Between the first awakening and enlightenment

On the path to enlightenment there is a first awakening one experiences, and references to it can be found everywhere, calling it by different names. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki called it kensho, “seeing into the Self-nature,” which he described as “the first glimpse of satori or enlightenment” (1965, xxii). 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). Here 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 the first awakening is called “entering the stream.”

I had the good fortune to experience my awakening through the Finder’s Course. At the moment it happened, time ceased 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 awakening 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

Although I still had my ego, something else — what Buddhists call prajna and Madame Guyon called 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) made the point 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 those running the course tried to discourage me from going any further. As my euphoria began to abate and I realized that people could still provoke negative reactions in me, I knew that I had to completely rid myself of my ego. Therefore, I consulted D. T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. The first book of essays (1949) has his translation of “Inscribed on the Believing Mind,” or “Hsin-hsin Ming.” I wanted to understand the verses better, so I located a wealth of 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 and acquire the “Zen mind.” Suzuki’s writings were invaluable in revealing their dark meaning.


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

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

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

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

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

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

To know more about D. T. Suzuki, read this article by Maria Popova: D.T. Suzuki on What Freedom Really Means and How Zen Can Help Us Cultivate Our Character

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