Enlightenment, Endarkenment, Zen
James Myoun Ford
When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.
Nagarjuna, Verses from the Center,
translated by Stephen Batchelor
It was sometime in 1969. Okay, maybe 1970. It was a long time ago, and I could just say once upon a time.
Once upon a time, long ago, and far away…
I had been living in a Zen monastery in Oakland, California for a while. The rhytms of that life included some study, a fair amount of work, and just a ton of meditation, including a sesshin every month. A sesshin is an intensive Zen meditation retreat of three, five, or seven days, centering on nine or ten hours of seated meditation each day. So, a sesshin is extremely difficult, physically demanding, and psychically, well, psychically it is all about being stripped naked before the universe. It can be grueling hard. Let me rephrase, it is grueling hard.
That said, what I mostly recall from those days so many years ago was being hungry. I was twenty-one, and pretty much always hungry. It certainly didn’t help that the main feature of those sesshin dinners was a thin miso soup with some vegetables.
So, on that day in 1969, in the midst of a sesshin meal, I vividly recall how I quickly slurped down the vegetables. Carrots added a little crunch. I recall that, even pushing on fifty years from the moment. Quickly every bite was gone.
Then, feeling really, really sorry for myself I swirled the spoon in the broth and lifted it up. And there was a large cabbage leaf resting in the spoon. I looked at that cabbage leaf. And, I felt waves of gratitude wash over me. First for that cabbage leaf. Then for the spoon. Then for my companions sitting with me, working with me, supporting me in my practice. And it kept flowing. Gratitude for the room, itself, containing us. For the planet that supported us all. For the whole blessed cosmos.
And. Then. Then. Just gratitude. Wave, after wave, an ocean of gratitude.
And then even that gratitude fell away. Everything fell away. No cabbage leaf, no spoon, no companions, no room, planet, or cosmos. With that sense of everything gone I put the spoon to my mouth and ate the cabbage leaf.
As soon as I could I reported all this to the roshi, the Zen master who was guiding our retreat. Now, at the time I was most taken with the expansive experiences and my feelings of gratitude. That certainly was where the action was. However, the teacher wasn’t particularly interested in that part. Instead she questioned me closely about the falling away thing, the “no” thing,” and that moment when I put the spoon to mouth and just ate that cabbage leaf.
This part was my first “awakening” experience certified by a Zen teacher.
In the moment I thought I’d arrived. I’d put the great matter to rest. That was sort of what was promised in the books and dharma talks. Peace and wisdom. Maybe a month later I was down in Oakland visiting my mother. I took a walk in the neighborhood. A young girl skipping rope on the sidewalk stopped and looked at me. I had a shaved head, something not particularly common in that time and place, but wore ordinary street clothing. Nothing standing out, well, except for a fairly large mala, Buddhist rosary which I wore like a necklace. The kid pointed at the mala and asked, “What’s that?”
Now, in the Zen literature when you encounter a teacher, they often ask a question like that. It’s an invitation into showing what you’ve got, what you know. I replied, “It’s a Buddhist rosary.” I knew the dance calls for ordinary. The special is nothing special. Then she looked at it a little more closely, and said, “Looks stupid.” Needing to say nothing more, she resumed skipping rope.
My ears grew red. I felt different waves, this time embarrassment. And, with that I realized maybe not everything had fallen away.
There’s a lovely saying in Western Zen, a paraphrase of the great Thirteenth century master, Eihei Dogen, “One continuous mistake.”
With that I found another tumbling away. Something began there in that double encounter. The first with the cabbage leaf. The other with that little girl. While I’d already made any number of commitments and had engaged the disciplines of Zen with a lot of energy and dedication for several years, it was at this moment my Zen practice actually started.
While Zen is a particular path with its own forms and traditions, I gradually understood I’d actually embarked on something that is as ancient as our humanity. The Unitarian Universalist divine Forrest Church once observed that all religion, all spirituality births out of two things: knowing we are alive. And knowing we will die. I would add in two things. First, our noticing how it is all so fragile. Actually, fragile isn’t quite enough. In fact, this sense is usually a noticing that something’s wrong. So much hurt, violence, loss in thi life. And of course, it always ends with death. And, one more thing. Beating like our very hearts, some longing, some calling toward something. Words fail. But, “home” feels closest to right for me.
I had been born into a fundamentalist Christian family. I found the Jesus of my childhood religion something beautiful and mysterious. But the God I was pointed to seemed different. Too much a gathering storm deity. Too many lightning bolts arbitrarily shattering lives. I had too much trouble distinguishing him from Zeus, and by my early adolescence no more likely. And, then by my mid-adolescence, I realized that the Christianity of my upbringing wasn’t going to work for me.
So, I launched on a quest. This was the San Francisco Bay Area in the late nineteen sixties. And what can I say, there were a lot of options. I tried a lot of them. However, I quickly found Buddhism making the most sense.
What caught me at the time was a teaching called the “three marks of existence.” The first mark is aniccaan assertion that everything is impermanent, everything made of parts will fall apart. Second, anattaasserts this truth of impermanence extends even to us, you and me. And last dukkha, often translated as suffering, but that’s not quite right. It’s the relentless buzz of anxiety, the sense of dissatisfaction that sours everything. I first heard this teaching, and I knew, I knew in my bones that I’d found a spiritual path that spoke truth. This was a description of what really is, of the real.
Or, almost. There was still one more thing for it to be a complete description of that real. That second thing is called “original awakening.” Original awakening is the term put to another aspect of reality equally important to the impermanence of all things and the buzz of unsatisfactoriness. And that critical thing is how everything is connected. Our true reality is that everything even within its passingness, is also intimate. Intimate. More intimate than my words can convey. This teaching of original awakening, while you can see it here and there in the discourses attributed to the historic Buddha, is not fully developed until a little later in Buddhism’s history than the three marks. But, it is central to the Zen project. In fact it opens the Zen way.
It’s what I touched in that double encounter in the monastery and on the street. Partially. Today, I wouldn’t have confirmed those experiences as awakenings, certainly not so fast. But, as partial, as weak, as little as it was, it was also the turning of my heart, the meeting of the three marks, of original awakening, and, and this is critical, it was my initiation into this way of one continuous mistake, the path of just this, just this. The way of intimacy.
Now words quickly fail. Words really are maps and not the territory. That said, at some point we need to put down the map, let go of our stories about the real, and simply taste that cabbage leaf. And, yes, I get the contradiction of using a story to point to dropping our stories. Actually, if we just let it be, sometimes words are it, too. For the intimate to manifest, ironically, we need to let go of grasping so tightly. The way of Zen is the way of holding lightly.
For me, my path, born as I was at the cusp of the Age of Aquarius, amidst the collapse of many boundaries, including those sharply dividing East and West, has been all about bringing it together. The old order is dying. All the old orders are dying. Actually, maybe the world itself is dying. Or, at least we humans have very possibly exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet for creatures like us. Unpacking that is for another time.
What matters here, in this moment, as we live between the dying of an old and the birthing of some as yet uncertain new, is to share some good news. And I have some. It turns on those fifty years since I tasted that cabbage leaf and was humiliated by that jump roping child.
My sister in the Dharma the Zen teacher Joan Sutherland once wrote:
“For one woman, this revelation began with what she called the dark side of the moon, when she saw the light in the most broken places inside us, the places from which we’re capable of causing great harm; as someone in a helping profession dealing with the effects of that harm, she found this painful to accept. Then the bright side of the moon appeared, illuminating the great joys of her life. Finally she saw that it was “all moon,” with nothing left out, a realization both shattering and healing.”
It starts as something deeply personal. Awakening, enlightenment disrupts our dreams of certainty and with that seeing through our desires and aversions, which fronts us into reality.
Another contemporary Zen teacher, one who is also a psychiatrist, Barry Magid, keeps pushing the examination. He notices, “Awakening is the progressive – or sudden – loss of one fantasy after another (including) of “awakening” – until one is left with one’s ordinary mind, just as it is, with no self-centered project of becoming more or other than who one is in the moment.”
The way I prefer to phrase it, is that awakening is not a thing, nor is it a thought, nor is it even an experience – rather it is noticing what is: the first time perhaps dramatically, but then over, and over, and over, and deeper and deeper and deeper, in each, perhaps dramatic, more likely undramatic moment of our lives.
Joan Sutherland is fond of the phrase endarkenment. We can’t cling even to the light. In fact light metaphors can be terribly misleading. Because, one way of understanding this whole thing, is as loss, giving up our sense of ownership, surrendering into the great flow of the Dao, sinking into the dark waters that are in fact nothing other than us. You. Me.
Enlightenment. Endarkenment. Surrender into what is.
And. Also. That immortal “but,” which turns everything.
The rhetoric attached to Zen’s awakening is that it is once and forever. I have a sense of that. There is some truth in it. But. It isn’t actually a steady state. Everything is in motion. No exceptions. No magical other place where our poop doesn’t stink. And no state or experience that isn’t fully a part of the given moment and the circumstances that create that moment. Awakening isn’t an escape from our place in karma, the great play of cause and effect.
Although, this insight into our intimate reality brings with it a moral compass, a reminder that we are not here alone. Never have been. And, with that knowing comes some responsibilities. I talk about that elsewhere. A lot. It’s important. It is deeply important. But, here, I just want to hold it up, while continuing to walk with the most intimate, with what a life on this way might be.
Again, Joan Sutherland:
“And so we enter a phase of awakening that we might, perhaps surprisingly, call endarkenment. Awakening is a marriage of wisdom and compassion, and each has an aspect that is enlightening and one that is endarkening. The enlightening aspect of wisdom is a growing clarity of insight that puts doubts to rest and creates confidence. It’s about what we come to understand. The endarkening aspect of wisdom is our profound acceptance of the great mystery at the heart of things, which we can never understand in our ordinary ways but can rest in and be nourished by. This is sometimes called not-knowing mind.”
What awakening is, is an existential stance of radical openness. It does not mean there are no blind spots. It does not mean one is free of the play of those endlessly arising constellations of grasping, aversion, and death-grasping certainties that are the very stuff of our humanity. But, it does mean some part of the person who has had this experience of opening sees or knows deep freedom as well as being fully within the play of life and death. So, yes, once and forever. And, no, not free from karma or even stupid or possibly evil actions.
I think of the Medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. He said two things in particular that appear relevant to understanding what awakening actually is. One was “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” And with that, “we are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” Wondering about that moral compass I alluded to? Well, there’s a pointer.
And, with that just one more story. About what happens with those fifty-odd years. After many things, successes and failures, including after many experiences, small awakenings and large, living into what it might be, I found myself sitting in the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, a church which I served for eight years at the tail end of the twentieth century.
The congregation is sheltered within a lovely building, a gem from the ecclesiastical architectural genius, Ralph Adams Cram. The building is a little English-style cathedral, technically an English perpendicular Gothic church. Unusual for a Unitarian church, it had an altar, complete with seven steps leading up to the altar table. And above the table a lovely stained-glass window of Jesus with all the little children.
One afternoon, I took a break from what felt like endless phone calls in the office. I went and sat in the third pew facing the altar and stared up at that window with Jesus and the children. I’d long loved it, sort of the best of Christianity, or, at least my dream of my childhood Christianity. And then out of the blue I recalled that line from Zen master Zhaozhou, when, after his teacher had died and he had embarked on a pilgrimage, declared, “If I see deeper than a hundred-year old sage, I’ll teach him.” And then added, “But, if a seven-year old has something to teach me, I will listen humbly.”
In a moment, everything I had accumulated and knew, knew in my bones, dropped from me like an unnecessary winter coat on a clear Spring morning. In that moment, there was only me sitting on that hard pew, the slight chill of the air, and the unique mix of smells in that old sanctuary, a perfume of forgotten days. And, of course, that window illuminated from behind. Jesus. My lovely childhood Jesus. And, the children. All the little children. Us. All of us. No high. No low. No exceptions. My first awakening. All those that followed. Life. Sadness. Joy. Successes. Failures. All of those things so completely different. And, yet, no differences.
As Nagarjuna sings to us.
When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.
As T. S. Eliot sings to us.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
So, what is awakening? What is endarkenment? What is enlightenment? Well.
Just this. Just this. Intimate. Intimate.