‘Enlighten’ is a term that combines various threads of meaning: to inform and provide knowledge; to make lighter / relieve of a burden; to shed light on (a topic or problem). ‘Enlightenment’ includes all of these connotations, as well as: to have achieved a state of nirvana; or, less grandly, to understand and live in harmony with the contingent, impermanent and interdependent nature of everyday life.
According to Dogen, Bankei and other Zen teachers, everyone is already enlightened – but we have somehow forgotten we are, or don’t realise we are. There is nothing we have ‘to do’ to gain enlightenment. We don’t need to search for something, or to acquire something. If enlightenment is already present in us – we only have to be present, here and now, to wake up to this reality. Dogen reminds us that, ‘practice is enlightenment, enlightenment is practice.’ To sit in zazen/mindful meditation is to realise our Buddha nature, to be enlightened, to be awakened.
On a logical level, if the only time that is real is NOW, the present moment – and past and future are fictions or abstractions – then enlightenment must be now. It is important we don’t sit in order to be someone else, or to achieve some transcendent state, or to acquire nirvana, merit or reward – we are already all the reward we might seek. Sitting-just-to-sit, is to be a Buddha – to wake up to our ‘original nature’ or Buddha nature.’ Dogen: ‘Buddha-nature is not some kind of changeless entity (or state) – but is none other than the eternally arising and perishing reality of the world.’
Though we speak of ‘enlightenment’, we ought to be thinking in more dynamic terms – thinking of ‘enlightening’ as an ongoing process of realisation – engaging fluidly and fluently with whatever comes and goes, without the constraints and rigidity of reactive habits of thought, feeling and behaviour – awake to the serendipitous gilly-rush of everyday life.
Instead of ‘enlightenment’, the term, kensho, is more commonly used in Zen Buddhism (ken, ‘seeing’, and sho, ‘nature or essence’) – that is, ‘seeing into the nature of things’ (Dharma – the way things are) – realising that all things are transitory and empty of self-existence. Kensho, is a sudden illumination, a sudden experience – and the literature of Zen is full of accounts, or attempts to evoke, moments of realisation. For instance: many haiku have the quality of sudden insights into how things are – eg. Basho’s: FROG POND PLOP; or, summer on the blue rocks – a fly scratches; or, in the dark forest – a leaf falls; or, in the morning frost – the cats step slowly.
Peter Matthieson’s teacher, Soen Nakagawa, used to say: ‘the true enlightenment, the true miracle is awareness of this present moment.’ He also said: ‘sit zazen wholeheartedly… letting all things come and go. Then you will go beyond the boundary of delusion and enlightenment.’ On the other hand he acknowledged that ‘the best zazen is our everyday life.’
NB. The word ‘enlightenment’ is often used as a translation of the Buddhist terms, bodhi and prajna; and the Zen terms, satori and kensho.