On Enlightenment

In various forms of Buddhism, the concept of enlightenment is discussed. In Zen practice, satori and kensho are terms used (at least in Korean practice). This Zen enlightenment is the sudden or graudual realization of the oneness of everything–how things are interconnected. The excellent book the Three Pillars of Zen has first-hand descriptions of this experience. The experience can be deepened with continual, daily practice. In Mahayana Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of enlightenment is said to be an experience that leads to a complete understanding of reality such that an individual’s suffering ends. Personally, I understand the Zen enlightenment better than the Mahayana Buddhist enlightenment; they may refer to different realizations, different experiences. Either is desirable from a spiritual development viewpoint. Many kinds of spiritual enlightenment probably exist. Even with one type of enlightenment, each individual experiencing it will have a personal experience, unique in its own way.

People come to spiritual practice often due to hardships in life, turning to something they hope will help them cope, help them overcome suffering, help them grow as a person, or lead to the solution of all their problems. No doubt the experience of enlightenment–whether a profound event or a tiny glimmer–is helpful to a person. But in a way it could be anticlimactic–it was there all along, but we did not notice it. Everything changes, but everything stays the same.

A Zen saying is: “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.” After enlightenment, everything around us is still the same; we just understand reality better. After enlightenment, we continue our lives with a deeper understanding of reality. The dishes still need to be washed. Work needs to be done. Life needs to be lived to its fullest–each wonderful moment of our precious human lives. But with understanding comes a profound peace of mind.

A level of knowledge beyond words exists. The experiences of enlightenment cannot be put into words. They can only be experienced. They are not religious experiences. Enlightenment experiences are simply seeing the ultimate nature of our spiritual reality.

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