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Zen Bite: The Road to Enlightenment


Zen Bite: The Road to Enlightenment

July 21, 2023

Everywhere you look there is a book, tape, DVD, course or workshop you can take to get “Enlightened.”  There are those who sell the “Now.” There are those who pitch the “Present.” And there are those who sell everything including the kitchen sink.

So what does it mean to be “Enlightened” and how do you get there?

For the most part, enlightenment as it is sold is nothing other than a setup that often leads to big misconceptions. Let’s examine some popular beliefs and why they are misleading.  A frequent one you will hear is, “If you get enlightened your life will be like living in heaven.”  Another is “Enlightenment will give you a competitive advantage.”  And let’s not forget “Enlightenment will make you a better person.”

If any of the above sound familiar, you are not alone. At a certain point in my life I was convinced that through enlightenment I would be liberated from all my ills (my sadness, anger, fears, character defects, etc…) and that my life would be instantaneously transformed into something beyond imaginable.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In my early days in Zen training I would listen to my teacher give talks about enlightenment and think, “This is great, everything is going to change.” and “I have finally found the solution.”  I even recall one new arrival at our zen center sharing that he had come to get “super powers.”  It did not take long to realize that we were very naïve and terribly misguided in our preconceptions.

From a Zen perspective, attaining enlightenment is the easy part. The pursuit of it is referred to as “Ascending the Mountain.”  There are those who prefer to charge to the top (Rinzai Zen), and others who opt to take their time (Soto Zen). Either way it is possible for anyone to reach the summit regardless of intellect, education, social status or level of financial success.

“Descending the Mountain” or post enlightenment is where things get rough.

What the books, DVDs and workshops often fail to tell you is that enlightenment reveals a problem. I guess it’s bad for business for anyone trying to make a living selling enlightenment to admit that but it is true. Seeing reality can be quite startling.

Here is an account of a great conversation between a Roshi (senior teacher) and a young monk. It underscores how the experience of enlightenment is often not what we expect.

The young monk approached Roshi and said, “Roshi, I have attained enlightenment. Ever since my life has gotten worse. Nothing is going as I had envisioned it would. Why am I so miserable?” Roshi replied, “Enlightenment, whoever said you would like it when you got it.” Roshi turned and walked away.

Contrary to popular myths and marketing, Enlightenment is not a final destination. What waits on the other side is the Human Condition, and it is a nasty piece of work. It is the part of us that we keep hidden in the background out of fear of loss or alienation — the part of us that most people don’t want to deal with. This was the source of the young monk’s distress. He was unprepared for what he saw and what he would have to confront within himself.

Enlightenment reveals one thing: that we have been living a false truth. After the initial high of seeing reality dissipates, we become aware that the source of our own troubles, distress, disappointment, etc… is ourselves: this was the Buddha’s realization 2,600 years ago. All those thoughts, beliefs, positions and judgments that have shaped our daily experience are suddenly seen for what they are: not true.  Reconciling the disparity between your version of the world, and the way it actually is, is unsettling. The question then becomes, “What do you do?”

Integrating your enlightenment is where the work really begins — this is “Descending the Mountain.” Doing so is humbling, often turbulent and requires that you face some tough realities. By this I mean that you accept the impact of your thoughts and actions on yourself and others.  All of it can be sourced back to the unspoken motivations that are the basis for your actions — the stuff that we rely on to survive and succeed — the stuff that we would rather take to our grave than admit openly. No one is immune to this.

Zen training by design confronts the human condition head on. The practice puts great emphasis on Zazen (Zen meditation), which is the primary technology that has been used for thousands of years. By sitting quietly on a square mat and round cushion the contents of our mind come to the foreground. As this happens, we are presented with the opportunity to reclaim parts of ourselves that we thought we had cast away long ago. Yes, Zen meditation is about “re-owning,” not disowning.

Through regular practice, greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of ourselves develops. As this happens, the ability to detect a wider spectrum of emotional and psychological states makes it possible to take advantage of the small gap between thought and action.  In fact, neuroscience researchers have discovered that this is approximately 2/10 of a second — more than enough time to take or prevent action that otherwise would be unheard of. In Zen we refer to this as pausing and growing thoughtful, and it is the gateway to improved relationships, courage, inspiration and satisfaction.

Enlightenment in the absence of real awareness of the nuances of the human condition is worthless. You first have to see them, then own them, and then train to be less at the effect of them. It is not about some ideal way of behaving, or promise of pie in the sky. And it is certainly not about replacing your current self with a new and improved one. Rather, it is a conscious state that must be cultivated and maintained by you and it takes work to do so.

If you find yourself inclined to pursue Enlightenment, here are a few recommendations. (1) Check the credentials of whomever you seek out for guidance. (2) Run if someone promises you something that sounds too good to be true. (3) Give up any preconceptions of what it will be like. (4) Jump in and give it 100%.

The road to enlightenment is never-ending, but it is a road well worth traveling.

Mark Eckhardt Bio

Since 1998, Mark Eckhardt has studied Zen Buddhism under the auspices of Bill Yoshin Jordan, Abbot of the Santa Monica Zen Center.

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