Gradual Enlightenment is Better. ~ Herb Deer

Via Herb Ein Eko Deer
on Jul 19, 2013
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This classic debate among Zen schools is intellectual and dualistic.

It brings up important and practical questions about what it means to be enlightened and what it looks like in action.

First of all, let’s define enlightenment as being selfless, compassionate, wise and present and throw in for good measure the realization that everyone and everything is connected in oneness. This should mean, for example, that an enlightened person puts the care of others before satisfying selfish desires and is able to communicate with honesty and integrity about any struggles with this.

This adds another quality to being enlightened, which is struggling with issues and being able to communicate about them with integrity.

Sudden enlightenment is a spontaneous awakening to our oneness with all things and the perfection of our life, such as the Buddha had when he saw the morning star under the Bodhi tree.

He said, “Wonder of wonders, all living beings are truly enlightened and shine with wisdom and virtue.”

It can be as grand as an earth shattering experience or a simple ah-ha moment.

This sudden awakening experience is described in every spiritual tradition in one way or another. In Zen, it is emphasized especially in the Rinzai lineage as crucial for spiritual enlightenment.

There are even specific practices used to facilitate this kind of awakening such as koans like “mu”, cultivating “doubt” using questions like “what is it” or “who am I,” or even shouts and hits to shake up our stuck intellects and snap us back to here-now.

The idea is that when enough effort and energy is poured into our questioning we exhaust our dualistic mind and finally push beyond dualism into the realm of the absolute, where oneness and emptiness are experienced spontaneously.

Gradual enlightenment, on the other hand, is the slow and patient process of growing and maturing in our practice through consistent discipline and progress.

The consistent and persistent practice of being mindful of our activities leads us to progressively refine our experience of emptiness and oneness in our daily life.

The Soto Zen School tends to embrace this more.

Maybe we can all agree that manifesting enlightenment in daily activities is the most profound expression?

But the ‘sudden school’ says the kensho experience is what makes this possible in the first place. Whereas, for the ‘gradual school’ there’s no merit in kensho unless refined discipline and consistent practice manifest the enlightened life.

Of course both sides have essential points and they are not exclusive.

But I say that the gradual process of awakening is more important to embrace in a spiritual path for several reasons.

First of all, the sudden kensho experience is like grace in that it cannot be guaranteed as a result of practice. Some people have a better chance at it if they practice with more effort and determination. But ultimately we could never judge the merit of anyone’s practice by using kensho as a measuring stick.

Second, kensho isn’t meant to take care of long-term emotional and behavioral patterns, and it doesn’t. This has been proven over again by ‘enlightened’ charismatic Zen teachers exposed to be abusive to their students in many ways.

Having a kensho experience may help us to see our karma more clearly, but it will not change our long-term patterns of emotions, behaviors and addictions.

Oprah made the term ‘Ah-ha moment’ popular to describe spiritual awakenings that can be very subtle yet very profound.

I encourage students to see all our little ‘Ah-ha moments’ as enlightenment experiences. This is a simple, yet powerful, way to embrace our inherent wisdom and compassion that is our true self.

And it is available everyday in ordinary ways.

To sit waiting for an earthshaking experience to tell us we are enlightened is not going to help us get there. It will only hold us back from appreciating our ordinary lives as extra-ordinary. Which they are, but we should still strive wholeheartedly with every ounce of effort to see that our little awakenings are our true selves being enlightened.

If we do happen to fall over in spasms of ecstatic oneness while we are appreciating our ordinary lives then great, whoop dee frickin do, but it has nothing to do with reality. It’s more of an emotional and psychological breakthrough that only has value when it brings us back full circle to appreciating our pain, sharing our issues, cleaning our messes and apologizing when we hurt the people we love. Because that’s part of being human, enlightened or not.

If a grand opening helps us to care more about others than ourselves and communicate about our issues and struggles with integrity and compassion then it is a wonderful spiritual awakening, but these things will happen with sincere long term practice whether we fall over laughing or not.


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Asst. Ed.: Kathleen O’Hagan/Ed: Bryonie Wise





About Herb Ein Eko Deer

Herb Ein Eko Deer is a paradox and he isn’t. Born in Texas in 1968, his first kensho was as a born again Christian, which lasted until he got into drugs in high school. After becoming interested in Zen, inspired by Yoda, he moved to a traditional zen monastery in order to see if his kensho experiences were truly authentic from a certified zen masters point of view.  They weren’t, so he decided to stay there and practice zen until he had reached an authentic state of enlightenment.“My vision and hope is to someday create a full time monastic training program that combines many styles of martial arts, qi-gong, energy healing, 12 Steps for Normal People and tai-chi with the Zen. This vision is inspired by Yoda, obviously the most kick-ass character in the star wars series he is.” Ein Eko believes that 99% of delusion is caused by emotional stuck places. Therefore, he teaches resolving emotional issues and patterns through koan study, 12 steps, communication practice, martial arts and 12,000 hours of zazen. He thanks you for this opportunity to connect and invites you to visit his average blog site.



7 Responses to “Gradual Enlightenment is Better. ~ Herb Deer”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Your article makes the case for a slower path, a "gradual enlightenment". I understand your background is zen monastic and this makes sense regarding your method. Personally, I have no zen experience. You state, "strive wholeheartedly with every ounce of effort to see that our little awakenings are our true selves being enlightened". I would change the "being" to "becoming". In the vajrayana we practice being enlightened. We do not delude ourselves in thinking we are enlightened. I do not believe that moments of clarity are enlightenment nor are they other than enlightenment. Certainly Oprah does not have the last word on this. But I would like to point out that in your article that you are mistaken that the Buddha's awakening was "sudden". So much transpired prior. If his enlightenment were "sudden" as you say, then there would be no turning of the wheel and no one to listen.

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    "fall over in spasms of ecstatic oneness while we are appreciating our ordinary lives then great, whoop dee frickin do, but it has nothing to do with reality." This is what you have reduced your idea to of "sudden enlightenment" to illustrate your "gradual" more meaningful path. If you follow the logic of your argument, this quote of yours, reduces the Buddha's awakening to something other than enlightenment…just so that you can emphasize your preference to being in samsara and enjoying your method. As buddhists, there are many schools. If enlightenment is the goal which frees all mother sentient beings, and that goal is attainable in one lifetime…why not take the quick path?

  3. love this articulation on enlightenment, and living life. thanks!

  4. Eko says:

    i appreciate your comments. to give a full explanation of all the subtleties of this very complex question would take many articles. and some of my opinions and comments are intentionally dualistic to invite different points of views.

    part of my goal is to encourage a shift from thinking enlightenment is "special" and rarely experienced to seeing that we are all enlightened all the time if we can simply see it as our ordinary lives. many new students think they cannot be inherently enlightened because of the "specialness" of enlightenment.

    many teachers have had a "kensho" or grand experience and then started teaching without taking the years and years of hard tedious work it takes to resolve emotional issues and behavioral patterns. these kind of teachers destroy sanghas,

    if they had been encouraged to see that "enlightenment" is in the daily details of taking care of their issues rather teaching kensho they would have had a much longer training period and much deeper ability to lead sanghas, probably.

    i dont prefer samsara, i prefer seeing the perfection of samsara, which is the freedom within suffering, which is the end of suffering, which is different than kensho. and i see enlightenment is not "attainable" is a fact that is here now always, and so it is attained when it is accepted as ordinary. thanks

  5. @AnneWayman says:

    Eco, this is reassuring – I've had some mini-kensho experiences and one moderately bigger long before I got to zen. Somehow sitting with my issues seems to be the right path for me now. I'm certainly of the educational variety of spiritual experiences mostly.

    Thanks – Anne Myo-on

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    I do agree with the idea of the gradual path to some degree in order to make sure that we "get it" and have experience which shows us we are making progress. I do not think that the intent of buddhism, however, is not somehow to be a psychiatric session. Yes, if one does practice, one's behaviors may calm down, but this is not a requirement for enlightenment, at least not in vajrayana practice or mahayana. These very inner obscurations are the path if one is under the guidance of an authentic teacher.

  7. Eko says:

    how do you define enlightenment? as an experience, a state, an action?

    although resolving issues is not a "requirement" of enlightenment it is evolving into an overt expectation as of late with all the pain caused by teachers gone wild.

    seeing emptiness without emotional maintenance/maturity lends itself to spiritual bypassing. if we are not resolving emotional patterns in zazen then what are we doing, just enjoying the moment on our way to hurt someone we love?

    if an authentic teacher does not bring up things like "projection" "transference" "boundaries" or "patterns" they are remiss. we are blessed to have the vernacular of modern therapy and we should use it to end suffering as well.