What is Awakening?

“Buddha” means Awakened One, and when Siddhartha Gautama glanced up at the Morning Star some two thousand five hundred years ago, something truly indescribable burst forth. Great and transformative experiences seem to lie at the heart of all authentic spiritual traditions; they inform the teachings of great mystics and masters over the ages. Although essentially beyond words and description, this singular experience of Siddhartha, this Great Awakening, was to become the foundation and touchstone for all the Buddhist teachings and practices to follow.


And yet nowadays so many dharma teachers and writers seem to have lost touch with this fundamental grounding. More than that: many now have come to minimize, misrepresent, misunderstand, dismiss, or simply ignore the underlying significance of the awakening experience and if this continues, I’m afraid we’ll find Buddhism losing more and more of its original depth and power. These days It has become easy to simply slip Buddhism into the spiritual ‘self-help’ folder along with all the other things that are there to help make our lives better, to help us get through the day. Stress reduction is great, mindfulness is great, clarity is great – but none of these reveals the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.


Buddhist practices offer the possibility of actually waking up out of the dream-like enchantments of our lives, waking up to the profound aliveness and inter-connectedness that is our birthright. As the Buddha said, "Not good deeds, nor good karma, nor merit, nor rapture, nor visions, nor concentration, nor insight.  None of these are the reasons I teach; but the sure heart's release, this and this alone." Surely he is speaking here of genuine enlightenment, not merely some increase in awareness: “the sure heart’s release” gives voice to his own profound enlightenment that took place beneath the Bodhi tree on that wondrous morning.


The point here is not to assert that everyone should be perpetually striving for full awakening—although some may feel that calling. The point is that when we reduce the dharma to a kind of self-help project, we minimize not only the depths of what Buddhism has to offer, but we short-change our own lives and potential as well.


The teachings of the Buddha and our dharma ancestors offer profound inspiration. Dharma practices can open us to the wild realms of the human psyche; they ground our awareness in the deepest kind of compassion, and offer the possibility of waking up to the deepest kind of freedom. This is a difficult process for sure, but what do we gain by selling it short? Who benefits when we take so much away? In our attempts to render Buddhism “more accessible” we run the danger of turning it into a caricature of itself, setting false limits on our own lives and aspirations. We all know that western commercialism has a genius for marketing superficiality, and with Buddhism, not surprisingly, we seem to be doing the same: we now find ourselves in danger of slipping ever deeper into an era of McDharma.


The real teachings of the Buddha Way speak compellingly of Original Perfection; they repeatedly confirm the untrampled, immaculate, universal beauty and dignity of all existence, and our potential for the deepest kind of transformation. Why would anyone want to minimize that for others, much less themselves?


So what is Awakening? Well, that’s a tough one, because what we call “awakening” is really an experience existing beyond the boundaries of concepts and language. Of course, when we first hear that notion it can sound almost ludicrous—how could anything exist outside of descriptive words, outside of the “knowing” mind? But that, of course, is just the point: our analytic, linguistically-driven consciousness winds up putting us in a conceptual strait-jacket woven from our ideas about who we are and the world “out there,” and from the dualistic patterning of thought itself.


Buddhism teaches that the most deeply rooted of all these concepts are those connected to our notion of a separate self, the idea that we somehow exist independently of everything else. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “What is troubling us is the tendency to believe that the mind is like a little man within.”  And as the old joke goes, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those that divide things into two, and those that do not.” Joking aside, what kind of lives do we aspire to? Almost everyone exists in that first category, and because we hold so firmly to this binary view, or are held by it, we tend to live our lives out of a false but pervasive sense of isolation.


This seems to be uniquely true in the West. Recent research has shown that we are not only inhabiting more alienated lives, but even in our own eyes, our view of our selves is becoming more and more objectified. In an article about the whole photo-phenomena of “selfies,” Dr. Jesse Fox from Stanford wrote, "Self-objectification is when you start seeing yourself as an object and don't really value yourself as a person, and it has a lot of negative outcomes including depression, eating disorders, and diminished cognitive performance.” We’re seeing this in a lot of areas these days: a certain kind of disconnect is happening, with vast implications for us all.


Because we fail to grasp the seamless interconnectedness of all existence, our lives easily come to embody a painful kind of narcissistic alienation, and this sense of aloneness is on the rise, especially in America. The Buddha referred to this sort of painful disconnect as dukkha, a kind of suffering that not only manifests itself in our individual lives and through our relationships, but also fuels so much of the violence in the world. Though this dualism appears to us to be an a priori truth, even a small awakening experience can begin to reveal the artificially constructed nature of the entire self/other paradigm. This is what makes Buddhist teachings so relevant today, and why this practice offers real hope for a very different way of being, and a different sort of world.


Because language is intrinsically dualistic, on a systemic level the very structure of our words and thoughts reinforces and perpetuates this disconnect. Again, quoting Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably." This is why the great spiritual masters speak again and again about the need to free ourselves from the cubicle-like rigidity inherent in these conceptually-based structures.

As Lama Govinda wrote, “Meditation, therefore, must go beyond word-thinking, beyond thinking in concepts; it must encompass the whole of the human being.”  And Yasutani Roshi says, “So long as the winds of thought continue to disturb the water of our Self-nature, we cannot distinguish truth from untruth.  It is imperative, therefore, that these winds be stilled.”


It is vital to recognize that ‘stilling these winds’ does not mean repressing thoughts, feelings, or anything else. It is just that the essential teachings of the Buddha Way call into question the apparent and formidable reality of our dualistic way of experiencing the world. At the same time, this path offers many practices to help us wake up to a deeper fundamental freedom for ourselves.


In a way, what’s really so amazing is that we have an entire religion fundamentally based on an experience that transcends explanation. But this is Buddhism; in its essence it is an experiential religion, and the heart of this experiential teaching is Enlightenment. If you take that away, what’s left? Bodhidharma, the first Chinese Zen ancestor, described Buddhism this way:


A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not relying on words and letters,

Pointing directly to the human mind

And personally realizing Buddhahood.


When he was asked by Emperor Wu about the First Principle of the Holy (Buddhist) Doctrine, Bodhidharma replied, “Vast Emptiness, and nothing to be called holy.” The great Chinese master Yuan Wu wrote, “Our school has no verbal expressions and not a single thing or teaching to give to people.” From the standpoint of the absolute, all the teachings are simply footnotes to the Buddha’s realization – put more succinctly, they are simply explanations that explanations won't do. These teachings, and our lives themselves are, as Annie Dillard put it, “faint tracings on the surface of mystery.”


Getting beyond duality, then, has to do with freeing ourselves from this embedded sense of a so-called “self” standing against an “other.” A big piece of this, though certainly not all of it, lies in freeing ourselves from the ways language reinforces this story of self. In a way, the root of all of Buddhist practices are condensed into the following lines by Dogen Zenji, the great 13th century Japanese master: "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand myriad things."


Dogen’s own sudden awakening came about when his teacher, Ju-ching, called out, “You must let fall body and mind!” This falling away of the sense of a separate self is in some ways a thoroughly radical notion, and yet at the same time lies at the heart of all mystical religions. In Mister Eckhart’s words, “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.” And the Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta has said that spiritual practice is “not about freedom of the self, but from the self.”


Albert Einstein beautifully echoes this truth when he said, "A human being is part of a whole, called by us the 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.”  Einstein goes on to say, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” He takes all this even further when he writes, “The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.”


These words resonate profoundly with the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism. Einstein’s writings are particularly relevant in view of the ways we’re now seeing more clearly into the unmistakable resonance between the discoveries of Quantum Physics and the Buddha’s teachings of impermanence and Shunyata. As this scientific exploration moves more deeply into an understanding of the nature of the universe, we can more clearly recognize how the appearance of “thingness” in the universe has more to do with our ways of perceiving, and the limitations of our conceptual knowing, than with the great unfolding mystery that embraces us all.


Though we may not be able to do much more with words than point vaguely at what awakening is, we can get a somewhat clearer sense of it by saying a bit about what it is not, particularly in terms of the “self.” This gets into some pretty interesting territory: psychologically speaking, a person’s actual sense of a self can fall all over the place; that is, we usually assume that we all share the same basic sense of identity when in fact the experience of “self” varies widely, both individually and culturally.


The sense of self, which begins developing in the early years of our lives, is nowhere near a ‘thing;’ rather it is highly conditioned, evolving through various developmental stages and relationships. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “I seem to be a verb!” Those in the field of object relations have studied this process extensively. For some people, the boundaries between self and other exist with an almost impenetrable rigidity, while for others this separation may be tentative at best. Not only that, but the sense of self often contains deeply contradictory elements, especially between conscious and unconscious levels. There can be an outer “shell” covering over a very vulnerable interior; and equally so, there can be an outer gentleness that masks a much harsher interior, and yet none of these manifestations is fixed.


As practice deepens, and if the unfolding is skillful, we may work our way down through many conditioned layers, only to find that one part of this apparent self can be highly critical of itself. This internal split reveals and repeats itself as a pervasive dichotomy. For most of us the roots of this painful self-sabotaging dynamic lie in the heavily repressive forces of the unconscious – a fact that is little understood, but one which has immense implications for dharma practice and awakening in the West.


In terms of clarifying what awakening is not, it’s vitally important to be able to distinguish authentic experiences from a range of others that can mimic these openings: experiences that may arise abruptly, even explosively, but that also contain a strong, even enhanced, sense of ego. (Here ego refers not to something real, or to the psychological ego, but simply to the sense of being a discreet, separate self continuous through time.)


On the surface, many such experiences may look and sound like genuine awakenings, but actually are not. There are also times when the self drops away in the midst of deep mental instability, a type of “selflessness” that can be quite terrifying. These include the kind of falling-apart experiences connected with fragile or borderline personality tendencies, and others that might be labeled as manic, or psychotic-like episodes.


Even harder to get a handle on are those openings that have elements of authentic realization to them, but at the same time are mixed in with clinically-definable delusions. Such states may have an ecstatic quality to them, or a profound and frightening instability, or a pervasive kind of narcissism. These mixed experiences are often linked with buried issues from the past: strange as it may seem, insight and unresolved intrapsychic conflicts can break through simultaneously, mixing together opportunity, confusion, and suffering. This highly complex area ties into the ways the unconscious becomes mobilized through intensified forms of practice, and then reveals itself through a process I’ve termed “co-mergence.”


What’s particularly confusing is that people have used the complementary terms “awakening” and “enlightenment” to refer to so many different types of experience. At least in our lineage (and to large extent historically), awakening has not been seen as some gradual unfolding that we may or may not be aware of. It’s definitely not some intellectual insight, nor is it some sudden emotional opening of the heart, as wonderful and as helpful as all such experiences can be. Rather, a genuine awakening comes about as a sudden opening, or release, that involves an abrupt falling away of the sense of a fixed self. In an instant everything shifts and we experience a freedom that simply can’t be put into words.


These breakthroughs may come with different levels of intensity. In Zen terms, an initial experience is known as a kensho – often just a tip-of-the-tongue experience –while a second, deeper experience might be referred to as satori. Such openings may repeat themselves, usually with more thorough-going experiences arising out of continually deepening practice.


These are not the kind of experiences where you feel you got something you didn’t have before, or lost something that was there. Instead one feels one has abruptly seen into what has always been fully present. Some have described the experience as a 360-degree turn: somehow everything is the same, and yet at the same time, radically different.  In Little Gidding, TS Elliot writes:


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.


It can also happen that the experience itself is clear enough, but confusion arises when we try to think about it, or to put what we’ve experienced into words. William Miller and Janet C’de Baca have referred to these kinds of sudden shifts as “Quantum Changes,” and their book by this name does a fine job both in presenting a range of first-hand accounts, and most significantly, of looking at some of the ways we can differentiate between psychological and spiritual openings.


Although Buddhism teaches that we are all intrinsically enlightened, without direct, personal experience of this fact, that teaching becomes just another theoretical construct. Breakthrough experiences almost always involve sustained periods of exceptional effort, something we naturally resist.

And though there are some people, even some teachers, that take the position that since we are intrinsically enlightened no effort is called for, even Zen Master Dogen, whose teachings are not always well represented in this area, wrote the following:


“The Great Way of the Buddha & Dharma Ancestors involves the highest form of exertion, which goes on unceasingly in cycles from the first dawn of religious truth, through the test of discipline and practice, to enlightenment and Nirvana. It is sustained exertion, proceeding without lapse from cycle to cycle . . .

This sustained exertion is not something which people of the world naturally love or desire, yet it is the last refuge of all. Only through the exertions of all Buddhas in the past present, and future do the Buddhas of past, present and future become a reality . . .”


The Buddha, seating himself beneath the Bodhi tree, is said to have exclaimed, "Though only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet never from this seat will I stir until I have attained Full Enlightenment!” With practice, as with so many things, you usually get what you put into it, but it would be misleading to think that uprooting the deeply entrenched notions of dualism comes easily.


Zen Master Dogen wrote very clearly about the relationship between sustained exertion and awakening: “The Dharma is abundantly inherent in each individual; yet without practice it will not be manifested, and without enlightenment it will not be perceived.” This view follows in the footsteps of Zen Master Rinzai who, several centuries earlier, had written, “It is not that I understood from the moment I was born of my mother, but that, after exhaustive investigation and grinding discipline, in an instant I knew myself.”  This intensive effort, coupled with a sudden seeing into, is revealed in the Buddha’s experience, and Dogen’s, and Hakuin’s, and in the accounts of so many of the masters, and other realized men and women, over the centuries.


That being said, for most people an initial experience contains a blending of genuine insight, along with a significant dose of intellectualization, and a concurrent updraft of psychological material. A person’s internal response to such an opening depends on many things, including the depth of the experience, their own emotional expressiveness, and their whole conceptual orientation. It may also be significantly influenced by unconscious factors. Because we don’t get anything, the intellect often brings up all kinds of doubts about what’s been revealed, and the mind of self-doubt often seems to take pleasure in trying to cover over all such gifts of the moment. And awakening does come like an unexpected gift; as paradoxical as it may seem, if a person feels they don’t deserve this kind of freedom and affirmation, a smaller experience can easily get pushed aside, or even denied.


It seems vital to note that self-sabotage is often one of the most pernicious occupations of the punitive unconscious, sadly affecting many areas of a person’s life. Aside from dharma practice, this dynamic—often grounded in a sense of unworthiness—can include the undermining of personal insights, aspirations, therapeutic openings, and intimate relationships; it can lead to loneliness and all kinds of personal suffering. This self-sabotaging pattern is almost always at least partially related to repressed anger, an area often poorly understood and worked with in the context of dharma practice. And yet for some people, the effects of such repression reverberate through the whole of their lives.


It’s one of the great paradoxes of practice that the pain and loneliness that can arise out of repression are often part of what helps bring us to practice in the first place; but then, as the intrapsychic conflicts that fuel these painful states become mobilized through deepening practice, and perhaps even further so by an opening, these activated defensives may turn on us even further, and wind up undermining our efforts and insights.


If we understand the ways the unconscious gets mobilized in practice, it provides a significant opportunity for change. If we don’t, then the old pain-producing patterns are likely to continue. So the applicable point in this writing is that if an awakening or opening experience isn’t sufficiently deep, without continued and focused practice and perhaps some skillful work with the unconscious, old conditioned states can reassert themselves. The experience itself may get covered over and so become a memory rather than an actuality—and a life-changing opportunity may be lost.


In terms of training, a key point here is that although we may not be able to actually describe an awakening, at least in some forms of Zen its clarity and depth can be explored. The koan system includes testing questions that can be used by an experienced teacher to help gauge the nature, depth, and clarity of an opening, something that allows both teacher and student to get a clearer view of where things stand. In terms of these types of questions, some people take the view of, “Oh, that’s just some kind of Zen trickery,” but actually that’s not so. Probing in this way is certainly not an attempt to evoke random or clever replies, but rather to get a sense of what’s going on, and in doing so, to help determine how best to proceed. Testing questions call for responses that arise more or less spontaneously, without the intellectual constraints that color so much of our lives. Of course, first experiences are usually quite tentative, but with continued practice they can be deepened and expanded infinitely. Once a genuine opening has taken place, then subsequent koans, which are part of a centuries-old approach, can help us to continually deepen, consolidate, and integrate all that’s come to light.


Very briefly: koans form a whole complete system, and they work on a number of different levels. There are a few very short ones that can help facilitate an initial breakthrough. After that initial opening, subsequent koans can help to guide and refine our understanding—but they work this way only after an awakening has occurred. Koans are primarily experiential teachings, so if you’re drawn to an inquiry-based practice, it helps to find an appropriately trained teacher—one who has actually worked through the koans, who knows what they’re doing from the inside, and who has been sanctioned to teach.


Roshi Kapleau always emphasized that a breakthrough koan shouldn’t be taken up lightly. He additionally cautioned those with a genuine aspiration against working with subsequent koans prematurely, however tempting that might be. Working with koans intellectually, as if they were some kind of riddle to be solved from the outside, keeps the practice on a more superficial level. We’re drawn into thought, and come to believe that if we’re clever enough we can somehow think our way through thinking, which of course is not possible. The whole koan system is both brilliant and inexhaustible; for those taken by to this kind of work, it can offer an unparalleled opportunity to clarify and refine their understanding.


Koans are of course only one kind of practice among many. Though it seems to be a point that’s rarely clarified, it can be helpful to know that some practices lead much more directly to awakening experiences than others. Since awakening is clearly a non-dual experience, dualistically-based practices, such as those that involve “witnessing and observing,” can only take us so far. Certainly they can bring about a greater sense of presence, of “being in the moment,” but they may also work to reinforce the observing ego, rather than uproot it.  Without question, mindfulness practices have helped a great many people to feel better and to function more effectively in their lives, and have been very effectively combined with various psychological approaches. They seem to hold a special appeal for the western mind. However, if someone aspires to awakening, it might be worth exploring whether some other practices might have to offer. As D.T. Suzuki has written,


“In the dust-wiping type of meditation it is not easy to go further than the tranquilization of the mind... At best it ends in ecstasy, self-absorption, a temporary suspension of consciousness.  There is no ‘seeing’ in it, no knowing of itself, no active grasping of self-nature, no spontaneous functioning of it, no ‘Seeing into Nature’ whatever.  The dust-wiping type is an artificial construction which obstructs the way to emancipation.”


Similar, and even stronger, citations can be found in the work of Lama Govinda, Hui Neng, Rinzai, Hsuan-sha, and many more. So if a person aspires to some level of awakening, finding a practice, a teacher, and a style of training that resonates with that aspiration is essential.


It should be clear that simply because a person has had some measure of insight, and perhaps even been sanctioned as a teacher, that doesn’t mean that their lives will necessarily reflect that deeper understanding. Awakening, as with practice as a whole, mobilizes the whole of the unconscious.  This means that along with a deeper level of understanding, the deeper unresolved issues of our lives may also rise up. These unresolved issues can manifest themselves in many different ways; unfortunately, if such issues are present in a person who is put in a position of authority over others, this can lead to all kinds of serious trouble. This is no small matter, and it is a dynamic we are perhaps only beginning to understand.


Taking this a bit further, sometimes practice is looked at as having both vertical and horizontal energies — the vertical aspect relates more to the thoroughness of one’s understanding, the horizontal to the integration of one’s understanding into the particulars of one’s everyday life. There are rare cases of remarkable human beings even in our own time, people like Ramana Maharshi, who seem to awaken and teach out of some profound and natural refinement; but such treasures are hard to find. For most of us the work is on-going, and the path sometimes steep. Here we can perhaps take heart from some other famous words of Master Dogen:


There is no beginning to practice, and no end to enlightenment,

There is no beginning to enlightenment, and no end to practice.