One of the three meanings of satori is ‘practice realisation’. Practice realisation is an abbreviation of a longer phrase which is something like, “I hear the teachings of the Buddha (on matters like interdependence, impermanence, no-self, suffering and so on). I accept those teachings. Accordingly I practise zazen. And through practising zazen I have the realisation that those teachings are true.”
‘Realisation’ here has two meanings. Firstly that from my perspective, practice leads me to accept at a more fundamental level the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. Second, ‘realisation’ also means objectively that my practice actualises – makes real – those teachings.
And that brings into view a wider issue: the relationship between the teachings and Zazen, which can be problematic for some Zen practitioners, who have an unfortunate tendency to be proudly ignorant through misunderstanding Bodhidharma’s poem that Zen is “A special transmission outside the scriptures, No reliance on words or letters”.
The relationship between the teachings and practice is a symbiotic spiral. It’s not simply that I do zazen, realise that the teachings are true and then put the teachings away and never attend to them again. No. The teachings enable the landscape of zazen to be opened out, illuminated. And vice versa. My experience of zazen enables me to engage with the teachings in a deeper and more personal way.
We can see the teachings throughout buddhist history not as a progression where deficiencies are identified then dealt with by a subsequent development. But rather that all the teachings map on, in some sense, to our experience in zazen. Not like a shadow, but like a partner.
So for instance, we have the original teachings which focus very much on allowing our experience to come and go freely, not getting attached to thoughts and so on. We have the later teachings on emptiness. And then we have teachings, particularly the Chinese tradition from the Tang Dynasty onward, which focus on suchness.
It’s not that these different teachings represent some kind of progression toward perfection, but rather they’re locations in a gradually elaborated landscape where we can come and go freely, like a little bird. The landscape elaborates itself because of love.
If our life is very stormy then we may want to shelter in the cave of the original teachings, where we’re just simply very attentive to our inchoate experience coming and going freely, like a storm blowing somewhere else.
And other times we might want to be freely flying in this vast space of empty awareness.
And other times we might be within this one-piece compassionate sitting where the heart is everywhere.