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Spiritual Enlightenment: by Soyen Shaku

"Talking about enlightenment is like trying to scratch the itch on your foot through a shoe." Philip Kapleau, Roshi

Spiritual Enlightenment: by Soyen Shaku

There are many characteristic points of divergence between religion and philosophy, though they have so much in common that some scholars, broadly speaking, take religion for practical philosophy and philosophy for speculative religion. The difference between the two, however, is not merely that of practicability and theorization. It is, in my judgment, more deeply rooted and fundamental. What is it, then? I believe that that which makes religion what it is in contradistinction to philosophy or ethics consists in the truth that it is essentially founded on facts of one's own spiritual experience, which is beyond intellectual demonstrability and which opens a finite mind to the light of universal effulgence. In short, spiritual enlightenment is indispensable in religion, while philosophy is mere intellection.

By spiritual enlightenment I mean a man's becoming conscious through personal experience of the ultimate nature of his inner being. This insight breaks as it were the wall of intellectual limitation and brings us to a region which has been hitherto concealed from our view. The horizon is now so widened as to enable our spiritual vision to survey the totality of existence. As long as we groped in the darkness of ignorance, we could not go beyond the threshold of individuation; we could not recognize the presence of a light whose most penetrating rays reveal all the mysteries of nature and mind. The spirit has found that the light is shining within itself even in its fullest glory, that it even partakes something of this universal light, that it blundered miserably in seeking its own ground outside of itself, that "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, which is, and which was, and which is to come," is no more nor less than itself. And it is through this kind of enlightenment only that we fully satisfy our inmost spiritual yearnings and groanings. Without this, religion loses its significance, becoming merely an applied philosophy or system of metaphysics.

The enlightenment which thus constitutes the basis of the religious life is altogether spiritual and not intellectual. The intellect in its very nature is relative and cannot transcend its own limitations. It is dualistic no matter how high it may take a flight. It always needs an object with which to deal, and it never identifies itself with it, for it cannot do so without destroying itself. There must be the "I" and the "not-I" whenever intellection takes place. Self-alienation or keeping itself aloof from the object on which it exercises itself is the raison d'etre of intellect, being its strongest as well as its weakest point. Its strongest point is seen in science and philosophy, while its weakest point is revealed in religion. For religion needs a synthetic faculty by which it can comprehend the realm of particulars, the realm of constant strivings and eternal contradictions. Religion wants to understand and preserve life as it is found, and not to "dissect and murder" it as is done by the intellect. Religion wants to see and not to demonstrate; to grasp directly with her own hands and not to rely upon a medium; to see intuitively and not discursively. What is therefore asked for by a religious spirit is fact and not representation, enlightenment and not reflection; and this will be supplied by no amount of speculation and imagination. We must advance one step further beyond the limits and boldly plunge into the abysmal depths of the Unknowable.

Can a mortal being with his limited consciousness have an insight into a field without its ken? No; as long as he relies solely upon his intellectual faculty, he is forever barred from so doing. For the intellect is really superficial and cannot penetrate through spatial and temporal relations, nor can she free herself from the bondage of logical sequence; and therefore the inner life of our being is altogether unknown to the intellect. We cannot be said to know an object thoroughly by merely becoming familiar with all its attributes, qualities, potentialities, and what not.

All these can be understood through the senses and the reasoning faculty. There yet remains a certain feature of the object, the knowledge of which alone completes our understanding of it. Philosophy and science have done a great deal for the advancement of our knowledge of the universe, and there is a fair prospect of their further service for this end. But they are constitutionally incapable of giving rest, bliss, joy, and faith to a troubled spirit; for they do not provide us with a complete knowledge of existence, and are unable to lay bare the secrets of life.. What they teach concerns the shell and husk of reality. In order to satisfy fully our religious yearnings we must not stop short at this; we must appeal to a different faculty, which will reveal to us the inmost life of the universe.

Fortunately, we are in possession of this peculiar faculty which might be called the religious sense, and through the exercise of which we come to realize the significance of our existence. How unbearable life would be, if we were not allowed to have this religious faculty and yet we had to raise those spirit-harassing questions which could not be solved by logic!

The faculty seems to have all the essential characteristics of the feeling. It is intuitive and does not analyze; it is direct and refuses a medium of any form. It allows no argument, it merely states, and its statement is absolute. When it says "yes," the affirmation has such a convincing force as to remove all doubts, and even skeptically disposed intellectual minds have to admit it as a fact and not a whim. It speaks as one with authority. True, it has only a subjective value, which, however, is just as ultimate and actual as sense-perception. Being immediate, there is no other way to test its validity than that each experience it personally, individually, and inwardly. The sun is risen on the horizon and all that have eyes see it and harbor not the shadow of a doubt as to its presence there. The inner sense which I have called religious faculty makes us feel the inmost life that is running through every vein and every artery of nature; and we are completely free from skepticism, unrest, dissatisfaction, and vexation of spirit. We never try to raise a doubt about the true nature of the feeling and ask ourselves whether it is merely a phenomenon of mental aberration or due to a calenture of the brain. We simply feel, and nothing more or less is to be asserted or denied. And this is what constitutes spiritual enlightenment.

Mere talking about or mere believing in the existence of God and his infinite love is nonsense as far as religion is concerned. Talking and arguing belong to philosophy, and believing in its ordinary sense is a sort of hypothesis, not necessarily supported by facts. Religion, however, wants above everything else solid facts and actual personal experience. If God exists, he must be felt. If he is love, it must be experienced and become the fact of one's inmost life. Without spiritual enlightenment, all is an idle talk, like a bubble which vanishes under the least pressure. Without the awakening of the religious sense or faculty, God is a shadow, the soul a ghost, and life a dream. In Buddhism this faculty is known as Prajna.

If we distinguish faith from knowledge, the latter can be understood as simply intellectual, while the former is intuition gained through the exercise of the Prajna. In knowledge subject and object coexist and condition each other; in faith they become one, there is identity only and no mutuality. Transcending the reciprocity of the "I" and the "not-I," the Prajna beholds the universe in its ultimate oneness and feels all forms of life in their essential sameness. It knows that the impulse it feels is the quickening spirit of all existence, and that the pulsation of sympathy which beats in response to ooutside stimuli is the source of universal animation. Why? Because the Prajna feels so by reason of its own constitution.

The dictates of the Prajna are final and there is no higher faculty in our consciousness to annul them. Faith is absolute within its own limits and the office of the intellect is to explain or interpret it objectively. Speaking religiously, faith is fact and has to be reckoned with as such. It is only when it wants to express itself that intellection comes in, and individual culture or personal equation makes itself felt. To a great extent, I feel that differences or quarrels among the so-called religionists concerning their confession of faith are due to personal differences in esthetic taste, intellectual calibre, and the influence of environment, while the fact of faith as such remains fundamentally the same with Christians, Buddhists, or Taoists. As everybody endowed with sentiency feels the ice cold and the fire warm, so what the Prajna sees or feels in its inmost being must be universally the same. God, Allah, Dharmakaya, Tao, Holy Ghost, Brahma, and what not, are a mere verbal quibbling over the same fact which is felt in the deepest depths of our being. The inner reason of things which creates or destroys the three thousand worlds in the same breath must be smiling at the human trifling over naught.

Spiritual enlightenment must not be confused with trance, a state of consciousness in which there is nothing but blankness. Those who have had no spiritual experience or who have not come to recognize in the awakening of Prajna something altogether unique in our subjective life-phenomena frequently speak of enlightenment as an abnormal psychical condition, and try to explain it under the same category as hallucination, somnambulism, selfsuggestion, and the like. But the fact is that enlightenment is not a special psychic state which excludes or suppresses the ordinary exercise of other mental faculties. Enlightenment goes and must go along with all psychological phenomena. If enlightenment is to be gained through the suspension of mentation, religion is false and faith is barren. Enlightenment is enlightenment because it enlightens all our motives, desires, whims, determinations, impulses, thoughts, etc. It does not stand separate from other states of consciousness, sending its commands from a certain vantage ground. In an enlightened mind a feeling or thought as it occurs is purified and free from the taints of ignorance and egotism. Enlightenment is constant and not sporadic. It permeates every mental fibre and works without rest. It is not something extraordinary that takes place by fits and starts. Spiritual enlightenment sheds light on the very reason of consciousness, for it is not a particular event of our psychical life.

When a Buddhist scholar was asked what was the Path, he answered, "The normal state of mind." In other words, spiritual enlightenment consists in following the natural course of human activity, for the enlightened find the ultimate reason of existence in their desire to drink or to eat according to their natural appetite, in their sympathy for the misery and suffering which are endured by the ignorant masses, in their aspiration to fathom the mysteries of nature and life, in their ever-assiduous attempt to realize the ideals of lovingkindness and universal brotherhood on this earth, in their ever-varying devices to let each creation fulfill its inherent mission and rest in its reason of existence. The religiously ignorant behave outwardly just as the enlightened, for as far as intellect and morals go there is no manifested difference between the ignorant and the enlightened. But, spiritually speaking, there is a wide gap dividing them, because one knows what he is striving after while the other is blindly feeling his way, and again because one finds an unspeakable bliss in all his doings and thinkings and feelings, while the other labors under a peculiar sensation of uneasiness and compulsion which he cannot well define but feels at the bottom of his heart.

A person may be very learned in all things, and his philosophical knowledge may be very profound. He has studied all the ancient lore of wisdom, and has even formulated his own system of metaphysics in which he has incorporated all the results of his erudition and speculation. But from the religious point of view he is yet far from enlightenment, for his study is like that of the artist who has painted a dragon and forgot to put the eyes in. His elaborate delineation and coloring in various hues of this huge mystic animal have miserably failed to produce the effect desired and attempted, for the eyes are blank and show no trace of the fiery animation which is possessed by the monster. The scholar has neglected the most important factor that is absolutely necessary in making up the complete knowledge of the universe. He thought that he knew everything under the sun when he exercised his intellectual power to its full extent and considered existence from all the possible standpoints which his understanding could grasp. But, as I stated before, the knowledge of an object is not complete unless its inner life or reason is felt; in other words, unless the duality of a knowing mind and a known object vanishes, and life is comprehended as it is and not in its intellectual mutilation. Buddhism says that even a blade of grass trembling in the evening breeze cannot be known so long as we cling to this form of individuation and are unable to merge our particular selves with the self of grass. Buddha, it is reported, once brought a flower before an assemblage of his disciples and showed it to them without any comments whatever, and the entire congregation was bewildered what to make of this strange behavior on the part of their master, except Kashyapa, who, thoroughly understanding the import of this incident, softly smiled and nodded. Thereupon the Buddha solemnly proclaimed, "I am in possession of the Eye which penetrates into the depths of the Dharma and the mysteries of Nirvana. I now give it to thee, 0 Kashyapa, that thou mayest guard it well." What sort of eye could it have been which was transmitted from Buddha to Kashyapa and which made the latter comprehend something incomprehensible in the flower in Buddha's hand?

In this we see the discrepancy between philosophy and religion more and more accentuated. It is sufficient for philosophy to know, but religion demands more than that. When the existence or non-existence of God is proved, philosophers are satisfied, for they have made the utmost use of the intellect, which is their sole weapon of attack and defense. In fact, they sometimes show a disposition to deride those who disagree with them. But as long as there is some unutterable yearning in the human heart for something more real, more vital, more tangible than mere abstraction, mere knowing, and mere "proving," we must conclude that our consciousness, however fractional, is capable of coming in touch with the inmost life of things in another way than intellection. The existence of Prajna, the organ of spiritual insight, therefore, is admitted by Buddhism, and their religious discipline is directed towards the awakening of this faculty, which is rightly designated "the mother of all Buddhas," and "the sharpest sword that cuts ignorance and egotism."

But one must not imagine that there is consciousness, there is Prajna, and there is enlightenment. In point of fact, they are all one simultaneous act of the universal reason. We speak of them as if they were three different things: the sentient being is endowed with consciousness, and this consciousness has the faculty to become acquainted with its own reason of existence, and the resultant mental state constitutes what is called spiritual enlightenment. Intellectually, this distinction of course is inevitable, but as a man actually experiences it, the only fact he is conscious of is that he is, not as a particular being separate from others, but as simply existing and living. Buddhist scholars call this exalted state of spirituality cunyata = emptiness, or canti = tranquillity, or samadhi = contemplation.

A few words may not be amiss here to explain these terms, which have been frequently misunderstood by the outsider. "Emptiness" may suggest a deprivation of all mental operations as in the trance, and "tranquillity" a dormant, sleeping, or "not-yet-awakened" state of mentality, while "contemplation" tends to indicate a withdrawal or suspension of all psychical functions; thus making spiritual enlightenment a synonym of death or annihilation. Such misinterpretations as these, however, ever prove the inherent onesidedness of the understanding and consequently its inability to lead us to the final abode of eternal reason which has really "noabode." Buddhists use the term "emptiness" to describe the "deep things of Gods' which are absolute and not relative. For when we say, "he is," it may be taken as meaning that he is as we individuals are.

By "All is empty, quiet, and abiding in eternal contemplation," Buddhists understand that the ultimate reason of the universe as manifested in all forms of animation and intelligence knows no disturbance, no commotion, no transgression, in the midst of all the stirring-up and moving-on of this phenomenal world. This, again, I have to state, guarding against misapprehension, does not mean that there is something within each existence which like the axle of a wheel or like the kernel of a seed forms its central part and remains quiet or alive even when the peripheral parts are whirling around or going to decay. Buddhism most emphatically condemns this sort of dualism as heretical and evil-breeding. The ultimate reason is absolutely quiet when it is moving on; it is perfectly empty when it is filled to the brim; it is eternally one when it is differentiating itself into myriads; it has no abode whatever where it finds itself located, housed, and roomed. And there is nothing paradoxical or enigmatic in this statement; it is plain as daylight and simple as the logical axiom a = a. But to realize its truth one must be spiritually enlightened, must go beyond the narrow limits of intellection, must drink directly from the well of eternal vitality and find out personally how it tastes, bitter or sweet.

Let philosophers and theologians say whatever they wish concerning the existence, nature, and activity of God; let them speculate as much as they wish on the theology of the universe and the destiny of mankind and many other abstruse problems of metaphysics; but let you who earnestly aspire to know what this life really means turn away from those wise men and reflect within, or look around yourselves with an open heart which watches and receives, and all the mysteries of the world will be revealed to you in the awakening of your Prajna.

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