Dharma Talk

Enlightenment—Seeing the Unseen

May 27, 2020


I first read about Zen Buddhism when I was about 14 years old in a book titled, The Three Pillars of Zen, by Phillip Kapleau. In that book, satori, or kensho, seeing into one’s own nature – enlightenment – was described in a kind of romanticized mode that was perfect for me: an overweight, awkward 14-year-old who couldn’t speak coherently around girls, lousy at athletics, and unable to mimic the self-assurance of my cooler classmates. From my reading of this book, I developed the idea that enlightenment would be  the solution to all my problems. I became convinced that Enlightenment would give me super-human powers and wisdom.

I began an obsessive course of reading and then crazing my friends by quoting zen aphorisms as if I understood them. Irritating them with cryptic, mystical sounding utterances.

"Hearing a crow with no mouth
Cry in the deep
Darkness of the night,
I feel a longing for
My father before he was born"

You can imagine how well those sorts of remarks went over with the fourteen-year-old set.

I think a lot of people are attracted to Zen practice by a wish or promise of enlightenment, even though, Suzuki-roshi did not talk about it very often. It is something that happens or may happen, it doesn’t seem critical to Buddhist practice. I was informed by a senior student of one of my teachers, Robert Aitken, a disciplined honorable man, that he had never had a kensho experience. Nevertheless, he was a great teacher, very kind and helpful to me, and widely respected. He wrote very useful book, Taking the Path of Zen, which I often recommend for its comprehensive ‘how-to and why’ discussion of Buddhism.

My teacher, Chikudo Lew Richmond put it succinctly when he said, “If you’re not kind and helpful to others, who cares what kind of spiritual experiences you’ve had?”

Attraction to an idea of Enlightenment (after all what else can it be if we don’t know?) can be a problem. If you sit down to meditate with an idea of “you”— some messed up snarl of problems that needs improving— are over here,  and “enlightenment” is somewhere else, you are not going to get the two together. They are two ideas, like  little gerbils, running around inside your skull.

So, I thought I’d talk around this subject a little bit about Enlightenment and try to tether it to the Eightfold Path, which we talked about a couple weeks ago.

 It is true that in periods of intense meditation, you can focus your attention down to such a fine point, that your ego temporarily surrenders its dominance. It’s not a permanent surrender and that’s important to understand. You can’t and shouldn’t try to hold on to such experience, other than accept that it’s a reliable marker that you’re on a good path.

I’ve observed a number of Zen groups in trouble when they assume that their teacher is enlightened, that nobody else in the community is. It’s like considering enlightenment as a fence that you hurl yourself over. Once you are on the other side, you’re home free. You can drive 14 Rolls Royces; you can do whatever you want. Because you’re enlightened and you are not attached to that crazy stuff that the rest of us are.

But it’s not like that. Even if you have a kensho experience, or several, maybe it’s going to be 10 or 20 minutes of your life. After that, everything is going to be the same… but different because “you” are going to be different—less substantial, less certain, less reliable. In that empty kensho, you can perceive the interdependence and emptiness of objects, ideas, feelings, soap bubbles—here and not. It’s deeper than simply a pleasant experience. Someone asked Suzuki-Roshi about enlightenment, and he said, “You might not like it.”

My reaction to a first kensho experience was kind of terror. I thought, “Oh my god, what am I going to do now!” Because I had perceived the entire edifice of Buddhism that I had pursued for forty years, that  had rescued me from addiction, and guided me toward the dream of an Enlightened existence and given me reliable and dependable boundaries—was insubstantial as a soap bubble. That there was absolutely nothing I could grab and hold onto in this world.

It was shocking.

You can’t stay in that space. I think I talked last week about the “default node network”? If not, I’ll review it: The Default Mode Network is the neurological basis of our sense of self; a part of our brain that keeps us from being high all the time. It keeps us focused  on the known world of named, separate objects. Its survival benefits are obvious. If we were proto hominids running around, completely mesmerized by every butterfly or twinkle of dew we’d have become food for saber-toothed tigers.But the Default Mode Network is not an absolute dictator. In fact, when we meditate, or when we take psychedelics, the DMN relaxes and allows mental connections to be made which are normally held at bay.

The reason that teachers may remind you that it’s not so important, or not to dwell on too much, is because, it may well distract you from caring for others, and reifying your sense of self having the experience. Why do I care that Buddha came down and gave you 8000 roses, kissed your feet, and blew your nose? If you are not a thoughtful person?

If you refine your understanding of the interrelationships of the Eightfold Path, and you are practicing developing intimacy with Right Livelihood, Awareness, and Effort, and all, you’ll be living a pretty good karma free life. Enlightenment, per se, may be an afterthought.

When you “come back” from such an experience, that ego that you’ve had for 30 or 40 or 50 years is still there. Maybe a little shaken up. You may percieve it as a less reliable guide, a less solid artifact intermediating between yourself and the rest of creation. That’d be good. Good in the sense of useful.

You may notice that you have the same problems, that you had previously. That may be true, but you’ll also perceive that they are in a much expanded field.

When you observe a portion of the moon appearing from behind clouds, even if it is just a glimmer of the moon, you will also have a full sense of its entirety, including what lies behind the clouds. Enlightenment is like this,is ‘seeing’ the full moon in the mind’s eye in the particularity of its visible edge. The shine on a leaf might trigger that fort you. A bird’s cry; the “plunk” of a stone thrown in the river. Suzuki-roshi referred to such experiences as “letters from emptiness”—you receive the letter and you know that it was mailed from Emptiness. We can’t live consciously in the great, vast Emptiness of material forms but we can, moment after moment, be reminded of it.

 I had a rough time with my Dad when I was growing up. He was violent, dangerous guy, a disciplined boxer and judo fighter, but brilliant enough to have attended MIT when he was 15. Looking back I can see he was quite a wonderful man, but I was too intimidated and angry to see that at the time. He wasn’t a very skillful father, but he was a highly respected and successful man. For years, I struggled with the feeling that I was trapped in a closet with him and that I could not get enough distance to breathe or think clearly.

Decisions I made and ideas about myself, were filtered through what he might think or how he regarded me. My name was “shit for brains” until I was about 16 years old. I still have some difficulty at times with such memories, but now, my feeling about him is more like we are independently exploring Yellowstone National Park. We don’t see each other for months. Occasionally, I’ll see him pass far below or above me, in the distance and when we do bump into each other, I can handle it. It’s not so difficult. Given those grace periods, I’m able to remember some of the wonderful things he did for me and taught me, and some of the miraculous gifts he gave me.

I suppose a simpler way of expressing this would be that our personal problems assume the same kind of unreality as everything else. While they may still have their old tang and flavor they are no longer regarded as tangible, solid objects.

Do you remember the discussion on dependent origination? If this exists, then that exist? The reason that Buddhists say that all things are empty of the self, is because everything is made of everything else.

It appears as if  I’m sitting over here,  and you’re over there, or I’m “in here” and the rest of it is “out there. “ That’s true enough as far as it goes, but – this is worth repeating – the ‘self’ that we all shorthand when we think this way is also connected to and composed of everything else. Without Oxygen, there’s no self. Without sunlight, water,  microbes in the soil, trees producing oxygen, birds controlling pests, pollinating insects. It is equally true that we are all part of one larger thing.

We could say that wisdom is remembering and applying both. Oscillating back and forth between them, each negating the shadows of the other. An egocentric point of view excludes the vast objective networks and systems to which we are all connected, and it reduces the vastness of the Universe to what we want and don’t; to what we like and dislike.

However, the larger wholistic view has its own problems as well. In the larger view, it’s deceptively easy to overlook the value of an individuated existence—human, animal, or habitat. Or a species. Because, in the big picture, … and when employing that phrase, my mind goes directly to the acts of me like Stalin, and Mao Zedong and their grand plans which caused 40 to 50 million people starve to death.

Each perspective—the singular and the wholistic can be the antidote to the other.

If we  get fixated on the egocentric, on the singular, that’s when we should shift and regard the problem from the point of view the holistic. How does it appear from the big picture?

I want to relate that to something that occurred yesterday.

Yesterday, a young African-American man named George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. His death was videotaped. A policeman kneeled on his throat for 8 minutes and 45 seconds, 2 and 53 seconds minutes of which were after Mr. Floyd lost consciousness. This was done in broad daylight, while a bystander, a nurse, screamed at the officer to stop, and to check the man’s pulse. George Floyd died of this mistreatment, murdered in front of witness in the light of day. The four police officers, the murderer and the three standing guard and never challenging him, were, uncharacteristically, summarily fired.

I don’t want to shift the conversation too deeply into statistics because they are always contestable. But, the National Academy of Sciences has conducted a study, adjusted for population, determining that black men are 2.5 more likely to die at the hands of police than white men. African-American women, 1.4 times more likely. According to a 2019 study from Rutgers University, one in a thousand black men, die at the hands of police while for white men, the figure is  39 out of 100,000.

These figures are complicated by the fact that many, many attacks on the police take place, and that true that iatrogenic deaths – deaths from errors made by doctors and nurses and prescriptions – vastly outnumber deaths at the hands of police. In 2019, 1004 Americans died at the hands of police.

This death was particularly compelling, because the man was handcuffed, and moments before videotaped calmly chatting with an officer. He was compliant, so what we witnessed on video was an execution in front of witnesses, being videotaped – while the policeman was being warned by a nurse that he was killing the man and he paid no attention, saying to his victim, “Hey Bro, you want to get up and get in the car now?” Aside from the cruel irony of addressing a man you are choking, as ‘brother’, the office made no motion to get up, and in fact adjusted his weight to get a better purchase on George Floyd’s neck.

African-Americans have been describing such executions for decades, but until cell phones gave us video proof the white majority culture accepted the assurances of policemen routinely. On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed on, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The shooting and the fact that his body was left lying in the middle of the street prompted protests that roiled the area for weeks. On Nov. 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury decided not to indict Mr. Wilson and more trouble ensued, and the Black Lives Matter movement was born.

What I want to discuss about this is its relationship to enlightenment, which, in this talk’s title, I call “seeing the unseen.” What I mean by this is seeing the interconnections, seeing the mutual dependencies. People are often made uncomfortable by political discussions. Politics is the way that people living in groups make decisions. It concerns making agreements between people so that they can live together in groups such as tribes, cities, or countries It is a way of organizing relations between us. Some of them can be corrupt—meaning based on power rather than negotiation and consensus. We are social beings. All relationships must be continually adjusted as power to enforce them shifts.

What  interests me as a teacher and a citizen is: What is and how do we express our responsibility to others? As ethical beings, as spiritual beings?

When we live in a culture where the rights of some citizens are protected equally with our own, and who are being killed 2.5 times more frequently than we are,  isn’t silence a form of consent? Isn’t the absence of protest on the part of the majority a form of toleration of the status quo? If I were black, I would not feel very good about being the citizen of a country where my rights were not respected as equally valuable with everyone else’s. Given repeated attempts to bring the situation to public attention, I might become angry enough to burn a bank.

When the police officers were fired immediately, I wondered, “Why wasn’t the police chief fired? Why wasn’t the man who trained the officers and set the policies fired?” The officer kneeling on George Floyd’s throat had   Then I thought, “Why isn’t the mayor fired?” Derek Chauvin, the officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd had over 17 complaints against him, none of which derailed his career. The bald Asian officer, Tou Thau, has eight violations and complaints on his record. What were the forces protecting these men from disciplinary action.

This is where I arrived with this line of thought: The police are employees. We know that if their employers—the mayors, the boards of supervisors, the county supervisors – if they issued orders to the police that the harassment and murder of black men had to stop or we will jail you, it would have stopped. Full stop.  Since it hasn’t stopped, or even slowed down, I have to assume that the orders have not been given. Then I want to know “Why haven’t they been given?”

 The most logical reason I can think of is that there is a large, silent population of white people who are afraid of or dislike black people. The ones I’ve met who are afraid, explain this fear because they know about the 600 hundred years of injustice, of Jim Crow laws and repression, and dimagine that each and every black male is as homicidally angry as they would be were positions reversed.

So, the silence,—the order to stop not being given—appears to me to be a “dog whistle”. to these fearful white people who are afraid to express their fear or discuss it for fear of being labelled racists. What the silence indicates is the powers-that-be assuring that constituency, “Don’t worry! We’re not going to let them get you. The police show you that you are safe. We’re going to kill black people just to demonstrate to you that you are safe.”

I could be wrong in that analysis. Most white people define racism as an individual being cruel or mean or even impolite to a person of a different race or color. That’s such a convenient definition because it completely hides systems of advantages from which white people profit. We profit from cheaper mortgages, better schools, better healthcare, less anxiety, higher pay, lower unemployment, less incarcerations. Mortgages for black and Latinx people are much more difficult to get and costlier, exacting higher interest. The economic scandal of 2008 demonstrated that pretty clearly and for any who missed it, the Pandemic has made these inequities graphically clear.

Those of us who are white people (and that’s a complex subject. I look white, but my father and grandfathers were Mongolian racial types, and both parents were Jews and subjected to discrimination during my childhood.) Still, I benefit from whiteness and never have to worry if it is okay for me to be in a store. White people don’t have to smile or laugh or put white people at ease. We don’t have to keep our hands in our pockets to show that we’re not stealing anything. We don’t have to be afraid for our lives when we are pulled over on a traffic stop. We benefit from better health care. We live longer. We are jailed less frequently, and we benefit tangibly from a system that penalizes a substantial portion of our neighbors and friends.

 I don’t know if you have black friends, but it doesn’t matter. When we tolerate a system that privileges us and costs them, we are not behaving as citizens who believe in Democracy or the basic equality guaranteed by the Constitution. We are given advantages because of how we look.So, the question is: “What do we do? Do we wait until people are pushed and disregarded and suffocated to the point where they lose it and burn down their own city?” Then we penalize them for their anger—“Cluck, cluck, cluck. How terrible!”

I’ve seen that happen in my lifetime, several times over. I’ve seen the National Guard in the streets of Los Angeles and Detroit. Seen both those cities, and New York and others burning during the Sixties.

The immediate question is: What is the job of police? We call them “law enforcement”. Think about the word “enforcement”. Most people obey the law because the laws are reasonable. Laws are an agreement – a stop sign. It’s an agreement. I’m going to stop because it’s safer to stop.

We could think of police and we could train them to be peace officers rather than a militarized occupying army. We could insist that be their first priority— to ensure the peace. We could insist that verbal de-escalation be the first strategy police turn to unless they are under physical attack.

I’m not a policeman. I don’t train the police officers. But I am a citizen that the police are supposed to protect, and I’m a part of paying the salary that the police recceive.  I don’t have a solution and it’s not my place to invent one and impose it on African Americans and the Police. I do know that unless we become conscious, unless we look at this edge of the moon peeping from the clouds, and remember the full body of the moon behind the clouds, which includes these murders of unarmed black men and women and these inequities from which we benefit, that we are not seeing things as they are. We are not seeing clearly.

To see clearly may not always be pleasant, but you can’t pour a quart into a pint pitcher. The quart is reality, and the pint is our ideas about it.We are going to have an election in November, and no matter who wins, there are going to be millions and millions of disaffected people. Angry and unhappy. That’s not a recipe for a prosperous or a virtuous, or a peaceful nation. That scenario is being writ small in the deaths and disadvantages of black citizens in our Nation. Unarmed black men. Murdered in handcuffs. Shot running away, their deaths captured irrevocably on video.

If we want to live in a peaceful nation, we have to engage with our own political system. If we do nothing, we tacitly support a system that advantages us over our neighbors. We don’t have to engage violently. We don’t have to engage angrily. We can meditate sitting at the site of a murder, or a nuclear power plant. But it is necessary to choose, to make a decision and stand up for it. You have to take a stand, for creating the world you would like to live in. We do that by first imagining it, and then, by acting it out.

In the coming election debates and dialogues…. I get 20 emails a day from Democrats seeking money. I busted my allowance this month, giving money to Democrats and that seems to be all they want from me. In a political system that runs on money, people without money are not going to be considered.

It interests me to notice that in all the ceaseless hours of political discussion on TV, that a taboo esists, where any discussion about full federal funding of elections is never expressed out loud. The wonderful Texas writer Molly Ivins used to explain politics by saying, “You dance with ‘them that brung ya’.”

Our elections are paid for, in the majority, by the one-tenth of 1%--the Nation’s richest individuals and corporations. They fund both parties. This is part of the shadowed moon that we don’t see. I love that Obama raised more small donations than any candidate in history, but I also have to acknowledge that this money only paid for 40% of his campaign. The other 60% was supplied by the one-tenth of 1%, which explains why not a single person from Wall Street or the hedge funds or speculators in derivatives went to jail in 2008. After billions and billions of dollars were reaped from fraudulent mortgages … 6 million people a month were evicted from their homes; not a cent of fines, nor a day in jail spent by those who had put Obama in office.

As citizens, we’ve become increasingly disenfranchised by money and its power. In 1976 in the case of  Buckley v. Valeo, the US Supreme Court equated the giving of money with free speech. In 2010, another court case named after  a conservative group that brought it—Citizen’s United— ruled that any prohibition of spending by  corporations or unions (unequal antagonists) was illegal That tipped the field considerably. The elections were drowned by money and you and I were demoted. If we were going to be strict, we could say that after Citizen’s United, “We don’t live in a democracy any longer, but in a “corporatocracy”.

I mention this because as long as our legislators work for other people, they are not going to listen to citizen’s demands about global warming, nuclear threats, pollution, streets awash with weapons, crime, and incarceration. Their first task is to repay their donors when they get to Washington. It’s been reported that Legislators must spend 5 to 6 hours a day raising money. That means that more than half their time is not dedicated to the people’s business.

I’m going to leave this alone now … but I deeply believe that unless we change the funding of our elections we are simply rearranging “deck chairs on the Titanic.” Inequities will continue. Climate Change will continue. Pollution will continue and the people—we the voters—will be forced to protests and more exagerrated tactics to press our needs.

Until we pay for the legislators, until each candidate gets the same amount of money, until we declare privat donations illegal, and make it illegal for lobbyists to give money and emoluments, we are never going to attract people in office who really want to serve the public good. We are using the language of selflessness to mask extraordinary self-service. Not that all politicians are all dishonest, or  corrupt, but a system like ours, forces everybody to make draconian choices, to struggle with the morality of accepting money you need from people whose aims are antithetical to your own.

This is something we could do something about, because right now my fear is that we can’t do much about the police. Police are not paying attention to people shouting in the streets, any more than Donald Trump is. Waving signs is not doing very much, neither is civil discourse, and so frustrated and angry people raise the stakes.

This is the world that we live in, and if we’re not seriously trying to figure out how we can engage with it in a non-violent, consistent, persistent manner, and how we can amplify the power of compassion and kindness, we are going to have to create a system that is not organized around money. Media giants, and highly paid commentators are not going to like this any more than captains of industry. People with money who are used to buying political influence are not going to like it either. Wealth can buy a great deal, but it doesn’t create a harmonious culture. It doesn’t make the streets safe. If I were a black mother or father and had sons, I’d be scared every time they left the house. What does it mean for me to be comfortable, while my black and latino neighbors are scared to death? My Latin neighbors in Northern California who have lived  and worked here paying taxes for over 25 years, receiving no benefits because of their illegal status,  are afraid that one trifling car accident could cause them to be  deported? What does it mean for me to be comfortable, and pursue my own spiritual development? To be calm and gentle and generous, while so much anxiety and injustice is coursing through my country?

So, I j wanted to pose those questions for each of us to adress in their own way. I’m not a political guru, but I am laying out the interconnections and hidden dimensions in a way that I don’t often discussed. Enlightenment highlights those connections. It’s not that some of us are spiritual and some of us are not or some are good and some are not. We’re all attached. My fate depends on everyone.

Myself, I find it painful and humiliating to be afforded privileges by people who persecute my neighbors; To be afforded privileges by people who put Latino infants and children in cages. I can’t do that well. So, I’m preoccupied with trying tounderstand, “What is my responsibility as a thoughtful person?” I’d like to think of myself as a good person. There are plenty of people who know me well, who will say, “The verdict’s not in.” I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life.But at my age now, I’m single-mindedly trying build a world that my granddaughter will be safe in. And healthy. My granddaughter is 14 now. When she is 40 there will be 35% less oxygen in the world. It will be like living at 12000 feet.

Why is that?

Because the political system is controlled by money. And controlled by the products we buy, and our own difficulties in giving up indulgences.

As Bob Dylan sang years ago, “Let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.”

Thank you very much for showing up.

I’ll do my little 3-line prayer. If you don’t know it by now, you can try it anyway.


May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

[bell] Thank you very much for being here today. [gassho]