What is Enlightenment?

Like many teachers before him, Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi is in the unenviable position of speaking about something that he has inhabited deeply, but that we, as his students and audience, likely have not.

Using language, then, can be tricky, which is why generations of Zen masters have used koans, those seemingly enigmatic questions and riddles used to challenge students who seek to understand things within the level of their current understanding.

Enlightenment, it has been said, isn’t waking up to a new truth, it’s stepping out of the box altogether. Zen calls it the “gateless gate,” because once you’re through and on the side of understanding, you see that there was no gate there to begin with. Enlightenment was with you all along—you just weren’t aware of it. Like a fish living in a bowl, we don’t see the water in which we swim. Once Awakened, we see the water, the bowl, and our own fishness as a single expression of perfection.

Zen masters are notorious for refusing to use linear, logical explanations as to what Awakening, Enlightenment, really is. As far from theology or philosophy as one can get, these teachers have pointed again and again at our immediate experience:

When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything.
—Shunryu Suzuki

One minute of sitting, one inch of Buddha. Like lightning, all thoughts come and pass. Just once look into your mind-depths: Nothing else has ever been.
—Manzan Dohaku

This slowly drifting cloud is pitiful! / What dreamwalkers we all are! / Awakened, the one great truth: / Black rain on the temple roof.
— Dogen

It is small wonder that the idea of Enlightenment continues to confound most of us. Part of what Jun Po set out to do with Mondo Zen was to demystify Enlightenment, yet at the same time he has still been bound by this fundamental dilemma: Enlightenment isn’t just a concept, idea, or belief. It also isn’t just an experience, like, say, falling in love or understanding the meaning of a book. It’s this second part that makes it such an especially tricky thing to talk about.

So let’s talk about it, and see what we can shake loose.

This is an excerpt from The Heart of Zen.   

Keith Martin-Smith [KMS]:  So: what, exactly, is Enlightenment? 

Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi: Practically speaking, Enlightenment is realization of your true self-nature.  It’s awakening into pure receptive consciousness, and awakening from the dream of your ego as a permanent self.  

Keith Martin-Smith: That’s it?

JP: Not quite.  Expressing this realizing, this freedom, is beyond description. So we’re screwed. But we have to try.  Once Awakened, you experience and see your ego as a temporary process, instead of a permanent self.  You experience the pure Nondual Bud (pronounced booed) Consciousness deep within you. If insight is deep enough, you also experience the visceral compassion, the unconditional love that arises within this realization. This can be overwhelming to behold. Tears and laughter.

   At the relative, ego level it is also the integrated realization of the One Mind, One integrated universal Body, no you, no me. At the absolute deepest level, Emptiness, it is a realization of death beyond death, darkness beyond darkness, nothing to say here, no one to say it, Dhyana Mind, the void, Zen. 

KMS: I’ve heard it is said that enlightenment takes about 20 years of steady practice.  You’ve claimed that this insight can occur faster than that.  Care to explain?

JP: Well, traditionally it usually takes 20 years because we’re using old maps to get into the territory.  In our post-post modern world, we have very sophisticated ideas about ourselves; tremendous awareness of emotional shadow and conditioning, and a stronger sense of individuality probably than at any other time in history.  All of these things are wonderful, but they’re all part of what can make a traditional approach to Enlightenment more challenging if we’re using the maps and guides from several hundred years ago.  We have evolved.

     Those maps don’t fit us anymore.  If we take what we’ve learned from modern science, psychology, and biology, and plug that into these ancient training methods, we must seriously practice but don’t necessarily have to labor in frustration and ignorance for two decades before we get the joke. 

     The Buddha told us that anyone who follows his map, the 8-fold Path, will Awaken and become liberated from their ego suffering, their delusions.  The first step on that path is Right View, and it’s first for a reason.  If we don’t understand what we’re doing, the path we’re on, it can take years and years of stumbling in the dark, trying to integrate our spiritual insights into our daily lives.  And that means only the most autocratic and rigid assholes make it, pardon my French. 

KMS: Present company included?

JP: Oh, most definitely.  Mondo Zen is designed to update traditional Zen training, but to keep the essence of the teachings.  It’s keeping the baby but replacing the cultural bathwater. 

KMS: In your life, you had by the age of thirty-five achieved much that many of us would envy. Vast wealth and notoriety, a loving and stable relationship that was open to other lovers, a community of tight-knit friends, world travel, fine clothes and cars, and even robust health and a steady yoga and Zen meditation practice. Yet with all of that, you were still trying to find something, still seeking. How much did your experience of the intensive desire to Awaken shape your views?

JP: Profoundly. I had tasted freedom deeply many times, with spiritual practice and pure psychedelics, but staying Awake—permanent access to dhyana consciousness or emptiness—eluded me. I was not one of those teachers who claim to have popped Awake one fine day; for me, it has been a slow and not always steady process, over many decades.

KA: What were you seeking, exactly?

JP: I was seeking something that was beyond happiness by that point in my life. A stable consciousness that was deeper than my surface awareness. By thirty I understood clearly the first mark of existence in Buddhist thought, impermanence. I knew that happiness was only one side of a coin, and that happiness—like sadness—was relative and would surely come and go.

     I had seen through that illusion, not in small part through my experimentation with LSD-25. It was more complicated for me than happiness. I wanted peace of mind and to understand myself, understand the basic narcissism that was driving me so strongly in life. I wanted to get away from myself, too, I think, at least the parts of me that were constantly ashamed of some past deeds. I wanted to transcend and abandon my less-than-noble parts.

KA: Such as what?

JP: Well, I’m a recovering narcissist. And like all narcissists, there’s a primary wound, a primary driver, that led to my behavior. I found extreme notoriety before I was thirty. I had lifetime backstage passes to the Grateful Dead—the Dead’s drummer Bill Kreutzmann gave me private drumming lessons. I knew Alan Watts, Sonny Barger [who founded the Hells Angels] and the who’s who of the San Francisco counterculture scene. I was charismatic and charming, had more money than I could spend.

     My partner at the time was a powerful and passionate lover and a dear friend. I had a deep and daily Zen and yoga practice, although I didn’t fully understand what I was doing at the time. I was devoted to my daily practice, but in all the wrong ways. This stuff I’m talking about is personal, you see. I’ve done it all the wrong way, and in a pretty extreme way. I was trying to transcend that wound that my narcissism reflected. First through power, money, sex—and eventually through spiritual practice, yogic insight, and the realization of dhyana consciousness itself.

KA: It didn’t work.

JP: As Zen master Mick Jagger said, “I can’t get no satisfaction … and I try and I try and I try …”

     Relative happiness is conditional and therefore transient. Samadhi is unconditional happiness that is boundless; it is experiencing the gift of life and getting the joke. True happiness is all-inclusive and does not rely on external circumstances. It is therefore absolute happiness, a subtle joy that transcends and includes relative happiness and unhappiness.

     So I was screwed. [laughing] I wanted the real deal. I wanted samadhi.

KA: Let me be sure I understand this. You wanted to transcend and, as you said, abandon your less-than-noble parts. What was wrong with this approach for you? How did it go awry?

JP: It’s easy to be Awake on retreat, or in the monastery, where you’re isolated from your life and your emotional triggers. I think it was Ram Dass who said, “If you think you’re Enlightened, go home and spend a week with your parents.” [laughing] Now there’s some wisdom.

     The mess of my relationships, the reactive behavior I embodied, the egotism that drove me—all of these things weren’t touched by my spiritual insights and actions, you see. Because I was holding my practice incorrectly, seeking to let go of those things and arrive in a holy land where I would be perfect, and perfectly Awake.

KA: And now? What happens when you’re placed in situations that used to drive you completely up the wall?

JP: You are totally at peace with what is and yet from deep compassionate discernment still take care of business. Violent reactions like anger and shame are inconceivable, because you’ve seen through to the deep concern that underlies them and respond from your compassionate concern, not your reactive contraction. This doesn’t mean you’re some kind of pushover. Boundaries with others are firmer and stronger, precisely because they’re made with little psychological shadow, and while fully in touch with the compassion that is arising, right out of emptiness, moment to moment.

KMS: For most of us, it’s like we’re missing something, otherwise we’d be happy; or we’d be content, at least. So we pack up from this moment, and we head out in a future created in our minds, striving to finally arrive in Happy Land, where there is always plenty of money, the kids are always well-behaved and happy, the spouse is loyal and sexy and smart, the job is satisfying, hair never goes gray, and God is close at hand and easily felt, and life is so long and perfect that decades pass blissfully.

   We’re reading this book, looking for something. You’re saying that we’re seeking samadhi, unconditional happiness—that’s what seeking mind really wants, only it’s not sure how to get there.

JP: It’s a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. Eventually we discover that we ultimately are seeking the absolute truth of who we really are. We seek genuine insight into our spirit, our soul, our transcendent self, our compassionate consciousness deeper than our sensing, thinking/emotional egos. We seek something that is permanent, unchanging, unmovable, and utterly outside of time.

     You think this is something you need to “get away to” and that you will, at long last, be free of the pain of your life. In your spiritual practice, you want to get away to a better, more stable place. There’s a finish line, and you’re intent on crossing it.

     Know these things: Your ego view is wholly conditioned, but your awareness is deeper than your ego. Freedom and enlightenment are possible, and you’re the only one that can claim this view. At your core, you—we—are fundamentally, utterly empty.

KMS: And how do we get there?

JP: Not there. Here. It’s closer to you than your own face.

     You get here by questioning everything, changing your mind, practicing meditation correctly, and opening your heart. And here’s the funny thing that happens to you on the way. When your insight is deep enough, you’ll discover the truth of compassion for yourself, and seek happiness for others and no longer just for you. And that’s when things get really interesting.

KMS: Especially for a recovering narcissist, I imagine.

JP: [laughing] You have no idea.


Keith Martin-Smith is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest.

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