Enso Enlightenment

Forum: What Is Enlightenment?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Ayya Tathaaloka, Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin, and David Matsumoto explore their traditions’ different perspectives on awakening.

By Josh Bartok

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin, Rev. David Matsumoto, Ayya Tathaaloka

Introduction by Josh Bartok

For me, one of the great bait and switches of dharma practice was this: I came to the dharma wanting enlightenment, and what I found was awakening. I think I imagined that enlightenment was a thing I could get and have and keep—perhaps like better, stronger, more impenetrable armor to protect me from the pains and sorrows of this human life, or like the world’s most powerful flashlight, with which I could forever banish all darkness. I wanted certainty. What I found was a possibility of truly entrusting, a steadily growing capacity for enacting verified faith in the dharma, a practice of awakening to the enoughness of this one thing that is me-and-the-universe. What I found was a way to continually expose my heart rather than shield it and an ever-deepening appreciation of liberation amid the vast, inconceivable darkness of not-knowing.

Is this enlightenment?

There is of course no more provocative—and sticky—topic in all of Buddhism. Is enlightenment an event or a process? Is it a goal or a by-product? Reached through effort or surrender? Does it emerge from practice or is practice its expression? Does it happen all at once or gradually? Is it the very end of the path or the true beginning?

I have my own views, of course—but in a certain very real sense, I suspect the answer to all these questions is yes.

And how about you, dear reader: What do you imagine, know, or believe enlightenment to be? How do you stand in relation to it? This investigation itself is a rich and worthy practice.

But be warned: “When you realize the buddhadharma,” as Dogen Zenji wrote in thirteenth-century Japan, “you do not think, This is realization just as I expected. And even if you think so, realization invariably differs from your expectation.”

In the following discussion, four teachers from different traditions invite us further into this investigation of the Great Matter.

Forum: What Is Enlightenment?

Buddhadharma: What does your tradition mean by “enlightenment”? How would you describe it?

Ponlop Rinpoche: From the Mahayana view, there are two ways to explain what enlightenment is. From the experiential point of view, enlightenment is being awake from one’s confusion and suffering. The quality of enlightenment is basically being free of any thought processes. Enlightenment is actually the nature of mind. From the doctrinal point of view, there are different stages of awakening. The first glimpse of enlightenment takes place at the level of the first bhumi of the bodhisattva. That glimpse of enlightenment becomes more stable, clear, and perfected throughout the ten bhumis of the bodhisattva, and at the end of the tenth bhumi, the realization of enlightenment and of the three kayas is achieved.

Ayya Tathaaloka: In the Theravada tradition, there are many different types of awakening. In the first awakening, one recognizes cause and effect and begins to feel that one’s actions from the past have caused many kinds of suffering. Such behavior starts to seem abhorrent. A deep resolution turns the mind around from those long, confused patterns of afflictive behavior, lifting it up like the bud of a lotus breaching muddy water to touch air and sunshine. A sense of openness and spaciousness arises, along with the determination to behave differently. This shift could be called “a moral awakening,” but it also has the aspect of the mind clearing, unbinding, and becoming more open and stable. People do experience that literally as clarity or light, coming out of darkness, or entering into spaciousness. Things that were dark, disassociated, and disconnected before become connected, and we can then see more clearly what was shrouded in darkness.

Once one has an understanding of how the Dhamma works and a fundamental insight into conditional causation, one can then enter into the practice in a more effective way. Fear and disempowerment are alleviated and, no longer feeling at the mercy of the world and other people or other circumstances, one gains a foothold on the path. From there, in the Theravada teachings, one progresses through the four stages—or the eight stages, including the fruition—of the arahanta path, “awakening after the Awakened One.”

Gaelyn Godwin: In the Zen tradition, rather than focus on the stages that the Buddha describes in his enlightenment process, we tend to focus on his initial statement beneath the bodhi tree: “I and all sentient beings together attain enlightenment.” We understand that this awakening is a realization of the natural state of mind and that the recognition of that same mind in others is the deepest part of the Buddha’s awakening. The teachings therefore emphasize removing hindrances to seeing clearly so that one can abide in the clarity of reality as it actually is.

Different streams of the tradition also emphasize different parts of awakening. Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan from which my lineage flows, emphasized that the buddhanature we all possess is recognized in each other—so awakening is awakening to buddhanature in all sentient beings. In other Zen traditions, more attention is focused on working toward realization. The renowned Rinzai teacher Hakuin Zenji tracked his enlightenment experiences, categorizing them as small, medium, and large. In the tradition I was trained in, we work mostly from the acceptance of buddhanature in all beings and cultivate a moral perspective, but we operate from the assumption that enlightenment is already present in everyone. So practice involves sitting in that awareness; meditation is sitting in the natural mind and observing processes that arise. Mostly we aren’t working toward enlightenment in Zen, we’re assuming it as a basis and trying to accept that reality.

David Matsumoto: In Shin Buddhism our perspective of enlightenment and the way in which it informs our life was taught to us by our founder, Shinran, who was very much Mahayana Buddhist but also a Pure Land Buddhist. I find great resonance with what others have said. In many ways, Shin gives expression to those same understandings with the use of symbolism and expression of Pure Land Buddhism. Enlightenment is both that to which we aspire along the Buddha’s path and the very foundation of the path—it’s a source from which the path flows and arises.

Shinran tells us that Amida Buddha and the Pure Land are tathagathas; they are oneness in suchness, they are buddhanature, and as such he emphasizes both the awakening of wisdom in enlightenment and also the activity of compassion. It is the working of compassion that becomes the focus of enlightenment in the Shin tradition.

Enlightenment is understood as an ordinary state demonstrated in ordinary practices, such as drinking tea. There’s nothing special to do in Zen.
-Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin

Shin is very much grounded in a lay tradition, a householder tradition. Shinran is very clear when he says that in this life we don’t realize enlightenment, but we are the equal of the tatagathas—we awaken wisdom, we are embraced within compassion, and yet enlightenment comes about only upon birth in the Pure Land, the land of immeasurable light.

Buddhadharma: David, can you clarify for those who aren’t familiar with Shin what it means to be born in the Pure Land?

David Matsumoto: Sure. Shinran teaches that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to realize enlightenment just as we are. However, what is possible, and what can be the foundation of our spiritual lives, is what he calls shinjin, a term that early translations in the West translated as faith. Shin was often described as a way of having faith in the Buddha, who will save his followers, who are reborn in a Pure Land in a world to come. For that reason, Shin, or Jodoshinshu, was characterized as kind of Christian Buddhism, but shinjin is more than just faith. There is an aspect of faith in the Buddhist sense (sraddha), but there’s also a sense of an ever-unfolding awakening to one’s nature and of the activity of wisdom unfolding as compassion. This is also what Shinran calls “birth.” So birth is both this awakening that we experience here and now, which supports and informs all of our religious life as we venture forth, and the realization of nirvana when our karmic bondage to this world ends.

Buddhadharma: Let’s talk more about how enlightenment functions according to each of your traditions. Is it a matter of passing a threshold—once you’re enlightened, you’re enlightened? Is it a more continual awakening process? Or are we already awakened and simply trying to clear the obscurations?

Ponlop Rinpoche: From the Vajrayana point of view, our mind’s nature is fully awakened from the very beginning, and our path is to discover that nature. We get introduced to that nature of mind with different methods, such as the practice of loving-kindness and compassion or the practices of meditation on the nature of mind, and once we get a glimpse of it, we have a sense of awakening that becomes an actual part of our mind. It’s no longer just a theory; it becomes a reality, an experience. Yet it is just a glimpse that still needs to be sustained continuously through meditation practice and through the practice of loving-kindness, compassion, and mindfulness. Of course we would like to think that enlightenment happens on the spot and we never return to samsara. But it happens in stages through which we can perfect it.

Human beings are always bound by karma. But even though our defiled selves remain as they are, our hearts and minds already reside in the Pure Land.
-Rev. David Matsumoto

When Shakyamuni Buddha awakened under the bodhi tree, there was a young man passing by who saw this beautiful enlightened being but he didn’t know who he was, so he asked the Buddha, “Are you a god?” The Buddha said, “No.” Then he asked, “Are you a spirit?” Again the Buddha said no. The young man was very puzzled and he asked, “Who are you, then?” And the Buddha simply answered, “I am awake.” Awakening can happen in our ordinary life. It’s not something mysterious or magical. The Vajrayana teachings say that because it is so ordinary, we don’t believe in it; because it is so close to us, we don’t usually see it. So there is a sudden awakening, and it also takes time to perfect it.

Buddhadharma: Theravada teachers such as the late Mahasi Sayadaw tend to speak not about enlightenment but about nirvana, or nibbana. Does this put a slightly different spin on how we’re to understand enlightenment?

Ayya Tathaaloka: Yes, thank you for mentioning nibbana. We use the term to describe an experience of absence: absence of obsession, confusion, fear, any kinds of confusions and distortions, mental afflictions.

It’s interesting—not so long ago, in the ordination ceremony for Thai monks in the Theravada tradition, the phrase nibbana sacchikaranatthaya—”for the sake of the realization, or direct experience for oneself, of nibbana”—was actually removed from the proceedings by royal initiative because there were those who believed that the vision and experience of nibbana, even for Buddhist monastics, wasn’t possible in this Dhamma-ending age. But in this generation, thanks to the Most Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and other excellent teachers, that’s changed; the line was restored to the ceremony. There is the belief among many in our monastic tradition that it is possible, both gradually and suddenly, to realize stages of the path of awakening, to have a vision of nibbana, and to realize it for oneself both in this life and at the time of death.

Buddhadharma: According to the Theravada view, is one already fundamentally awake, or is one always working toward this awakening?

Ayya Tathaaloka: In the Theravada tradition, we don’t use terminology like “buddhanature” or “essential enlightenment,” and yet, in this story of the Buddha’s awakening that Rinpoche mentioned, we believe that the Buddha showed clearly that human beings do have the capacity for awakening, or at least a latent potential that can be activated through this teaching and practice. While we wouldn’t say we’re essentially awakened, we would say that we have the ability as human beings to awaken and that it can happen suddenly based upon past conditions that have become ripe.

Buddhadharma: From the perspective of Zen, if we’re not working toward enlightenment because we are already enlightened, what are we doing exactly?

Gaelyn Godwin: First I want to say that I hope people avoid the common false dichotomy that Theravada is very different from Mahayana or Zen. Zen practices, even though they’re not understood as aiming toward enlightenment per se, are a recognition that for most people the awakened nature is obscured. When Zen first came to the West, there was an emphasis on realizing one’s awakened nature by dropping everything and putting all one’s energy into meditation. Since then, after wider study of the teachings that surround Zen in the East, emphasis on compassion and skillful means has grown, and both are now practiced much more in Zen centers in the West. The Lotus Sutra and other important early Mahayana texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra have been filtered through Dogen Zenji into our practice. These sutras contain many allegories of people walking through life in a daze or a slumber, not knowing that all along they carried a jewel. The practices are to see through the distractions and allow for this jewel to be realized. But enlightenment is understood in Zen as an ordinary state demonstrated in ordinary practices—for instance, in the way someone drinks tea or rolls up a blind. There’s nothing special to do in Zen.

There’s a famous awakening story of Ikkyu, a Japanese poet and monk, struggling for enlightenment. He wanted to wake up and he went to his teacher to express his understanding, because in Zen, awakening has to be acknowledged by another. He expressed his understanding of having heard a crow caw, and the teacher said, “Ikkyu, I’m sorry, that’s not the understanding of the buddhas and enlightened ones.” Ikkyu replied, “It’s good enough for me.” His teacher said, “That’s the enlightenment of the buddhas and ancestors.”

Buddhadharma: David, even though you say Shinran taught that it’s difficult to realize enlightenment as we are, in everything else you described, it feels like we’re still talking about the same qualities of enlightenment as in the other traditions.

David Matsumoto: I believe so, but Shinran was very conscious of the depth of our karmic bondage, the realization that human beings are always producing and bound by karma. He said bonno, or kleshas, are ever unfolding, ever active, until the moment of death. At the same time, he says that with the realization of shinjin, we awaken wisdom—but in the sense that awakening to our ordinariness, our foolishness, our karmic bondage is in itself wisdom. We see ourselves in a way that was impossible before, but even that awakening is beyond the capacity of our discriminative consciousness. And yet, Shinran also says that even though our defiled selves remain as they are, our hearts and minds already and always reside in the Pure Land.

Buddhadharma: What does enlightenment look like? We’ve spoken about it as an internal experience or reality, but if we encounter it in another person, does it have particular qualities? Are there certain behaviors that we can reasonably expect?

David Matsumoto: Shinran says that “upon being born in the Pure Land, we immediately turn around and return to samsara.” I think that’s a very Pure Land way of talking about nirvana of no abode, or of awakening to the reality that samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara. He talks about “directing of virtue or merit transference in the aspect of returning from the Pure Land,” that is, attaining birth in the Pure Land and then returning to guide unenlightened beings to buddhahood.

Here enlightenment as activity can take a variety of forms: as a person whom we encounter, perhaps a teacher, or as a range of other phenomena that represent this process of enlightenment and return on behalf of others. It implies that even though we can’t put our finger on it, we can sense the working of enlightenment in the lives of others, in the words of our teachers, perhaps even in crows cawing. I think those are all possibilities.

Buddhadharma: Gaelyn, going back to the story of Ikkyu, his teacher verified his experience, but what would that mean for Ikkyu in practical terms the next day, or for someone encountering him?

Gaelyn Godwin: In our tradition, enlightenment is not a permanent state. Ikkyu had a taste or a glimpse that was verified. One of the important parts of that story is that it’s relational; going back to the story of the Buddha’s awakening, Buddha saw others as awakened, and that was also his awakening. So I think you could say that the enlightened mind sees enlightened activity, that there’s a resonance between the minds. Ikkyu the next day would look like ordinary Ikkyu. To an ordinary mind, his behavior would look ordinary. It would be Ikkyu being kind or thoughtful or playful or creative. But an enlightened mind would see slightly different behavior. One teacher told me that the most important teaching in Zen is the comportment of a Zen monk, which includes lay practitioners as well. That behavior is supposed to not hinder other people’s growth toward enlightenment. So an enlightened person is conscious of activity and its impact on others. The Lotus Sutra teaches skillful means, skillfully working to aid the people around you. To appear as an enlightened person in a setting where people are frightened by that behavior would not be awakened behavior; appearing as an ordinary person in order to help people at the level needed would be more effective. So Ikkyu the next day might have looked like a shambling monk—if that was the appropriate way for him to behave.

Ponlop Rinpoche: I would say that what enlightenment looks like is very clear from the life of Buddha. After he was enlightened under the bodhi tree, he stood up in the morning and started walking toward Deer Park as an ordinary person. So I think the enlightened person is like an ordinary person but possesses exceptional compassion, love, and wisdom, unbound by fixation or clinging. The union of both wisdom and compassion in a person’s actions, words, and thoughts is what enlightenment looks like.

We have a story in the Vajrayana tradition that is similar to the one Gaelyn told earlier. The great Dzogchen master Paltrul Rinpoche had a student who had been trying to experience awakening. Paltrul Rinpoche had been pointing out the nature of mind again and again, and the student never got it. So one evening, Paltrul Rinpoche said, “Okay, come on, let’s take a walk.” They went to a meadow, and while they were sitting there, Paltrul Rinpoche said to his student, “Lungtok, can you see the stars in the sky?” Lungtok said yes. “And can you hear the dog’s barking from Dzogchen monastery?” He said yes. “And can you understand in your mind what I’m saying to you?” He said yes, and Paltrul Rinpoche said, “That’s it.” And that’s when the student got it.

Ayya Tathaaloka: I think what enlightenment looks like depends upon who is looking and how they’re looking. There will be those whose minds are so distracted or mired in various delusions that they may look at an enlightened person and not see anything special at all. Others who are at a different stage may see the enlightened person’s radiance, clarity, and sense of power or ease. As I mentioned earlier, I tend to think of enlightenment more in terms of what is absent: obsessions, grasping, aversion, resentment, fear, doubt, discontent. All of the energy that normally goes into running those things is then free, present, and liberated.

I do see a lot of people suffering due to confusion about the stages of enlightenment or awakening. In the early Buddhist teachings, there’s no expectation that a stream-enterer will have gotten rid of all desire or won’t ever be irritated about anything—that would be a further stage of the path. It’s easy to assume an awakening is not real if all of one’s problems are not gone. Practitioners can become disappointed and lose faith. There can be real awakening experiences that do last, but that doesn’t normally mean that everything is resolved at once. There’s still the path of practice.

Buddhadharma: In your experience, are the people coming into your centers looking for enlightenment? And if not, do you feel they should be?

Gaelyn Godwin: There’s a lot of confusion about what enlightenment is and whether it should be emphasized or made a priority in Zen practice. It’s a question that I’ve turned my attention to more in recent years. In my early training, it wasn’t talked about. We like to say, “Practice without a goal,” and wanting enlightenment was considered having a goal in practice. You have to have a very deep desire to practice in order to understand that enlightenment is a goal beyond a goal.

Once we get a glimpse of the nature of mind, we have a sense of awakening that becomes an actual part of our mind. It’s no longer just a theory; it becomes a reality, an experience.
-Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Here in Houston, a lot of people are interested in learning about meditation as a means of stress relief. But I find that people also want to wake up, and it is a topic they bring up when they come. There’s more work to be done in helping practitioners understand that even while there is such a thing as awakening, it doesn’t mean you become a different person. Even if the roots of various obscurations are cut, karmic habits still continue. Each person’s awakened nature will still look like an individual, unique being.

Ponlop Rinpoche: There’s a mix of reasons why people walk into a dharma center. Many come for mindfulness practice that can help them cope with stress at work and elsewhere in life. But I would say the majority of people are hoping to experience something deeper, the nature of mind awakening. Enlightenment isn’t something you learn about at home or school; it’s not something you see on billboards or in Google advertising. It’s a new concept for most people, but I think it becomes more and more appealing once they get a glimpse or taste of it.

Buddhadharma: Ayya Tathaaloka, how important do you think it is for Theravada practitioners to hold nibbana as a guiding principal or goal of their practice?

Ayya Tathaaloka: I don’t want to speak about “shoulds.” For those in my monastic community, as well as the practitioners who are non-monastics, there’s a very high rate of people who do aspire for nibbana, who are practicing for liberation. Having glimpses or getting a taste of that does really motivate and encourage them. Sometimes practitioners see that glimpse in someone else and recognize it, which then becomes the motivator. They know it’s true, they know it’s possible. One challenge is that people sometimes imagine nibbana as being like a far-away city, outside themselves, so they set up a strong duality and then want to practice really, really hard to try to get there. I feel that so much of right effort is to come back to ourselves and awaken within the present in our bodies, feelings, and minds. As long as the aspiration is projected outside, the grasping mind is like a long bungee cord forever propelling us into other circumstances, keeping us dissatisfied and suffering. So much of practice is getting out of that habit of perpetually seeking and grasping outside ourselves.

Buddhadharma: David, how can a Shin practitioner hold the notion of enlightenment as part of their practice?

David Matsumoto: Many people come to our temple because they wish to engage in practices of filial piety; others are looking for a community of friends; still others are looking for stress relief or conflict resolution. But I agree that an aspiration to practice the path of enlightenment is very, very important. It’s fundamental.

People sometimes imagine nibbana like a faraway city, then try to get there. As long as the aspiration is projected outside, we remain dissatisfied and suffering.
-Ayya Tathaaloka

In the Shin tradition we phrase it in terms of aspiring to be born in the Pure Land, which is in many ways a rejection of the status quo, a rejection of this world of suffering, of lives that are bound by ego and attachment and craving. This shift in orientation can bring benefit, such as a sense of joy and a transformation of our fundamental ignorance and foolishness into wisdom, and it can also express virtue in the form of living in gratitude for the benevolence of the Buddha and Buddhist masters, and for all others who give us life. I think that’s becoming more of a reality for people who are now finding out about Shin.

Buddhadharma: What advice or words of encouragement could you offer people about bringing an aspiration for enlightenment into one’s practice?

Ayya Tathaaloka: I see so many people living disconnected from their hearts, from their deepest sense of purpose and meaning. This can be deadening, or at the very least dulling or disheartening. I also see many people whose lives—really, their minds—are fragmented and scattered. Gathering together our mental energies, bringing them together and unifying them, they can become clear, strong, bright, and whole. We do not need to wait for a near miss or near-death experience to come to this realization. When we see what matters and we know what is important, life’s meaning and what we need to do become clear. This is the real beauty of humanity and of a life well lived. We have this opportunity, and we have the incredible good fortune to have had a path passed down to us. We are the blessed Buddha’s heirs, or we can be, if we unwrap and open our inheritance.

Ponlop Rinpoche: I would remind people to be present in every moment; enlightenment is simply the mind settled down in its natural state. It is freedom from our torturing thoughts and emotions. Even just a glimpse of wakefulness becomes an inspiration, an education. It helps the practitioner to actually long for the true and complete awakening.

David Matsumoto: The aspiration for enlightenment is a gift directed to us through Amida Buddha. Enlightenment is activity. It is the Buddha’s wisdom arising as compassion and taking active form in our lives of samsara. In this sense, our realization of suffering, our awareness of our ego-centeredness and passions, and our wish to be free of them are all gifts. The experience of shinjin, through which we can awaken to this activity of enlightenment and aspire for buddhahood, is also a gift. The aspiration for enlightenment is both an aspiration to realize buddhahood and a wish to save all beings. Both of these virtues deeply inform all aspects of our lives and practice as we direct ourselves toward the liberation of all beings. To do so is not a burden. Instead, our lives and actions are those of joy and gratitude for receiving the gift of enlightenment.

Gaelyn Godwin: If someone were to arrive at the door asking about enlightenment, I would smile, nod “Oh, yes,” and invite them in for tea, introduce them to various folks. Once they’re through that gate and the topic comes up again, I might invite them to join me in the garden, maybe do some weeding.

The aspiration for enlightenment is a great gift, a wholesome karmic fruition, and the energy behind that aspiration, the paramita of effort or diligence, can be actualized in practice. It is important to welcome the energy and guide the practice while not corralling enlightenment into a narrow definition.

Josh Bartok

Josh Bartok

Josh Bartok (Keido Mu’nen) is the abbot (head teacher and spiritual director) at the Greater Boston Zen Center. He is a Dharma heir of James Ishmael Ford Roshi in both of the roshi’s lineages: the ordained Soto Zen lineage of Jiyu Kennett, and the koan introspection lineage of John Tarrant.
photo of Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, and the author of several books including, most recently, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.

Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin

Setsuan Gaelyn Godwin is abbot of the Houston Zen Center.

Rev. David Matsumoto

Rev. David Matsumoto is a professor of contemporary Shin Buddhist studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. He also serves as resident minister of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple.

Ayya Tathaaloka

Ayya Tathaaloka is a fully ordained bhikkhuni and the second Western woman to be designated as a Theravada bhikkhuni preceptor. She is the founder of Dhammadharini Vihara and cofounder of Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, both in California.