Zen Master Dogen called it, “The dropping away of body and mind.”
It’s an experience in which suddenly all things stop. We drop our identity and just sit there BEING. The endless chatter in our minds stops and we experience what we really are, our true nature.
They call it Kensho. It’s an experience of Enlightenment. It’s dwelling in our true nature, where the boundaries of self and other dissolve and we realize that we are one with everything.
But it’s not Enlightenment.
We come back. We come back from the experience and find ourselves separate again. But the experience changes us. We bring a little bit back from the void every time.
It’s not Enlightenment, but it is something special. Some spiritual teachers say we shouldn’t talk about Kensho, but I disagree. Kensho helps us. It motivates us on the path. It reminds us that Enlightenment is possible. We come to believe that Enlightenment is real because we dwell in Enlightenment for a little while.
Sometimes Kensho is big, like a bomb going off in your mind. And sometimes it’s small, just a weird feeling that stays with you all day after a meditation session.
But it’s always important. Some people have had Kensho and believed that they were Enlightened. That’s dangerous because it makes people believe their journey is done, that they don’t need to try anymore.
I usually think that’s the main reason to have spiritual teacher, really, so someone is around to tell you, “Hey, slow down.” When you think you’ve had a really profound experience and that you’re ready to solve all the world’s problems because YOU ARE ENLIGHTENED LIKE BUDDHA WAS.
A lot of historical Zen teachers, like Dogen and Huineng, wrote about Kensho a lot. These experiences were always considered an important part of the path.
But teachers today don’t talk about them all that much. Maybe they don’t want students to feel bad if they don’t have them? Or they don’t want students to compare each other’s experiences and get competitive about them. “My Kensho lasted an hour, I’m spiritualer than you!”
The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, had his first Kensho when he was a child.
Siddhartha was a Prince. Actually, probably the son of a tribal chieftain of some sort, not a Prince. But in the stories he is described as a Price. Either way, he had a privileged life. But he decided to leave that life behind to take a spiritual journey. His family wasn’t interested in such things. He wasn’t taught much spirituality as a child. His father was actually afraid that his son wouldn’t carry on his legacy.
So, he had no real context for the spiritual journey at all.
One day when he was outside playing he sat under a tree on the ground. A sense of overwhelming peace and oneness came upon him spontaneously. He had that experience as a kid and it would influence his whole spiritual journey.
Later, when he studied with spiritual teachers and couldn’t find what he was looking for he thought back to that childhood awakening. That’s what gave him the determination he needed to attain Enlightenment.