Shakyamuni saw the morning star and returned home to his wife and son, having realized that attachment, like old age and death, is an inescapable part of being human. (as told by Barry Magid)
On this December 9, I asked us to sit with the above version of the Buddha’s story of enlightenment, rather than the historical story that the Buddha, after his great experience, went on to form what was predominantly a sangha of monks that wandered across India. What would have happened had he indeed gone back home to wife, child, palace, and governing responsibilities for his Shakya tribe? What would have changed? Why might it be important?
The Buddha had an experience, but we say that the bigger job is to then actualize the experience in your life. In fact, Eihei Dogen says that only after an experience does practice really start because now you have the confidence to go on. At the same time, Dogen himself wrote of Chinese monks he met whom he greatly admired and who told him they never had a kensho, an experience of awakening.
We all have glimpses. You feel bad, you take a walk, and you experience a sudden clarity. You look at a flower, someone says something, you gaze vacantly out the window, and it’s as if our mind has unloaded a weight of confusion like the snow suddenly falling off a heavily laden branch. Whatever is at work is beyond our understanding, and that causes us to somehow relax. We don’t really understand how it happened, but we’re grateful and over time we develop a confidence in this things we call the Dharma, teachings about the One Body. We develop faith is the glimpses we’ve had. This is especially visible in long-time practitioners.
At the same time, there’s something archetypal in the Buddha’s enlightenment, it has such a hold on our imagination that people sit day and night around December 8 to commemorate it. We want to have such an experience even when we have little understanding of what it was.
Many years ago I spent a summer at Zen Mountain Center doing the three-month summer intensive with Maezumi Roshi. We sat at least 8 hours a day, and even longer if you were ready to go on sitting past 9 pm. I did that often, and I have a powerful memory of leaving the zendo at night and encountering mountain deer that would approach me and nuzzle my hand. At that time I thought the deer were so gentle because no one would harm them at the Center, but actually it was I who had become gentle, it was I who became tame, and therefore approachable.
What changed was that I wasn’t fighting anymore. I wasn’t fighting life as it unfolded, wasn’t fighting for control, wasn’t fighting for my ideas of right and wrong. And the deer could tell.
Once you taste that lack of fighting, you want to live like that for the rest of your life. People would come to the intensive for a week or two, then leave, and you could sense their sharpness and intrusiveness. Their nervous energy was palpable even if they didn’t speak; there was no missing it. And you could tell how they changed over time, just as you had changed the longer you were there.
I wanted that for the rest of my life. I didn’t think of enlightenment as a Sound and Light show; to me it represented the end of fighting; it meant real peace.
December 8 lends itself to the delusion that you can have it all in one night, that if you work hard and sacrifice a lot—including your family—it will come in some great burst, all fully cooked. That’s not my own much more humble experience. I don’t believe that Shakyamuni arose from his seat under the Bodhi tree in perfect peace for the rest of his life. I think that he saw some very deep truths, and then had to develop and cultivate them, and he was lucky that he lived long enough to do that.
So why do we try to imagine that perhaps he went back to be with his wife and child? Because he realized that attachment is part of life. Loving a child, a partner, a parent. The other night someone said that she doesn’t wish to bend forward all the time, going after an experience or a goal. But when our child cries, we do bend forward towards him or her. When someone we love turns to us, don’t we bend forward?
We are relational beings. In some ways, we’re meant to bend forward towards certain people and goals, but we can’t be like that all the time otherwise our body will get hurt. We move forward, and then we move back and sit or stand straight. Move forward, then back. We hold something, and then release.
There are two more points I’d like to make in connection with December 8. Some people take experiences like the Buddha’s as being special, and therefore pointing to you as special. As though, to put in deistic terms, you've been chosen by the Lord. You’ve worked harder than anyone and are more dedicated; hence your reward. This is a trap; please avoid it.
Secondly, many describe this as an altered state of being. They talk of ecstasy and a heightened state of peace, like taking LSD. So I’d like to end by quoting the Christian theologian Cynthia Bourgeault:
Because the emotional content is so delicious, the tendency is to put the emphasis on the experience itself rather than the shift in perceptual field that it signals. But from the point of view of real spiritual growth, it’s an immature state—a state rather than a stage, in the helpful language of Ken Wilber. A state is a place you go to; a stage is a place you come from: integrated and mature spiritual experience. It’s true that a mystical experience can indeed be a sneak preview of what the universe looks from the point of view of non-dual consciousness. And it’s true that this consciousness does indeed operate at a higher level of vibrational intensity, which at first can overwhelm our normal cognitive systems. But the point is not to squander this infusion of energy on bliss trips, but to learn to contain it within a quiet and spacious consciousness and allow it to permanently bring about a shift in our operating system, so that unitive (or nondual) perception becomes our ordinary, and completely normal mode of perception.