Zen Enlightenment

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
The satori (enlightenment) experience can be radically life-transforming and the “enlightened” individual may rarely be the same person afterwards.


Zen Enlightenment

There are five schools of Zen; however, the two most prominent are the Rinzai and the Soto. The others are the Ummon, the Ikyo and the Hogen schools. The Rinzai stresses very sudden illumination, the use of koans and various “teaching” methods of the Roshi, such as striking a novice. The Soto school of Dogen stresses gradual enlightenment, “no” use of koans and is more gentle. It consists of five stages. [1]

Lin-chi’s (Rinzai’s) own enlightenment under the tutelage of Huang Po no doubt influenced his own particular screeching and hitting methods:

When he had been for three years in the Obaku school he approached the Master personally and asked what was the essential truth in Buddha’s teaching, all he got was twenty blows with a stick. He went to another Master, Daigu (Tayu), who told him that Obaku had given him the correct treatment for his enlightenment, and further emphasized the matter by roughly manhandling Rinzai’s throat and subjecting him to harsh words. This time Rinzai hit back, striking Daigu in the ribs. Nevertheless, he had suddenly become enlightened. Next, Rinzai went back to Obaku to tell him what had happened, but the Master only threatened him with more and gave him a slap in the face, whereupon Obaku gave way to great laughter and roared out the meaningless shout “Katsu.”[2]

It is the Rinzai school that has attracted the attention of most Americans. Its most prominent representative is D. T. Suzuki. While the Rinzai and Soto sects are ostensibly distinct, a given Zen master could have various elements of either (or any) school. For example, Yasutani Roshi utilizes both Rinzai and Soto in his own system.[3] “By no means, then, is the koan system confined to the Rinzai sect as many believe. Yasutani Roshi is only one of a number of Soto masters who use koans in their teaching…. Even Dogen himself… disciplined himself in koan Zen for eight years before going to China and practicing shikan-taza [his meditative discipline].” [4]

Zazen (Meditation)

It is sometimes argued that zazen is not meditation, although it clearly is. The student sits still in an erect posture, utilizes proper breathing techniques and chants Buddhist sutras while concentrating to induce mental and spiritual transformation. Occult powers are often the eventual result. [5] Zazen does not create Buddhahood; it merely uncovers the eternally existing Buddha nature or Reality (Only Mind):

Thus breathing becomes a vehicle of spiritual experience, the mediator between body and mind. It is the first step towards the transformation of the body from the state of a more or less passively and unconsciously functioning physical organ into a vehicle or tool of a perfectly developed and enlightened mind…. The process of breathing is the connecting link between conscious and subconscious, gross material and fine-material, volitional and non-volitional functions…. The uniqueness of zazen lies in this: that the mind is freed from bondage to all thought-forms, visions, objects, and imaginings, however sacred or elevating, and brought to a state of absolute emptiness, from which alone it may one day perceive its own true nature, or the nature of the universe.[6]

Zazen stresses the awakening experience (satori) and its integration into daily life. Because it is about the “state of absolute emptiness” it is accorded absolute value. “Zazen is more than just a means to enlightenment or a technique for sustaining and enlarging it, but it is the actualization of our True-nature. Hence it has absolute value.” [7]

Zen practice also involves lectures by the Master (jodo) and personal interviews with him (sanzen). Roshis also supervise meditation periods. While many novices are at first excited to be on the path of enlightenment, few indeed realize what will be required of them. As with non-biblical forms of religious meditation generally, Zen meditation can be costly. For example, consider what happens to the following tormented soul, bravely doing his best. He is meditating on the famous koan “Mu”:

At last the gods are with me! Now I can’t miss satori!… Mu, Mu, Mu!… Again roshi leaned over but only to whisper: “You are panting and disturbing the others, try to breathe quietly.”… But I can’t stop. My heart’s pumping wildly, I’m trembling from head to toe, tears are streaming down uncontrollably…. Godo cracks me but I hardly feel it. He whacks my neighbor and I suddenly think: “Why’s he so mean, he’s hurt¬ing him.”… More tears…. Godo returns and clouts me again and again, shouting: “Empty your mind of every single thought, become like a baby again. Just Mu, Mu! right from your guts!”—crack, crack, crack!… Abruptly I lose control of my body and, still conscious, crumple into a heap…. Roshi and Godo pick me up, carry me to my room and put me to bed…. I’m still panting and trembling…. Roshi anxiously peers into my face, asks: “You all right, you want a doctor?”… “No, I’m all right I guess.”…

“This ever happen to you before?”… “No, never.”… “I congratulate you!”… “Why, have I got satori?”… Roshi brings me a jug of tea, I drink five cups…. No sooner does he leave than all at once I feel my arms and legs and trunk seized by an invisible force and locked in a huge vice which slowly begins closing…. Spasms of torment like bolts of electricity shoot through me and I writhe in agony…. I feel as though I’m being made to atone for my own and all mankind’s sins….

Am I dying or becoming enlightened?… Sweat’s streaming from every pore and I have to change my underclothing twice…. At last I fall into a deep sleep. [8]

The Koan

Koans are nonsense riddles or stories whose goal involves the restructuring of mental perception to open the mind to “truth” to help it achieve satori. Koans are designed to “attack” the mind, to dismantle its reason, logic, history, ordinary consciousness and duality until it finally “breaks down” and perceives an alternate reality, the monistic perception that Zen considers reality. “Koans are so phrased that they deliberately throw sand into our eyes to force us to open our Mind’s eye and see the world and everything in it without distortion…. The import of every koan is the same; that the world is one interdependent Whole and that each separate one of us is that Whole.” [9]

Looking at the world logically, morally, reasonably or scientifically must be discarded, for only then can one experience true “freedom”:

This fundamental overthrowing is necessary in order to build up a new order of things on the basis of Zen experiences…. The koan… is only intended to synthesize or transcend… the dualism of the senses. So long as the mind is not free to perceive a sound produced by one hand [clapping] it is limited and is divided against itself. Instead of grasping the key to the secrets of creation, the mind is hopelessly buried in the relativity of things, and, therefore, in their superficiality.[10]

Again, one cannot help but appreciate the irony of Zen enlightenment. Each one of the 1700 or so koans has a “classic” answer, and the poor, unenlightened disciples who “reason” with them—often intermittently beaten with a stick—must try to find it. Koans however are not “solved” by reason or intellect, and hence can only be “solved” by recourse to a “deeper” level of mind. Further, to be hit with the stick “does not necessarily mean that the pupil is wrong”; he may be struck “to confirm the disciple’s correct interpretation.” [11]

Ernest Becker was the author of the seminal, Pulitzer prize-winning The Denial of Death. In Zen: A Rational Critique he described a number of Zen characteristics: “[Zen is] a technique by which to achieve a mental breakdown of people so that they can be made to accept a new ideology”; Satori, its enlightenment: “the final critical collapse under the accumulative pressures of stress” and “a piling up of intellectual frustration that leads to the crumbling of the edifice of logical thought”; and the koan, Zen’s riddles: “childish dependence upon magical omnipotence” and “a submission to the master’s psychological dominance.” [12]

The following are some typical koans, the most famous of which is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

When your mind is not dwelling on the dualism of good and evil what is your original face before you were born? [13]

Q. What is Buddha?

A. The cat is climbing the post.[14]

Q. Where is emptiness?

A. It is like a Persian tasting red pepper.[15]

Q. Who is Buddha?

A. Three measures of flax.[16]

Q. Does a dog have the Buddha-nature?

A. Wu (nothing). [17]

The Bible, of course, has its own form of “koans,” so to speak—pithy sayings intended to lead to spiritual wisdom. With no disrespect intended to Zen masters, we think meditation on the biblical proverbs is more enlightening than the koans. We note a biblical “koan” or two: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:4-5).


Satori or enlightenment involves the realization of truth that was present all along. “To come to Self-realization you must directly experience yourself and the universe as one…. You must let go of logical reasoning and grasp the real thing!”[18] It is the final “psychological” state where everything, paradoxically, “‘logically’ makes sense.” It is a state, one would think, where duality is no longer because one realizes and perceives oneness. But in fact, in satori there is neither duality nor oneness; there is only the Void. Suzuki points out that in enlightenment there is no longer even the One:

Even when Zen indulges in intellection, it never subscribes to a pantheistic interpretation of the world. For one thing, there is no One in Zen. If Zen ever speaks of the One as if it recognized it, this is a kind of condescension to common parlance. To Zen students, the One is the All and the All is the One; and yet the One remains the One and the All the All. “Not two!” may lead the logician to think, “It is One.” But the master would go on saying, “Not One either.” “What then?” we may ask. We here face a blind alley, as far as verbalism is concerned.[19]

Satori is thus ineffable. Zenists stress satori is an indescribable experience, one that mere words are impotent to explain; hence it can only be experienced. Once achieved, one’s previous worldview is radically and often permanently changed into harmony with the Zen worldview. Although Zen meditation is undoubtedly the ultimate cause, satori itself may have a nonspecific causation; for example, any stimuli may “set it off,” and for no apparent reason. The mind is apparently “on the brink” at this point, so broken down that even the slightest stimulation can set satori in motion.[20] Satori may also be accompanied by physiological phenomena, trembling, tears, sweating, energy phenomena or possession. And it is mentally hazardous. People have permanently lost their minds through Zen.

Examples of Enlightenment

The satori experience can be radically life-transforming and the “enlightened” individual may rarely be the same person afterwards. For example, the poor soul we quoted earlier is still “mu-ing,” but now he has realized the truth:

“Mu’d” silently in temple garden till clock struck one…. Rose to exercise stiff, aching legs, staggered into a nearby fence. Suddenly I realized: the fence and I are one formless wood-and-flesh Mu. Of course…. Vastly energized by this… pushed on till the 4 A.M. gong…. Threw myself into Mu for another nine hours with such utter absorption that I completely vanished…. I didn’t eat breakfast, mu did. I didn’t sweep and wash the floors after breakfast, mu did. I didn’t eat lunch, Mu ate…. “The universe is One,” he [the Roshi] began, each word tearing into my mind like a bullet. “The moon of Truth”—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…. “I have it! I know! There is nothing, absolutely nothing. I am everything and everything is nothing!” I exclaimed more to myself than to the roshi, and got up and walked out…. I resumed by zazen, laughing, sobbing, and muttering to myself: “It was before me all the time, yet it took me five years to see it.”[21]

After all the torment that Zenists submit themselves to, we would be surprised if their minds did not break down at some point. (For examples of the torment, see the readings in Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, sections III, V.) Note several other accounts of “enlightenment”:

Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! There’s no reasoning here, no reasoning at all! Ha, ha, ha!” The empty sky split in two, then opened its enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: “Ha, ha, ha!” Later one of the members of my family told me that my laughter had sounded inhuman. I was now lying on my back. Suddenly I sat up and struck the bed with all my might and beat the floor with my feet, as if trying to smash it, all the while laughing riotously. My wife and youngest son, sleeping near me, were now awake and frightened. Covering my mouth with her hand, my wife exclaimed: “What’s the matter with you? What’s the matter with you?” But I wasn’t aware of this until told about it afterwards. My son told me later he thought I had gone mad. “I’ve come to enlightenment! Shakyamuni and the Patriarchs haven’t deceived me! They haven’t deceived me!” [22]

Now I was in bed, doing zazen again. All night long I alternately breathed Mu and fell into trances…. A strange power propelled me. I looked at the clock—twenty minutes to four, just in time to make the morning sitting. I arose and calmly dressed. My mind raced as I solved problem after problem…. A lifetime has been compressed into one week. A thousand new sensations are bombarding my senses, a thousand new paths are opening before me.[23]

In this state of unconditioned subjectively I, selfless I, am supreme. So Shakyamuni Buddha could exclaim: “Above the heavens and below the heavens I am the only honored one.”[24] [Yet the attitude of Yun-men (Ummon, the founder of the Ummon school)] was even more radical: “When Sakyamuni was born it is said that he lifted one hand toward the heaven and pointed to the earth with the other, exclaiming, ‘Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the Honoured One.’ Yun-men comments on this by saying, ‘If I had been with him at the moment of his uttering this, I would surely have struck him dead with a blow and thrown the corpse into the maw of a hungry dog.’”[25]

This void is at once the container and the contained, the one and the many…. Yet, in truth, we shall have leapt from nowhere to nowhere; hence, we shall not have leapt at all; nor will there be or has there ever been any “we” to make the leap![26]

In spite of the far-reaching effects of satori, the “enlightened” still have no answers. Dr. Suzuki admits that even after enlightenment we still “know not definitely what the ultimate purport of life is.”[27] This is in stark contrast to Christian belief. Jesus did tell us the ultimate purpose of life when He said, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). As we will see, the contrasts between Zen and Christianity are striking wherever we look.



  1. Ernest Wood, Zen Dictionary (New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1962), pp. 127-128.
  2. Ibid., pp. 109-110.
  3. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 19670, p. xvi.
  4. Ibid., p. 8.
  5. Yasutani Roshi, “Theory and Practice of Zazan,” in Kapleau, p. 43.
  6. Kapleau, pp. 11-13.
  7. Ibid., pp. 11-13.
  8. Ibid., pp. 218-219.
  9. Ibid., p. 64.
  10. Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), pp. 50-51.
  11. Charles Luk, ed., The Transmission of the Mind Outside of Teaching (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1975), p. 186n.
  12. From Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West (MA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., Co., 1969), p. 48, citing Ernest Becker, Zen: A Rational Critique (New York: Norton, 1961), pp. 14, 76, 57, 81, 140.
  13. Ross, p. 49.
  14. Wood, p. 82.
  15. Ibid., p. 75.
  16. Ibid., p. 68.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Kapleau, p. 106.
  19. Ross, p. 260.
  20. D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, Selected Writings, William Barrett, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 92, 12, cited by Lit-sen Chang, p. 141.
  21. Kapleau, pp. 227-228.
  22. Ibid., pp. 205-208.
  23. Ibid., pp. 244-245, emphasis added.
  24. Ibid., p. 16.
  25. Lit-sen Chang, p. 31.
  26. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972), p. 32. For other examples of “enlightenment” see our book The Coming Darkness, chapter 1, and our Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs, chapters on meditation, enlightenment, yoga, altered states of consciousness and Est/The Forum.
  27. D. Suzuki, “The Sense of Zen,” in Ross, pp. 39-40.

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