Everyone is capable of that spiritual illumination called enlightenment–especially during Rohatsu.
The first time I sat in on a Rohatsu sesshin–an intensive meditation period to commemorate Buddha’s enlightenment day–was December 1974, and I was at Antai-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. We’d be awakened each morning in darkness at 3:30 or 4 by shrill bell ringing, and suddenly the zendo where two dozen of us outside visitors slept would be flooded with light, and there’d be a mad rush to extract ourselves from our sleeping bags or quilts before they were rolled up and stored in the closet.
We’d all splash water on our faces at the outdoor basin, gulp some black coffee, turn around a few times to get our bearings, try not to knock over any national treasure statues or push a hand or elbow through a paper-paneled sliding shoji door or screen, and leap into the lotus sitting position for the first grueling morning zazen meditation session.
As I look back on it, I think I must have been out of my mind.
It was freezing cold. Monks who were at other times friendly would irascibly hiss the single, sibilant English word “SOCKS!” with a visible explosion of vapor in the icy air if I forget to make my feet naked for the cool, clean, tawny tatami-floored meditation hall, the holy zendo. Once I was caught in walking meditation as the snow fell, and feared losing my feet–I can’t remember now if frostbite or amputation by the fierce discipline monk was the reason.
Yet I went through all of this in search of enlightenment, and because I wanted to commemorate Rohatsu, the day the Buddha awoke as the morning star broke the horizon, at dawn on Dec. 8. (Rohatsu literally means the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, in Japanese.) In the Zen tradition, monks and practitioners generally sit in intensive meditation from Dec. 1 through 8, staying up all night in the meditation hall on the evening of the 7th so as to follow the tradition of Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree and awakening when the morning star arose on the eighth.
Since the Buddhist viewpoint is that each of us is essentially a Buddha, and walks the same path that the Buddha walked, we feel that at this time of the year, more than any other, we metaphorically sit down under the Bo tree and–emulating Buddha’s example–vow not to arise until full liberation dawns. For Buddhism propounds that everyone is capable of that spiritual illumination called enlightenment, satori, awakening.
This has been the Gospel of Buddhism–Buddha’s good news–over the millennia. Now in the Western world, Eastern religion has become a kind of complementary medicine, affecting many corners of our culture. We can see Buddhist influences especially in psychology and psychotherapy; medicine and healing; nutrition and dietary regimens; philosophy; the environmental movement; social activism and human rights; poetry and the arts; architecture; landscape, garden, and interior design; and sports and performance coaching.
Clearly, Buddha’s meditation and spiritual awakening changed the world for the better. This is why I embarked on those spiritual-kamikaze-like sesshins, for I have seen that transforming oneself can transform the world.
I have to admit I never did manage to achieve full enlightenment. But I did return to the Himalayas and the relatively cushy life at my Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery in the mountains near Darjeeling, where I was happy and involved in the kind of Vajrayana Buddhist practices where my impatience, irreverence, existential angst, and inner irritation eventually would produce some kind of pearl.
It is difficult to explain exactly what enlightenment is, but I can say that I have discovered part of what Buddha discovered. I call this the Pearl Principle: if there is no irritation, there can be no pearl. It is the very suffering and difficulties of life that compel us to seek another world, salvation, deliverance; this is what drove Buddha to seek enlightenment. In that light, all of life’s challenges and tragedies can become fertilizer upon our spiritual fields, effecting growth and transformation.
Everything changes, yes; but in reality, nothing really happens. That is, nothing essentially affects our true nature. We are all Buddhas by nature–we only have to realize and recognize that fact. Thus, enlightenment simply means to awaken to who and what we really are. The question is less how to get from here to there than how to get from here to right here; and this is the riddle of our existence. How to become what we are?
Spiritual awakening brings illumination–realization of the inherent perfection and completeness of our original, innate nature. This frees us from being taken in by the delusion of worldly life, revealing a vast panorama of freedom, possibilities and bliss.
According to Tibetan masters, Buddha’s own enlightenment is possible for any of us, through following the Eight-fold Noble Path–comprised of ethical self-discipline, meditative mindfulness, wisdom, generosity and love–to the end. Many people have experienced enlightenment through reproducing the Buddha’s experiment.
It is beautiful to be a seeker. But seekers should one day become finders, elders, teachers. Why postpone that? A new world awaits.