Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Can we wake up (or not)?

We Zen practitioners use the words “wake up” as if we actually understand what waking up is. One can even buy coffee cups and tee shirts with the words, “Wake Up!”

The historical Buddha said, “When one person [italics added] opens up reality and returns to the source, all space in the ten directions disappears.” Pre-Mahayana literature describes this as an act of awakening that happens to a practitioner after rigorous practice over many lifetimes. [I won’t discuss here the confusing paradox that there is no-self to wake up!]

With the Lotus Sutra, and its emphasis by Dogen, awakening is a liberative function of all time and space.  Thousands of bodhisattvas emerge from the earth, and the Buddha has an inconceivably long life span.  Quoting from Dan Leighton’s wonderful book, Visions of Awakening Space and Time, “But Dogen’s own version of this utterance [the words of the Buddha] expresses a deeper appreciation for the vitality of the spatial environment and for the actual spiritual potency and capacity of the world to manifest awakening.” [I like to visualize Kogen in the fields of Green Gulch Farm!]

Important to note, I think, is that Mr. Leighton does not say here the capacity for one person to wake up. And this gets to my question: can one person wake up?  According to the Soto Zen view, as I understand it, there is no final state of enlightenment, as in one moment you are deluded, and then you wake up and are enlightened. “Practice enlightenment,” as described by Dogen, is ongoing, continuous practice.  In fact, great teacher Norman Fischer said in a talk recently that for Dogen,

Awakening was a kind of metaphysical reality, not a mere psychological achievement. Awakening existed in its fullness, always, and everywhere. It was not something produced by a little person’s little activity. ~ from Introduction to the Precepts

Ouch! “A little person’s little activity.”  I do love this idea of a metaphysical reality. But I don’t want to limit myself, to say that I, personally, cannot wake up or experience waking up.  I don’t know what to call them exactly, but I have had glimpses of a kind of non-dual reality, and always in the context of nature. At risk of sounding like some hippie-dippie person, I recently had an experience of the unity of all things.  I was walking kinhin outdoors and came across a radiant, golden poppy. For a moment, I did feel that I was actually that flower…until my mind kicked in and obscured and negated the whole experience.

Again quoting Leighton, “According to Dogen, there is clear and beneficial mutuality in the inter-relationship between the practitioner and the environment.” So that seems to validate my experience.  But do I need Dogen – or any teacher – to validate real experiences of spaciousness and love and the unity with all things?  No, I hope not!

The best language might be to change the verb tenses.  Instead of the past tense of “she woke up,” you could use the present participle, “she is awaking.” Instead of “enlightenment,” use the sense of “enlightening.”

However it is talked about, I have faith in the mystery that is always available to all of us and to have faith in my own experience.