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Taigen Dan Leighton
Mt. Source Sangha, Bolinas – December 12, 2002

Twenty-five hundred years or so ago Shakyamuni Buddha sat up all night under the bodhi tree and in the morning saw the morning star, awakened, and became the awakened one, the Buddha. We celebrate this as Enlightenment Day. Actually it is usually celebrated December 8th in East Asia, and today is the 7th here. But in China and Japan this is now the 8th.

I want to talk today about enlightenment. Usually in my tradition, in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, we don’t talk so much about enlightenment, because it’s kind of a dangerous word. You might imagine that there is such a thing as enlightenment. But enlightenment is not a thing, but perhaps rather a verb. Dogen says in Genjokoan that deluded people have delusions about enlightenment. So having heard this word you probably all have such delusions. This is very natural that we would have delusions about some wonderful realm of enlightenment that exists someplace else. We hear this word enlightenment and think there’s something we need to get, that we need to get higher, or that we need to be somebody other than who we are. And when you realize you are thinking that, this is actually an enlightened thought, because enlightened people are enlightened about their delusions, as Dogen says. So when you are sitting and aware of your restlessness, or fidgeting, or sleepiness, or wanting to be somebody or someplace else than where you are on your cushion, that is this basic delusion, and that is what we need to be enlightened about. We practice by seeing the ways in which we think we are not where enlightenment is.

Actually the original word in Sanskrit, bodhi, just means awakening. It just means to wake up. And Buddha is the “one who has awakened.” But then when we hear that, we might think that there is a state called awakening, as opposed to some state called sleeping, or dreaming, or confusion. So if you’re sleeping or dreaming, please be completely awakened about your sleeping and dreaming. In his essay “Within the Dream Express the Dream,” Dogen clarifies that Buddhas and Ancestors awaken in a dream. And all of Buddha’s wonderful talks are merely talks in a dream. So please enjoy the dream that you are in. Please be present in your dream. Study your dream carefully.

Sometimes we may even find ourselves in the same dream for a little while. I don’t know if that is my dream or your dream, or Buddha’s dream. But whether we think it’s the same dream or a different dream, please just enjoy, and be completely present in this dream.

This is a tricky business, because this realm of awakening, this realm of completion and wholeness, this realm of enlightenment, is not something we can know. And yet, we are all mostly more or less middle-class American folks here. We like to know things. So you should know that you have a hang-up about wanting to know things. Study that too.

I want to talk about Dogen’s essay, “Only a Buddha and a Buddha” a little bit today. [See Tanahashi. Moon in a Dewdrop, pp. 161-167] Dogen says, “Buddha dharma cannot be known by a person.” Sorry. But inasmuch as we are human-type beings, even good people, known in the sutras as “sons and daughters of good family,” we cannot know buddha dharma, because our knowing is just this realm of delusion. That is not necessarily bad. But you should know that you cannot truly or fully know. Or if you know that, then don’t hold on to knowing that either. For this reason, “Since olden times no ordinary person has realized buddha dharma. No practitioner of lesser vehicles has mastered buddha dharma.” Because it is awakened to by buddhas alone, it is said in the Lotus Sutra that only a Buddha and a Buddha, only a Buddha together with a Buddha, can thoroughly master it. Only a Buddha and a Buddha can thoroughly fathom the depths of this wonderful awakening.

I will give a little history here. In the Sanskrit Lotus Sutra it just says that only Buddhas can thoroughly know this. But Kumarajiva translated it as, “Only Buddha AND Buddha,” or “Only Buddha TOGETHER WITH Buddha.” Kumarajiva was the great Central Asian translator of sutras to Chinese, maybe he was from around Afghanistan. Perhaps not just because of that translation–although as a translator I like to think of the power of translation–but anyway since then, in China, Japan, and East Asia generally, more than in South Asia and India, the tradition emphasized doing this practice together, in relationship. So student and teacher, or student and the teaching (the sutras or the dharma) awaken together. Then we have to check it out with Buddha, or with someone a little more experienced. Our practice is something we do together. In the Bodhisattva way, the way of universal awakening for all beings, actually it is not possible to truly awaken by yourself, only for yourself. We actually awaken with people, even though “people cannot know buddha dharma.” But when a person and a Buddha get together, then there’s just buddhas. You could not be here, you couldn’t be doing this practice, you would not have even been interested enough to show up today, if you did not already have some relationship to this reality that Buddha awakened. And yet, as a (limited) person, you cannot fully know it. This is kind of a problem for us. But I suggest also that it’s okay. This is actually the way things are, that we can study this awakening and see the deluded people that we are, and be very careful and aware of that. We can also step out of the way of the buddhas who are also talking together here.

How do we consult with each other about this reality? There is talking together, but there is also how we do this as we are silently sitting on our cushions, breathing in and out next to each other. This is also part of buddha together with buddha.

It also says in the “Skillful Means” chapter of the Lotus Sutra that buddhas appear in the world because there are suffering beings. The bodhisattva of compassion is the one who hears the suffering of the world, who is willing to look and hear and feel that. So without suffering, there would not be any buddhas. We wouldn’t need any. They wouldn’t bother to show up and open this possibility of awakening to something deeper than what we can know.

There are certain beings for whom it’s difficult to know about suffering. Maybe they live in fancy, luxurious neighborhoods. But probably buddhas are even there too. Anyway, most of us know about suffering. We have difficulties, and we read the newspapers, and we know something about the pain of the world, and of ourselves and our own hearts, and our loved ones and friends. This is actually wonderful, because it enables us to come in contact with buddhas. It allows us to be buddhas together with buddhas, even though it is beyond our knowing.

Dogen continues, “When you realize buddha dharma, you do not think, this is enlightenment just as I expected. Even if you think so, enlightenment invariably differs from your expectation. Enlightenment is not like your conception of it. Accordingly, enlightenment cannot take place as previously conceived. When you are awakened to buddhadharma you do not consider how awakening came about. You should reflect on this. What you think one way or another before enlightenment is not a help for enlightenment.” So this awakening is beyond our ideas and conceptions of it. And yet, we have to confess and admit the conceptions and delusions that we have about enlightenment, or whatever you think will solve all the problems. Maybe we have a very good, very refined, very well-honed idea about enlightenment. It’s possible. It may be that your idea of enlightenment is very close to enlightenment’s idea of enlightenment. Still, that is not enlightenment.

Suzuki Roshi once said, “You might get enlightened and not like it.” He was a funny guy sometimes. He also once said, “The problem you have right now, you will always have.” I don’t know, some problems seem to go away. A month or so after I started sitting I actually stopped smoking. So some problems you have might go away. But that is not the point. If enough of your problems go away, others will come. Or somebody else will show up and give you their problems. Enlightenment is not a quick fix. It’s not even a slow fix. It’s not about that at all.

Most of what Dogen says, and most of what can be said, is about what it is not about. He continues, “Although enlightenment is not like any of the thoughts preceding it, this is not because such thoughts were actually bad and could not be enlightenment.” Awakening includes all of your ideas about it. It’s just that they’re not awakening.

This is actually true of anything. Nothing happens exactly as you expected. Even if you think so, enlightenment invariably differs from your expectation. Is there anything that doesn’t differ from your expectation? This is certainly not the dharma talk that you expected, if you did have such an expectation. It’s not the one I expected either. So here we are. This is just about being alive, awake, and present in this life, with these problems, with the particular confusions, greed, anger, frustrations, and outrage and so forth that we have in this world.

I can go on reading some more about what Dogen says it’s not, but I also want to see if I can say something about what it is. What it is. I was once at a baseball game and the center fielder made a great catch, and somebody near me yelled, “What it is!” He saw the virtuosity of that athlete as an expression of the excellence of reality. When we are willing to meet it, “What it is!” can be quite wonderful. So, Here we are, Just like this.

It is alright that we have confusion and delusion and all of this stuff. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and make it better, or that we shouldn’t try and help; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write to our congresspeople or whatever. But this is the world we are in, right now, strange as it is. And it is not like something out there. It is not your idea of it, because it is not something out there that you can have some idea about.

In Buddhism in Asia they often talk about emptiness, about cutting through delusions. I like to talk about connectedness. I heard a Buddhist scholar say that interconnectedness is really an American Buddhist teaching. That was interesting, because I think about emptiness in that way, that we are all connected. Interconnectedness is in Chinese Huayan thought, and other parts of East Asian Buddhism. I think it is helpful for us to think about this ecological sense of enlightenment. Each thing that happens – even my ideas about enlightenment that aren’t enlightenment – has an effect all over the world. Everything we do actually has an effect, the world is not out there. We are it. Or, we are not it, but it is us.

What happens in the world is not separate from us, but depends on us, is connected to us, not outside us. And of course there are many worlds. Our idea of the world is not the world either. Whatever we expect to happen in the world isn’t the real world. And yet, here we are. This is it. Enlightenment Day, 2002 and You are there. It does not depend on our ideas about it, and yet, it could not exist at all if any one of you weren’t right here, now. Then it would not be what it is.

Dogen goes on, “It is worth noticing that what you think one way or another is not a help for enlightenment. Then you are cautious not to be small-minded. If enlightenment came forth by the power of your prior thoughts, it would not be trustworthy. Enlightenment does not depend on thoughts, but comes forth far beyond them; enlightenment is helped only by the power of enlightenment itself. Know that then there is no delusion, and there is no enlightenment.”

Dogen gives some practical suggestions or instructions here. He says, “When you have unsurpassed wisdom, you are called Buddha. When a Buddha has unsurpassed wisdom it is called unsurpassed wisdom. Not to know what it is like on this path, at this time, is foolish. What it is like is to be unstained.” To be unstained doesn’t mean that there isn’t suffering and foolishness and craziness in the world. It just means that it’s unstained. It’s undefiled. “To be undefiled does not mean that you try forcefully to exclude intention or discrimination; or that you establish a state of non-intention.” So if you try and get rid of your ideas about how things should be, that’s not it.

One common available delusion about enlightenment is that just to get rid of all of our delusions would be enlightenment. That’s a big delusion. Just as it is, right now, how can we actually be here, in this world, in this way? Dogen says, “Being undefiled cannot be intended or discriminated at all. Being undefiled is like meeting a person and not considering what she looks like.” Can you meet a person and not consider what he looks like? Can you actually meet a person? If you can, then maybe you can also meet a buddha, without even considering their appearance.

“It is like not wishing for more color or brightness when viewing flowers or the moon.” Can you imagine, some people might see a flower and want more color. Can you enjoy a flower that’s kind of pale and pasty? “Spring has the tone of spring, autumn has the scenes of autumn.” There’s no escaping it. When you want spring or autumn to be different from what it is, it can only be as it is. “When you want to keep spring or autumn as it is, reflect that it has no unchanging nature.” The unchanging nature is that it is constantly changing. I think this is good news. Especially considering how terrible things are these days. It is going to change, and we’re part of that.

While “what is accumulated is without self, and no mental activity has self, the reason is not that one of the great elements or five skandhas can be understood as self, or identified as self. The form of the flowers or moon in your mind should not be understood as being selves,” even though you think it is a self. “Still, when you clarify that there is nothing to be disliked or longed for, then the original face is revealed by your practice of the way.” So this is the practice of emptiness, when we see that actually there is nothing to dislike, and there is nothing to yearn for. We can be right here, in the way. And part of that is to know what it is that we do dislike, and what it is that we do yearn for. Again, enlightened people are enlightened about their delusions. You don’t have to study this enlightenment business. Just keep seeing what your confusion is. You don’t have to get rid of it even. Some parts of it, some habits may just drop away. We may no longer want to smoke a cigarette, or whatever.

“Long ago a monk asked an old master, ‘When hundreds, thousands or myriads of objects come up all at once, what should be done?’ The master replied, ‘Don’t try to control them.'” Actually we can’t control all of the greed, hate, and delusion of the world. We can’t even control all the greed, hate, and delusion that goes through our own thought-stream. Try it sometime. You might get a headache.

But how can we be present in it, how can we be awake to it, how can we be willing to be helpful, to be kind to the greed hate and delusion, and each other? When the Buddha awakened and became the Buddha, twenty-five hundred or so years ago today or tomorrow, that was not the end of Buddhism. It was the beginning of Buddhism. Enlightenment is not some goal to achieve or attain. That’s just the starting point of our practice. The practice you are already doing, each of you, that practice is the expression of your awakening right now. It’s exactly the practice being practiced by the awakening that is you, beyond your conceptions and knowing.

Dogen also talks about Buddha going beyond buddha. This enlightenment, this awakening, right now, is endless. It is vast as space and time. So obviously we have a lot of work to do, each of us, and together. And yet, do not try to acquire some enlightenment. Enjoy what is right here and now. Be awake to the awakening that is right here, and study your delusions about it. This is the practice we do together. This is the practice of buddhas together with buddhas, and it is beyond our human consciousness. That does not mean that we should get rid of our human consciousness, or conscience. But don’t get in the way of this other dimension that’s going on, right in our human world. Our human world needs it. So there is work to do, and we don’t know how to do it. And yet, something’s going on, and we don’t know what it is. Just by sitting and settling into our cushion, and connecting to this deep, unfathomable reality, this place that we’re all in some way channeling, this is the buddha work. I can’t tell you how to do it, except that it’s happening already. And each of us has our own particular way of expressing it. Some of us may express it by playing the piano. Some of us may express it by gardening. Some of us may express it by going to demonstrations. Some of us may express it by writing poetry, or riding horseback, or going for a walk, or enjoying a sunset. We need to share that expression of what we don’t know.

It’s like the opening of a lotus or a flower, and receiving, being receptive, paying attention. It’s about hearing each other, and hearing the suffering of others and of ourself. Yet it’s not passive, but rather responsive opening. We can hear each other’s sadness, and say, oh, I’m sorry. Or, can I help? Or just say, I hear you.