Between the first awakening and enlightenment

On the path to enlightenment there is an all-important first awakening to a different consciousness. It is called by many different names. Catholic mystic Jeanne Guyon called it continual prayer, and Meister Eckhart called it inwardness. Lester Levenson identified the state as samadhi, which is the eighth perfection of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Lester said, “Meditate until it becomes constant, i.e., until it continues in back of the mind regardless of what you are doing.”

Hui-neng called the awakened state Samadhi of One Act (一行三昧) ( i-hsin-ting) and related it to the ‘straightforward mind’ described in the Vimalakirti Sutra (The Dharma of Hui-neng). This is the meaning of the oft-repeated phrase, “whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down.” Hakuin described the state thus:

If at all times even when coughing, swallowing, waving the arms, when asleep or awake, the practitioner accomplishes everything he decides to do and attains everything that he attempts to attain and, displaying a great, unconquerable determination, he moves forward ceaselessly, he will transcend the emotions and sentiments of ordinary life. His heart will be filled with an extraordinary purity and clarity, as though he were standing on a sheet of ice stretching for thousands of miles. Even if he were to enter the midst of a battlefield or to attend a place of song, dance, and revelry, it would be as though he were where no other person was. His great capacity, like that of Yun-men with his kingly pride, will make its appearance without being sought. Orategama (Yampolsky, p. 4)

Zen Master Lin-chi called the awareness ‘the true man of no rank’, saying,

He is lively as a fish in the water, has neither root nor trunk
Try to catch him, he refuses to be held on to; try to push him away, you cannot shake him off
The harder you strive after him the farther away he is
When you stop striving after him, he is right in front of you

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki called the awakening into this state kensho, “seeing into the Self-nature,” which he described as “the first glimpse of satori or enlightenment” (1965, xxii).1 Suzuki himself attained kensho while working on a koan during a sesshin in December of 1896 (in Japan December 8 is celebrated as the date of the Buddha’s enlightenment). What follows is his description of the experience, as told to his friend Nishida Kitaro in 1902:

What this brings to mind is when I formerly was in Kamakura, one night at the end of a scheduled zazen, I left the zendo. Returning to my residence at the Kigen’in, in the moonlight I passed amid the trees. When, near the main temple gate, I started to descend, suddenly it was as if I forgot myself or, rather, I was not totally forgotten. However, the appearance of the different length shadows of the trees in the moonlight was just like a picture. I was a person in the picture and there was no separation between me and the trees. The trees were me. I had the clear thought that this was my original face. Even after finally returning to the hermitage I suddenly realized I was not the least bit hindered and somehow was suffused with a feeling of joy. Now it is difficult for me to describe in words my state of mind at that time. (Suzuki, 2014)

In Zen Buddhism one who has attained the first awakening is called a ‘stream-enterer’ (Srotapatti-phalam); but of course, one never says, “I have attained the state of Stream-enterer” (Diamond Sutra).

I had the good fortune to experience my awakening through the Finder’s Course. At the moment it happened, time stopped and I felt as if I were dreaming — that feeling you have when you wake up from a deep sleep but are still in the dream state. The experiences that characterize this state are:

  • Being in the present moment (smriti in Sanskrit)
  • Awareness of the Absolute (samadhi)
  • Experiencing the world as if it were part of you
  • A feeling of being both in and out of the body
  • The absence of anger
  • The absence of fear and anxiety
  • Heightened intuition

An awakening is not a fleeting or transitory experience, but a shift into a higher state of consciousness. Although I still had my ego, something else — what Buddhists call prajna and Christian mystics call wisdom — made its presence strongly felt. I wanted to keep advancing, to attain complete enlightenment; I wanted to experience the oneness of everything, the way Jill Bolte Taylor describes it in her talk, My Stroke of Insight.

Suzuki (1965) explains that kensho is only the beginning:

I would like to stress the importance of becoming conscious of what it is that one has experienced. After kensho I was still not fully conscious of my experience. I was still in a kind of dream. This greater depth of realization came later while I was in America, when suddenly the Zen phrase, hiji soto ni magarazu, “the elbow does not bed outwards,” became clear to me. “The elbow does not bend outwards” might seem to express a kind of necessity, but suddenly I saw that this restriction was really freedom, the true freedom, and I felt that the whole question of free will had been solved for me. (p. xxii)

The Finders Course offered no guidance beyond this point, and they tried to discourage me from going any further. As my euphoria began to diminish and I realized that people could still provoke negative reactions in me, I knew that I had to completely get rid of my ego. I started looking through Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism and found his translation of “Inscribed on the Believing Mind” or “Hsin-hsin Ming.” I wanted to understand the verses better and found abundant information about the work at (

These verses turned out to be a series of koans for me, because in the process of looking at different translations in order to find one that satisfied me, I had to delve deeply into Zen Buddhism. Suzuki’s writings were invaluable in revealing their dark meaning.

1 The term kensho is often used interchangeably with satori, which is derived from the verb satoru, and means “comprehension; understanding”. (Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia)

* * *

David-Neel, Alexandra (1967). The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects. San Francisco, Calif.: City Lights Books. (Secret Oral Teachings)

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. (1949). Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series). New York: Grove Press.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London: Rider and Company.

Suzuki, D. T. (1957). Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. London and New York, Routledge Classics.

Suzuki, D. T. (1998). Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers (originally published in 1929).

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. (1965). The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. New York: University Books.

Suzuki, D. T.  (2014). Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume I (Richard M. Jaffee, editor). Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Yampolsky, Philip B. (1971). The Zen Master Hakuin: Selected Writings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Maria Popova: D.T. Suzuki on What Freedom Really Means and How Zen Can Help Us Cultivate Our Character

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