors, the majority were students and some looked like older hippies. The latter may have been local people or may have been part of the group that seemed to be traveling with the Japanese priest. I didn’t ask. I was the only punk, though I really dressed down for the occasion. But purple-ish hair is hard to dress down. Yeah I got some looks. So what!

Friday night was an introductory Buddhist talk by the Japanese priest (robes and all-I was quite impressed with that) who seemed to be in his 30s, but I don’t know for sure, he was just older than me but not too much (no grey hair), with some interpretation by an English-speaking guy who was a tall  American. I knew he was American by his accent, which may have been from anywhere between Maine and Texas,  but in Canada at the time such accents were simply “American”.

This Japanese guy at first got my attention with the robes. I’d never seen any kind of Buddhist robes in real life. And the ones he was wearing were immaculate-they fit him and he wore them like they were part of his skin. He didn’t talk too loud, unlike the “American” who also didn’t exactly yell but did produce some real volume, nor did he get all excited about what he was saying as religious folks in my previous experience had. He half smiled and talked with such patience, calm and enjoyment that I was far more taken with his manner than with the actual words he was saying. [I admit some difficulty with understanding his Japanese-accented English.] He was in as much of a different environment as I was at that moment yet he had no anxiety over it and seemed completely confident in being there, as if there was nowhere else to be at that particular moment.  It was only when the “American” jumped in to re-turn a phrase or clarify some term or to restate something, as the Japanese guy sometimes just said things in Japanese,  that I was brought back to the actual words. Seems the “American” could speak Japanese.

Then we got an introduction, mostly by the “American” on how to do Shikantaza. I had tried this before (from books) but didn’t really get it. It was all about posture and alignment and “clearing the mind” as I vaguely recall. Some of the people left at this point. Those of us who remained then sat on the floor or some in chairs as they were older. It was incredibly uncomfortable. We were told to bring some blanket or whatever to sit on for the next day. We did some bowing as well.

There was a little bit of chanting that I didn’t understand, at the onset of each day but most of the day of Saturday we heard some more talks, mostly about the kind of stuff I had read in those books, and we sat facing the wall 4 or 5 times (I don’t remember exactly how many times) and did kinhin. There was a lot of bowing.  The “American” rang a little bell intermittently which seemed to indicate a change of activity. There were about 20 people in the morning. Participation dropped off during that Saturday, with some leaving at noon, and only about 5 people showed up on Sunday for a couple more rounds of sitting and talking.

I spent a good deal of my time watching the Japanese guy out of the corner of my eye. He just sat there. I was waiting for him to shift around or twitch or something but it didn’t happen. He didn’t move yet didn’t look at all uncomfortable. He sat as if he didn’t care if he was there for 5 minutes or 5 days. His whole attitude impressed me mightily. For me it was difficult as hell. My legs and my back ached (and shoulders and neck). Stubbornness and competitiveness alone got me through most of the last morning. Then it was done. 

3 of us who made it to the end (we’d had lunch together on the Saturday) decided to make our own little group to practice sitting but after the second week the guy quit and I and the other girl decided to just go our own ways too. We had met twice in a park. But I decided to keep on with it alone.

Dharma Love had bitten.

Dharma Love

So for about three years after that I sat for 4-5 times per day (30-45 minutes each time). I was pretty young and agile so worked into lotus posture after the first couple of months. This was despite carrying on with the punk lifestyle. Didn’t matter if I was hung over or whatever. I wanted to be a “Zen” person and if what was required was to sit like that for hours to qualify then that’s what I would do.  I was under the impression that was what was required. I did it alone because there were no Dharma groups of any kind that I knew of in Saskatoon Saskatchewan in the 80’s, and I knew my friends just wouldn’t “get it” so I left them out of it.

The reason I wanted to be a “Zen person” had to do with that Japanese guy. I thought I had some kind of crush on him or whatever and that if I were “Zen” enough perhaps I’d meet up with him again…etc. You know those highly romantic notions of youth where everything is personal and gets you totally swept away in highly dramatic emotions.  The thing is I didn’t even know his name and still don’t. I have no idea who those people were. They may have been introduced on the Friday evening but I don’t remember it. This is what struck me when I read that Shambhala Sun article, since that woman who wrote the article went to a Tibetan Buddhist event and had the same sort of occurrence. She doesn’t remember who it was either only that it affected her for the rest of her life.

But really in my case it was his manner of being that struck me. I didn’t actually want to get with him but to be like him. I wonder if that is what goes on with the Zen groupies and similar situations. A confusion of sexual/personal intimacy with spiritual/dharma intimacy. The way this man presented himself was so totally open, not hiding anything, the kind of presentation one generally reserves for family, lovers or people very emotionally close in life. It felt very intimate even in a group. It was very relaxing since it also conveyed an acceptance of whatever anyone in the room also presented. That just didn’t matter. Something deeper than that was what mattered. A completely accepting, unconditional and totally non-judgmental presence which was something I had never encountered before.

I was not going to bring this up to anyone ever. The only person I ever told about it before was my sister. She just looked at me like she usually does when she’s dealing with a “Marnie’s adventure” type situation. (roll of eyes)  But I got the idea in my head to talk about this a while back when I was doing those transcripts of Shodo Harada Roshi’s film The Man From Cloud Mountain. The way he talked about the man who became his teacher was so similar to my feeling about this person that I met so many years ago. And after the Shambhala Sun article too, it seems that quite a few people get stricken in this way. So I thought why not put it down somewhere?

Many years ago I stopped trying to figure out who he was.  A while after that event I asked around and tried to find out a little about that man or that group but to no avail.  The room had been booked under “Zen Buddhist Group” a friend had discovered (who knew a relative of a friend who worked in the department that did the booking at the university-small town connections!). I don’t know who sponsored it. When I wrote for the university newspaper a few years later I checked archives in the office to see if it was the Student Union that sponsored the event but apparently not. And they hadn’t taken any ad out in the student newspaper since I searched the archives (on microfiche) too. So it could have been a cultural group, religious group or the people themselves who organized the thing. Eventually I just decided there are some things one will just never know. So I dropped the matter.

It was like a candle had been lit on that occasion though. It started some kind of revolution within that has not stopped to this day.

But now I just feel that whoever that man was, I thank him profoundly for his efforts.

This is Enough

Here is another example.

When I was studying Buddhism in Taiwan in 1989 I went to a place called Lion’s Head Mountain. It’s a temple and retreat in the center of the island. It is at the head of a beautiful valley. Here’s a picture and blurb from my travel blog.

Shih Tou Shan Monastery Valley View Shih Tou Shan or Lion’s Head Mountain is a renown Buddhist retreat center in Taiwan. It lies at the head of a valley where hermit monks and nuns go into solitary seclusion in the forest sometimes for their entire lives. Pilgrims come and walk the length of the valley and leave food and other essentials at various shrines along the way for collection by the hermits. Occasionally these recluses will give teachings and even share their food with strangers who make the journey the entire 20 kilometers from end to end. Other hermits simply disappear into the woods and may not be seen again. 

I wasn’t there very long but I did take the entire valley walk on several occasions. There was a remarkable amount of activity going on for a place that was filled with hermits. There were pagodas and other types of shrines being built along the trail, some to commemorate people who had lived there and some sponsored by devotees. Workers who were doing the stone carving for these commemorative structures had set up a camp well into the trail and were working at their carving and casting.

Also along the trail were other sorts of markers, set up by hermits. Sometimes they were just a collection of stones with a small flag or statue and sometimes there were actual small structures of brick or wood. These were places where one would leave their offerings of food or whatever. I always brought fruit with me and left it at the smallest markers since these were usually indicators of people who had little or no contact with anyone else.

Their humbleness struck me rather deeply. They were indicative of simple human need and not any sort of aggrandizement or self-proclamation.

On one particular occasion I was walking along this trail with a professor friend of mine. We were discussing academic sorts of things when he stopped and indicated that someone was in the brush just off to the side of the trail ahead of us.  We slowed our pace and when we reached the spot we saw a somewhat shabby, but very clean man of approximately 60 sitting on a large rock. He was just beaming at us.

He said something like “Oh now you’ve found me” in Chinese as if it was the greatest joke in the world. The professor replied something like “Yes we have.”  Then the man invited us back into the bush for some tea. We walked up to a small shack, or more like a lean-to,  suitable for one person only and were shown a log we could sit on as he put a little bit of kindling into a fire. He made some green tea in a little battered pot and poured us out two small cups. They were somewhat chipped and the decorations were worn off of them.

He didn’t talk a lot but just seemed quite content to have a couple of visitors. We tried to give him some of the rations that we carried but he only took a few things and gave the rest back as he said something like “I am only one of many.”  [These translations were by the professor since I didn’t understand the dialect-definitely not standard Mandarin]

It just struck me at the time that this was possibly the happiest guy in the world. Not giddy-type happy but content or something like it. His whole manner was one of the necessity of the moment and no more. It was an unspoken statement. “This is enough.”

I was thinking about the precariousness of life in that valley afterwards, if the weather got bad or there were some natural disaster,  and I could easily picture in my mind that guy’s moment of death and him just saying of life. “This is enough.”

As an aside I met someone else with a similar attitude near Dharamshala about 4 years ago. I was walking out in a wooded area and a very young Tibetan nun was ahead of me. She slowed her pace and we walked together. She spoke some English and Hindi so we exchanged a few words. After about an hour and a half of nearly silent walking she just said “Here’s my path.” and indicated an overgrown short-cut kind of trail that led up to a building that was mostly hidden by the large oak trees. And she was then gone.

There was nothing asked for and nothing given but a little bit of company on a long walk.

We remember moments like that rather vividly when most of the rest of one’s life is full of demands and urgings and tides that seem to pull around this way and that. It’s like an island.  But when we really stop there we realize that the island is the actual ground we are on, all the way to the bottom of the turbulent ocean.


The meta-narrative of my Buddhist life really began with that first event and has subsequently been to trace back Buddhism to it’s origins. Starting in North America with a Zen guy and a few converts, then visiting and studying in Taiwan and then staying in Thailand for some time. Now I live in India surrounded by a Tibetan refugee colony. I’ve met many Theravada folks, particularly from South India and Sri Lanka, who come and do exchanges with local monasteries here as well as people working in the Ambedkar movement.  I’ve gone to places in the Himalaya where the original teachings have been reported to have taken place and climbed mountain trails and passes that ancient carriers of the Dharma may have also walked on their way to China or Tibet.

So I’ve actually, in broad jumps, followed Buddhism back to where it began in terms of place. And by the studies I’ve undertaken, in terms of theoretical development as well. I am totally astounded sometimes that my life has turned out this way. It was never a plan of mine to do that. But that is what has occurred.

It’s all been about trying to get back to the source.

The exterior form of a life expresses the deepest interior motivations it seems. Sometimes we have to get ourselves out of the way to see what is happening though.

Dharma Love or bodhicitta takes over one’s life like that sometimes before we even know what’s really happening.

Back to Enlightenment

I suspect the two main people I’ve written about had thoroughly realized the ineffable.  Since then I’ve met a number of others with the same or very similar qualities. Not all of them Buddhist either.  Some Hindu, some Muslim, some Jewish, some Christian, some staunchly atheist. I don’t think most or even any of them would necessarily proclaim some kind of enlightenment or even wisdom. The few I’ve actually pressed on such matters get rather vague with statements like “stuff happens and life changes”, “no one is ever ready for what happens to them”, “live and learn”, “there are a lot of things no one can explain”.

Perhaps this hyped up thing with the capital E, Enlightenment or whatever term one uses, isn’t so much about the people it happens to, as it becomes about the people they encounter afterwards.

Certainly true in the Buddha’s case.

Dosho Port had a great post about Dogen’s enlightenment Was Dogen Enlightened? And An Important New Book On Genjokoan.

In that post he wrote:

So … did Dogen have a personal enlightenment? 

Yes, but he didn’t take it personally.

Back to the original post.

One comment on “Digression #3 Attempted Extrapolations as to the State of the Non-Suffering Conscious

  1. Yes. Given the linguistic confusion around ‘bodhisattva’ and what Jan Nattier and Paul Harrison have said about Bodhisattvas in early Mahāyāna texts I’d say that the Bodhisattva was originally someone intend (satka) on doing what Gautama did, in this lifetime. Gautama and them must have been very inspiring figures and very compassionate. Raising Bodhisattvas up to be perfect partially addresses the problem of imperfect humans – we need some untarnishable figure to ‘fall in love with’ (the Sufi ‘Beloved’) or our energies dissipate. The guru/disciple relationship is always going to have a touch of the Eros about it, and I think that has lead to huge amounts of confusion in the Buddhist world, especially in the British based cultures where we are so immature about erotic feelings (our choices of acting them out, or suppressing them both just create problems). We would do well to investigate the Sufi tradition. Better to fall in love with idealised compassion than a human – humans let us down. However raising up to pedestals is tantamount to deifying, and so we create deities – this seems to be a universal human program. Disastrous if done to humans, and potentially dangerous with mythical figures. Most gods are reprobates but ours are so saintly as to be floating about on lotuses in the sky, made of light and completely pure – i.e. completely disconnected from us shit-kickers. Finding the point of connection with a sky-going deity is difficult. I note the trend to abandon this for an wholly earth based Mother deity paganism. I’m not convinced that running back to Mother always a good thing, nor that nature gives a shit about us anyway (she’s tried to kill me a number of times). So we bounce around between sky and earth, failing to feel the wind in our air, and the earth under our feet…

    Was Dogen Enlightened? Dogen is dead these 750 years. What does it matter if he was enlightened? What do we mean by this anyway? He died aged 54. This is the message of historical figures. This life will be over before you wish it. I get a sinking feeling around discussions like this – like we’re searching for the messiah (who we will love to death, literally), not someone to prove it’s possible, but someone to do it for us, or by whose light we can shine merely by association. I don’t care who anyone’s teacher is, or even what they believe. I’m impressed by anyone who not only shares my values, but is actively pursuing the virtues that express them. Beyond that it’s metaphysics and frankly I don’t think Buddhist metaphysics is any more convincing than any other metaphysics. That said I don’t see any limit to the cultivation and expression of virtue, and there may well be a threshold where virtue so outweighs vice as to completely over-shadow it. Probably quite difficult to

    Best Wishes

    PS I really like K-Pax. I like the way the three books all resolve basically the same story differently. Book one sits on the fence, while the other books explore the two possibilities. A brilliant trilogy. The movie wasn’t too bad, though a lot less subtle, and less ambiguous at the end. About what you’d expect from Hollywood. Good acting.

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