Enlightenment experiences of Zen masters

D. T. Suzuki’s experience of kensho, 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)

Sokei-an Sasaki (1882-1945):

“One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer—as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me . . . and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.
“The Transcendental World,” Zen Notes, vol. 1, no. 5. First Zen Institute of America. New York, 1954 (from Watts, p. 121)

Hakuin (January 19, 1686 – January 18, 1769): (Orategama)

First satori:

“When I was twenty-four years old, I stayed at the Eigan Monastery, of Echigo. [‘Joshu’s Mu’ being my koan at the time] I assiduously applied myself to it. I did not sleep days and nights, forgot both eating and lying down, when quite abruptly a great mental fixation took place. I felt as if frozen in an ice field extending thousands of miles, and within myself there was a sense of utmost transparency. There was no going forward, no slipping backward; I was like an idiot, like an imbecile, and there was nothing but “Joshu’s Mu.” Though I attended the lectures by the master, they sounded like a discussion going on somewhere in a distant hall, far away. Sometimes I had the sensation of flying in the air.

Several days passed in this state, when one evening a temple-bell struck, which upset the whole thing. It was like smashing a block of ice or pulling down a house made of jade. When I suddenly awoke again, I found that I myself was the old master Ganto,* and that all through past, present and future he had lost nothing. . Whatever doubts and indecision I had before were completely dissolved like a piece of melted ice. I called out loudly, “How wondrous! how wondrous! There is no birth-and-death from which one has to escape, nor is there any supreme knowledge (bodhi) after which one has to strive! All the koans past and present, numbering one thousand seven hundred, are not even worth the trouble of reciting!”   (Suzuki, 2014, p. 156) *Yantou, whose murder at the hands of bandits had distressed Hakuin.

Hakuin’s final enlightenment: (told by Norman Waddell)

At fifteen he entered religious life at the neighborhood Zen temple, Shoin-ji. The head priest, Tan-rei, who performed the head-shaving, was a family friend. He gave the young novice the religious name Ekaku, which he would use until his thirties when, upon being established as abbot of Shoin-ji himself, he adopted the additional name Hakuin. Four years later his teacher permitted him to set out on a pilgrimage to study with other Zen teachers around the country. His wanderings lasted [twelve years], taking him through most areas of the main island of Honshu and across to the island of Shikoku, to masters of all three Zen sects.

After the years of travel, seeking advice and instruction from many Zen teachers but mostly practicing on his own, at the age of thirty-one he sequestered himself in a remote hermitage in the mountains of Mino province, determined to make an all-out effort to attain a final breakthrough. While he was there, news reached him that his father had fallen critically ill and wanted him to return and reside in Shoin-ji, which was now vacant and in need of a priest. Hakuin, somewhat reluctant, agreed. His years of pilgrimage were now at an end.

Shoin-ji remained Hakuin’s home and the center of his teaching activity until his death fifty years later. A passage in Torei’s biography describes Hakuin’s life during the first ten years of his residency:

“He applied himself single-mindedly to his practice. He endured great privation without ever deviating from his spare, simple way of life. He didn’t adhere to any fixed schedule for sutra-chanting or other temple rituals. When darkness fell he would climb inside a derelict old palanquin and seat himself on a cushion he placed on the floorboard. One of the young boys studying at the temple would come, wrap the master’s body in a futon, and cinch him up tightly into this position with ropes. There he would remain motionless, like a painting of Bodhidharma, until the following day when the boy would come to untie him so that he could relieve himself and take some food. The same routine was repeated nightly.”

Hakuin had achieved his initial entrance into enlightenment at twenty-four, during his pilgrimage. In the years that followed, he had other satori experiences, “large ones and small ones, in numbers beyond count.” They had deepened and broadened his original enlightenment, but he still did not feel free. He was unable to integrate his realization into his ordinary life, and felt restricted when he attempted to express his understanding to others. The final decisive enlightenment that brought his long religious quest to an end occurred on a spring night in 1727, his forty-first year.

He was reading The Lotus Sutra at the time. It was the chapter on parables, where the Buddha cautions his disciple Shariputra against savoring the joys of personal enlightenment, and reveals to him the truth of the Bodhisattva’s mission, which is to continue practice beyond enlightenment, teaching and helping others until all beings have attained salvation. Hakuin narrates the crucial moment in his autobiography, Wild Ivy:

“A cricket made a series of churrs at the foundation stones of the temple. The instant they reached the master’s ears, he was one with enlightenment. Doubts and uncertainties that had burdened him from the beginning of his religious quest suddenly dissolved and ceased to exist. From that moment on he lived in a state of great emancipation. The enlightening activities of the buddhas and patriarchs, the Dharma eye to grasp the sutras—they were now his, without any doubt, without any lack whatever.” (Waddell, 1994)

Yuan-chon Hsueh-Yen Tsu-ch’in (d. 1287) (disciple of Wu-chou Shih-fan)

I left my home when I was five years old, and while under my master, by listening to his talks to visitors, I began to know that there was such a thing as Zen, and gradually came to believe in it, and finally made up my mind to study it. At sixteen I was ordained as a regular monk and at eighteen started on a Zen pilgrimage. While staying under Yuan of Shuang-shan, I was kept busy attending to the affairs of the monastery from morning to evening and was never out of the monastery grounds. Even when I was in the general dormitory or engaged in my own affairs I kept my hands folded over my chest and my eyes fixed on the ground without looking beyond three feet.

My first koan was ‘Wu‘. Whenever a thought was stirred in my mind, I lost no time in keeping it down, and my consciousness was like a block of solid ice, pure and smooth, serene and undisturbed. A day passed as rapidly as the snapping of the fingers. No sound of the bell or the drum every reached me.

At nineteen I was staying at the monastery of Ling-yin when I made the acquaintance of the recorder Lai of Ch’u-chou. He gave me this advice: “Your method has no life in it and will achieve nothing. There is a dualism in it; you keep movement and quietude as two separate poles of thought. To exercise yourself properly in Zen you ought to cherish a spirit of inquiry; for the strength of your inquiring spirit will determine the depth of your enlightenment.” Thus advised, I had my koan changed to ‘the stick wtih dried shit‘ I began to inquire into its meaning in every possible manner and from every possible point of view. But being now annoyed by dullness and now by restlessness, I could not get even a moment of serene contemplation.

I moved to Ching-tzu monastery, where I joined a company of seven, all earnest students of Zen. Sealing up our bedding we determined not to lie down on the floor. There was a monk called Hsiu who did not join us, but who kept sitting on his cushion like a solid bar of iron; I wanted to have a talk with him, but he was forbidding.

As the practice of not lying down was kept up for two years, I became thoroughly exhausted both in mind and body. At last I gave myself up to the ordinary way of taking rest; in two months my health was restored and y spirit reinvigorated once more by thus yielding to nature. In fact, the study of Zen is not necessarily to be accomplished by merely going without sleep. It is far better to have short hours of a sound sleep in the middle of the night, when the mind will gather up fresh energy.

One day I happened to meet Hsiu in the corridor, and for the first time I could have a talk with him. I asked, “Why was it that you avoided me so much last year when I wished to talk with you?” He said, “An earnest student of Zen begrudges even the time it takes to trim his nails; how much more the time wasted in conversation with others!” I said, “I am troubled in two ways, by dullness and restlessness. How can I get over them?” He replied, “It is owing to your not being fully resolute in your exercise. Have the cushion high enough under you, and keeping your spinal column upright, throw all the spiritual energy you possess into the koan itself. What is the use of talking about dullness and restlessness?”

This advice gave me a new turn to my exercise, for in three days and nights I came to realize a state in which the dualism of body and mind ceased to exist. I felt so transparent and lively that my eyelids were kept open all the time. On the third day I was walking by the gate still feeling as I did when sitting cross-legged on the cushion. I happened to meet Hsiu, who asked, “What are you doing here?” I answered, “Trying to realize the Tao.” “What do you mean by the Tao?” he asked. I could not give him a reply, which only increased my mental annoyance.

Wishing to return to to the meditation hall I directed my steps towards it, when I encountered the head monk. He said, “Keep your eyes wide open and see what it all means.” This encouraged me. I came back into the hall and was about to go to my seat when the whole outlook changed. A broad expanse opened, and the ground appeared as if all caved in. The experience was beyond description and altogether incommunicable, for there was nothing in the world to which it could be compared.

Coming down from the seat I sought Hsiu. He was greatly pleased, and kept repeating, “How glad I am! How glad I am!” We held hands and walked along the willow embankment outside the gate. As I looked around and up and down, the whole universe with its multitudinous sense-objects now appeared quite different. What was loathsome before, together with ignorance and passions, was now seen to be nothing more than the outflow of my own innermost nature, which in itself remained bright, true, and transparent. This state of consciousness lasted for more than half a month.

Unfortunately, as I did not happen to interview a great master of deeper spiritual insight at the time, I was left at this stage  of enlightenment for some time. It was still an imperfect stage which, if adhered to as final, would have obstructed the growth of a truly penetrating insight; the sleeping and waking hours did not yet coalesce into unity. Koans that admitted some way of reasoning were intelligible enough but those that altogether defied it, like a wall of iron blocks, were still quite beyond my reach. I passed many years under the master Wu-chun, listening to his sermons and asking his advice, but there was no word which gave a final solution to my inner disquietude, nor was there anything in the sutras or the sayings of the masters, as far as I read, that could cure me of this heartache.

Ten years thus passed without my being able to to remove this hard inner obstruction. One day I was walking in the Buddha Hall at T’ien-mu when my eyes happened to fall on an old cypress tree outside the Hall. Just seeing this old tree opened a new spiritual vista and the solid mass of obstruction suddenly dissolved. It was as if I had come into the bright sunshine after having been shut up in the darkness. After this I entertained no further doubt regarding life, death, the Buddha, or the Patriarchs. I now realized for the first time what constituted the inner life of my master Wu-chun, who indeed deserved thirty hard blows. (Suzuki, 1953, pp. 119-122)

T’ien-shan Ch’iung (disciple of Te-i of Mengshan)

When I was thirteen years old I came to know something about Buddhism; at eighteen I left home and at twenty-two was ordained a monk. I first went to Shih-chuang, where I learned that the monk Hsiang used to look at the tip of his nose all the time and that this kept his mind transparent. Later, a monk brought from Hsueh-yen his Advice Regarding the Practice of Meditation (zazen). By this I found that my practice was on the wrong track, so I went to Hsueh-yen, and following his instructions exercised myself exclusively on ‘Wu‘. On the fourth night I found myself perspiring, but my mind was clear and lucid. While in the Hall I never conversed with others, wholly devoting myself to zazen.

Later on I went to the master Miao of Kao-feng, who said this to me: “Let there be no break in your exercise during the twelve periods of the day. Get up in the small hours of the morning and seek out your koan at once so that it will be held all the time before you. When you feel tired and sleepy, rise from your seat and walk the floor, but even while walking do not let your koan slip away from your mind. Whether you are eating, or working, or engaged in monastery affairs, never fail to keep your koan before you. When this is done day and night, a state of oneness will prevail, and later your mind will surely open to enlightenment.” I then kept up my exercise according to this advice, and sure enough I finally achieved a state of oneness.

On the twentieth of March Master Yen gave a sermon to this effect:

“Brethren, when you feel too drowsy after a long sitting on the cushions, come down on the floor, have a run around the hall, rinse your mouth, and splash your face and eyes with cold water; after that resume your sitting on the cushions. Keeping your spinal column straight up like pillar, throw all your mental energy onto the koan. If you go on like this for seven days, I can assure you of your coming enlightenment, for this is what happened to me forty years ago.”

I followed this advice and found my exercise gaining more light and strength than usual. On the second day I could not close my eyes even if I wanted to; on the third day I felt as if I were walking in the air, and on the fourth day all worldly affairs ceased to bother me. That night I was leaning against the railing for awhile, and when I examined myself I found that the field of consciousness seemed to be all empty, except for the presence of the koan itself. I turned around and sat on the cushion again, when all of a sudden I felt as if my whole body from head to toe were split like a skull; I felt as if I were taken out of an abysmal depth and thrown up into the air. My joy knew no bounds!

My experience was presented to Yen, but it did not meet his full approval. He advised me to go on with my exercise as before. When I asked for further instruction, among other things he gave me this: “If you really wish to attain the highest truth of Buddhism, there is still something lacking in your understanding; there ought to be a really final stroke. Say to yourself, ‘Where do I lack this finality?’ ” I could not believe his words, and yet there was a shadow of doubt lurking in my mind. So I went on stolidly with my zazen every day as before for about six months more.

Later on, after Yen had passed away, I went to Meng-Shan, and Shan asked, “Where in the study of Zen do you think that one has reached its consummation?” I didn’t know what to say. Shan then told me to exercise myself in tranquillization so that all the dust of worldliness might be thoroughly removed. But whenever I entered his room and tried to say a word he at once remarked, ‘Something lacking.’ One day I began my zazen at four in the afternoon and continued until four in the morning, and through sheer power of concentration I reached an exquisite state of ecstasy. Coming out of it I saw the master and told him about it. He then asked, “What is your original self?” I was about to speak when he shut the door in my face.

After this I exerted myself more and more in zazen and was able to experience many exquisite states of mind. Though I had to see my former master [Hsueh-Yen] pass away before I had penetrated into the details of Zen, fortunately, through the guidance of the present master I have been led into deeper realizations. In truth, when one is earnest and resolute enough, realizations will come frequently and there will be a stripping-away at each step forward.

One day I was looking at the “Inscriptions on the Believing Mind” by the Third Patriarch, in which I read, “Return to the source and gain what you seek; pursue enlightenment and you lose it”; then there was another stripping-away. Master Shan said: “The study of Zen is like the polishing of a gem, and when it becomes thus brighter, let it still be polished. When its outer coatings have been stripped away to the utmost, this life of yours will become more precious than a gem.”

But whenever I attempted to utter a word, the master at once declared, “Something lacking.” One day when deeply absorbed in meditation, I came across this “something lacking.” All the bonds that had hitherto bound my mind and body were dissolved at once, together with every piece of my bones and their marrow. It was like seeing the sun suddenly bursting through the snow-laden clouds and shining brightly. As I could not contain myself, I jumped down at once from the seat, and running to the master took hold of him, exclaiming, “Now, what am I lacking?” He gave me three slaps and I bowed to him deeply. Said the master, “O T’ien-shan, for many years you have exerted yourself for this very thing. Today, at last, you have it.” (Suzuki, 1953, pp. 119-122)

Fo-kuang (1226-1286)

When I was fourteen, I went up to Kinzan. When seventeen I made up my mind to study Buddhism and began to unravel the mysteries of Chao-chou’s ‘Wu‘ (Joshu’s Mu in Japanese). I expected to finish the matter within one year, but I did not come to any understanding of it after all. Another year passed without much avail, and three more years, also finding myself with no progress. In the fifth or sixth year, while no special change came over me, the “Wu” became so inseparably attached to me that I could not get away from it even while asleep. This whole universe seemed to be nothing but the ‘Wu’ itself. In the meantime I was told by an old monk to set it aside for awhile and see how things would go with me. According to this advice, I dropped the matter altogether and sat quietly. But owing to the fact that the ‘Wu’ had been with me so long, I could in no way shake it off however much I tried. When I was sitting, I forgot that I was sitting, nor was I conscious of my own body. Nothing but a sense of utter blankness prevailed. Half a year thus passed. Like a bird escaped from its cage, my mind, my consciousness moved about unhindered, sometimes eastward, sometimes westward, sometimes northward or southward. Sitting through two days in succession, or through one day and night, I did not feel any fatigue.

At the time there were about nine hundred monks residing in the monastery, among whom there were many devoted students of Zen. One day while sitting, I felt as if my mind and my body were separated from each other and had lost the chance of getting back together. All the monks about me thought that I was quite dead, but an old monk among them said that I was frozen to a state of immobility while absorbed in deep meditation, and that if I were covered up with warm clothing I should come to my senses by myself. This proved true, for I finally awoke from it and when I asked the monks near my seat how long I had been in that condition, they told me it was one day and night.

After this, I still kept up my practice of sitting. I could now sleep a little. When I closed my eyes a broad expanse of emptiness presented itself before them, which then assumed the form of a farmyard. Through this piece of land I walked and walked until I got thoroughly familiar with the ground. But as soon as my eyes were opened the vision altogether disappeared. One night, sitting far into the night, I kept my eyes open and was aware of my sitting up in my seat. All of a sudden, the sound of striking the board in front of the head monk’s room reached my ear, which at once revealed to me the “original man” in full. There was then no more of that vision which appeared when I closed my eyes. Hastily I came down from the seat and ran out into the moonlit night and went up to the garden house called Ganki, where looking up to the sky I laughed loudly, “Oh, how great is the Dharmakaya! Oh, how great and immense for evermore!”

Thence my joy knew no bounds. I could not quietly sit in the Meditation Hall; I went about with no special purpose in the mountains, walking this way and that. I reflected, “This place must be two billion miles away from where the sun rises; and how is it that as soon as the sun comes up its rays lose no time in striking my face?” I reflected again, “The rays of my own eye must travel just as instantaneously as those of the sun as they reach the latter; my eyes, my mind, are they not the Dharmakaya itself?” Thinking thus, I felt all the bonds  that had been binding me for so many ages snapped and broken to pieces. How may numberless years had I been sitting in the ant hole! Today even in every pore of my skin there lie all the Buddha-lands in the ten quarters! I thought within myself, “Even if I have no greater satori, I am now all-sufficient unto myself!” (Suzuki, 1949, p. 255)


Under Tai-hui (1089-1163), the great Zen teacher of the Sung dynasty, there was a monk named Tao-ch’ien who had spent many years in the study of Zen, but who had not yet delved into its secrets. He was discouraged when he was sent on an errand to a distant city. A trip requiring half a year to finish would surely be a hindrance rather than a help to his study. One of his fellow monks took pity on him and said: “I will accompany you on this trip and do all that I can for you. There is no reason why you cannot go on with your meditation even while traveling” They started out together.

One evening Tao-ch’ien despairingly implored his friend to assist him in the solution of the mystery of life. The friend said: “I am willing to help you in every way, but there are five things in which I cannot be of any help to you. These you must look after yourself.” Tao-ch’ien expressed the desire to know what they were. “For instance,” said the friend, “when you are hungry or thirsty, my eating food or drinking does not fill your stomach. You must drink and eat for yourself. When you want to respond to the calls of nature, you must take care of them yourself, for I cannot be of any use to you. And finally, it will be nobody else but yourself that will carry this corpse of yours along this highway.” This remark at once opened the mind of the truth-seeking monk, who, transported with his discovery, did not know how to express his joy. His brother monk now told him that his work was done and that his companionship was no longer needed. So they parted company and Tao-ch’ien was left alone to continue the trip.

When Tao-ch’ien finally returned to the monastery, Tai-hui happened to meet him on his way down the mountain, and made the following remark, “This time he knows it all.” (Suzuki, 1949, pp. 241-242)

Pai-chang Huai-hai (724-814):

Pai-chang Huai-hai one day went out attending his master Ma-tsu. A flock of wild geese was seen flying and Ma-tsu asked:

‘What are they?’

‘They are wild geese, sir.’

‘Whither are they flying?’

‘They have flown away, sir.’

Ma-tsu, abruptly taking hold of Pai-chang’s nose, gave it a twist. Overcome with pain, Pai-chang cried aloud: ‘Oh! Oh!’

‘You say they have flown away,’ Ma-tsu said, ‘but all the same they have been here from the very beginning!’

This made Pai-chang’s back wet with cold perspiration. He had satori. (Suzuki, 1949, p. 240)

* * *

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 (pp. 119-122).

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

Waddell, Norman (1994). The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin. Boston & London: Shambhala. (download)

Waddell, Norman (1999). Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications. (download)

Watts, Alan (1957). The Way of Zen. New York: Vintage Books. (https://terebess.hu/english/AlanWatts-The%20Way%20of%20Zen.pdf)

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