By Daniel Scharpenburg
Kensho is something we talk about in the Zen tradition.
It represents the mystical experience, the experience of oneness, of seeing our true nature, emptiness, the absolute, whatever you want to call it.
Some lineages talk about it a lot and some talk about it a little. It’s important to not attach to these experiences. There are stories about people who thought they had attained Enlightenment and then made some bad decisions.
That’s why having a teacher is important, so the teacher can tell you, “Hey, slow down. Take it easy.” This is helpful if we’re attaching too much to these experiences. Or, at the very least, it is useful to find a supportive community. Finding a teacher isn’t always easy and for some of us it takes a very long time.
It’s been said that Kensho can be a big or small experience. In either case, it is an opening, a glimpse into Awakening. This is a temporary experience.
Dogen called it, “The dropping away of body and mind.”
Xu Yun said, “The mind came to a stop.”
Having had a Kensho experience doesn’t mean that one is fully Enlightened. It’s just a glimpse of the truth. Kensho has been compared to a psychedelic experience.
I didn’t really start having these experiences with any regularity until I started meditating every day. Some people say they never have them, even with really diligent practice.
The point is that we shouldn’t be attached to these experiences.
They are wondrous and can really help motivate us on the path, but if we think of them as special, we could have problems.
D.T. Suzuki also wrote in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism:
“When the mind has been so trained as to be able to realize a state of perfect void in which there is not a trace of consciousness left, even the sense of being unconscious having departed; in other words, when all forms of mental activity are swept away clean from the field of consciousness, leaving the mind like the sky devoid of every speck of cloud, a mere broad expense of blue, Dhyana is said to have reached its perfection.”
Some people think of Kensho as the end of the path, but that’s a mistake.
Really, it’s the beginning. It does change you in a very real way. I’ve been fundamentally changed by every such experience I’ve had. I wouldn’t say I’ve had Satori, or a full Enlightenment experience, but it’s because of Kensho that I believe Satori is attainable. Once you’ve had a Kensho experience you can’t lie to yourself like you did before when you’ve had a glimpse at the true nature of things.
In the Platform Sutra Huineng said:
“If, for one thought-moment, there is abiding, then there will be abiding in all successive thoughts, and this is called clinging. If, in regard to all matters there is no abiding from thought-moment to thought-moment, then there is no clinging. Non-abiding is the basis.”
Kensho is a state of letting go, releasing who you think you are and dwelling in your true self.
After this break in thoughts is over, one tends to still not cling to thoughts for a while.
When we engage both concentration and insight practices, these experiences can arise naturally. They’re especially common when we are on retreat.
Every time we enter this space of Awakening it’s a deep and profound experience.
Every time, we dwell in Enlightenment, we bring a little more of it back with us.
Editor: Sherrin Fitzer
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