Zen & Buddhism Q&As

What is Enlightenment?

The buddhist word for enlightenment that Zen practitioners are most familiar with is ‘satori’  which is a Japanese word. ‘Satori’ rolls up, in this one word, three distinct Chinese concepts about enlightenment. 

The first of these three concepts is ‘practice enlightenment’ which is shorthand for a wider expression which means something like – you hear the Buddha’s message,  you accept that message, you practice meditation in consequence of this message and in that meditation you realise that the message is true.

‘Practice realisation’ is sometimes the phrase which is used instead of ‘enlightenment’ in English texts. ‘Realisation’ has two senses: through practice you realise that the doctrine is true, but you also real-ise –make real – something which up to that point was just an idea.

The second Chinese meaning is ‘awakening’. This is the core meaning of ‘bodhi’, from which the word ‘Buddha’ is derived: someone who has awoken.The metaphor here is ubiquitous in Buddhism for good reason: a dream is ‘empty’ in the sense that it neither exists or doesn’t exist. It’s as if our life is like a dream but we think it’s real. Somehow enlightenment is like ‘waking up’. But waking up to what?

Dogen would say that we wake up within a dream; we are not free of our delusions but we realise we are deluded. We are no longer within the dream of the self. We are within the dream of all beings. That’s why the Buddha exclaimed upon awakening that he and all beings were awakened.

The third meaning of satori is ‘delusion/enlightenment’. The Chinese ideogram is revealing. The top half looks like a person and the bottom half looks like it has lots of little legs. It suggests that in the deluded state, these little legs of our delusion are pulling us this and that way, in accordance with our preferences and our dislikes, which are constantly changing. We are being pulled in one direction or another all the time.

Enlightenment is understanding this, and so not being pulled about by our likes and dislikes, but living our life anchored in something else. 

These three Chinese notions of enlightenment, which are all rolled up in this one Japanese term, Satori, each have quite different flavours and associations.

As far as Dogen is concerned, the focus of the third pairing isn’t the truth or falsity of our experience, but whether that experience constellates around the self or not. If it does, that’s delusion. His Genjokoan has a formulation which can be read in various ways, one of which is to carry the self forward and experience the myriad things is delusion: to allow the myriad things to come forward and illuminate the self is enlightenment. 

For Dogen, the contrast is where we are affirming the self, which is inherently delusory and, where we are free of a self. In the latter, we see all the noises and pictures but we are free of them, because we are not held captive by our like or dislike, nor caught by our reactions. The quintessential instance of this moment of freedom for Dogen, and for us, is the active practice of Zazen. Which is why the appropriate term for sincere and heartful Zazen would be ‘practice enlightenment’.

More detailed teachings on Delusion and Enlightenment