Like the words freedom, justice, and virtue, the word enlightenment can mean quite different things to different people. As a proper noun, the word denotes a specific period in Western intellectual history: the so-called Age of Enlightenment of the mid-18th century. As a common noun, however, enlightenment can refer to experiences as diverse as a religious conversion, an intellectual discovery, or, more casually, a shift of perspective occasioned by an influx of fresh information. We can be enlightened by a lecture on astrophysics, a new history of the American Civil War, a Nova program on monkeys or spiders.
In the American Zen community, the term enlightenment is heard only rarely. By and large, contemporary Zen teachers prefer to speak of “awakening.” But when the word does arise, its meaning varies according to the teacher’s training and affiliation. In the Rinzai Zen tradition, enlightenment refers specifically to kensho (or satori): a sudden, direct experience of absolute reality. This transcendent experience is viewed as an aim attainable—if it all—only after a period of dedicated practice. By contrast, in the Soto Zen tradition, enlightenment is neither a distant goal nor a possession of the spiritually advanced. From the Soto perspective, formal seated meditation (zazen), with due attention to posture, breath, and the practice of “opening the hand of thought,” is itself an expression of enlightenment. It is an experience available to any serious practitioner.
Given these conflicting views, it is heartening to come upon a simple and straightforward description of “enlightenment” from an authoritative source. In his book What is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind, Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi asserts that enlightenment “amounts to nothing more or less than being fully and deeply human.” In Fischer’s view, all of us harbor the seeds of “enlightenment,” so defined. All of us embody the potential to awaken. An “enlightened person” is someone who has fully realized that potential. Whether by luck or effort or “natural inclination,” he or she has developed “wisdom and a good heart.”
Lest Fischer’s definition be viewed as reductive or incomplete, it bears mentioning that in Zen the word wisdom means something more specific than what is meant in ordinary conversation. To embody wisdom, from the vantage point of Zen, is to realize and remain continuously aware of the impermanent, interdependent, and egoless nature of all conditioned things. For reasons of survival and self-interest, we tend to view our so-called selves as solid entities, separate and apart from a world of solid things. We situate our cherished egos, replete with our desires, aversions, and expectations, at the center of the universe and perceive the world accordingly. In absolute reality, however, neither the self nor the world is solid or independent. What we commonly mistake for solid things are actually selfless processes, phenomena in flux, whether the “thing” in question be a tree, a transitory thought or feeling, a passing state of mind, or what we conventionally call the personal self. In the language of Zen, each is “empty of a separate self.” Each depends on changing causes and conditions, and each is supported by everything else. By losing touch with this reality, we bring suffering upon ourselves and others, time and again. By maintaining awareness of it, primarily through the practice of zazen, we cultivate what Zen calls wisdom.
As Norman Fischer explains, this “special form of wisdom,” once attained, gives rise over time to a change of heart. By discovering through direct experience that both the self and the world are less substantial and more transient than we had thought, we open ourselves to a radically altered way of seeing. Having realized, in our hearts as well as our minds, that there is nothing solid to which we might cling and no fixed self with which to identify, we can begin to release our attachments, our ego-centered notions, and our longstanding habits of self-preservation. In their place we can cultivate what Fischer calls a “good heart,” by which he means a constellation of wholesome qualities, including wakefulness, kindness, generosity, ethical conduct, compassion, and humility. These marks of “wisdom and a good heart” are also the marks of an enlightened person.
Such an outcome is hardly guaranteed. The attainment of wisdom, especially in the sense that Zen teachings use the word, is neither a precondition nor the sole path to becoming “fully and deeply human.” Over the years I have known longtime Zen practitioners who have exhibited, in their speech, attitudes, and demeanor, few if any of the qualities listed above. And conversely, I have known wise, good-hearted people who have never practiced Zen. But as a practical, achievable aim, Norman Fischer’s concept of “enlightenment” is a welcome contrast to the usual arcane formulations. To the lay practitioner as well as the ordained monastic, it offers clarity, inspiration, and grounds for persisting in a demanding practice.
Norman Fischer and Susan Moon, What is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind (Shambhala, 2016), 41-42.