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There’s a common cultural image of enlightenment: Someone struggles up a steep mountain, finally makes it to the top and finds a bearded Buddhist sage meditating quietly. If it’s a serious image, the sage shares words of wisdom. If it’s something not so serious, say, a TV commercial, the ersatz wise man may spout off a smooth sales spiel.

For this discussion, let’s just focus on the serious side. Most people use the term “enlightenment” for the state of attaining the Buddhist spiritual knowledge that totally frees you from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth.

As my Zen teacher Taiken Yokoyama Roshi pointed out in a recent talk, though, the word “enlightenment” carries a sense of going from one level to a higher level. Because the actual process is more a total change in perspective – a realization – and not going to a higher level, it’s thus perhaps not the best word to use.

Most of us look outward at reality with our six senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and intellect. Only if we work hard enough do we learn that we can only discover Reality by turning inward.

Yes, all that time you thought you were seeing things right-side up, you were in fact upside down. It is only now that you are finally seeing the world as it truly is. (Remember, we’re talking perception here, not physics.)

Like the moon that continues to shine behind the night clouds, let the winds blow the clouds away. Suddenly we see the clear light of the full moon – and all that it illuminates.

It isn’t book knowledge that we seek to gain. What we want is to strip away the layers that we’ve built around us that keep us from seeing, that keep the light from reaching us.

The 180-degree turn is that “realization.”

How do you begin this process of realization?

Well, the first step is having a question about Life. Zen master Omori Sogen Rotaishi once observed that to go through life as a human being and not have doubts and questions is a waste of life. How true.

So, here are two questions for you to ponder if you wish to start the process: Who are you? And, more importantly, who is it that’s asking that question?


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