Kensho or Satori are the Japanese terms for the initial awakening, the first taste of enlightenment. Imagine a large circle with a small dot in the center. The large circle is the universe or all that is. The small dot in the center is you.
The Dot at the Center of the Circle
Before this experience of awakening, you experience yourself as the dot in the center of all that is. When you look up at the stars at night, it is you looking at stars. You and stars are not the same. You are the one looking. The stars are what are being seen by you. You are here. The stars are there. The stars are outside of and separate from you. You might think something like, “I am seeing the stars.” But you never question deeply what this “I” is.
This is your experience of everything and everyone. There is you and there is the rest of the world or universe. As you can see you when you look at this circle, the universe is very large and you are very small. This is a precarious situation to live in, tiny you vs huge universe. A subtle or not so subtle experience of fear or anxiety is normal in this situation. There is also frustration and disappointment when the universe doesn’t cooperate with your wishes, needs and demands.
Is it any wonder that life seems challenging? And when it gets challenging enough, is it any wonder that some people want to wake up, to discover a different way to live? Often the spiritual search begins in just this way.
The Dot is Gone. Only the Circle Remains.
The first taste of awakening occurs when the dot in the center of the circle is erased. In Zen, we call this “dropping body and mind”. Suddenly there is no dot. There is no you. There is just the circle, just the universe, just all that is. This is such an enormous relief that we are filled with great freedom, joy, peace and love. Tears of gratitude rush forth. Bursts of spontaneous laughter erupt. Sometimes the entire body shakes with this great release, as if we had been holding it tensely our entire life up until this moment. All conditioned thoughts have been burnt up in the brilliant sun of this powerful realization of truth.
The dot of you can dissolve gradually into the vast universe over many years of spiritual practice or it can occur spontaneously in a sudden and unexpected burst as it did for me when I was just twenty-two-years-old. If we are young, immature and don’t have a strong spiritual foundation (practice, meditation, learning, teacher), this sudden and spontaneous realization usually does not last long. This was true for me as it only lasted for ten days, although it did completely alter my life. Desperate to regain this amazing experience, I set my feet firmly on the spiritual path, eventually discovering the practices and teachers necessary for a foundation that could support this realization in daily life. A spiritual foundation is not like the hard, inflexible concrete that makes up the base of a building. It must be flexible enough to continue growing, as the depth of this realization never stops growing. Even after awakening, we never stop learning.
In this first moment of realization, we realize and directly experience that there is no separate self here, nor is there a separate self anywhere else. We are not separate from anything or anyone in all existence. The love experienced from this realization is unlike anything we have ever experienced before. We are absolutely in love with all that is. We and everything else are nothing but love. It radiates from us like the sun.
If our foundation is strong, this will be more than a wonderful moment in our lives, an interesting story to tell our friends, a new way to feel special, now still separate but better. It will be the beginning of continuous growing and deepening. But what do we do with this realization? How does it serve the benefit of all? There is only the all. We fully realize that now. So how does this realization, through this unique body and mind, serve to benefit all?
The Dot Returns
Now the little dot returns. But it is entirely different. No longer feeling separate from the universe, from all that is, the dot now lives only to serve all that is. It knows its true function. And its true function is to be of benefit to all that is in every moment. There is no longer even a hint of self-serving, of I, me, mine. These things only exist as words. They no longer have any meaning. The dot is here as a vehicle, but it no longer experiences any of the separation it felt in the first circle. It is the universe. The universe is it. There is not an inch of separation anywhere.
Its actions no longer arise from the mind, from conditioned thoughts, plans, beliefs and ideas of what the right thing to do is. Now its actions arise completely spontaneously in each moment. The universe always knows what is of the greatest benefit for all in each moment. This body and mind are the perfect vehicle to carry this function out.
The mind is in a permanent and perfect state of Not Knowing or Unknowing so that it is the perfect empty vehicle for the Universe to act through.
This is what we mean by the word Emptiness. It is clear and clean, a perfect channel with no obstructions to block life from expressing itself without interference. In the first circle, the little dot believed it was separate from the rest of the universe. It had thoughts, knowledge, ideas and beliefs it had accumulated that it believed were real and important. It believed these thoughts, knowledge and beliefs were protecting it from the rest of the universe which it perceived as threatening to it. In this way, it was like a clogged pipe that water could not move through. The universe could not move freely through this separate self. It was too clogged with its own thoughts, knowledge and beliefs to realize that it never had been separate from the universe.
After erasing all the thoughts, knowledge and beliefs that created this dot as something separate from the Universe, the dot is now used as the perfect vehicle for the Universe to express itself for the benefit of all that is. It does this automatically and spontaneously. In the first circle, the dot relied entirely on the mind to make decisions and carry out actions, often for the benefit of only itself or a small circle of beings. Now the dot doesn’t rely on the mind at all and effortlessly acts for the benefit of all through the vast wisdom of the Universe Itself.
The First Challenge
The first challenge is awakening, erasing the dot completely. Even after the first realization, it can take time to completely erase the dot, the experience of a separate self. This is why practice is important not only to awaken but for the continuous deepening into awakening and the functioning of awakening in the world.
The Second Challenge
The second challenge is embodying awakening. How does awakening function in the world to benefit all beings? The experience of a separate self disappears, but the body and mind do not disappear. They are still here. And that’s a good thing. Without a body and mind, how could we benefit all beings? It is now clear that both body and mind are also empty of a separate self. They are not self-existing entities. Just like you, they are not separate from the entire Universe. This is also true of all thought, emotions, sensations and perceptions. They are all transient, impermanent, coming and going, changing in every moment. This is the true nature of all life. And yet there is a unique body and mind, and a multitude of other bodies and minds. There are trees, rivers, rocks and mountains. All of this is here. All of this exists. It’s just that none of them have a permanent self-nature. None of them are separate from anything else. This is the great realization we discovered when the dot in the center of the circle disappeared. How this realization functions in the world of name and form is the realization in the third circle when the dot returns.
Your Heart Is Not Separate From the Rest of You
Look at your own heart. Can it be separate from your lungs that supply the heart cells and all other cells with the oxygen they need? Can it be separate from your parents or grandparents? If they never met, where would your heart be now? Is the food you eat separate from your heart? Is whether you exercise or not separate from the condition of your heart right now? Are your thoughts, beliefs and emotions separate from your heart? If you are able to see your heart clearly, you will realize that nothing in all existence has ever been separate from your heart. The same is true of your brain, your kidneys, your liver, your stomach and intestines. In western medicine we like to think of the heart as an organ separate from the lungs, brain, kidneys and liver. But can this really be true? Everything in your body is connected and depends on every other part for its health and its very existence. If western medicine were more aware of this, there would be far less malpractice suits and a far healthier population.
This body is not separate from you. And you are not separate from this body. Nor are you separate from any other body. Without trees, you would not have the oxygen for your lungs to breath clean air. Without the sun, you would have no trees or food. We are completely dependent on all other things for our existence. There is no separation anywhere. Thich Nhat Hanh has created the word inter-being to describe this. We inter-are with all of existence.
When the dot at the center of the circle dissolves, at first we feel we are infinite space. Everything that exists arises in and returns to this infinite space that we are. Then we notice that this space also has no separate, independent self-nature. The space depends on all the things that appear in it. And all the things that appear depend on this space.
The western language is built on duality. Everything has its own name and all these names and the things they describe are separate from each other. Each name has a separate, independent self-nature. But after we awaken, we realize that this is not true. Using western language to describe this realization is not easy. To the unawakened mind, it often sounds like zen poetry or a metaphor.
I am a glint of sunlight reflected off the windshield of a passing car.
I am the cicadas heralding the coming autumn.
I am the sound of raindrops on a tin roof.
This may sound like poetry, a metaphor or a cryptic Zen koan.
But I assure you it is simply a statement of basic truth. All things are one with everything else.
We might also say, “I am you. But I am not me.” Again, this can sound confusing if we still believe that things have a separate, independent self-nature.
When we believe everything has a separate self-nature, we say that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. When we first realize this is not true, we might say that mountains are rivers and rivers are mountains. They inter-are. To apply this understanding in the world for the benefit of all, another step is needed. I may see that mountains are indeed rivers and could not exist without rivers and all existence. But when I climb a mountain, I do not swim up it. So the functional application of mountains are rivers is that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. I climb the mountain and I swim in the river. Awakening does not mean we have gone insane or that we can no longer function in the world. In fact, we function far better than we did before.
Here are some links to help you delve deeper into the awakening process and the discovery of your infinite True Self.