Buddhists Call Awakening ‘Enlightenment’

The Three Pillars of ZenOne of the first western books about spiritual awakening experiences was “The Three Pillars of Zen,” written in 1965 by Roshi Philip Kapleau. The second half of Kapleau’s book is dedicated to describing the enlightenment experiences of eight modern-day people who had all practiced Zen meditation.

The first description is the experience of a Japanese business executive who literally “awoke” in the middle of the night. “All at once I was struck as though by lightning, and the next instant heaven and earth crumbled and disappeared,” he said. “Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight.” After two days of weeping for joy and laughing, he concludes his account with, “I am grateful, so grateful.”

Kapleau describes his own initial awakening experience, as well. His account begins with his intense psychological suffering. “So miserable wish I had the guts to end it all,” he wrote in his diary in 1953. In his desperation, he sells all his possessions, quits his job and moves to Japan, searching for he knows not what through Buddhism.

His first Zen meditation experience is funny and oh so true, “Sat – no, wriggled – wordlessly for two miserable hours in dark hall….Concentration impossible, thoughts chasing each other like a pack of monkeys…Excruciating pain in legs, back, and neck…Desperately want to quit.”

More than five years later, after living the harsh austerities of Zen Buddhist monasteries, Kapleau sits before his teacher and has this experience:

“All at once the roshi, the room, every single thing disappeared in a dazzling stream of illumination and I felt myself bathed in a delicious, unspeakable delight…For a fleeting eternity I was alone – I alone was…Then the roshi swam into view. Our eyes met and flowed into each other, and we burst out laughing.”

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