Enlightenment and You

“To study the way of enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.” —Dogen

To study the way of enlightenment is to meditate consistently. Meditation is this process of studying the self. All your senses are directed inward. You are feeling the natural balance of the breath. Your mouth is closed, tasting itself. Your eyes are closed, looking into the dark space behind your eyelids. You’re in a silent location, unhindered by distractions. Maybe you’re focusing on the sound of a mantra emanating from within. This is studying the self: sitting quietly, ‘doing nothing’, which, as I discussed yesterday, is actually undoing everything.

We spend so much time ‘doing’ that we forget about how important it is to undo. This is what occurs when we study the self; we forget it, as Dogen says. He also liked to say, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” This means that what appears to be, and its perceived contrast, are both illusory. Only in releasing our grasp to all concepts do we find this state of enlightenment. It’s harder than it seems!

When you stare at something long enough, it just sort of fades into the ether. When you say a word over and over, it loses its meaning. It ceases to feel like an object. Our attention tends to have this effect; its intensity reveals the reality of oneness to us. All distinctions fade away. So it would make sense that when you stare at your own mind, it fades away. To study the self is to forget the self. You’re reflecting, but you’re also forgetting. Just for a moment. Now you can see through the facade of I am X and I am Y, this is this and that is that. And for a few moments each day, if you can let go in this way, everything simply is as it is.

This is what Dogen means by ‘being actualized by myriad things.’ Every object and thought that stands between you and your self-reflection fades, enabling you to reach that practice of un-doing. It is completely involuntary; all you have to do is sit and practice. The more you can simplify and remove, the better. Imagine everything bothering you as holograms that you don’t know are holograms. Once you see them fade away, you say, “Oh, that’s not real? Why did I worry so much about it?” When we meditate, we’re engaging in this natural process of fading into oneness. It’s neither active nor passive, light or dark, empty or formed. It’s just a thing we do. And as we forget the self, we remember essential truths.

One of these is that enlightenment, as understood popularly, is a crock of shit. It’s not a kind, gentle man sitting on top of a mountain expounding lovingkindness on everyone. It’s not a ‘way’ or a practice.  Enlightenment is what I just described. It’s nothing special. It’s undoing, which is something, just not what we think. It’s just sitting, doing purely nothing, allowing all of the dust of your mind to settle naturally. That’s it. You say, “Really? That’s the recipe for pure insight? For enlightenment?” Yeah. It’s simple and yet everyone insists on making it complicated, either because they’re trying to sell you something or because they haven’t experienced those brief moments of pure awareness.

Enlightenment isn’t some magical state that you achieve and then remain in. We misinterpret it the same way we misinterpret everything else in life; we think it’s a destination we have to work to reach. In fact, enlightenment is wherever you are right now. It’s within you at all times, the same way you’re fundamentally the same person right now that you’d be with a billion dollars or an amputated leg. The way to enlightenment is to break down the barriers between you and it, to simplify. Even then, it consists just of brief moments of insight. When Dogen says his bit about the moon in the water, to me he’s saying enlightenment is everywhere, in every moment. When we cultivate pure attention and forget the self/ego, we see it wherever we go. We don’t have to acquire or learn anything— we have to give up, let go, unlearn, detach.

Dogen adds at the very end, “even in one drop of water.” Moments of illumination are contained even in the smallest activities. Doing the dishes, petting your cat, going for a walk, listening to a friend speak— whatever. It’s right there. Life isn’t a rehearsal for some grand event later on; it’s occurring right now in whatever miniscule task you have to attend to. So do it. As they say: “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

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