Why this post?
“What I see, I want all people to know.”
-Linji, quoted by Yuanwu (Cleary; Cleary 1994: 104)
If you cannot drink the entire river, take a ladle full at a time.
True kensho means no kensho. The Heart Sutra says, “no attainment with nothing to attain.” This means you must attain no attainment. That is true kensho. You still want something; you still want kensho. That is a big mistake. That way you will never get Enlightenment, never get true kensho. If you want true kensho, you must make your opinion, your condition, and your situation disappear. Then the correct opinion, correct condition, and correct situation will appear. The name for this is kensho. The name for this is our True Self. The name for this is Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way. Not special. When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, rest. When you see a hungry person, give him food. When you see someone sad, you are also sad. Only this. Moment to moment, you must keep your correct situation. All your actions are for other people. Put down I, my, me. Zen Master Seung Sahn in a letter to a student
Here’s an assertion. Just about everyone has had some kind of awakening experience. Actually, I’m moderately confident even those who can’t make the report, have had that experience. They just never believed it, and gradually forgot it. If my tradition teaches correctly that we are in fact all already awakened, then various glimpses, indeed, wholesale Damascus Road encounters should be the common currency of our human lives. And it should happen to people of every religion and none. from Stepping Forward from the Hundred-Foot Pole– by James Ford Roshi
There seems to be a lot of individual variance in how awakening happens. Some people have grand experiences that transform them overnight, and others have smaller glimpses of freedom that seem to run together over time and change their lives. John Tarrant Roshi in “Sudden Awakening”
My Satori Porno
If people I know and know of would talk of experiences they’ve had while following the Buddhist path, particularly but not exclusively Zen, then all this ridiculousness about the “special”, “rare” or “mystical” kensho/satori/enlightenment business would be dispelled. But it’s soooo outrageous to even mention the possibility of such a thing.
But then again there are all kinds of people claiming to be completely enlightened and leading Sangha and all kinds of things. So before I narrate this teasing little tale, take into account that I too may be one of those frauds, or I may be psychotic or at the very least exaggerating my delusions for literary kicks. How can you really know?
But I am inclined to take the above words of James Ford Roshi seriously, that just about everyone has had some kind of awakening experience. What seems to occur, in the maelstrom of life is that we just aren’t in a position of to recognize it. Sort of a whole Where’s Waldo scenario? There is so much going on and so much making an impact on our consciousness both from without and within, that to have an awakening moment occur at a time when we are able to break from distractions long enough to realize it is difficult.
Here’s a little thing that happened 5 or 6 years back. Was on a rather arduous trek up the Harkidoon valley (pictured below). It was pre-season, and still into the end of the monsoon season here. Which means a lot of mud, landslides and difficult terrain. We were the first visitors (it is a somewhat popular route) of the season so only a few village people had made a new trail, which has to be done after every monsoon again due to landslides and such. On the third day going up we had crossed a number of small landslide areas but we came to an impasse. There was a huge section, approximately 50 meters (yards) that had been washed out. Normally you can climb up and over these sections but this one was too steep. A large pine tree had fallen across the gap, or the abyss as I recollect it. A few of the village people had scraped off some of the branches so that one could, with good balance walk across it. (Village people have a life time of practice with this sort of thing) It was about 40 meters (120 or so feet) above the ground and neither end of the tree looked to be anchored with much stability. The only other option was to go back about an hours walk, take a steep path down to a mule trail by a swollen river, which would have to be waded in parts and then climb back up again. About 5 hours extra work and freezing water to boot. So a decision was made to cross it. Now I’ve always had some trepidation with heights, especially on wobbly structures with no railings. Kind of a survival instinct thing. To fall here, if not certain death would entail a trip out on a mule’s back and would be enormously painful with broken bones etc. So no room for errors.
My trekking partner made it across safely by keeping low, holding the occasional branch and well he’s just a real coordinated individual not to mention being raised in these mountains. Did I mention we were both carrying packs? Well my turn. Started out fine. Got to the middle of the tree trunk and felt a tug on my boot. My shoelace had gotten caught on one of the stubs of the broken branches. What to do? There were no hand holds. I was simply balancing there with a pack and an attached boot. I tried lifting my foot to detach the shoelace but it didn’t work. I tried to step backwards so the tied up boot would be in front and I could possibly bend and untangle it. I almost fell off. My partner put down his pack and tried to come across to where I was but the log shook horribly and we were afraid we were both going to come off it or it would break. Bit of a dilemma. I wanted to cry. I began to panic. I talked myself down from that emotional state after about another 10 minutes.
I could not think. I could not move. There was no other choice. I gave up. At that moment it just didn’t matter. I might fall and die or I might not. It didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. My personal survival didn’t matter. The bottom dropped out. I fell to my knees. It was as smooth and easy as an acrobat could do. Moments of thought had stopped. Moments of feeling trapped had stopped. All moments had stopped.
I looked up and saw the sun gleaming golden off the water of the Supin river. I was there, or this body that is typing these words was yet not in a way that was “embodied” in that separate casing. I was there and everywhere at the same time. Words came into my head. “IT will go on” Not me, not I, but IT. I saw IT, felt IT within. (Man I’m sounding like Alan Watts here!) There was no separation between me and that river. It moved flowed. The clouds above it shifted around continuously feeding it. The sun warmed it. It moved. It was all in motion all the time. There was no stopping point. There was no end or beginning to it. I was no different. (“this arriving of the universe” “Life in the present exists in this pivot-state, and this pivot-state exists in life in the present.” Dogen : “Once you stop clinging and let things be, you’ll be free, even of birth and death…” Bodhidharma)
The body just reacted. It was the most simple movement in the world to untangle that knot and stand and easily walk to the end of that tree trunk. There was no thought. There was just a movement that was part of another movement and on and on. It was perfect. It was walking down the side of the 100 foot pole. There was no other moment. When I reached ground on the other side I just stood for a moment taking a few deep breaths. My partner asked if I was alright. I said “It’s OK. Chalo (let’s go)” and we carried on.
What can one say/do when such an experience occurs? WTF? comes to mind. I pondered it for quite a few months. Thought occasionally to ask someone about it. But there seemed to be no reason to do so. It was something that defied description.
A few years later I did bring up this experience with a certain Japanese Roshi. Him being a Soto guy told me:
So in such a situation I would like to recommend you to think that you have
solved the problem in the best way, and so it might be the best solution for you
to forget such a small matter completely.
And he said to keep on practicing. Good advice.
Then this is what I wrote about the experience.
the clouds apart,
Splits the mountains
to the valley.
Supin river flows on.
*The Supin River flowing through the Harkidoon valley. Here’s a little coincidental Hindu mythology. Harkidoon is known as the gateway to heaven due to an incident in the great Hindu epic Mahabharata. One of the heroes Yudhishtira takes a long journey to reach Harkidoon, He declines to ascend Indra’s chariot to heaven because he cannot take the dog that followed him all the way, with him there. The dog turns out to be his father incarnated and he is rewarded for his loyalty with a trip to heaven. As well the Supin river is also called the river of Karma because it is said to collect all the karma somehow related to the “bad guys” in the Mahabharata having been the kings of Harkidoon valley (where the people still worship them and claim descent BTW). It is alleged that to drink from the Supin is to take in that karma (in the Hindu sense of the word) and add it to your own.
Effects of the experience and some realizations.
Here’s a list of some stuff that came to mind to describe this thing. If you have different realizations or if your experience belies what I’ve written below I’d like to hear about it.
An awakening experience-general characteristics:
- does not happen “in the head” or “in the guts” but everywhere all at once
- is not a state of mind like a mood or concentration on something
- has nothing to do with personality
- is neither pleasant or unpleasant
- is not a “high”
- is a radical shift in perspective
- is all-inclusive
- is not an “epiphany” or an “aha” moment-these are thinking/intellectual related realizations
- stays with you like a shadow but cannot be caught
- develops further over time (10,000 petal lotus opening) diligence in practice refines this
- is not a “personal” experience
- gives no sense of gratification or satisfaction nor the opposite
- happens when all else has been exhausted
- does not “blow your mind” (that would be a dharma-rapture type experience) but something much more fundamental shifts
- the concept of identity changes (hard to say how)
This is a list of some stuff I’ve noticed since then that has been affected.
An awakening experience-personal characteristics:
- less tendency to anger
- less urgency
- more patience
- less preference
- less needy about anything
- more tolerant
- more laughter
- less exertion to enjoy life
- less seeking
- avoidance of things that cloud the mind (like alcohol)
- more open and honest
- less tense
- less concern for other’s opinions or need for permissions for what to do in life
- everything and everyone matters but not in a desperate clingy way
- way way less emotional drama
- greater ability to deeply listen
- more generous with time, money, love, patience, kindness, laughter
- less preachy and dogmatic
- thinking is much sharper
- increased creativity
- sense of limitlessness
- inability to panic (not that I was a big panic-er but even the edge of that sensation has gotten far more remote)
- more acceptance of human and other error (includes computer crashes)
- less blaming
- more direct words
- more ability to accept direct words and criticism
- better quality of sleep
- entertaining dreams (no nightmares as well)
- body feels more agile and lighter (even with the few extra pounds)
- enthusiasm for simple things
- all work is just work and enjoyable
- deeper sense of connection/immersion (this affects activist/political things as well)
- less self-criticism and deprecation (I used to be rather hard on myself ambition-wise)
- get way more work done
- get way more enjoyment out of pleasurable things
- even find unpleasurable and unpleasant things sort of interesting
- there is nothing wanting in life
- way less fear of death
If the mind is not hauling around tons of self-manufactured nonsense about who “I” am and was and want to be, all bolstered up by being symbolized and attached to a lot of material stuff (like “my” lifestyle crap, “my” fashion sense accoutrements, “my” symbols of accomplishment, “my” big plans and grandiose ideas, etc.) and all the social things that go along to support that, it seems logical to me that these results could be replicable by anyone. And it wouldn’t have to be in a potentially dangerous situation either. Just open the moment in life. Recognize what is and what is attachment to what is and unattach. Not detach-that is quite opposite to my meaning. That is rejection which is twice as difficult as attachment. Just open the moment in life.
Writing this recollection and examining it in this way might freak some people out. I’m NOT in any way saying I have some great enlightenment because I don’t think that. From that taste all I know is that there is more. More what I can’t say as I’ve not experienced it. And there is no desire to seek for that more. It is here and flowing. And when allowed, by the strictures one contends with, openings appear again and again. Like the vista of a vast landscape as one drives down a highway. Between the speed-blurred clumps of trees a flash of water, a boat on the ocean, a desert of golden sand, a mountain valley.
I just know that the gate is open and however or whenever “more” is encountered it will not be on my timetable or by any act of volition on my part. Nor can I tell you how your experience is or will be. I have no idea. I am just documenting this sort of like a reporter I guess. The who what where when why or how. I know the answers to the first 4 questions and have written that here but not the answers to how or why. I am a little intellectually curious about those and for a little time I pursued some answers.
But the why or how just don’t seem worth obsessing about in the big picture any more though. They don’t matter really.
Links-some to folks who describe experiences they have had (which I neither “endorse” nor “not endorse” ummm because I’m not privy to all the contents of their experiences and who the hell am I to think I could endorse anything anyways) and others to give some further helpful information about that.
As I find more of these accounts I will keep adding them. Maybe I ought to make a Satori Porno page!(ha)
Buddhism and Crack-Cocaine. ~ via John Pappas in elephant journal
Post-kensho practice and enlightenment on the Zen path from Ted Biringer’s Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing
Early Morning Reflection on Awakening by James Ford
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Sa+0ri pr0n from the Suicide Girls website
By request: How I became a Buddhist (and why I’m trying to un-do all that). RDeWald posts on his lengthy experiences with Zen
Dirty Watches and Filthy Buddha-Nature – John talks about the dropping out of the bottom of the pail.
Who Am I? from the One Bright Pearl blog touches on a personal account
Jiyu-Kennet-an account in Wikipedia of Jiyu-Kennet’s experiences as well as one of her students-under the Visions section
A Letter to a Beginning Student by Paul Lynch discussing the don’t know mind and the use of koans and what is kensho and the various types/levels/experiences of it.
Kensho is a wonderful milestone on the Zen path by Ted Biringer
Some Mistakes on the Zen Way-by James Ford
If you come across any more blogs describing these experiences please note them in comments so others can read them as well. Thanks.