We were walking back towards the zendo when my legs gave way. I fainted. Galli-san laid me down in the entrance to Busshari-To and shouted to Jakuda-san. I only wanted a cup of tea. They brought me inside. Everyone was fussing. I couldn’t understand—just a cup of tea. I tried to calm them, tried to stand up, but collapsed twice. They were worried, massaging my feet, applying carbon, and discussing cures.
Something left me, some huge oppressive weight that I’d never known was there and only recognized in its lifting. I felt so light. I was laughing and crying. Euphoria.
They were alarmed. I assured them I’d never felt so wonderful in my life… My breathing was a kind of panting, as if mounting to some emotional climax. Galli-san told me to breath deeply, to do zazen.
I tried. My breathing stopped.
My mind never felt so clear or lucid. The voices were very far away. I was in a crystal paradise.
Galli was screaming at me to breathe. From somewhere I heard my voice softly answering, “Hai”… I’d have to show them I was OK. I snapped out of it, normal as hell. “You see, I kept telling you I was okay.” They were relieved, but I only wanted to do zazen. I stayed up doing zazen but I was too tired for it to be much good.
Next day, Go Roshi said “Until last night, you were a human trying to become God; now you’re God. I’m Buddha.” He shook my hand. “We must help the others.”
This is my favorite description of an enlightenment experience. It is from Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, the Zen diary of Maura Soshin O’Halloran. I find the book massively inspiring.
Some people, who know much more about Zen than I do, call it sentimental hagiography, and say this wasn’t really enlightenment.
The event occurred during a sesshin (intensive meditation retreat). Soshin had been living and training in the temple for a couple years. She was malnourished, had an enormous accumulated sleep deficit, and was physically and emotionally exhausted. Just before she fainted, she had come out of dokusan (a private interview), in which her beloved teacher Go Roshi ordered her to marry a man she hated.
The advice of any sane person would have been:
It’s no wonder you had a nervous collapse! You should spend a week in bed, and sleep as much as you can. Eat three square meals a day, with real food—plenty of roast beef and chocolate brownies. You’ll feel normal again soon.
You’re not God! That’s crazy talk. They lock up people who go around saying they’re God.
And, for goodness’ sake, don’t let your guru tell you who to marry!
Listen, dearie, this “Zen” thing sounds like an abusive cult. You should go home to Ireland, find a nice boy to marry, and get on with real life.
I would not have given quite that advice (so I’m probably not altogether sane). I have zero doubt that meditation can produce dramatic experiences, which sometimes result in large, lasting, positive psychological transformations. I hope hers was one of them.
Nevertheless, I think Buddhists ought to ask:
- What actually did happen? Was she enlightened? How could anyone know?
- Why did Go Roshi say “Now you’re God”?
- What did he mean? Is this supposed to be literal, or metaphorical, or what?
- Was it true? Did Maura O’Halloran become God?
In my next few posts, I am going to criticize a particular “mystical” understanding of enlightenment that is common among Western Buddhists. It is the idea that meditation is the examination of inner experience in order to discover your True Self, which is unified with The Absolute (alias God), which is the transcendant source of goodness and is the entire universe, all of which are One.
Go Roshi apparently taught this idea. I think it is both wrong and harmful. But, my skepticism is not about whether there are dramatic, valuable meditation experiences. It is about what they are, what they imply, and what role they should play on the Buddhist path.
In this post, I will start to ask what we can know on the basis of such experiences—whether other people’s, or our own.
Ineffability and chocolate brownies
The experience of discovering The Ultimate Truth is said to be ineffable: impossible to talk about. However, believers proceed to eff about it at great length. Is this not odd?
Their effing explains what the experience means. Invariably, what it “means” is some Big Cosmic Theory Of Life, The Universe, And Everything. The metaphysical stuff is supposedly proved by the experience. For example, we know you can become God, because Maura O’Halloran felt weird one day. (And other people have felt weird in exactly the same way back to Gautama Buddha!)
Mystics use ineffability to deflect objections to their Big Cosmic Theories two ways:
- Ineffability is supposed to make enlightenment experiences a very special and holy mystery.
- Ineffability is supposed to make it impossible to argue against the Big Cosmic Theory, because arguments use words.
Here I intend to strip away those defenses, as preparation for arguing (in my next few posts) against the mystical theory of enlightenment.
What is the experience of eating a chocolate brownie like? Can you describe it?
I believe it is ineffable. There is nothing you can say about chocolate that would mean anything to someone who has not tasted it.
Chocolate brownies are one of my favorite things—but I don’t think their ineffability is a big deal.
All experiences are ineffable. The best we can ever do is say “it’s like this other thing.”
There’s nothing that’s much like chocolate. Dramatic meditation experiences are also not much like anything else. But chocolate is not a special holy mystery. No one thinks the experience of chocolate implies anything about The Ultimate Nature of Reality.
So, if mediation experiences have metaphysical implications, it is not because they are ineffable. So much for mystical rhetorical strategy #1.
Many people are driven to religion by the need for certainty. In my view, Buddhism offers none. In fact, it undercuts all certainties.
According to the mystical view, the experience of enlightenment provides certainty: about Life, The Universe, And Everything. That would be reassuring.
Indeed, non-ordinary experiences often come with a strong felt sense of deep metaphysical knowledge. But is that feeling reliable?
Schizophrenics are often vocally certain about metaphysical ideas that are plainly false. So the feeling of certainty doesn’t mean anything.
For meditation experiences to have meaningful implications, there must be some additional reason to believe them.
I think this is true even when they are your own. I’ve had non-ordinary experiences that left me very sure about various things. Some of those things I no longer believe. Others I think were right—but only because I’ve found additional reasons to believe what first appeared in a flash of insight.
It’s an enlightened thing, you wouldn’t understand
“Mysticism begins in mist, has an I in the middle, and ends in schism.”
Immediately after declaring enlightenment ineffable, some folks eff about it until the cows have gone to bed. If you don’t accept their metaphysical claims, they may retreat to “it’s ineffable, and moreover you haven’t had the experience, so you’re not qualified to question it.” This is a shield against all possible inquiry.
They want to have their chocolate brownies and eat them too. They get to eff, because they are enlightened—or they know someone who was enlightened, or they read a book by someone who was enlightened. But you can’t object, because it’s ineffable.
This doesn’t work. If it’s ineffable, no one can eff it. If enlightenment experiences have effable metaphysical implications, the effing has to stand on its own two feet. “I had an amazing experience that I can’t say anything about, therefore God exists” is a non-starter.
Effing the ineffable
In the passage at the top of this page, Maura effs her experience a bit. She describes a sensation of lightness, altered auditory and visual perception (“voices far away… a crystal paradise”), and euphoria.
She draws no metaphysical conclusions. For instance, there’s nothing in her account to suggest God was involved. Also nothing about a True Self. She does not even mention the collapse of the self/other boundary, which is common in dramatic meditation experiences.
That means Go Roshi’s interpretation of O’Halloran’s experience—as her becoming God—has no basis in her description of it.
That does not necessarily mean he was wrong. It does mean that his basis for declaring her God must have been something other than the experience itself. We ought to ask what that basis was, to see if we believe it.
It seems to me that he overlaid a preconceived ideology on what happened. Go Roshi taught in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. That lineage has a metaphysics of enlightenment as discovering that your True Self is identical to Ultimate Reality, which is The Entire Universe. Alias: God.
(This is not the view of most forms of Buddhism. I suspect it owes more to the Western mystical tradition than to Buddhism. I sketched the history of this in “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)
If someone who had never practiced Zen fainted on a train, and described their experience as O’Halloran did, would Go Roshi have declared them God? I suspect not.
I suspect Roshi’s reasoning was:
If someone has been practicing Zen full time for several years, and they have passed many koans, and they have some sort of dramatic experience during a sesshin—that must be enlightenment, which means becoming God.
His conclusion was based on his religious beliefs, not her experience.
(Was it an enlightenment experience? I’m entirely agnostic. Because I love her book, I want to believe so.)
Maura Soshin O’Halloran completed her Zen training a year later.
Roshi gave her permission to return to Ireland, her home country, to teach there.
On the way, the bus she was riding went off the road and crashed.
She entered parinirvana in October, 1982, aged 27.
Creaking to the post office
on my rusty bike
I saw one purple iris
wild in the wet green
of the rice field.
I wanted to send it to you.
I can only tell you
it was there.