October 16, 2015

enlightenment, Enlightenment, and the Age of Enlightenment

I’m one of those teachers who’s comfortable with the “E-word”—perhaps because my very first teacher Okamura Keishin talked about kenshō and satori as realistic goals. I take the Zen notion of kenshō to be roughly equivalent to sotāpatti or stream entry. I tend to use the phrase “enlightenment with a small e” to refer to the depth of a person’s kenshō, i.e., the extent to which they have broken the identification with the mind-body process.

Of course many teachers avoid using the E-word. There are numerous and quite legitimate reasons for that taboo—not the least of which is that the general public tends to associate the word enlightenment with an extremely advanced stage of practice wherein one has deeply integrated kenshō with refinement of one’s humanity in terms of behaviors and relationships. I tend to refer to this latter attainment as “Enlightenment with a big E.”

Enlightenment with a small e comes about as a kind of paradigm shift involving the notion of self. That shift can occur rapidly or come on gradually. (I have talked about this a lot; see the resource list below.) According to Buddhism, the centerpiece of this paradigm shift is the shedding of sakkāya-diṭṭhi, the perception that there is a thing inside one called self. Historians of philosophy point out that a Buddhist-like notion that self is an illusory bundle of perceptions also arose in the West, specifically in the Scottish thinker David Hume, who is considered to be one of the founders of the European Age of Enlightenment.

Recently an article appeared in the Atlantic by Alison Gopnik conjecturing a direct historical link between Buddhist bundle theory and Humean bundle theory. The connection involves an amazing Italian Jesuit named Ippolito Desideri—perhaps the first Westerner to attain a thorough education in Buddhist scholastic theory (in the early 1700s!). So possibly there’s an interesting synchronicity between enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of that term and The Enlightenment in the historical sense of that term.

If this sounds interesting, check it out!

Related Resources:


  1. Or possibly an interesting NON-synchronicity ?

    "Twelve Jesuit fathers had been at La Flèche when Desideri visited and were still there when Hume arrived. So Hume had lots of opportunities to learn about Desideri."

  2. Thank you Shinzen, that was a fascinating article!

  3. I've been thinking about this since reading it when it was posted.

    I have read multiple accounts of the self as a bundle of stuff including yours and those of Jed McKenna who describes it iconoclastically and better than anyone else I've seen on the topic.

    I have had powerful tastes of both kensho and satori both in and out of deep experiences of the formless and the fascinating events that occur as I return from the formless while watching myself re-form. Yet my subjective experience does not yet contain self-as-bundle even though I can comprehend the notion.

    I think the problem with this kind of thinking is that it's not the self that is a bundle of stuff. Everything is a bundle of stuff. 100% of the content of the universe is hung together conglomerations of stuff. Except for the field from which it all arises - which I have experienced directly but not often enough to be comfortable talking about it in depth.

    The problem lies in the word illusory.

    That is a belief.

    Each bundle of stuff seems to think the other bundles are unreal in some way. I think the notion of real and unreal in that sense is meaningless. They are both and neither.

    I have found in my experience as a meditation teacher that those who cling to the notion that stuff-bundles are illusory have the hardest time of all of the people I have met functioning in the world. They suffer more than others in significant degree.

  4. This is not at all related, sorry, but I seem to have learned how to "beam back" the bodily sensations associated with someone else beating around the bush and refusing to address a key issue, this is so so useful, not a Jedi mind trick just the result of Sc of Enl listening and the one session I have got to now daughter can babysit, Kadampa not Vipassena, 1mm a Buddha. Must remember it more in every day life. Thanks for a place to share this.

  5. Hi Shinzen, it is your Dharma brother Ed Muzika.

    I had my Satori experience in 1995, with the classical absence of any distinction between inner and outer, and an absolute awareness there was no inner I, me, entity. There I dwelt for 15 years in emptiness as emptiness.

    However,, 15 years later, I had a huge experience of an energy and light arising within me, filled with love, energy, light and power. It arose from my Hara, made it to my heart, and exploded upwards and outwards from there, with the light of a dozen suns, and a sense of infinite power within.

    At first, because of the brilliance of the light, and the sheer magnitude of the power, it felt to be a not-me other. But given its power, given the energy, given the sense of grace bestowed, it felt like a divine other, which later felt like my Self--a great Self that I subsequently referred to as the Manifest Self, Shakti, Ma Kali as me.

    Subsequent to that time, the Manifest flowered, then gradually merged with the Unmanifest. The Void to was now suffused with lighted energy and bliss, and to this day.

    My conclusion: there are many different spiritual paths and many different ends or enlightenments. But if a period of great bliss/light/and love does not energize and suffuse the inner emptiness, the Void, enlightenment can be hollow.

    We are among the last of our generation of teachers. I miss most Maezumi and Sasaki, as well as my final teacher, Robert Adams.


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