Kensho is a realization, in all immediacy, of what the Heart Sutra affirms: Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness no other than Form.
As one continues Zen practice, enjoying the different manifestations of this first fruit in one’s life, there may come a moment, unexpected, unprepared for, whereby one is hit by a sudden flash of realization. “This is it!” As noted above, this could be a spectacular event accompanied by “fireworks,” or it could be a quiet, externally unremarkable, simple moment of recognition. “Aha.” It is a moment that ushers in deep peace, unfathomable joy, inexplicable gratitude. The experience of awakening entails all the above. This is the second fruit of Zen practice, of the Zen way life.
Each individual comes to this experience in a mode that is unique and unrepeatable, with different degrees of intensity and from varying points of entry. It can be a visual stimulus, such as the sight of a flower, the clear blue sky, or a tree stump. It can be with a sound, such as the tick-tock of a clock, a musical note, a bell, the bark of a dog, the chirp of a bird. It can be tactile, as the whack of the encouragement stick upon one’s back while sitting in the meditation hall, the sudden pain one feels as an unshod toe hits a pebble on an unpaved walkway, or a soothing massage on one’s stiff shoulder.
This is a refreshing, breathtaking, and exhilarating experience indeed. It can be like floating up in the sky, free as a feather. It is an experience that brings forth tremendous joy, as it opens one to a glimpse of the infinite horizon of one’s own being, the vast unfathomable riches of one’s own true self.
Yet, as it is an initial glimpse into such untold vistas, such an experience can tend to make one lose one’s bearings, and become somewhat disoriented. It can dislocate one from a given and previously determined trajectory, or cause what one thought was the “solid ground” under one’s feet to disintegrate. It is like having the rug pulled from under one’s feet, making one lose balance, and even fall flat on one’s face.
Kensho is a realization, in all immediacy, of what the Heart Sutra affirms: Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness no other than Form. But one given such an initial experiential glimpse can easily get disoriented, lost, in the vastness and infinite horizons of Emptiness, and find it hard to come down to earth, back to one’s daily life and its ordinariness. At this point there can be a tendency in those graced with this initial glimpse, to want to hold on to it, to stay there and continue to float in those dizzying heights. This is where the phenomenon called “Zen sickness” can take hold of one. One is so excited at the “discovery” of this world of Emptiness that one talks about it all the time to everyone around, saying how wonderful it is, and so on, without regard for the persons being addressed or the situations in which such talk is imposed.
Also, soon after the glimpse of Emptiness, the delusive mind can again come in and “claim” it as one’s prized possession, and perhaps put it in a neat little frame to hang on one’s wall. “I’ve got it.” “I’m enlightened.” And the very moment that such thoughts come, one has thereby separated oneself from it. Or, the more philosophically inclined will find it hard to resist waxing profound on the tremendous conceptual implications of the notion of Emptiness and how it relates to the world of Form, and so on. Zen sickness can take various modes and come in varying degrees of intensity, some kinds taking a longer time to overcome than others.
Ruben Habito is a Sanbo Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas. This article was taken from the MKZC website and is titled, Foreword to Flowing Bridge: The Miscellaneous Koans. It was originally published as the Foreword, in Flowing Bridge, by Zen Master Sr. Elaine MacInnes.