The use of the word enlightenment as a spiritual term was first popularized in the western world in the 19th century, and it frequently has a romanticized, spiritual, or mystical connotation. The idea of spiritual enlightenment and awakened knowledge is a core concept of Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism recognizes several ways that enlightenment can present itself and has several terms to cover the various permutations of enlightenment. Satori is one such form of enlightenment.
According to Zen Buddhism, enlightenment is a quality that is present in all living things. While masters and their teachings can help guide students toward enlightenment, the concept transcends words. It is not something that can be directly taught. Zen teachings describe it as the result of clearly seeing one’s own nature and the profound realization that one is already enlightened. It is an understanding that can only be experienced by experiencing it.
Nirvana is a well-known term referring to a prolonged state of enlightenment in which negative mental states have been extinguished. For Zen Buddhists, finding nirvana frees them from the cycle of death and rebirth. Nirvana is a difficult state to define, however, much less to experience. Those that have finally achieved the state of nirvana spent many, many years mastering the ability to calm the mind.
Kensho, the fleeting awareness of the true nature of the self, is another form of enlightenment found in Zen Buddhism. The closest translation for the term is to see. It denotes a moment of clear perception, where the individual receives a glimpse into their own nature and the nature of everything around them. Although activities such as meditation and contemplating koans can help facilitate the experience of kensho, it can also be realized through other means. Other vehicles for kensho can include significant phrases or profound dreams.
The term satori is often used interchangeably with the term kensho, but satori means to understand rather than to see. It refers to a deepening of the awareness and appreciation realized during kensho, and Satori often happens after realizing kensho several times. While enlightenment isn’t synonymous with happiness, it can lead to less internal conflict, possibly increasing overall contentment with life.
According to most teachings, attempting to achieve satori is counterproductive to realizing satori. This concept should not be looked at as a goal or puzzle, and doing so blocks it from coming to fruition. In fact, according to the preeminent 13th-century Japanese Zen figure Eihei Dogan, one doesn’t even need to know that they are experiencing satori to experience it.
Certain practices work to calm the mind and can help uncover insights related to enlightenment, however. Quieting the mind and spirit is an essential step on the way to enlightenment as it allows the practitioner to see and understand the true nature of themselves and the world around them more clearly than a chaotic mind does.
It is important to note that if you are practicing these behaviors with the intent to find an answer or achieve the goal of enlightenment, your very desire to attain enlightenment will block it from you.
Quietly contemplating something just for the sake of contemplating it is enough to transport some people to the state of satori. In some cases, this may simply be attending to your own thoughts and acknowledging them dispassionately without controlling them as they filter through your mind. In others, the practitioner may focus on a specific phrase or item. Quiet contemplation can be very similar to meditation, but the mind is given more freedom to roam.
One of the most common ways to achieve the kind of serenity needed to experience satori is by meditating. Zen Buddhist masters usually utilize a form of seated meditation known as zazen meditation. There are several poses that the person meditating can choose from, including traditional cross-legged styles, a kneeling style, and sitting in a chair. In all forms, the hands form the cosmic mudra to help focus the attention. The person meditating focuses on the position of the body and then brings the awareness inward. The focus is then placed on the sensation of breathing. Each time the practitioner’s attention wanders away from the breath, it is gently brought back to the breath.
Walking meditation is a good alternative for those who are uncomfortable sitting still for any length of time. It is necessary to maintain some level of awareness with this type of meditation. Attention to your surroundings will help to prevent you from injuring yourself or walking off course and getting lost. While you are walking, mindfully pay attention to both your surroundings and the sensations you are feeling. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, gently guide your thoughts back to the act of walking.
While the world has become a much noisier place than it was a few decades ago, the vibrant beauty and life still seep through. Taking time to notice, cultivate, and appreciate the world around us and our connection to it gives us the opportunity to find enlightenment, experienced as the momentary flash of kensho, the deeper shine of satori, or the all-encompassing light of nirvana.