Practice and Enlightenment

In Zen, like in the arts, skill and inspiration need to go together. Without training in the craft, you won’t be able to make a good painting. Yet without inspiration you won’t create a real work of art. So it comes as no surprise that Dogen Zenji emphasizes over and over again that enlightenment needs to be realized and practiced, that practice and enlightenment are one. Still, it is easy to forget. Some may believe that a sudden flash of inspiration will immediately bring about a fully mature Buddha, while others may humbly hope that diligent practice by itself will slowly ripen into realization. Or, realization may be taken out of the equation altogether since the scriptures claim we’re all enlightened to begin with.

In many of the fine arts the element of craft has gone missing. Today, it’s the idea that counts; the rest is mere ‘technique.’ Yet without the magic that occurs when an artist disappears in the material during the actual creative process, inspiration doesn’t get grounded and the artwork will not touch us. It may raise our interest, but we won’t be moved. I think the same is true in Zen practice. Without the grounding quality of zazen, koan training, bowing, chanting, alive study of the scriptures and sharing some of our daily life with a teacher and fellow students, even great realization may keep floating in the air and never prompt us to find our true function in life. Conversely, without a direct experience of enlightenment, on whatever level, our functioning will lack creative inspiration.

There is still another way that practice and enlightenment can be appreciated. Enlightenment is the enlightenment of everything and everyone; suddenly the whole world shines in all its timeless beauty. And it becomes apparent that this whole world has always been shining; there never has been any separation between buddhas and sentient beings. Our delusion was illusionary, like an imagined flower in the sky. In reality, throughout space and time, we have always been buddhas. It’s just that in this life we are practicing delusion and some of us happen to be very good at it!

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