What is Enlightenment?

By Charlie Holles

I was recently reading something by Great Master Dogen. I would like to quote it first and then share my feelings and the insights that seemed to arise. It is taken from ‘Being-Time’, A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji by Shinshu Roberts.
Dogen tells the story of a student’s progress in ‘Zuimonki’ (Record of Things Heard) prefaced with this simile:
An ancient has said, “Associating with a good person is like walking through the mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp. This means that if you become familiar with a good person, you will become good yourself without being aware of it.”
In the main story, a young man was a student of Master Gutei. This student didn’t seem to realise what he was learning or practicing. Dogen comments, “a boy who attended Master Gutei, without noticing when he was learning or when he was practicing, realised the Way because he served as a personal attendant to the master who had been practicing for a long time.” In the course of attending to Master Gutei, he attained realisation.
………the student was not aware he was being trained. He probably spent his time making the master’s bed and fetching tea. Yet these activities, in accord with Master Gutei’s instruction, created his passage from student to master.
I think we often over-intellectualise about enlightenment, realising the truth, however we put it. In my own case, as a hippie in the 70’s and a then devotee of an Indian guru, I developed all sorts of notions about what this state would be. Many were fanciful, although they were part of the journey that brought me to Buddhism. When I took Jukai, 30 years ago, I still carried a lot of these ideas and expectations about how my Buddhist practice would or should unfold. Gradually I have shed most of them as they caused me quite a lot of suffering.
Dogen emphasised that meditation is the foundation of our practice. But he also made it clear that we must manifest whatever that teaches us in our daily life; in our actions from moment to moment. We do that by living simply from one moment to the next, doing whatever is good to do in response to whatever presents itself to us. It is not enough to sit on our cushion and retreat from the world.
My life used to be full, hectic, some would say glamorous. I travelled all over the world. I went on Buddhist pilgrimage to India. I did exotic things and so on. Now being retired, my life is much simpler, in part because my health won’t let me live as before. I do some voluntary work in a primary school each week; I have many more still days, perhaps just reading or sitting quietly; I work in the garden at the social housing complex where I live; I have interaction with the other residents.
Slowly I am understanding that realisation can simply be wherever and whenever I am. There are fleeting moments when my ego and discriminatory mind are quiet; I am right with what I am doing and the person I am with and I have no intruding desires for something other. Maybe that is a moment of enlightenment – I don’t know.
What I do know is that slowly I am letting go of wanting the ‘flashing lights and rainbows in the sky’ that once might have been what I thought my goal should be! Perhaps illumination is akin to cleaning one’s spectacles. The view doesn’t radically change but everything is clearer and sharper around the edges. I try simply to be and to be content with that. As Dogen teaches, Buddha Nature is our essence therefore we are already ‘realised’. It is just that we allow our focus to be on the dualistic world so for most of the time we simply do not live in and from what we truly are.

5 Replies to “What is Enlightenment?”

  1. It is nice to read something positive. I find it so easy to dwell on those things that one perceives as not being ‘good enough’ in ones practice. A point I find particularly telling is the thing about associating with others and thus getting ‘drenched.’ I really think there is a lot to be said for that, and it very much underlines for me the importance of sangha. And the importance quite simply of sticking with the practice and plodding on. And when I feel in some way inadequate or dissatisfied, I only have to look, as someone once advised, back to how I was when I started out, and I can feel re-assured!
  2. Thank you Chris – yes there is so much wisdom in Dogen’s writing. It is only recently that I have really begun to appreciate him. I am slowly working through ‘Being-Time’ (Uji). It is really hard but fortunately, in the book referred to above, each section is only 4 or 5 pages long. I read each one several times over a number of days before moving on to the next. Though much of it completely scrambles my intellect (which I think he is trying to do) it does feel as if it is slowly sinking in on a deeper, heart or intuitional level.
  3. Dear Charlie, Thank you for sharing your experience of reading Dogen. For me, your words illustrate the importance of sharing Zazen practice based on the way we each live our lives and the choices we make. These difficult times living with Covid has created the opportunity for me to be still, read and reflect Buddhist Sutras in a deeper way. So grateful for the guidance and example from monks and lay members of our sangha, albeit at a distance, I have a greater sense of community.
  4. Thank you Mo, yes I am finally beginning to get to grips with Dogen. I recall quite some time ago that Rev Master Daishin said something about how study of Dogen would be well worth doing. At the time I always found him really difficult. Perhaps as our training deepens, we can begin to understand his writing better. So too the value and importance of the sangha has grown for me over the years.

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