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How do I know if I’m having a moment of realization?

The teachers are asked “How do I know if I’m having a moment of realization or if I’m just deluding myself (still in ego)?”

By Blanche Hartman

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, Narayan Helen Liebenson
Pictured: Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Narayan Helen Liebenson, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Photos by Barbara Wenger, Janine Guldener, Mary Lang.

Question: How do I know if I’m having a moment of realization or if I’m just deluding myself (still in ego)?

Zenkei Blanche Hartman: I think that if there is an actual experience of reality, if you are seeing just this, as-it-is, you will recognize at once: “Oh, so that’s how it is!” The unmistakable reality of the experience will be clear. The delusion part is any thought such as “I” am “having” a moment of realization. That is, imagining a “self” separate from some “not self” is delusion, and imagining a “moment of realization” as an object that can be grasped by a self is also delusion. The very idea of a “self” separate from some “other” is the negation of how we actually exist in the world. Each being includes the whole universe and is included in the whole universe. There is no separation.

There is a verse attributed to a Catholic monk that is pertinent to your question:

I really long to see my God
I ask in every prayer.
But He can’t come to visit me
Unless there’s no one there.

Once when I was sitting a sesshin, my teacher asked us to investigate carefully where we experienced the boundary between self and other. He kept encouraging us to let that boundary expand wider and wider to include more and more. At a certain point, there was the experience of the boundary expanding like a giant balloon without limit. Then I had the thought, “I am in samadhi!” and that “I” was like a giant pin puncturing the balloon with a big bang. I almost burst out laughing because it was so clear that my thought of a separate “I” had created a separation where there had been none.

In his essay, “Only Buddha and Buddha,” Dogen Zenji says, “When you realize buddhadharma, you do not think, ‘This is realization just as I expected.’ Even if you think so, realization invariably differs from your expectation. Realization is not like your conception of it… Realization does not depend on thoughts but comes forth far beyond them… Know that then, there is no delusion, and there is no realization.”

Two monks were out walking when one of them pointed to the ground and said, “Right here is the summit of the mystic mountain.” The other monk looked down and said, “So it is. What a pity!”

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: When true realization occurs, there is no question about it. If there is a question, then that is not true realization. When you do experience openness or a positive quality such as the arising of love toward others, it is not valuable to doubt the experience. Rather, you need to recognize the experience, host it fully, and appreciate it.

It is important to recognize positive experiences in your practice. All too often in the West we relate to our problems and crises as “real” or normal, but if we wake up and feel joy or well-being, we do not tend to see that as valid, and instead we tend to watch out for our next problem. If we are not aware that we carry this orientation toward life, if we do not connect with openness and the positive qualities that arise from it, we will miss much of the sacred in life.

We need to appreciate that uplifted experiences are part of the sacred. They are treasures to be supported and sustained by recognizing and fully allowing them. That means that each of us needs to recognize and trust the open space of our minds as the source of all positive qualities and the best medicine in times of suffering. Your positive qualities have nothing to do with ego, for they are not produced by ego but arise naturally and spontaneously from the open space of being.

It is like receiving an e-mail from an enlightened being. Open it and experience it in that moment. To either doubt or grasp the experience of a positive moment is to not trust the basic openness or space within you as the inexhaustible source of virtue. So, recognizing, trusting, and abiding in the openness of being without doubt is the antidote to ego and allows all the positive qualities of a buddha to arise in your life in order that you may truly benefit others.

Narayan Helen Liebenson: A moment of realization is a moment of realizing how things actually are. There are different levels of awakening to how things are: you might awaken to the fact that you are engaged in unskillful actions; you might become aware that you are reacting rather than responding to a particular set of conditions; you might awaken to the nature of the mind. These are all moments of realization.

The Buddhist teachings say that liberation is the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion. Only you can know whether you are experiencing such a moment. However, if you think that “you” are, then you are not because realizing how things actually are is free from a sense of ownership. The Buddha said, “There is the deed but no doer; there is suffering but no sufferer; there is the path but no one to enter it; and there is liberation but no one to attain it.”

Chinul, a founder of Korean Zen, taught the approach of “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.” His understanding was that although a moment (or moments) of awakening is transforming, it is not enough. He said, “Although we have awakened to original nature, beginningless habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained.”

We humans—even those of us who are really honest and sincere—are capable of great self-deception. We can have powerful experiences and then identify with them, making them stand for who we are and how we are thought of by others, when what we really is need to be humble and just continue on the path.

The significance of a moment of seeing into the nature of things expresses itself in the here and now. Anything else involves assessing and measuring that which is beyond assessment and is measureless. What matters is how we live. Instead of asking yourself whether you’re having a moment of realization, a more useful question might be, what is the quality of my heart right now?

Blanche Hartman

Blanche Hartman

Zenkei Blanche Hartman (1926-2016) was a Senior Dharma Teacher and the first woman Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet. His is the author of Spontaneous Creativity: Meditations for Manifesting Your Positive Qualities (2018).
Narayan Helen Liebenson

Narayan Helen Liebenson

Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.