“Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.”
From The Moon in a Dewdrop; writings of Zen Master Dogen.
Translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi
I’ve been mentioning enlightenment without defining what I mean. Although its generally taken as having achieved some “saint-like” state, the actual characteristics seem to vary considerably in different traditions. The above description from Zen, “The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken,” sounds to me like the Zen equivalent of what Maharishi called “Cosmic Consciousness” or the first stage of an enlightened consciousness. More precisely, he described it as having the ability to maintain transcendental consciousness (an awareness cultivated during mediation) along with the ability to be moving about in daily activity. Practically, this means that one perceives the self as Self- the capital S referring to the realization that the true self is Unbounded Silence, an Infinite of Pure Consciousness- and “I” am thus no longer really a teacher, doctor, parent, homemaker.
The awareness of Silence gives rise to a feeling of separateness or witnessing. It was this Silence that descended upon me in the midst of turning to a friend to share a joke. Boom! Silence was everywhere. I could no longer identified with any “thing” out there in the world. I watched it all from an immovable silence and unbridgeable distance: “The moon does not get wet” – the world cannot penetrate the Silence. “Nor is the water broken.” – nothing has the power to move that which is already infinite and immovable. Not even one’s thoughts.
I recall taking a walk, back Then- in the Silence. I moved very slowly. Moving was exhausting. Eckhardt Tolle writes of having his awakening and then simply sitting on a park bench for six months. I can see why. One has lost the impulse to move. Physiologically you have adapt to your nervous system functioning in a manner that was previously experienced only in the deepest meditation.
And how do you meditate? Sit down, close eyes, don’t move…. Don’t even breathe. Now, I had to walk. And it was hard! But as I did, eyes focused on the black top road, I realized that my thoughts were no longer part of my Self. My thoughts were like small, hard rubber balls ricocheting off the blacktop of my Self; as separate from my Self as my feet were from road. “The moon can not get wet.” Even my thoughts are not my Self.
Maharishi described this step in Self realization as being accomplished by the intellect. It is an act on intellectual discrimination that separates Self from non-Self. Most people find it a rather lonely process and somewhat uncomfortable. There is simply this “gap” between Me and all Creation. And while I feel Real, viewed from across the gap, the material world now seems quiet unreal. Early on, people complained to Maharish and he introduced “advanced techniques”- different ways to meditate so that one did not transcend as quickly. S ettling into the depths at a slower rate gave the mind the opportunity to become familiar with subtler levels of perception and just the gap was not as stark.
This “rate of transcending” and cultivation of subtler levels of perception seems to me to be the essence of different paths and techniques, and may ultimately give rise to the difference in the qualities or experiences described as “enlightened.” In fact, the differences are so wide (even within the TM tradition) that Maharishi outlined three stages or states of enlightenment. As Cosmic Consciousness ripens one progresses to God Consciousness- an awareness of Creation in terms of God and finally, after time Unity Consciousness.
“In Unity Consciousness either I drop off or God drops off. Out of respect we say, I drop off.” Maharishi
Different traditions describe this final step as either annihilation or expansion of the ego. Buddhists tend to annihilate. Vedantists tend to expand. Buddhists describe the Absolute as Nothingness. Vedantists refer to it as the Source of All. I think these differences arise not from differences in the Truth, but rather how each individual nervous system is trained and cultivated to perceive. Though reviews of meditation lump the physiological finding into one “physiology of meditation,” if you read the research on brain physiology, it is clear that different types of meditation activate different areas of the brain.
In his book, Naam or Word, Kirpal Singh relates a story from Buddhism, the Surangama Sutra, where the Lord is sitting in Heaven surrounding by Bodhisattvas and Arhats. The Lord is inquiring as to how each enlightened being first experienced their enlightenment. He asks:
“…of the eighteen spheres of mentation in contact with objects by the sense organs…which of the spheres first became thoroughly enlightened, by means of which you attained Samadhi?”
One reply is, “… by means of development of my sense of hearing… I am conscious of the Transcendental Sound of the Dharma reverberating like the roar of a lion.” Or as I experienced, Silence crashed upon me.
Here, I think we have some indication of the many paths and varied physiology that may be involved in becoming enlightened. Note, there are 18 spheres of mentation because there are six “senses”: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, as well as cognition (not a skill we usually attribute to a sense). The six senses are then multiplied by 3 since each sense involves the trinity of experience: experiencer, process of experience, object of experience- or in this case for example: an organ of sight, the consciousness or experience of sight, and the object of sight.
It Changes Everything: In the Twinkling of an Eye
Compared to God Consciousness or Unity, simply witnessing the Self as separate from Activity (as happens in Cosmic Consciousness) seems a minor accomplishment. People even complain when coming to the state. Yet, Cosmic Consciousness changes everything- for it requires living complete paradox. Maharishi even warns that people can be totally confused if not intellectually prepared:
“As the practice ... advances, one begins to feel one’s Self as separate from activity. This experience brings with it a feeling of confusion. One finds oneself active and yet inwardly one feels somewhat aloof from activity. Doubts begin to arise in the mind, and the intellect seeks an explanation…Without proper understanding, even direct experience of eternal freedom may be found to create confusion and fear… in this state he fails to live Being fully, fails to possess the Self in Its full glory and grace.”
I had my first glimpse of this vision when I was about nine. I was walking home from school with my older sister, Sandy, when I noticed a large oak tree. Its trunk, the entire tree, plainly were not real. Suddenly, to my eyes what was Real was an invisible, Nothingness out of which the tree arose. The whole situation was clearly impossible. I was “seeing” Nothing. The Nothing penetrated everything material around me like some invisible ocean. And somehow from out of this three dimensional Nothingness Ocean, the tree sprang into existence. The tree was like some movie, merely projection, and not real. What was Real was the Nothing. I t was so strange and so obvious. I turned to Sandy and started telling her the news. My efforts were rewarded with a quick slap and, “Stop it! Don’t talk crazy.”
It was years before I could explain that experience satisfactorily to myself. I had to hear about Cosmic Consciousness. I had to hear about paradox and the integration of opposites. I had to hear the phrase, “Reality is different in different states of consciousness.” A statement I am still digging into; isn’t Reality that which doesn’t change?
Once, to encourage those who disliked meditating all day, Maharishi told us just to sit and sit again, for “you never know when the last stress will go.” (To him, it is stress or abnormalities in the nervous system that prevent enlightenment.) I did not believe him. I thought it was a trick to keep the itchy meditating. I thought that enlightenment was slipped into the way you might lower yourself into a hot bath. The process was… S... L…O…W… I still believe this, given the physiological changes required by the purification of “unstressing.” But on the other hand, there I’d been leaning over to tell a joke. So does enlightenment happen gradually or in a moment?
There is a phrase in Handel’s Messiah, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Actually, it’s from First Corinthians and the complete libretto runs like this:
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption.”
There it is, with all the elements. Perhaps this is the Christian rapture. But, it can also describe enlightenment.
How is it we awaken? It can happen in a moment; “In the twinkling of an eye,” as the trumpet of Silence sounds. We are raised from the field of death and the ever changing Relative. We are raised to the Absolute, Non-changing field of pure existence, and purified.
And it is still a mystery. A mystery some have simply attributed to Grace.