Essays & Articles


by Susan Moon

I’ve been on the Zen path for a good 40 years now, and I still haven’t had a Great Awakening during zazen. I have had moments of Great Sleeping during zazen, however, and I’m somewhat comforted by the remark of Master Bush Wak, who said, “How can you awaken, if you are not asleep?” Still, when will I awaken?

When I first came to Zen, I hoped I would get enlightened. I thought that if I sat hard enough (Sit harder! Sit harder!), a moment would come when I would be flooded with love and I would understand the meaning of life, particularly the meaning of my life. That didn’t happen. I learned over the years not to grasp for enlightenment in zazen, but sometimes I would think: now that I’m not grasping for it, don’t I deserve to get it?

I have had moments of insight, yes, when a light bulb has suddenly switched on in my head, like in the comics, and I’ve seen that I’m connected to the entire universe. But it hasn’t happened on the cushion, and when it has happened, it hasn’t had much to do with Zen. Do those moments count? Or is there something wrong with me?

I worry about this, because I’m a “lay Zen teacher,” and so I should have some experience of this important part of our practice. I was drawn to Zen partly because I love the literature—the sutras, the koans, the poetry—and this literature is full of references to awakenings.

Satori and kensho are Japanese words for the Zen enlightenment experience. English translations, necessarily imprecise, include enlightenment, realization, illumination and awakening—words for something that cannot be put into words.

Satori generally refers to a greater, longer-lasting awakening and kensho to a smaller awakening, though I can’t help wondering how one awakening experience could be smaller than another one. Isn’t immeasurability the point?

There are two schools of Zen--Rinzai and Soto. I’m fortunate that the kind of Zen I practice is Soto, because enlightenment is not emphasized in our school, and, in fact, the subject is somewhat taboo. Nobody has ever put me on the spot by asking, “Have you had satori yet?”

In the Rinzai tradition, your teacher gives you a koan, which is a nonlinear story or question that helps you to go beyond the boundaries of your habitual thinking, and you meditate on it until you have a breakthrough, an experience of kensho. You go to your teacher to have your kensho confirmed, and then you get another koan. I have great respect for this tradition, and for the Rinzai teachers and practitioners I know. Whether Rinzai or Soto, we’re dharma sisters and brothers.

In our Soto family, we study koans informally, and we talk about them together. These old stories are full of sudden illuminations. And yet, in our school, it is said that everyone is already enlightened, whether we realize it or not. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, whose lineage I’m a part of, famously said to his students, “You are all perfect, exactly as you are, and you could use a little improvement.”

Dogen Zenji, the 13th-century founder of the Soto school, emphasized that practice and awakening are one continuous activity, a verb, not a noun. Everyday life and life as an enlightened buddha are the same life. You don’t have to go somewhere special or do something special. “Here is the place. Here the way unfolds,” Dogen says.

Over the years, these teachings have helped me relax about not having experienced a Great Awakening. But the question lurks in the shadows: Can I truly wake up? And how will I know if I do?

I’m in a study group of longtime Zen practitioners, and not long ago we were recently studying Keizan’s Transmission of Light, an 11th-century Chinese text. Thomas Cleary, the translator, says in his introduction, “This is a book of instruction in the art of satori—Zen enlightenment....Satori is said to be the key to inner freedom and independence, the door to higher knowledge, realized by all enlightened people.”

Uh-oh. The key to the door? Cleary’s words brought back my insecurity, and the stories in the book, wonderful as they are, added to my worries, as each one tells of the sudden awakening of an ancient Zen master. There must be something to it. Where’s my satori?

I trust my dharma brothers and sisters, with whom I’ve been practicing for years, and so I found the courage to break the taboo, and I blurted out this question to the group: “Have you experienced enlightenment?” Everyone seemed both relieved and shy to talk about it. I noticed that people blushed a lot. great! The mood was almost like a junior high pajama party, and as the subject was aired, it was normalized. We went around the room, and everyone said, modestly, “I am not enlightened.” As we talked, we led each other to the shared understanding that there’s no such thing as being in a permanent state of enlightenment. It’s not a place you get to, where you can rest on your laurels from that day forward. We told each other stories, with verbs, not nouns. Everyone had had moments of waking up, moments of going beyond the separate self, some during zazen, and some outside of the zendo, and they were just that—moments. When we included awakenings outside the zendo, I, too, had had my moments.

Maybe satori wasn’t such a big deal after all. I saw that I had turned “enlightenment” into a THING, a thing I didn’t have, a thing that hadn’t happened to me. But it’s not an either/or matter. It’s not a line you cross, becoming different from everyone else who hasn’t crossed that line.

I turn now to the people in the old Zen stories who had sudden awakenings. How different are they from me? Here are a couple of my favorites.

First, a story about a young woman in 17th-century Japan who became a prostitute in order to support her family. (That’s pretty different, for starters.)

Ohashi was terrified by lightning. One day, during a violent thunderstorm, she sat zazen on the veranda of the brothel in order to face her fear. A bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of her. She fainted, and when she awoke, she saw the world in an entirely new way. Hakuin certified her enlightenment.

What a brave young woman! I wonder if I could be that brave.

Here’s another enlightenment experience from 9th-century China:

Asan was a laywoman who studied Zen with Master Tetsumon and was unremitting in her devotion to practice. One day during her morning sitting she heard the crow of the rooster and her mind suddenly opened. She spoke a verse in response:

The fields, the mountains, the flowers and my body too are the voice of the bird—

what is left that can be said to hear? Master Tetsumon recognized her enlightenment.

Both of these women experienced enlightenment while sitting zazen. Both of them went to their teachers, who certified their enlightenment. (As a side issue, why does enlightenment need to be certified? Isn’t the person who sees the light the exact person who knows she has seen the light?)

Now I’m getting worried again. I can’t help wondering why I haven’t had such an experience. Is it because I haven’t tried hard enough? Is it because I’ve tried too hard? It’s supposed to just happen. You’re not supposed to try to make it happen.

Well, I have had experiences of opening. I have had moments of realizing I was interconnected with all beings. So, with the idea that these actual experiences might be worth considering, I mention some of them:

• I had laughing gas at the dentist, when I was about eight, and I floated out of my body to the ceiling, beyond all pain and fear, and looked down at the little girl who was having a cavity filled, as if it was something that had happened eons ago. I knew that all was well.

• When I first heard my newborn baby cry, I realized that everything in the universe was born at the same time.

• While hiking in a wilderness area of the Mojave Desert, I paused to mop my brow and looked up to see an endangered Bighorn Sheep, standing stock still on a rock ledge six feet above my head. For a silent instant, we looked directly into each other’s eyes and recognized each other as one being.

• When I stood in the garden at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, waiting to strike the wooden board called the han with a mallet, to call the monks to zazen, I watched the drops of water from the sprinkler catch the last sunlight and spread it over the garden. The mallet in my raised hand was ready, free from time, for a second, and the second lasted forever.

• When I woke up in the recovery room after a colonoscopy, I felt that I had just landed on a planet where everyone was the embodiment of kindness, and they were dancing around my bed attending to my every need—another blanket, a sip of water—whatever I needed before I knew I needed it.

• When my bag—containing my laptop, ID’s and credit cards, phone, calendar, address book, cash—was stolen at San Francisco Airport, I was unable to fly to Tucson where I was scheduled to lead a retreat because I had no ID. I wasn’t anybody. I had only a subway pass in my pocket, and so I took the train back again to Berkeley. Looking out the window at the hills of San Bruno, I understood in a flash of joy that I still had my body and my life and the people I loved. I touched my knees in amazement, and shouted to myself, silently: “I’m alive! I’m alive!”

At first glance these moments do not particularly resemble the moments in the old koans. I don’t know whether Hakuin (Ohashi’s teacher) would certify a moment of enlightenment that was due to a colonoscopy. But wait—I think he would! Yes, he would! I’m remembering this story:

An old woman went to hear Master Hakuin give a lecture. He said, “Your mind is the Pure Land, and your body is Amida Buddha. When Amida Buddha appears, mountains, rivers, forests, and fields all radiate a great light. If you want to understand, look into your own heart.” The old woman pondered Hakuin’s words day and night, waking and sleeping. One day, as she was washing a pot after breakfast, a great light flashed through her mind. She dropped the pot and ran to tell Hakuin. “Amida Buddha filled my whole body. Mountains, rivers, forests, and fields are all shining with light. How wonderful!” She danced for joy.

“What are you talking about?” Hakuin asked. “Does the light shine up your asshole?”

Small as she was, she gave him a big push, saying, “I can see you’re not enlightened yet!” They both burst out laughing.

And how different was my moment of eye contact with the Bighorn-sheep from Asan’s moment of feeling that her body was the same as the rooster’s voice?

Come to think of it, plenty of the Great Awakenings in the old stories happen outside of zazen. In fact most of them do. A person awakens while sweeping, or drinking tea, or tripping and falling to the ground. What if my AHA!’s are just as valid as the awakenings in the koans?

After all, these experiences have changed my view of my life. They have stayed with me and given me faith that “I” am not separate. I forget about them as I go about the business of the day, of course, but a kind of faith remains, in my bones. And I can come back to the memories. When I think there’s not enough time, I can remember the timeless garden at Tassajara. When I feel my life is incomplete, I can think of the joy of being alive on the subway train.

It’s as if you are living in a room that you think is the whole world. You don’t even know that there are walls around you until suddenly a window opens, the blinds are drawn aside and you see a vast mountain range beyond. When the blinds are closed again and you can no longer see out, you don’t return to your former limited view, because now you know that the mountains are there. You know that you live among them.

The moments I have described are not typical of everyday life; they are exceptional moments. But you don’t have to give birth or be the victim of theft in order to glimpse the infinite. Zen teacher Norman Fischer says there’s no need to make a big deal about satori. He says that enlightenment comes frequently, in little glimpses, and you hardly notice it before it quickly fades away again. It can happen many times in an ordinary day. It’s nothing more than knowing, for a moment, that you are alive. I appreciate this reminder. I don’t need to wait for a peak experience; I need only to be fully present in my life.

For me, these little slippages into vastness are often connected to light, like walking through the dining room at the exact moment when the sun is backlighting the purple tulips in the middle of the table. (Maybe this is why I love the practice of photography, because of the way the light gives itself away, illuminating whatever it meets with no distinctions.) Or pausing on a walk at the Berkeley Marina in the early morning to sit on a bench and look at the bay, while the light of the sun lands on my jacket and magically turns itself into heat and warms me up, and I realize that this warmth is coming to me from 93 million miles away.

Everyday interactions with others can also be openings for me, reminding me of our infinite subatomic connections. Someone passes me a napkin at the deli counter before I ask for it. Later the same day, I watch a very little girl sliding around on her stomach on a slippery marble bench in the post office while her mother waits in line. She sees me looking at her, sees my pleasure. “I’m swimming!” she declares.

Even if I don’t have satori during zazen, I believe my practice makes me more open to waking up outside the zendo. That time of exchanging my breath with the breath of the universe makes me porous. I continue to discover that I am not separate after all, not from the toddler on the bench, not from the Bighorn Sheep on the rock.

Nothing’s missing after all. I’ve seen the light! If I can see it you can see it. The sunlight falls on everyone it meets, without picking and choosing. We can all be lit up.

Wake up, take a nap, wake up again. As easy as falling off a log.

I follow the path of Zen because it makes me more likely to appreciate being alive while I am alive. On a family camping trip in the Sierra, my 9-year-old granddaughter and I lay next to each other on our backs in our sleeping bags, surrounded by lodgepole pines, and looked up at the night sky. “Isn’t it amazing,” she said, “the way the trees make a big circle in the sky and point up to the stars?” Yes, it was amazing, I agreed.

Great Interview with Thich Nhat Hahn

One of the best parts of my job as editor of the Shambhala Sun is the chance to discuss dharma seriously, even intimately, with great teachers. I’m a Buddhist student before I’m a journalist, and the questions I ask are often ones that have deep meaning to me as a person and a practitioner. The result is less an interview, in the standard sense, than the record of a teaching that I received. This is a great honor and privilege for me, and I hope it is of benefit to you.

I met Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park Monastery near San Diego, a mix of East and West, funky and elegant, mindful and playful. It sits in a little mountain valley in splendid isolation from the suburbs just a mile away. Many of its low, one-story buildings have the temporary feel of an army camp (it has been a nudist camp and a police training center) but its elegant new meditation hall is of majestic scale. Outside, young Vietnamese-American monks play basketball while elderly nuns in traditional conical hats sweep leaves off the dry ground, and earnest Western lay practitioners debate the dharma. The breakfast buffet is traditional Vietnamese fish alongside Corn Flakes and peanut butter, and everything stops when the clock chimes so people can practice a few moments of mindfulness.

I spoke with Thich Nhat Hanh for about an hour and quarter, and then he showed me the calligraphies, the ones in this issue, which he had done beforehand as a gift to the Shambhala Sun. Although he is best-known for his political and community-building work, I found he was so much more. I met a multidimensional teacher who was deep and realized, committed to both practice and community, steeped in traditional dharma and the ways of the world. He spoke directly to my heart, and if you get a chance to hear him teach, do. Words in print do not do him justice.

—Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod: Around us at this monastery are many signs and slogans reminding people to be mindful, to return to their body and breath, and to recollect their nature as human beings. At mealtimes, everyone stops eating when the clock chimes to practice a few moments of mindfulness. Why is it so important for us to return to this basic ground of breath and body and being?

Thich Nhat Hanh: To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you. All meditation exercises are aimed at bringing you back to your true home, to yourself. Without restoring your peace and calm and helping the world to restore peace and calm, you cannot go very far in the practice.

Melvin McLeod: What is the difference between this true self, the self you come home to, and how we normally think of ourselves?

Thich Nhat Hanh: True self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements. There’s no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.

Melvin McLeod: What happens to you when you realize that the true nature of the self is non-self?

Thich Nhat Hanh: It brings you insight. You know that your happiness and suffering depend on the happiness and suffering of others. That insight helps you not to do wrong things that will bring suffering to yourself and to other people. If you try to help your father to suffer less, you have a chance to suffer less. If you are able to help your son suffer less, then you, as a father, will suffer less. Thanks to the realization that there is no separate self, you realize that happiness and suffering are not individual matters. You see the nature of interconnectedness and you know that to protect yourself you have to protect the human beings around you.

That is the goal of the practice—to realize non-self and interconnectedness. This is not just an idea or something you understand intellectually. You have to apply it to your daily life. Therefore you need concentration to maintain this insight of non-self so it can guide you in every moment. Nowadays, scientists are able to see