“Yaeko: Truly I see that there are degrees of depth in enlightenment.
Roshi: Yes, but few know that significant fact.” – 3 Pillars of Zen, Yaeko Iwasaki’s Enlightenment Letters to Harada Roshi
That was a passage taken from a wonderful chapter in 3 Pillars of Zen. Yaeko was what I consider to be a 20th century mystic. She had a profound series of awakenings under the guidance of her teacher, Harada Roshi, shortly before her death. The book contains an exchange of letters between Yaeko and Harada Roshi as he helped her through a series of profound mystical illuminations. This particular passage is a rare gem, especially in light of our day where talk of enlightenment has a lot of baggage, or simply not talked about. Some of my friends prefer to use the term realization, which I think is a good alternative.
We often think of enlightenment as a static image of bliss. For example, one of the most recent teachings of the EnlightenNext organization uses these two “archetypes,” being and becoming, to explain what the “old” enlightenment is vs. what the “new” enlightenment (enlighten-next) is.
What is the difference between the old enlightenment and the new enlightenment, between traditional enlightenment and Evolutionary enlightenment? In the old enlightenment, there is a final end point. In the new enlightenment, there is not. Traditional enlightenment is about the end of becoming, whereas Evolutionary enlightenment is about endless becoming.
While this may be intended to do good, I believe it is creating mis-communication. Before we can talk about any “next” enlightenment, isn’t it important we clarify what the supposed “old” enlightenment is? Especially because, if one looks at the broad diversity of classical and contemporary texts, there is an emergent picture that mystical realization is both a being and becoming. So what’s new about this “new” enlightenment?
My point in making this case for “classical realization” is that what is being called “new” is a redressing of the “old.” It sounds silly to describe this as new or old. For certain, it’s beyond these categories and descriptions. So I’ll try to be careful going through this. What I hope to do is show that mystical realization is not only perennial but also timeless, in that it will re-appear again and again in wisdom traditions throughout the world, ancient or modern. It will even re-appear in popular books and spiritual organizations. I guess my central “beef” is: why do these new organizations feel the need to cut themselves off from the same wisdom found elsewhere? It’s as if we are playing out the story of Babel, with one spiritual community misunderstanding the other, the both of them think they have “it.” Meanwhile, “it” has them! For example, in the integral community we have Marc Gafni teaching about the Unique Self, Andrew Cohen talking about the Authentic Self, and in New Age communities we talk about the Higher Self. Each particular group come with their own baggage, for sure, and their own worldview, but behind the manifest lies an intuition of the same unmanifest center. When we come to understand that performances of myth are variations of an underlying theme, we cease to measure one performance against another and allow them to co-exist in an ecology of expression, understanding very well that beneath the form lies the same “source.” Or in the words of T.S. Elliot, “therein lies the still point, but do not call it fixity. Without it there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
While I was studying the image of the mandala, the strongest impact it had on me was the understanding that it is an expression of wholeness. It’s diverse in image and form, yet at the center is the same point. So it’s the dance of the Known and Unknown, the manifest and unmanifest. So the divine expresses itself infinitely and yet is not any one of the expressions, but the source of all of them. So when I hear that some particular community has the expression, I remain very doubtful and skeptical. Rather I see their particular teaching as a flowering of the divine.
The ability to step out of our “Tower of Babel” scenario in modern spiritual communities is going to become more and more important as the world continues to become interconnected. The Samurai Miyamoto Musashi said to practice a way is to practice The Way, so all things may become a teacher. I believe this can be said for our contemporary garden variety of spiritual teachers and teachings, each one struggling to say why they are special over the others, when in truth they have more in common with each other than not.
So here is my case for realization, or enlightenment, being exactly what these spiritual communities are talking about in their own particular ways (despite them wishing to distinguish the practice as separate). In particular, the EnlightenNext, and the Integral community’s description of “evolutionary enlightenment” is in fact, plain old enlightenment (which has evolutionary themes that are implicit and only now becoming the focus). We are looking at the same spiritual process, not disconnected or separated, from a new context. One of the many heads of the goddess, but is the same goddess nonetheless.
Take for example, Kundalini. Although the process is “classical” in the sense of belonging to a more traditional society, it is evolutionary in that it appears to be the recapitulation of the evolution of the nervous system (see Thompson, Blue Jade from the Morning Star). The archetypal imagery of the bird, tree and snake represent the three brains (reptilian, mammalian and neo-cortex). The serpent is the unenlightened being, the winged serpent is the illuminated being (The Bodhisattva) that has reclaimed its original nature in time. This play of tradition, myth and science is what I imagine to be a healthier form of distinction. Instead of reinventing the wheel we can look back into mythology and spiritual practice and complement it with biology, neurology and modern physics. Instead of trying to differentiate modern understanding as evolutionary spirituality, we can recognize the whole process leading up to today has been a spiritual evolution. This is precisely what Sri Aurobindo did in his work, The Life Divine:
The animal is a living laboratory in which Nature has, it is said, worked out man. Man himself may well be a thinking and living laboratory in whom and with whose conscious co-operation she wills to work out the superman, the God. Or shall we not say, rather, to manifest God? For if evolution is the progressive manifestation by Nature of that which slept or worked in her, involved, it is also the overt realization of that which she secretly is.” -Sri Aurobindo, the Life Divine
It is also what Teilhard de Chardin was attempting to do in his cosmology, to see the process of the evolution of the cosmos as intrinsically spiritual. The “sublimation of matter” is in turn, a re-telling of the Alchemist’s dream: to transform lead into gold, or matter realized as divinity. It is this union which is also expressed in the image of mud and lotus, and has been around for a long time. Recall the Christian theologian Origen’s belief that Satan and his minions would eventually be returned to God, and we begin to intuit that the transformation of the universe has been at the very least an implicit theme in the history of human culture, and furthermore, a mystical tale older than time.
Rather than an escape from matter, this distinct breed of mystics and mystery schools have very well understood that the divinisation of matter has been the story all along. The very classical experience of enlightenment, then, is not an escape from matter, but a reclaimation of our divinity while still “bound” in time and space. When the divine and the mundane come together, they produce a lotus, a bodhisattva, a Jesus. The evolution of human consciousness is another dimension that helps us reconcile ancient texts and understand the transformation of human culture throughout history.
The evolution of consciousness is a re-imagining of history and a reconciling of time. A more profound recognition is always unifying and elegant in its ability to see the whole process as one underlying theme, or song. In that case, mystics have been speaking about the evolution of matter in their own way for a very long time, as mystics such as Aurobindo, Teilhard or Gebser have today. What we can say about modern mystics is that they are able to understand more of the process: to see the evolution of biology and culture as part of a divine story that has not yet ended. In a sense, our modern cosmologies of spiritual evolution are a re-telling of the Hindu Cosmic Seasons, or Yugas. In them, God forgets himself and dreams himself into the world. At first, he dreams lucidly, so his creation is vivid with a sense of God. But soon he drifts in sleep and begins to become further differentiated, he turns from Summer, to Fall, to a deep Winter. Eventually he will turn again towards the spring, a renewal and a remembrance of Himself. Finally, creation will hum and sing with the recognition of what it is. The whole cosmos is redeemed. The evolution of the universe can be said to be a “variation of the theme,” another telling of this myth.
Instead of science being an obstacle or refutation, can it become a way to more deeply understand myth? In other words, as we learn from the mandala, science is isomorphic to myth, in that it is another manifestation of the divine. If science is a performance of myth, we can learn to integrate mythology with the modern scientific mind–as complimenting parts in a mandala of being. A way to mend the rift in our modern psyche, between mind and matter, that so drastically needs healing.
It is this playful ability to see a myth being performed, whether contemporary or modern, that can help us reconcile differences. Modern understanding adds the dimension of time and emergence. So spiritual transformation and direction become explicit to our culture when they were only implicit to our ancestors. We are beginning to remember the greater cosmic cycles and seasons, first only physically (materialism is hailed as the heart of Kali Yuga). But in time we will begin to recall that the physical cosmos is also a spiritual one. The task for the modern mind, it seems, is to recognize that the serpent climbing the tree (ascent) is also the divinization of matter (descent). Or, as Aurobindo put it: evolution and involution. The sacralisation of matter and evolution can re-ignite the passion of our modern minds and create a theology unlike any before (not in the sense of one religion, but something beyond that, something more complex).
What I think that the EnlightenNext, and for that matter Wilberian circles are trying to describe is a specific dimension to the enlightenment process, what Aurobindo describes as the “intermediary zone” that is part of the realization process. It’s that tricky area where we are being “illumined,” touching the divine and intoxicated by it. It’s a dangerous period of attachment to bliss, psychic inflation and spiritual stagnation. Shinzen Young describes this as the “Realms of Power,” and for good reason:
These things, when they pour down or come in, present themselves with a great force…much sensation of light and joy, an impression of of widening and power… Very easily he is carried away by the splendor and the rush, and thinks that he has realized more than he has truly done… this is only the very beginning; he may not realize at once that he is still in cosmic Ignorance, not in the cosmic Truth, much less in the Transcendental Truth… -Aurobindo Letter
I’d like to go back to the original text at the beginning of the article, because it gives us a good example of what a traditional Zen understanding of enlightenment that is nothing like the caricature (or in this case used as a straw man) of the sitting Buddha.
Seeing the Ox
The original quote at the beginning is actually from the very first letter between Yaeko and the Roshi. In it she describes her initial “awakening” experience being full of joy at glimpsing the truth. By only glimpsing it, she astutely realized that “there are degrees of depth in enlightenment.” The Roshi makes a note, “You have seen the Ox clearly, but the point of grasping it is ten thousand miles away. Your experience is still tinged with conceptual thinking.”
This might also be called Kensho. The Ox is meant to represent Mind, or Buddha-Nature. When we experience mystical states of illumination, we have a brief glimpse of something that is still yet to be sustained.
Grasping the Ox
The second letter continues:
The absolute truth of very word of the Patriarchs and the sutras has appeared before my eyes with crystal clarity. No longer have I need for dokusan, and all the koans are now like useless furniture to me… Those who have only kensho do not know this state of unlimited freedom and profound peace of mind. Indeed, it cannot be known until one comes to full enlightenment. If after reading this letter you still talk nonsense to me, I will not hesitate to say your own realization is lacking.
The Roshi responds: “Good! … This is called the stage of standing on the summit of a lone mountain, or coming back to one’s own Home. Yet I have to talk nonsense to you. You will understand why some day.”
She concludes that she is happy, and that she is “in the center of the Great Way where everything is natural, without strain, neither hurried nor halting.” Finally we have the Roshi’s general comment, and I think we can understand what Cohen and Wilber are talking about when they describe “classical” enlightenment:
This degree of realization is termed “grasping the Ox” — in other words, the true attainment of the Way. It is the return to one’s own Home, or the acquisition of fundamental wisdom. To advance one more step is to realize even profounder wisdom.”
Taming, Riding the Ox
The next few letters describe a deepening of her enlightenment, as well as a remorse for her reckless ecstatic words in the previous exchange. Towards the end of the 6th letter, she makes a note:
PS: I can now appreciate how dangerously one sided a weak kensho can be.
To which the Roshi replies:
You are right. The enlightenment of most Zen teachers these days is of this kind, but a one-sided realization remains a one-sided realization regardless of how many koans one has passed. What these people fail to realize is that their enlightenment is capable of endless enlargement.
This part hits home with me, as I imagine it probably does for many practitioners who have been on the path for a while. Enlightenment is not an end point, but a new life. Truly it is a mystical sense of rebirth and renewal, and the more fully one experiences it, the less divide they feel from the mundane acts of the world, such as chopping wood and carrying water. The Roshi appropriately concludes the letter by saying, “To live one’s life as tada [ "just this" ] is to walk the supremely glorious Path trodden by all Buddhas. When one no longer is aware of the need for Buddhism, true Buddhism is manifesting itself.”
Forgetting the Ox
This 7th image coincides with the 7th letter. “At last I have recovered my composure,” she writes, “I have rid myself of the smell of enlightenment. The Roshi playfully notes, “Not quite. You are even now emitting the awful smell of enlightenment.” The return to the daily world and back into the marketplace could be the most difficult part of the process. The Roshi clarifies this in his closing statement:
An ancient Zen saying has it that to become attached to one’s own enlightenment is as much a sickness as to exhibit a maddeningly active ego. Indeed, the profounder the enlightenment, the worse the illness… Such symptoms are less pronounced in one as gentle as she, but in some they are positively nauseating. Those who practice Zen must guard against them. My own sickness lasted almost ten years. Ha!
Yaeko unfortunately passed away after this letter. Harada Roshi noted that her progress was particularly unique and projected that, had she lived, she would have cured herself of the “smell” of enlightenment in a few months. I believe this “smelly” period can be related to Sri Aurobindo’s “intermediate zone” and Shinzen Young’s “realms of power.” This also coincides with the stages of yogic enlightenment: illumination, initiation and enlightenment. The illuminative and intiatic stages are unstable and turbulent, perhaps what one might classify psychedelic experiences under.
I picked Yaeko’s letters because her story is a profound and miniature telling of “endless enlightenment,” an ever-deepening path that does not end in realization, and some might say only begins in death. I also picked this because she was a lay-person. She was not a monk. As Harada Roshi notes in the text, this makes her story a supreme example of what human nature is capable of. It is not merely reserved for the priests. Instead it is latent in everyone (as it always was).
As we are shifting, evolving into some form of planetary culture, perhaps the new enlightenment could be considered a mass-enlightenment, a democratization of the esoteric. A further marriage of the divine and mundane. This would be a continuation of a process that is open to all, and that we have all been a part of. For this reason I consider this particular exchange of letters to be a wonderful transitional “text” between a traditional culture and a planetary one–revealing just how the two are part of a larger process that we may call spiritual evolution.
Some videos via Shinzen Young on Enlightenment: