Seven years ago, I started August Meditations to record my thoughts on Buddhist meditation and enlightenment. I wanted to focus my mind. A blog seemed the perfect choice as it would require that I take time out each day to organize my thoughts so that I could put something down on virtual paper. I also wanted to share my journey with the hope that in doing so it might be of help to others.
Over the years my understanding of meditation has evolved. I began with the belief that meditation lead to some sudden and major transformative experience of consciousness. This belief was strengthened by accounts like those found in Roshi Philip Kapleau’s book, “The Three Pillars of Zen.” In that book Kapleau gave eight contemporary enlightenment experiences that spoke of ‘heaven and earth crumbling’ that lead me to believe sudden enlightenment was the norm.
On occasion I found other authors that contradicted the idea of sudden enlightenment. One wrote that your (the reader’s) present consciousness is the highest available. A Zen master said something to the effect that after many years of practice he found higher experiences to be a waste of time. Another Zen master, Kodo Sawaki, said, “Zazen is really useless in terms or being utilitarian or beneficial to you or society.” Which was later translated by Kosho Uchiyama as, “Good-for-nothing zazen.”
A specific example I can give comes from “The Transmission of the Lamp,” a 30-volume work that represents the first appearance of “encounter dialogues” in the Zen tradition. Master Po-chang asked Kuei-shan to poke a fire pot and find out whether there was some burning charcoal left. Kuei-shan didn’t find any but when Master Po-chang did and showed it to him, Kuei-shan awakened. Master Po-chang then said that “The method that I used just now was only for this occasion. It is not the usual approach.” (italic’s mine)
Master Po-chang went on to say that “After enlightenment one is still the same as one was before. There is no mind and there is no Dharma.” A statement that seems to reinforce the above reference that your present consciousness is the highest!
The implication is that sudden awakening is not the norm. Even those who have had a sudden awakening liken it to winning the lottery. And as most of us will never win the lottery, I was forced to re-examine my expectations.
As it turned out my previous readings had prepared me for this re-examination. I recalled that when Zen master Dogen questioned why it was necessary to meditate when the mind was already perfect and complete in itself, that he concluded that practice is enlightenment. Sitting alert and aware in the present moment is enlightenment. There is no higher state to realize. There is no waiting for some future awakening. It’s here, right now. All that needs to be done is to recognize it.
I conclude that the only goal of practice is to be in the present moment. Anything other is just a distraction. Of course, there are times when one has to think of the future or recall things from the past but once that is done, attention should return to the present moment. And isn’t that what meditation is? Waking from distraction and returning to the present moment?
Referring back to the story of Kuei-shan’s awakening, Master Po-chang told him that “To behold the Buddha nature one must wait for the right moment and the right conditions. When the time comes, one is awakened as from a dream. (italics mine) It is as if one’s memory recalls something long forgotten.”
This quote says two things to me. The first is that I have no control over when the right moment and right conditions will arise. A fact that is reinforced by others who are enlightened who have said that when it happens, you realize nothing you’ve previously done has caused it. It just happened.
The other thing it tells me is that the distracted state is a sort of dream state. I’ve actually been coming to this realization for some time now. It’s quite apparent that when I move from a distracted state back to the present moment that there is a shift of consciousness that I can only describe as a ‘coming out of my head’ and ‘waking’ to my current surroundings.
The same thing happens, of course, when I wake up from my nightly dreams. What I’ve only recently realized is that dream imagery doesn’t end when I get up in the morning. It continues throughout the day as thought and feeling. My waking thoughts, in other words, are my dream thoughts. Which means that throughout most of the day I’m in a relatively unconscious state!
This brings me to the most important realization I’ve had in the past year. That is, the need to constantly practice being in the present moment. Or, to put it another way, to continuously wake from my dream thoughts. Anything else is sleeping. Being in my head. Living in the past and anticipating the future. Trying to maintain my ego and fix myself. Trying to deny reality or ‘what is.’ It’s all a distraction.
All the books. All the teachings. All the words of past and future Masters mean nothing if you don’t simply practice. In this moment. In the next. And the next.