Is Awakening (Kenshō) a Hallucination (Makyō)?

Is Awakening (Kenshō) a Hallucination (Makyō)? February 16, 2019

Kenshō and makyō are the flavor of the week in these parts, so this post aims at addressing some issues about kenshō and makyō, especially if they’re the same or different.

The theme first came up in a manuscript I’ve been reviewing (Rick McDaniels’ forthcoming The Story of Zen), then in conversation with the my ever wonderful wife and teaching partner, Tetsugan, and now I see a discussion of kenshō and makyō on a Zen Facebook group that I keep an eye on. Looking at my calendar, coming up soon is a meeting with a student who had a powerful makyō in a recent sesshin and believed it to be an awakening.

What are Kenshō and Makyō?

First, though, we better define our terms. Kenshō (見性) means seeing [true] nature or essence. Synonyms include “enlightenment,” “awakening,” and “verification.” Wúmén, in his comment to the mu kōan, refers to it as “mysterious, subtle comprehension” (妙悟要). (1) It is an abrupt embodiment of nonduality. I’ve written often about kenshō, so will emphasize makyō here. For more, though, see this post: Hakuin’s Advice for How to Attain Kenshō.

The two characters for makyō (魔境) mean demon/magic and boundary/place/condition. For a simple translation, I like “magic land,” although there is a category of these experiences for which “demon land” seems more fitting. Makyō experiences are common, so much so that almost every meditator who practices intensively will experience them. They vary widely and include various visual, auditory, and somatic altered sense experiences or hallucinations (as in “a perception in the absence of external stimulus that has qualities of real perception”). See this old post by the ever youthful James Myōūn Ford Rōshi for a nice riff on makyō.

Kapleau Rōshi, in an excellent section on makyō in Zen: Dawn in the West, expands the category, “Makyō also come disguised as psychological states:  resentment, envy, or euphoria.” (2) He points out that they occur most commonly in the middle of seven-day sesshin, after there is some concentration, but in the boundary before stable concentration occurs. He says, “When after three full days of sitting, the upper levels of the mind have been quieted and stilled, all manner of images and sensations, the residue of past experiences, bubble up into consciousness, not unlike dreams.”

The makyō I’ve experienced include the sense that my hands in the zazen mudra were huge (a persistent one early on), faces in the wall I sat facing (a particularly beautiful Avalokiteshvara), and the piercing song of a bird coming from the far side of a lake perhaps three miles away. And also many dreams, especially during sesshin, where there’s a sense of the ancient. One, for example, of sitting in a jade-colored circular zendo, surrounded by senior monks, and Katagiri Rōshi slowly walking by.

Likewise, Rick McDaniel notes, “It is not unusual for people engaged in prolonged meditation to have visions. During the sesshin in which he experience his ‘little bit of light,’ Robert Aitken [Rōshi] had a vision of himself seated on the stone floor of an ancient temple with tall monks circumambulating him and chanting sutras.” (3)

One of my favorite magic land tales comes, again, from Kapleau Rōshi. When he was training at Hōshinji, the head monk approached him and said, “During sesshin you were acting out a very strange makyō, one I’ve never seen before. In the middle of a round of sitting you would suddenly reach out with one arm as if to grab something and draw it toward you, and then do the same with the other arm…. Do you remember that makyō?”

Kapleau Rōshi responded, “Yes, I do. I was going through the aisles of a large American supermarket, helping myself to steaks, eggs, cheese and other things not served here in the monastery.”

Shakyamuni Buddha, though, the guy reputed to have had the greatest enlightenment, also seems to have had the greatest makyō. In his enlightenment story, alluring dancing lovers approached, he was threatened by massive armies, and then there was Mara, seemingly orchestrating this whole hallucinatory array.

What To Do About Magic Land Experiences

First, it is important to identify them as such, and call them by their true name – not “heaven,” “hell,” or heaven forbid, “awakening.” For this, you may well need a clear-eyed teacher. Indeed, one of the most important functions for a teacher with students wholeheartedly engaged in the cultivating-verification project, is clarity about kenshō and makyō, and skillful means to support students in compassionately greeting these magic land visitations, and for sending them on their way.

A word of warning: the longer we cling to magic land experiences, the more difficult it becomes to get over them and move on with our life and practice. The spiritual fascination that arises from magic land can be toxic and disabling.

Kapleau Rōshi said, “More than anything else you need faith – faith in yourself, in your practice, and in your teacher. If you are working on a kōan, involve yourself in it so completely that ‘you’ disappear and only the kōan remains. Do this and the makyō will dissolve like ice under hot water.”

Is Kenshō Makyō?

Given that the experience of the two are so different, it might seem to be a strange question. However, in much of contemporary Sōtō Zen, this appears to be the common view. Although it seems so now, I don’t remember Katagiri Rōshi ever saying that kenshō was makyō. It simply isn’t what I learned from thirteen years of apprenticeship under his guidance. For example, when I went to him to share an experience I now understand as an early, initial kenshō, he smiled broadly and said, “Great!” And he went on to talk about applying the experience to daily life. In the same vein, in Returning to Silence, Katagiri Rōshi wrote, “The experience of enlightenment is important for us, but it is not enough. Again and again that enlightenment must become more profound, until it penetrates our skin, muscle, and bone.” (4)

All experiences, of course, are of one and the same nature. Kenshō and makyō are equally empty. Attainment and nonattainment, too, are equally empty. Katagiri Rōshi’s comment on this is good to keep in mind: “The sound of chanting and the sound of farting are of one and the same nature. However, they also each have their own virtuous qualities.”

A virtuous quality of magic land is in how it reveals that the world is vast and wide and so dependent on our fleeting perspectives. One virtuous quality of kenshō is that when we experientially verify the truth of the nondual buddhadharma, we have a toe-hold in cultivating verification in a much different way than before kenshō. In other words, we can now practice enlightenment rather than delusion.

What about getting attached to kenshō? It is an important issue. And the kōan introspection system is specifically designed to compel us to release our grip on any set position, including attachment to kenshō. This is an enormously important difference between just-sitting Zen and kōan-introspection Zen. I say this with respect for just-sitting Zen, a system that I trained in for thirteen years and received authorization to teach. Now, from the perspective of an authorized kōan introspection teacher, I recommend that if you are interested in kenshō (or wonder if you’ve already experienced kenshō), find a kōan introspection teacher. Just-sitting teachers, generally speaking, do not have the optimal set of tools in their tool kits to help you practice/cultivate your taste of enlightenment/verification, especially outside of the monastic milieu.

So awakening and magic land are of the same and one nature and they are different. If someone thinks they are only the same, I doubt that they’ve experienced kenshō. Indeed, we learn from the story of Shakyamuni Buddha, and then through all the Zen ancestors (except, perhaps some of the Sōtō ancestors in twentieth century Japan), that makyō is an obstacle, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrific, seldom neutral, that needs to be passed through on the road to awakening, but these experiences are not the same thing as awakening.

This view is also supported by classical perspectives on the buddhadharma, where the difference between “yogic direct perception” (yogipratyakṣa, 定觀知, aka, kenshō) which “…is devoid of conceptual construction, … because it is nonconceptual and thus ‘vivid’ or ‘distinct’,” and hallucinations was emphasized, for example, in the Yogacara:

“Why is meditatively induced perception true and reliable? How does a meditator’s yogic perception differ from the hallucinations of the deranged, since both of them presume they have a vivid cognition of an object? The reason, Dharmakīrti maintains, is that the objects of yogic knowledge are “true” or “real,” whereas hallucinations are “false” or “unreal” objects. The only true objects of yogic knowledge offered by Dharmakīrti are the Four Noble Truths: that is, the perception of these truths is true and reliable because they enable one to reach the goal of enlightenment, not because they involve a perception of an ultimate substance.” (5)

Kenshō experiences are just like this – an affirmation of suffering, cause, cessation, and path. And likewise, imv, equating kenshō with makyō undermines the Four Noble Truths.


Those who say kenshō is makyō would presumably rewrite Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment story. Instead of sitting through a fantastic series of magic lands, and then at dawn, looking up, seeing the morning star and saying, “I, together with the great earth and living beings, simultaneously attain the way,” would have him say, “Dude. I am separate from everything and, shit, it’s all delusion that doesn’t attain the way. It’s all makyō, man. Wanna go to the bar?” 

If you think kenshō is makyō, you might consider the possibility that this thought itself is makyō.

(1) Wúmén, No Gate Gate (Wúménguān), “Case 1.” Trs., by the author. 

(2) Philip Kapleau, Zen: Dawn in the West, p. 96-99. All Kapleau Rōshi quotes are from this section.

(3) Richard McDaniel, The Story of Zen, unpublished manuscript.

(4) Dainin Katagiri, Returning to Silence, p. 108. This is the only book published in Katagiri Rōshi’s lifetime and so the only manuscript he went through and approved. The other books attributed to him are excellent, but, imv, should be read with some caution as to whether the views are his or the editors.

(5) See Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S.Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, entry for “yogipratyakṣa.”

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Sensei, with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans, is now available (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri. Click here to support the teaching practice of Dōshō Rōshi at Patreon.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

Close Ad