Awake In the Now

“Buddha” means “the awakened one.” Karen Maezen Miller on what it is the Buddha woke up from—and how you can wake up, too.

Karen Maezen Miller
2 February 2023
Seated Maitreya Buddha courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art; Illustration © Julietarts /

In a shadowy zendo as day falls into night, a single voice pierces the silence with the thunderous words of the evening gatha:

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Hearing this urgent reminder late in a day of practice when our heads are nodding toward slumber, we’re at least a little more awake than we might have been a moment before. Waking up is the ultimate aim of Buddhism, but what does it mean to be awake? How, when, and where do we wake up? These are important questions because they lead us back to practice, where we can wake up and see for ourselves.

In a conventional sense, we know what it means to be awake. Simply put, we’re awake when we open our eyes. And we know what dreaming is. We dream when our eyes are closed. But in Buddhism, waking up is more subtle and profound than that.

Indeed, it’s called seeing beyond seeing because it transcends the subject–object duality with which we usually perceive our world.

Not all of us aspire to attain awakening, or an enlightenment experience. There are many other physical and mental benefits to be found in meditation. But anyone at any stage of practice qualifies as a buddha in the process of waking up.

The ground of awakening is selfless compassion; as bodhisattvas we hear the cries of the world and weep forever. Yes, everything is illusion, and everything matters to the human heart.

Once we see ourselves as a buddha, we can see Shakyamuni’s story of awakening as our own. Compelled by despair and yearning, he set out to find something. Or we might say that he set out to see something: a way beyond the pain and pointlessness of life. Shakyamuni tried everything. He abandoned a life of privilege and self-gratification. He studied with revered teachers and endured extreme ascetic practices. He wandered weak and starving in the wilderness until his body nearly wasted away. Nothing he tried brought him to realization, so he stopped punishing himself. He sat down under a tree and resolved to stay put until he clearly saw the source of his suffering and how to put an end to it.

Sitting down does not, in itself, solve your problems. Anyone who’s ever tried to meditate for more than a minute knows that a battle ensues. It’s a battle within your own mind—a maelstrom of thoughts, sensations, ruminations, beliefs, and judgments.

By clinging to this ever-changing thought-stream, and more importantly, by carrying it around in the cluttered bucket of our heads, we construct the false identity we call the “self.” (There really isn’t a permanent self, at least not one you can collect in a bucket and carry around.)

In the story of Buddha, the battle is portrayed as an epic war of good versus evil, with the demon Mara tempting Shakyamuni’s desires for physical comfort, sensory pleasure, security, and escape. These, too, are delusions, and they perpetuate the delusional sense of separation from the world around us.

Shakyamuni prevailed by sheer desperation, sitting fast in a passing storm. Over many days and nights, his concentration deepened, his mind cleared, and as his inner turmoil subsided, the sense of separation dropped. One morning when he lifted his gaze to the sky, the world he saw was the same, yet different. It no longer appeared to be on the outside because there was no sense of a separate self on the inside. His spontaneous utterance conveyed the wonder of having woken up to the world of oneness, where everyone and everything woke up with him: “I, the great earth, and all beings simultaneously attain the way!”

Later on, reuniting with his friends, they called him Buddha, which means “one who is awake.” I like to compare their encounter with the Buddha to what can happen when you run into someone you haven’t seen for a while. They seem happier, healthier, lighter, and brighter. It’s obvious that something about them is different, but you can’t put your finger on it, so you fumble around and say something like, “Did you get a new haircut?”

An inner transformation like awakening is visible without quite being visible. It shows up as unselfconsciousness, unpretentiousness, and total presence. Waking up affects everything about a person’s bearing: how they sit, stand, talk, walk, and even just light a stick of incense.

Buddha (1904) by Odilon Redon

Dogen Zenji, a thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master, experienced enlightenment while sitting in a meditation hall in the middle of the night. The guy sitting next to him fell asleep. Then the abbot walked by and shouted, “Studying Zen is dropping body and mind! What’s the use of single-minded sleeping?”

Upon hearing these words, Dogen’s mind emptied, and he woke up from the illusion of separation. He went to the abbot’s quarters and offered incense. Without even questioning him, the teacher approved his realization. Dogen demurred; his realization, after all, could be temporary. The abbot agreed with him! Everything is impermanent and constantly changing, so drop whatever just happened. To be awake is to be awake in the now.

The annals of Zen are rife with stories of instantaneous awakenings, and we can’t make much sense of them. They aren’t explained. There isn’t a formula. But we can explore waking up in our own practice by becoming aware of the movement of our discriminating consciousness, the egocentric mind.

How do you tell the difference between someone who’s absorbed in their own thoughts and someone absorbed in the now? Someone who’s sleepwalking and someone who’s completely present? By looking and listening, it’s easy to see when someone is distracted, preoccupied, or unaware. In my experience, the gaze is telltale. You can become aware of this during meditation or face-to-face conversation. When the eyes roll up as if into our heads, we’re in abstract thought. If the gaze drifts from side to side, we may be lost in the past or fantasizing about the future. But eyes straight ahead, focused solely on what is right in front of us, we’re awake in the now, free of our conditioned thinking. What happens next? You don’t know, but maybe you’ll be awake enough to see.

“Your whole problem is that you think you know,” my teacher once said to me. He may have said it a hundred times until I finally heard it. Every problem we have is because we think we know. We turn our past experiences into future expectations. We cling to emotional storylines that distort our reality. We accumulate judgments, opinions, and biases that warp our views of people and things. The problem is that all this mental junk gets in the way of seeing anything at all.

This is also true of written teachings, which we like to read, retain, and regurgitate. The dharma simply is, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t know it by intellectual understanding, which is inherently dualistic.

In one classic koan, a student is walking alongside a teacher, a scenario in which you might think it’s natural to discuss the dharma. The student, rather enamored with an old saying, repeats it for the teacher: “Heaven and earth are of the same root. All things and I are of one substance.”

So, the student has given an intellectual description of awakening, the state of oneness, but he’s not awake. Keen to free the fellow from his confinement, the teacher responds by pointing to a nearby flower. “Nowadays people see this flower as if they were in a dream.” Remote, distracted, half-blind. Seeing a flower, they think, “I am looking at a flower,” yet that doesn’t reach the whole of it. They’re merely giving a name to the separation.

When I presented my answer to this koan, I was pretty confident I’d conveyed the difference between dreaming and waking up. Then my teacher held his arms wide and said, “This too is a dream.” It blew my mind. I thought I’d figured out that dreams were inside our head and reality was outside our head, that what you dreamed was unreal and what you saw was real, but that’s dualistic! Material forms are illusory as well. They’re mental projections as empty and impermanent as everything else. Where does that leave those of us still tangled up in words?

It leaves us right where we are. Just smell the flower. How complicated is that?

After his enlightenment Buddha still walked on muddy ground. He was a human being on earth, doing human things and feeling human feelings. Ignoring nothing, avoiding nothing, resisting nothing. We have to remember this regularly, or we go back into our judging mind, thinking that being a buddha means rising above the grit and grime of everyday life, a god—and if not a god, an automaton, disengaged from the impermanence of real life.

If everything is an illusion, then nothing matters, you might reason. But that proves the limits of deductive reasoning. Try applying the intellectual understanding of buddhadharma to real loss, pain, grief, or trauma in your life.

Marpa was a Tibetan meditation master who taught his students that everything was an illusion. One day his disciples found him weeping over the body of his son, who had died in a sudden accident. The great teacher was collapsed in grief.

His disciples were genuinely perplexed. “If everything is an illusion, why are you carrying on like this?” they asked. Was their teacher a phony and his teaching a lie?

Marpa answered them, “Everything is an illusion, and this is the greatest illusion of all.” His darling son had been alive one moment, dead and gone the next. How else should he respond? His loss was real, and his tears were wet.

The ground of awakening is selfless compassion; as bodhisattvas we hear the cries of the world and weep forever. Yes, everything is illusion, and everything matters to the human heart.

There’s a line from the Amitabha Sutra that goes, “Streams and birds, trees and woods, all recite the name of the Buddha.”

When we really listen to the teaching, we are pointed directly to the place of our awakening. Then again, it can take a long time before we hear.

A silent zendo is flush with bells, gongs, drumbeats, chimes, clacks, and the occasional whack of the kyosaku, or “waking stick,” which delivers a quick smack on the shoulders of a sitter to relieve drowsiness or muscle tension. All this percussion can sound like the vestiges of centuries past, atmospherics that we can do without. In the zendo where I sit, the bell may be a siren; the drumbeat, a car radio; and the chimes, an ice cream truck, noises that can easily register as annoying distractions.

If you hear the sounds as coming from outside of you, you judge them, creating a separation and missing the point. The sutra doesn’t judge: everything recites the name of the Buddha, the awakened one. Who is that one? Who hears, who sees, who sits, who breathes? Who else can it be?

In a shadowy zendo as day falls into night, a single voice pierces the silence, and with it, the veil of illusion between inside and outside, self and other:

Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller is a priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Yeo Roshi. In daily life, as mother to daughter Georgia and as a writer, she aims to resolve the enigmatic truth of Maezumi’s teaching, “Your life is your practice.” Miller is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and most recently, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.