The following material, along with what has been written so far, is presented to show similarity of experiences among serious practitioners in different traditions, but not necessarily to equate all of them with the exact processes described by St. John - or to examine ultimate questions regarding identity, union, individuality, or non-duality! [For an in-depth discussion of that, albeit highly intellectual and not everyone's cup of tea, see “PB and Plotinus: The Fallacy of Divine Identity”, “The Primordial Gound”, “The Depths of This Thing,” and other related articles on this website]. What has
been attempted is to show something of the profundity of the emotional depths involved in the quest. This section should further cement in the reader the level to which these dark night processes go.
The life of Zen Master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693), considered by D.T.Suzuki to have been one of the greatest of all Zen Masters, illustrates a dimension of liberating despair that often leads up to an awakening. Further, we will see that, contrary to many popular notions, such an awakening is often the beginning
of true practice, and not the end.
Bankei was very devoted to his mother, and once confessed to her that more than anything else it was his desire to communicate the Truth to her which motivated his pursuit of Enlightenment. His childhood schooling consisted of little more than rote memorization of a Confucian classic entitled The Great Learning. Bankei was struck by the opening words of the book: “The way of Great Learning lies in illuminating the Bright Virtue
.” He searched and searched but could find no one to satisfactorily explain this verse to him. His family, his teacher, and the local priest confessed their ignorance, and one day, his great heart-need unsatisfied, Bankei simply left school. He was obsessed with finding out what “Bright Virtue” meant, and he knew at the very least that he would find no answers there. His action, however, would never be acceptable to his elder brother, the head of the household, and knowing this Bankei decided to kill himself. His method of achieving this was to eat a handful of “poisonous” spiders, but to his great disappointment he did not die. When he refused to attend school his brother expelled him from the house, and at the age of eleven Bankei began a life of wandering, meditating and visiting spiritual teachers in search of the Bright Virtue.
For fourteen years he moved about, practising harsh austerities and paying scant attention to the needs of food and shelter. At one point he decided to find the answer within himself, and he built a tiny hut for meditation, leaving only a small hole through which food could be brought to him. He sat until the flesh on his buttocks was flayed and his health broke down. The wall of his hut was marked by gobs of thick black phlegm he would be spit up. Finally, Bankei realized that he was dying, and in his despair he experienced a fundamental breakthrough:
“The master, frustrated in his attempts to resolve the feeling of doubt which weighed so heavily on his mind, became deeply disheartened. Signs of serious illness appeared. He began to cough up bloody bits of sputem. He grew steadily worse, until death seemed imminent. He said to himself, “Everyone has to die. I’m not concerned about that. My regret is dying with the great matter I’ve been struggling with all these years, since I was a small boy, still unresolved.” His eyes flushed with hot tears. His breast heaved violently. It seemed his ribs would burst. Then, just at that moment, enlightenment came to him - like a bottom falling out of a bucket. Immediately, his health began to return, but still he was unable to express what he had realized. Then, one day, in the early hours of the morning, the scent of plum blossoms carried to him in the morning air reached his nostrils. At that instant, all attachments and obstacles were swept from his mind once and for all. The doubts that had been plaguing him ceased to exist
Bankei’s satori could be said to represent a profound transcendance of unconscious identification with the ego, and the realization of consciousness or Mind as the substrate of all experience, that became the basis for his further practise. It was the Buddhist “seed of enlightenment”, not the final achievement, but which nevertheless wiped doubt and uncertainty from his mind.
“For about thirty years I wandered
searching for the real Tao everywhere..
But at this moment, seeing the plum blossoms,
I am suddenly enlightened, and have no more doubts
Bankei had a deepening of his realization three years later under the guidance of a Chinese priest, who confirmed that he had indeed penetrated to the Self-essence but still needed to clarify the “matter beyond”, “discriminating wisdom”, or "the practise after Enlightenment".
Master Po Shan similarly discoursed:
“Therefore the proverb says, after enlightenment one should visit the Zen Masters.” The sages of the past demonstrated the wisdom of this when, after their enlightenment, they visited the Zen Masters and improved themselves greatly. One who clings to his realization and is unwilling to visit the Masters, who can pull out his nails and spikes, is a man who cheats himself
Garma C.C. Chang brings to our awareness the recognized distinction made in Zen and Ch’an Buddhism between the awakening to prajna-truth
(or the immediate awakening to transcendental wisdom or selflessness) and Cheng-teng-cheuh (sabyaksambodhi
), which is the final, perfect, complete enlightenment of Buddhahood:
“A great deal of work is needed to cultivate this vast and bottomless Prajna-mind before it will blossom fully. It takes a long time, before perfection is reached, to remove the dualistic, selfish, and deeply rooted habitual thoughts arising from the passions. This is very clearly shown in many Zen stories, and in the following Zen proverb, for example: “The truth should be understood through sudden Enlightenment, but the fact (the complete realization) must be cultivated step by step
The great Lankavatara Sutra speaks not only of a fundamental "turnabout in the deep seat of understanding", but of the "inconceivable transformation death of the Bodhisattva's individualized will-control", the latter serving to balance and temper the enthusiastic claims of many self-professed non-dualists. Hubert Benoit, in The Supreme Doctrine
, attempts to clarify the difference between freedom 'of the ego' and freedom 'from the ego' (and, one might add, freedom 'for' the ego, poor little thing thing it is, for ego gets liberated, too!) :
”In a book on Zen..a Western author affirms that the man liberated by satori can do anything in any circumstance; but this is radically contrary to a true understanding, for the man liberated by satori can only perform one single action in a given circumstance. He can no longer do anything but the single action that is totally adequate to that circumstance; and it is in the immediate, spontaneous elaboration of this unique adequate action that the enjoyment of the perfect liberty of this man lies. The natural egotistical man, activated by partial determinism, elaborates in a mediate manner one of the innumerable inadequate reactions to the given circumstance; the man who has attained Realization, activated by total determinism, elaborates with absolute rigour the unique action that is adequate.”
Damiani explains why even such a true glimpse is only the beginning:
"Once he gets a Glimpse, he recognizes the illusory nature of the ego but also its tyrannical sway. Then usually what a person does is offer that ego to his higher self. In other words he wants to be of service to the higher power and all he can do is pray and ask that that be given for him to do. Make sure you know what you're asking for, because this is a big thing. Once you do that, I'm not saying it's granted, but then there comes a series of lives where egoism is really crushed, or you go through a training where you get rid of it, or you come across a master who will help you get rid of it."
He further demolishes the claims of many to premature eradication of the ego:
"Don't kid yourself. Don't come to me from the point of view that the ego doesn't exist, because it's been around as long as the Overself [Soul] has been projecting itself, manifesting itself through some kind of life. The residue of all that living becomes a tendency which you're going to find is perhaps not a permanent entity, but good enough to drive you up the wall for the next indefinite number of incarnations....As soon as you say the ego is "empty" then you're in for it. I don't think you understand why I regard any talk like that as utterly futile and even esoterically stupid. I don't care who says it. Anyone who thinks he's going to outwit his ego is in for a real rough time. That's why I don't like to call it empty. I like to think of it as a real fire-breathing dragon.....That's why I sometimes tease you by saying that anyone who tells me the ego is illusory is out of his mind. He hasn't even encountered it yet."
This was necessary to be said. However, the battle, real but also illusory, even unnecessary in a way, must be understood rightly. For the ego is really a partner in this quest. A balanced approach is best.
The following dialogue occured between Prince Chandragarbha and his guru Atisha:
"O guru! On entering samadhi, I perceived (a state of voidness) like a cloudless sky, radiant, pure and clear. Is that the nature of the Dharma, O guru? Then, after coming forth from meditation, I was troubled by no attachment, but longed to be of benefit to sentient beings. I recognize the reality of karma, even though all objects are revealed as illusions. O guru, is my practice without error?" The guru answered: "Fortunate man. You are a product of accumulated merit. As a bhikshu I do not exaggerate or pervert the truth. Although at the time of concentration one perceives that all objects share the voidness of the sky, one must lift up all beings through compassion after the concentration has been performed. This is an exposition of two truths (absolute and relative). "
Atisha's guru, Avadhutipa, himself gave this stern warning:
"As long as you do not properly modify your actions according to the law of cause and effect, you could still go to hell, despite being a great adept and yogi. Until you abandon grasping at a self and while you still place little value on the law of cause and effect, always remember that yogi so-and-so was reborn in hell."
Shawn Nevins, in The Ego of Seeking
(TAT Forum, July 2005), explains that even those who may come to recognize that their spiritual search itself involves ego, and then make the somewhat more sophisticated attempt to get rid of this "spiritual ego" by "doing nothing" are, in most instances, not really "doing nothing", but rather entertaining "the thought of doing-nothing," which is just another form of ego and a dead-end or short-circuit on the path. The ego only truly gets transformed, not eliminated entirely, by wearing itself out through its own efforts, taking a hand in its own evolution, exerting itself mentally and morally, seeing its painful ridiculousness, stewing in its own hopelessness, and finally getting trancended by grace. Paradoxically it does not get eliminated, since it has no self-existent reality from the beginning, no true existence apart from the One. The person, however, remains as long as the body lives.
Bankei many years later confessed:
" When it comes to the truth I uncovered when I was twenty-six and living in retreat at the village of Nonaka in Ako in Harima - the truth for which I went to see Dosha and obtained his confirmation - so far as the truth is concerned, between that time and this, from beginning to end, there hasn't been a shred of difference. However, so far as penetrating the great truth of Buddhism with the perfect clarity of the Dharma Eye and realizing absolute freedom, between the time I met Dosha and today, there's all the difference of heaven and earth!
In short, as Brunton writes:
"The glimpse is the beginning; recognizing it for what it is, is a further and extended operation......For us who are philosophically minded, the World-Mind truly exists. For us it is God, and for us there is a relationship with it - the relationship of devotion and aspiration, of communion and meditation. All the talk about non-duality may go on, but in the end the talkers must humble themselves before the infinite Being until they are as nothing and until they are lost in the stillness - Its stillness."
Anthony Damiani in commentating on PB said that the ego eventually gets "pushed into" the World-Idea, and the sage attains a universal viewpoint. His body, in essence, becomes identified with that of the cosmos, a rare and painful achievement. This is stated in the Lankavatara Sutra as follows:
"In the perfect self-realisation of Noble Wisdom that follows the inconceivable transformation death of the Bodhisattva's individualised will-control, he no longer lives unto himself, but the life that he lives thereafter is the Tathagata's universalised life as manifested in its transformations."
(excerpted from Dwight Goddard, ed. A Buddhist Bible
In the Sufi tradition reference is given to the difference between a state
and a station
. A state is incomplete and temporary while a station is relatively permanent and cannot be lost. The former is more often considered an unpredictable gift of God while the latter is largely a result of one’s effort and maturity along with
the helping hand of grace. The essential difference is that between a first awakening to the Heart and fully grown union with it.
It is sometimes assumed that Zen is chiefly a mental exercise (paradoxical and non-rational, as evidenced by the koan
practise) leading to awakened insight, without requiring either a long course of personal discipline and self-purification as demanded in yoga, or devotion and self-sacrifice as called for in the Christian tradition. This former error is made by fans of Advaita Vedanta as well, who talk of the non-dual Self without creating the preparatory conditions for its actual realization. Whereas the practise of a wide range of disciplines as well as meditation sitting in some form, common in Buddhism generally, has been the traditional Zen practise from the beginning, and is the necessary prerequisite for the fruitful use of the koan. As Brunton pointed out,
"The earlier Chinese Zen lectures and writings were often prefaced by the warning that they were intended for persons who were already properly instructed and established in "the virtues"....the Zen master Ma-tsu admitted as much when he said, "If there is no discipline, this is to be the same as ordinary people."
Any confusion regarding this would be unheard of in the Sufi tradition, where the attainment of a particular station is intimately connected with the acquiring of a corresponding virtue. To speak of them as separate would be considered to talk nonsense. Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes:
”The gaining of the spiritual virtues and their corresponding states and stations are so many stages in the death of the soul in respect to its base and accidental nature, and its resurrection in divinis...Since man is not just an intelligence that can discern the Truth and know the Absolute but also a will, the virtues are a necessary concomitant to the total attachment of man to the Truth. For, ‘Truth, when it appears on the level of the will, becomes virtue, and it is then veracity and sincerity.’...If the discussion of spiritual states in Sufism is inseparable from that of the virtues (mahasin or fada ‘il), it is precisely because in Sufism a virtue is seen not as an act or external attribute but as a manner of being. It has a definite ontological aspect. That is why in the classical enumeration of the states and stations of the soul we always meet with the enumeration of the virtues. A state or station, like patience (sabr) or confidence (tawakkul), is a virtue, which means that when the soul reaches such a state not only does it possess the virtue in question as an accident, but its very substance is transmuted by it so that during that stage of the Way in a sense it is itself that virtue. It is this ontological dimension of the virtues that makes the discussion of them inseparable from that of the spiritual states, as we see in so many Sufi treatises, old and new. Of course the Sufis never tire of emphasizing that the end of Sufism is not to possess such and such a virtue or state as such but to reach God beyond all states and virtues. But to reach the Transcendent beyond the virtues, man must first possess the virtues; to reach the station of annihilation and subsistence in God, man must have already passed through the other states and stations.”
As Sant Kirpal Singh once said, “gold is gold.”
The preceding also must be understood rightly. Nasr may appear a bit one-sided in his explanation. The great Sufi Ibn 'Arabi explains things differently; certain traditional descriptions of attainment make it seem impossible for all but the perfect moral superman. But, in Islam, the idea of 'Virtue' has another meaning. Virtue correlates with the 'Divine Names and Attributes' of God. But it is very interesting, that at the archtypal level of the Divine Name and Attributes, 'Virtue' has no moral connotation. Some of the Divine Names are Merciful (the most senior of the names, and the very essence of God), compassionate, benevolent, and so on, but also wrathful, jealous, etc.. Man is considered the highest and most 'perfect' of the creation precisely because only he can potentially embody all of the Divine Names and thus get the experience necessary for realization, somewhat like the Prodigal Son. So do not worry about being perfect in a human way, There will be eons of time for reaching the ideal of perfection! Simply try and "Be good, do good, and be One," as Kirpal Singh used to say. Or "charity and clarity", said Sri Nisargadatta. That is hard enough to live up to for most of us.
Back to Zen for a moment. Not all Zen schools have used koans, which are a kind of artifical form of ‘riddle’ sometimes created by the Masters to break the fixation of dualistic consciousness in their students. They are solved not by giving the right answer but by transcending the conceptual mind in the process of contemplation of the paradox the koan represents. As such they are really only useful chiefly for advanced
practitioners, whose mind, and general character development, whose desperation and 'revulsion' are "ripe" for a breakthrough to a true glimpse. This matter of maturity and ripeness, as well as the need for practise after
satori, is so important and apparently so rarely found today that the the very legitimacy of such practice and dharma transmission itself have been called into question. D.T. Suzuki (1970-1966) considered his master, Soyen Shaku, to be the last of the great Zen Masters. If it seems to some that Zen has deteriorated even further since then, despite notable exceptions, such may be partly and unfortunately inevitable when a tradition or school becomes too insular and its masters and students are uninformed by an in-depth study of their own as well as discriminative study other philosophical teachings.
A classic koan is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”, or "what was your original face before you were born?", or simply "Mu". Then one might be told to meditate on his koan for twenty hours a day until he ‘solves’ it. The beginning student (but still one tested and prepared by a preliminary course of discipline) traditionally came to the master (in what came to be known as the 'shouting and beating school", at any rate) with a clever answer and typically got a whack from his staff or a cuff on the ear. In some cases, the disciple may get a blow even before
"Master Tokusan was a much more severe kind of Zen Master. Once a monk came to see him and, according to the Buddhist manner, made a bow to the Master before asking a question. However,
before he had finished bowing, Tokusan gave him a blow of his stick. The monk did not know what it was all about, and said, "I have just bowed to you and have not asked you any question yet. Why have you struck me?" "It is no use to wait till you start talking," was the reply Tokusan gave him. In such a strict denial of words we are to see how earnestly Zen insists on the experience itself."
For most of us this is only of historical interest. However, to set the record straight, the mere contemplation of the koan is an intense discipline and could go on for years. It is similar to Vedantic enquiry in its ability to concentrate the mind and also undermine one's dualistic thinking processes. Thus it is a complement to and even a form of meditation. Half-hearted or superficial mental efforts will not produce the desired result. Interestingly, the disciple often gets his worst beating when he is close to penetrating what is essentially the "knot of self" or "ball of confusion" (to borrow a line from The Temptations) represented by the koan. This is because the seriousness of the endeavor, its spiritual life and death nature, self-evident to the Master, is now becoming apparent to his feeling. This often manifests as the anguish and despair evoked by devotees like Bankei - or, crossing traditions, even Ramakrishna - in the maturing stages prior to insight or a fundamental breakthrough.
Elder Sophrony from the Eastern Orthodox tradition describes some of his similar ordeals:
“My anguish of soul continued unceasing, day and night. The torment swelled into the same uninterrupted prayer even in sleep or when other people were about, although then something kept me from giving any outward sign. But as soon as I was back in my room, almost before I could shut the door, the tears would overwhelm me. There were moments when the pain of being separated from God cast me to the floor, and in the silence of the night I would weep for hours over my dreadful loss. The whole of me - mind, heart, even my body - contracted into a single, tight knot. And when the weeping exceeded a certain limit, the earth - the whole visible world - disappeared from my consciousness and I was alone before God.”
(Ibid, p. 162)
In the Zen tradition one hears of the state of the “great doubt” that, at one stage, "burns like a ball of red-hot fire that one can neither swallow nor spit out". One may wonder if at least part of the meaning behind the choice of this metaphor refers to the hard inner clenching or contraction around an imaginary center that is a subjective symptom of separation strongly felt (ie., St. John: "The living flame of love makes the soul feel its hardness and aridity."). This “doubt” may also be considered as a thought or feeling-sense of the struggle with self as it begins to become clear that you yourself
, as you are
, are the problem, but the problem itself (the aggitated need to do something through the sheer force of one's self-will) is not entirely obvious as yet. The ordinary man in general has no such existential "doubt". He is comfortable with a self which he unconsciously identifies solely with the body. As his life ripens, as his basic confusion increases, however, this natural conceit becomes undermined. Certainty and knowledge turn into doubt. One no longer knows who or what the 'I' or the 'world' are, yet reality itself has yet to dawn upon his consciousness. Instead, a crisis presents itself. Or not. Sometimes the man before satori is described as being in a state of neutrality, of calm, where the pressures of the drive to do something and the drive to do nothing are equalized. The man at this stage has been described as 'an idiot', knowing nothing - often, but not always, as mentioned, in deep despair, of an extreme existential nature. The energy of the Great Doubt gradually is built up within his being to a critical degree. When fundamental insight finally arises to consciousness, as satori
, often catalyzed by the perception of an external sight or sound, the inherent distress is released and the 'doubt' vanishes. One then becomes one who has truly 'entered the path'. Prior to satori every ‘answer’ one comes up with for the koan is rejected, which, of course, is as it should be, for short of satori no one passes his interview with the master - assuming the master truly has fundamental insight. Without a life (or prior life) of discipline, purification, and study/contemplation), however, it is highly unlikely for the ‘great doubt’ to arise or certainly for a koan to be of much use. Our unconscious tendencies or vasanas
will keep us preoccupied with the world and the ego to such an extent that insight will have difficulty arising. Further, our life of 'sleep' will not be interrupted sufficiently to allow the insight that does manage to arise to become stable realization. However, it should also be remembered that a satori is just a moment, it is not the whole sequence of deaths and rebirths to produce the entirely New Man .[In fact, it is not even necessary. When asked by a disciple why he never spoke about satori, Shunyro Suzuki's wife answered, "because he never had one!"] Nevertheless it happens, particularly in the Zen tradition. D. T. Suzuki gave an account of his first satori
at age 26 using the koan "Mu" under Soyen Shaku. In it he reveals the difference between absorptive trance samadhi
, or insight.
"Up until then he had been conscious of 'Mu' [the koan] in his mind. But to be conscious of Mu is to be separate from it. Towards the end of that sesshin [Zen retreat], on about the fifth day, he ceased to be conscious of Mu - "I was one with Mu, identified with Mu, so that there was no longer the separateness implied by being conscious of Mu"....That was samadhi; but samadhi is not enough: "You must come out of that state, be awakened from it, and that awakening is Prajna. That moment of coming out of the samadhi and seeing it for what it is - that is satori." His first words as he was awakened from that state of deep samadhi by the sound of a small hand bell being struck were: "I see. This is it."
Once true and profound insight or self-knowledge is gained, however, although itself a highly significant development, one must go on to practise with that insight. This is partly because it is in the feeling nature and the will where the deepest contractions of ego reside, and they must be unraveled - at least sufficiently for the soul's purposes. There are also many warnings in the Zen tradition that there are grades of satori, and that one must press on until he has had a great Satori from which there is no backsliding, and which generally must be approved by a master. Thus there is a 'post-satori process', in which 'one's nails and spikes are pulled out'. One may rightly wonder where masters with such profound insight are to be found today. Thus there is a need to choose teachers wisely, lest one end up wasting years and suffering unduly from the "broken yogi syndrome." We should take to heart the dying words of the Buddha: "be on your guard," and "work out your salvation with diligence."
Hakuin, perhaps the greatest of the Rinzai teachers, had his first experience of satori after meditating on the koan ‘Mu’ for four years:
“He shouted: ‘Why, the world is not something to be avoided, nor is Nirvana something to be sought after!’ This realization he presented to the Abbot and some fellow disciples but they did not give their unqualified assent to it. He however burned with absolute conviction, and thought to himself that surely for centuries no one had known such a joy as was his. He was then twenty-four. In his autobiographical writings, Hakuin warns Zen students with peculiar earnestness against this pride of assurance
After this he endured three years of merciless hammering by the Master Shoju, who “utterly smashed his self-satisfaction.” He had another satori, which he classified as a ‘great satori’, and which his teacher confirmed by saying, “You are through.” Nevertheless, Shoju admonished him not to be content with such a small thing but to perform the ‘practise after satori.’ This is known as the “downward” practise, where one ‘descends from the mountaintop’ to become the Great Fool, highly revered in the Zen tradition. It was not until more than ten years later, and much meditation under extremely austere conditions, that Hakuin penetrated to the depths of the Lotus Sutra, and gained a most fundamental awakening:
“The meaning of the ordinary life of his teacher Shoju was revealed, and he saw that he had been mistaken over his great satori realizations. This time there was no great reaction in the body-mind instrument
Brunton similarly writes:
“The glimpse, because it is situated between the mental conditions which exist before and afterwards, necessarily involves striking - even dramatic - contrast with their ordinariness. It seems to open onto the ultimate light-bathed height of human existence. But this experience necessarily provokes a human reaction to it, which is incorporated into the glimpse itself, becomes part of it. The permanent and truly ultimate enlightenment is pure, free from any admixture of reaction, since it is calm, balanced, and informed
Such a condition is so subtle, so close to the heart, that it may even have to be pointed out by the teacher:
“If you believe that you have had the ultimate experience, it is more likely that you had an emotional, or mental, or mystic one. The authentic thing does not "enter" consciousness. You do not know that it has transpired. You discover it is already here only by looking back at what you were and contrasting it with what you now are; or when others recognize it in you and draw attention to it; or when a situation arises which throws up your real status. It is a permanent fact, not a brief mystic "glimpse."
Or as Sri Nisargadatta, with the utmost acuteness, once said:
"With some, realization comes imperceptibly, but somehow they need convincing. They have changed, but they do not notice it. Such non-spectacular cases are often the most reliable."
In the Zen tradition there is mention of the ‘Zen illness’ or the ‘stink of enlightenment’, which may arise after a first satori. Further practise is required for the complete breakdown of the conceits of self until the entire being is transformed. This will take as long as it takes, which sacred texts suggest may be many lifetimes of practice. Damiani, in response to the question of why someone who has a true glimpse does not yet know the truth of the I AM (ie., true Soul or Spirit-Being), answered: "Because that's a long, arduous, difficult process, maybe twenty, thirty incarnations left to go."
There is no point in worrying about things like that. The plain fact simply is that it takes however long it takes. Damiani, moreover, was talking about fully grown union
with one's own Soul, True Nature, or Conscious-Being, not the initial awakening to it. And, who knows, maybe one has had twenty such lives already. So there is no use in putting any limits on this thing. Moreover, why worry about an 'end'? For that is just a concept. Better to be free of the whole thing, and let Nature have its way with you.
Harada Roshi, in commenting on the realization of one of his female disciples, Yaeko Iwasaki, spoke further of the Zen sickness:
“An ancient Zen saying has it that to become attached to one’s own enlightenment is as much a sickness as to exhibit a maddeningly active ego. Indeed, the profounder the enlightenment, the worse the illness. In her case I think it would have taken two or three months for the most obvious symptoms to disappear, two or three years for the less obvious, and seven or eight years for the most insidious...My own sickness lasted almost ten years. Ha!
Boo hoo, ten years! In light of some of the previous comments, one should be so lucky!
After a first satori a Zen practitioner may exclaim, "Ah, the immaculate Yogins do not enter Nirvana and the precept-violating monks do not go to hell!"
, but overcomes this initial enthusiasm and self-assurance through further training, wherein he learns that "to be conscious of the original mind, the original nature - just this is the great disease of Zen."
The depths of despair that Bankei experienced are common to many ripening aspirants at various stages or moments of the way. The Buddha spoke of an ocean of tears to be crossed on the journey to Nirvana, or from self to Overself, before the hard crust of ego dissolves and the heart awakens permanently. On the work required to become such a sage, Brunton, echoing Huang-Yang Ming, wrote that one will "die a hundred deaths and suffer a thousand sufferings." (74)   (see Appendix A)
The great Tibetan Guru Marpa lamented that if he could have plunged his favorite disciple Milarepa into utter depair a ninth time he could have saved him years of suffering and the need for a future rebirth to eradicate all of his impurities. Even selfless servant of the poor Mother Teresa of Calcutta, through recently released private papers, confessed to five decades
of feeling abandoned by God. She even requested an exorcism shortly before her death:
"I am told God lives in me - and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul..I want God with all the power of my soul - and yet between us there is a terrible separation...Heaven from every side is closed....I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing
Thoughts of suicide have at times tormented the sincerest of devotees, among them Brunton, Ramakrishna, Rama Tirtha, Prophet Mohammed, Elijah, Milarepa, and St. Therese
, to mention only a few. The latter confessed during her most extreme physical and mental suffering:
"What a grace it is to have faith! If I had not any faith, I would have committed suicide without an instant's hesitation."
(LastConv 22.9.6). About a month earlier she was in such pain that she spoke of nearly losing her mind (CG 22.8.97). At this time too she said to her sister, Agnes: "Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have persons a prey to violent pains; don't leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one's reason. Then one could easily poison oneself."
(August 30, Green Notebook).
At times of more strictly inner, spiritual purgation, we are reminded of the words of St. John:
"When this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away..for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death."
At its worst this is reminiscent of the "sickness unto death" written of by Kierkegaard:
"The torment of despair is precisely this - not to be able to die... not as though there was hope for life; no, the hopelessness in this case is that even the last hope, death, is not available. When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for life; but when one becomes acquainted with an even more dreadful danger, one hopes for death. So when the danger is so great that death has become one's hope, despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die."
Yet great souls have unanimously proclaimed the value of such periods of trial:
"That which hurts, but is profitable, is drunk by the wise like medicine. For the result, afterwards attained, becomes incomparable."
"If he could see his nothingness and his deadly, festering wound, pain would arise from looking within, and that pain would save him.
" - Rumi
"To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least, for no one can know God who has not first known himself.
" - Meister Eckhart
“He who never spent the midnight hours, weeping and waiting for the morrow,
he knows ye not, ye heavenly powers
.” - Goethe
"The moment when Divine Mother beats you the hardest is when you should cling tenaciously to her skirt."
- Paramahansa Yogananda
"This state is full of consolation for those who have attained it; but to do so it is necessary to pass through much anguish. The doctrine concerning pure love can only be taught by the action of God, and not by any effort of the mind. God teaches the soul not by ideas, but by pains and contradictions."
- Jean-Pierre deCaussade
"Hope indeed is misery greatest, Hopelessness a bliss above the rest.."
- Shrimad Bhagavata Purana)
"The horse that will bear us quickest to perfection is suffering."
- Meister Eckhart
"If suffering did not exist, it would be necessary to create it, because without it one cannot come to correct self-remembering."
- P. D. Ouspensky
"Because I love you I have given you bad health since the beginning of your life, so that you would feel how dependent you are on Me."
- Sister Marie of the Order of Poor Clares of Jerusalem
"When your grief transcends all bounds, it becomes its own cure."
"You cannot have spiritual exaltation without having intense mental depression."
"The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering."
- Carl Jung
"The entrance to purgatory is at the deepest point of hell."
"Paradoxically, though the path is said to lead to the highest bliss,
it is paved with the anguish of separation and tears."
- Sant Darshan Singh
"Nanak saith: the wife doth get her Beloved if she really feels unhappy and is extremely miserable without him."
- Adi Granth
"Suffering is the way for Realization of God."
- Ramana Maharshi
"The Overself knows what you are, what you seek, and what you need...We sometimes wonder whether we can bear more, but no experience goes too far until it crushes the ego out of a man, renders him as helpless as the dying person feels."
- Paul Brunton
“There is no intelligence nor power in the world capable of wresting from the hand of God a soul He has seized in the rigor of His mercy to purify it by suffering.” - deCaussade
"When God recognized my sincerity, the first grace that he accorded me was that he removed the chaff of the self from before me."
- Farid al-Din Attar
So this type of experience and ordeal, while not exactly something to be sought after, can be more or less expected at some point. The insufficiency of ego is most fundamentally shown when, most likely after already many lifetimes of self-development, it then attempts to do what is seemingly impossible (improve, transform, and transcend itself), and that is when the real anguish, resignation, patience, and humility comes. Out of this dead-end proceeds awakening, according to the mystics, for we become enabled to "surrender in the arms of love." The proclamation of Zen, similarly, is that "Satori falls upon us unexpectedly when we have exhausted all the resources of our being." The only thing I would add, and which has been emphasized time and again throughout this paper, is that this is not a one-time event, but an organic process
. One must truly come to know oneself, both in his relative and absolute nature, before the two have a chance at becoming realized as one.   Hubert Benoit writes:
“...The man who works according to Zen has no love of suffering; but he likes suffering to come to him, which is not the same thing, because, in helping him to 'let go', these moments will make it easier for him that inner immobility, that discretion and silence, thanks to which the Principle works actively in him for realization..One perceives how much the 'progressive' doctrines which invite man to climb up an ascending hierarchy of states of consciousness, and which more or less explicitly conceive the perfect man as a Superman, turn their back on truth and limit themselves to modifying the forms of our hopes. Zen invites us on the contrary to a task which, up to satori exclusively, can only appear to us as a descent. In a sense everything becomes worse little by little up to the moment when the bottom is reached, when nothing can any longer become worse, and in which everything is found because all is lost."
Abbot Zenkei Shibayama of the Nanzenji Monastery in Kyoto, Japan, in an alternate manner describes the inner work of the true Zen path, which could just as well be any spiritual path:
“The first step in pursuing the way to religion is to “empty oneself.” But this “emptying oneself” does not mean, as ordinarily understood, merely to be humble in one’s thinking or to clean out all from the self-deceived mind so that it can accept anything. It has a much deeper and stronger meaning. One has to face the “ugliness and helplessness” of oneself, or of human life itself, and must confront deep contradictions and sufferings, which are called the “inevitable karma.” He has to look deep into his inner self, go beyond the last extremity of himself, and despair of himself as a “self which can by no means be saved.” “Emptying oneself” comes from this bitterest experience, from the abyss of desperation and agony, of throwing oneself down, body and soul, before the Absolute.
It is the keenness with which one realizes one’s helplessness and despairs of oneself, in other words, how deeply one plunges into one’s inner self and throws oneself away, which is the key to religion. “To be saved,” “to be enlightened,” or “to get the mind pacified” is not of primary importance. Shinran Shonin, who is respected as one of the greatest religious geniuses in Japan, once deplored, “I am unworthy of any consideration and am surely destined for hell!”....When one goes through this experience, for the first time the words of the great religious teachers are directly accepted with one’s whole heart and soul...”
From a different philosophical perspective, Damiani describes this situation and its requirements:
"The root desire is the reproductive faculty that is in the Soul, which insists upon being embodied. That's what has to be killed, and I don't mean with a shot gun. It is a complicated thing...the point here to understand is that the fear and trembling that comes in, and the sickness unto death...is exactly the giving up of this root desire. Not the body, because ascetics and saints have been known to torture the body beyond the point of endurance. And that's when the Higher Will comes down. The Higher Will
[i.e., liberating grace] doesn't come down until after the moral conflict. So don't have any illusions about it, that you're going to wait around until the Higher Will comes down. It'll come down after your moral effort. This is what is the mystical death. The body ceasing to function, every animal goes through that, and we don't call him a great mystic...That Higher Will doesn't come into action until after you've made the moral effort. In other words, you have to find out that you are impotent to change yourself. And you're not going to find out unless you try, and you really have to try because you can't kid the Soul. You'll never know what the limits are until you try. You have to exhaust whatever potentiality you have before you can say, "I give up." You can't say, "I give up," before you've started; that would be phony. But you're actually going to have to reach the point of satiation with frustration. I think I must have called on that higher help a thousand and one times. It doesn't hear me. It says, "Try harder."
Steven Harrison writes:
"What occurs when there is no psychologist, no guru, no god to help us? What occurs when there is no resolution to our conflict, no enlightenment, no end to our sorrow? What occurs when there is only emptiness and nothing to fill it? Our world, our life, our relationships collapse. We collapse. This collapse of our identity and the impossibility of escape is the end and the beginning. This "dark night of the soul," through which nothing can pass, is not an event, not an enlightenment. It is not in time or of time. It is not about us, or becoming something better. It is not causal, not the result of anything. No one can take us to this or through this. And we cannot create it, hurry it, or end it. It is a moment, a lifetime. Having been reduced to nothing, nothing may then express itself. This expression of nothingness is love."
Jah Jae Noh, in the marvelous Do You See What I See?
, describes how one comes to what he variously calls the life of faith, the cessation of the search, the unravelling of the "form of ones fear", and the willingness to allow oneself to "be done by reality":
“Among truly sincere students, any “method” will serve to promote spiritual realization. Among the insincere no method will serve...Methods are illusory, serving only to pacify and gratify the mind. That which accounts for the realization of some and not of others is readiness..It is best that each person try every conceivable method of redress, avenue of change, discipline of self-improvement, before he attempts faith...For whatever reasons, the fact remains that true conviction comes only after the lack of meaningful alternatives have been vividly, and intensely experienced. The entire structure of one’s existence must necessarily be dramatically questioned and undermined. It is not that the mind is being convinced in this affair, it is being destroyed. This insight is not a mindful one, but an intuitive one, and incredibly deep grasp of the idea of non-alternative, hopelessness, death. One must vividly see the absoluteness of his fear, his avoidance..This crisis is the heart informing the mind..It is not an insight of wisdom, but of profound ignorance, an insight of darkness, of death. There is no place to go. It is the ‘bottom of the pit’; end.”
To truly reach such a point of self-surrender, of 'no-effort', could itself take a lifetime.
Sant Kirpal Singh
, during a period of trial for me, once said, "Going strong, my friend? Going strong? No? Feeling weak? Feeling withered? Hopeless? Is it hopeless yet? No? Not hopeless yet? Well then, if there's hope, keep trying!"
Hakuin beautifully characterizes the process:
" When all the effort you can muster has been exhausted and you have reached a total impasse...it will suddenly come and you will break free. The phoenix will get through the golden net. The crane will fly free of the cage."
Adyashani calls this "achieving total failure." He quotes Lao Tzu,
"failure is the foundation of success, and the means to its achievement,
" and adds, "when the neurotic tendency to be constantly trying to succeed..is once cast aside completely, or [this] is forced upon you, then the reality of its own accord presents itself.
Brunton offers us this promise:
"Indeed, the hour may come when, purified from the ego's partiality, he will kiss the cross that brought him such agony and when, healed of his blindness, he will see that it was a gift from loving hands, not a curse from evil lips. He will see too that in his former insistence on clinging to a lower standpoint, there was no other way of arousing him to the need and value of a higher one than the way of unloosed suffering. But at last the wound has healed perfectly leaving him, as a scar of remembrance, greatly increased wisdom."
Finally, after this ordeal has been brough to fruition, the enigmatic words of sages like Ramana Maharshi can become clear:
"If the longing is there, Realization will be forced on you even if you do not want it...Sadhanas
[spiritual practices] are needed so long as one has not realized it. They are for putting an end to obstacles. Finally, there comes a stage when a person feels helpless notwithstanding the sadhanas. He is unable to pursue the much-cherished sadhana, also. It is then that God's Power is realized. The Self reveals itself...There is no greater mystery than this: ourselves being the reality, we seek to gain reality. We think there is something hiding our reality, and that it must be destroyed before the reality is gained. That is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your previous efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here and now
"When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the soul laughs for what it has found."
- Sufi aphorism.
(55) Norman Waddell, trans., The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei 1622-1693
(San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1984), book jacket
(56) Ryuji Akao, Bankei zenji zenshu
(Complete records of Zen Master Bankei
(Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan, 1976), Ryakuroku,
p. 349 (quoted in Waddell, op. cit)
(57) Garma C.C. Chang, The Practise of Zen
(New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1959 (1970), p. 104
(58) Ibid, p. 162-163
(59) Hubert Benoit, The Supreme Doctrine
(New York: The Viking Press, 1972), p. 65-66
(60) Anthony Damiani, Standing In Your Own Way
, op. cit., p. 246
(61) Ibid, p. 12-13,34
(62) Peter Haskel, Bankei Zen
(New York, N.Y.: Grove Press, 1984, p. 113
, op. cit., Vol. 14, 8.99; Vol. 16, Part 2, 1.72
(64) Ibid, Vol. 15, Part 1, 2.76, 2.5
(65) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays
(Chicago, Illinois: KAZI Publications, Inc., 1999), p. 69-70
(66) Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk
(Rutland, Vermont: The Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1970), p.25
(66a) A. Irwin Switzer, D.T. Suzuki: A Biography
(London: The Buddhist Society, 1985
(67)Trevor Leggett, A Second Zen Reader
(Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1988), pp. 130-131
(68) Ibid, p. 132
, op. cit., Vol. 16, 2.27
(70) Ibid, Part 4, 2.139
(71) Sri Nisargadatta, I AM THAT
, p. 291
(72) Anthony Damiani, Living Wisdom
, op. cit., p. 27-28
(73) Philip Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen
(Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, revised and expanded edition, 1980),
(74) Damiani, op. cit., p. 215
(75) Frank Lake, Clinical Theology (1966) p. 595-6, quoted in Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death 150-1
(76) Hubert Benoit, Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine
, 1955, 1990, p. 115-116
(77) Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, op. cit., p. 172-173
(78) Anthony Damiani, unpublished class notes (The Fallacy of Divine Identity), 7/13/83
(79) Steven Harrison, op. cit., p. 31-32
(80) Jah Jae Noh, Do You See What I See?
(Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1977), p. 66, 152, 155
(81) Hakuin, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin
, trans. Norman Waddell (Boston: Sambhala, 1994), 62.
. op. cit., Vol. 12, 5.239)
(83) Talks with Ramana Maharshi
, op. cit., pp. 182, 101-102, 497
The peerless sacrifice of the sage or "completed one" is dramatically depicted in a story called "In Praise of the Blessings of the Monk," from the Buddhist text Sutra of the Wise and Foolish
, or The Ocean of Narratives
, a series of Jatakas or rebirth stories. A householder called Majestic Being who was one hundred years old desired to become a monk, but was turned down by Sariputra, the wisest and most senior monk of the Sangha, as well as by Mahakasyapa and others, who believed he was too old to study, meditate and engage in discipline. The man wept and cried out in despair, asking what sins did he commit that he be denied becoming a monk, whereupon the Enlightened One appeared to him in all radiance and asked the reason for his sorrow. Upon hearing Majestic Being's story He spoke thus:
"Do not let your mind be troubled, householder. I myself shall ordain you. Sariputra has not, during countless aeons, exerted himself in the austerities. Nor has he, for hundreds of aeons, brought forth virtues. Sariputra has not, in previous births, allowed his head, eyes, bones, marrow, flesh, blood, skin, feet, hands, ears, and nose to be cut away and offered them freely. Sariputra has never given his body to a tiger, has not been burnt in a pit of fire, has not had his holy body pierced by a thousand iron pins, has not had his body burnt by a thousand torches. Sariputra has not given away his lands, his cities, his wives, sons, men and women slaves, elephants, chariots, or his seven precious jewels.
Sariputra has not, during the first countless kalpas, honored a hundred-thousand kotis of Buddhas. Nor did he, during the intermediary countless kalpas, honor ninety-nine thousand Buddhas. Nor, during the final countless kalpas, has he honored a hundred-thousand Buddhas
[these guys sure like big numbers!], become a monk in their presence and become perfect in the Precepts and the Paramitas. Sariputra is not one who zealously teaches the Dharma. How can he say that this one may become a monk and that one may not? I alone have authority to endow one with the Dharma and to extol the Six Perfections. I alone have put on the armor of patience. I alone sit on the Vajrasana at the tree of Enlightenment. I alone have overcome the hosts of Mara and attained the bliss of a perfect Buddha. There is no one like me. Therefore, follow me and I shall ordain you."
(Sutra of the Wise and Foolish or Ocean of Narratives, trans. Stanley Frye, Library of Tibetan Archives, 1981, p. 73).