The Question of Christian Enlightenment
It is the work of the Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum to explore the frontiers where today’s attempts to renew the Christian life of prayer and contemplation meet the history of Christian mysticism, depth psychology, a new sense of the earth, and Eastern forms of meditation. As these dialogues advance they will give rise to new and even provocative questions. Let’s call them open questions, questions that we ask without having a definitive answer in mind, questions that ought to be explored. This issue is devoted to one of those questions: Is it fitting that Christians try to pursue enlightenment in a Christian context? First, let’s look at the question itself. Enlightenment means the goal that is pursued in Zen Buddhism, or in certain schools of Hinduism like Advaita. The phrase “Christian context” asks whether Christians might create another setting, a distinctively Christian one, in which to seek enlightenment, a context that might be quite different from the current situation in which they seek enlightenment in a Buddhist or Hindu context. . There are, in fact, several layers to this question. First of all, should Christians try to pursue enlightenment at all? Secondly, if they do, should they do it by practicing Buddhist or Hindu forms of meditation? Thirdly, should they create a distinctively Christian context in which to seek enlightenment?
In actual fact Christians who seek enlightenment for the most part do so in an Eastern context. They sit with a Zen group, follow the directions of a Buddhist or Hindu teacher, etc. How else could they do it? It is those Eastern traditions that are the containers that hold the wisdom that Christians are attracted to. But does this situation have to stay that way? Must one practice Zen Buddhism, for example, to reach enlightenment? The answer, I think, is a qualified no. There is no single path to enlightenment. There are many schools of Buddhism and even many schools of Zen. Zen Buddhists, themselves, admit that there are cases of spontaneous enlightenment even of people with no connection with Buddhism. But it is, of course, true that concretely it is within the Eastern traditions that this insight can be cultivated and raised to heights that are not likely to be seen in cases of spontaneous enlightenment.
Let’s admit, then, that concretely Christians have had to go to Buddhism or Hinduism to pursue enlightenment, but the possibility exists that enlightenment can happen outside of those contexts. Back to our question. Is it fitting that Christians pursue enlightenment in an Eastern context, or should they do so in a Christian context? Christians have much to learn from Eastern forms of meditation, but there the experience of enlightenment comes wrapped in Eastern philosophy, or perhaps better said, Eastern reflections on the nature of the enlightenment experience, and these reflections may not be compatible with Christian belief. If Christians sought enlightenment in a Christian context, this problem would not arise.
But there is a deeper level to this whole question. Should Christians be pursuing enlightenment at all? The answer will depend on what enlightenment is. Let’s look at the possibilities:
1. Enlightenment is equivalent to Christian prayer, and especially to Christian contemplation. Therefore Christians ought to pursue it.
2. Enlightenment is not Christian contemplation, but is some other kind of experience of the Absolute or, Christians would say, some other kind of experience of God. This second possibility could have different variations:
A. Enlightenment is an experience of the Absolute, but in such a way that it is tangential to the Christian journey and need not be pursued.
B. Enlightenment is an experience of the Absolute and is the flowering and fruition of a deep dimension of the human spirit which would prepare us in a very valuable way to go on to contemplation.
Let’s make these issues more concrete by looking at the story of the students of the Zen teacher, Koun Yamada. Koun Yamada Roshi had a zendo in Kamakura, and he possessed a special openness to Christians which drew them to practice with him. Some of them eventually completed their training and became official Zen teachers. So for the first time in its history the Catholic Church had priests and nuns who were also officially sanctioned Zen teachers. But this remarkable development has not been given the attention it deserves, nor does it by itself alone serve to answer the questions about Christians and enlightenment. In fact, it embodies those very questions.
Yamada Roshi never made his Christian students feel like they had to leave Christianity behind in order to practice Zen. But this was not an attitude universally held by the Japanese Zen community, some of whom wondered if Christians could actually fathom the depth of the Zen experience. Perhaps this was allied to an attitude sometimes found among Buddhists that Christians are caught up in a belief system that fosters a kind of dualism because God is seen as distinct from creation and from the human soul.
But what is important here is the attitudes of Yamada’s Christian students. They, themselves, could not agree, and still cannot agree, about the relationship between enlightenment and Christian prayer and contemplation. Some tend to identify the two, while others felt they are distinct. Obviously this is an enormously important question. If I think that contemplation is the same as enlightenment, then doing zazen becomes the equivalent of prayer, and I need not worry about enlightenment in a Christian context because Christianity and Zen Buddhism are but two paths to an identical goal. But if I believe they are distinct, then I must eventually take up the hard task of trying to see how they relate to each other. Then I will ask whether Christians should seek enlightenment, and if so, whether in an Eastern or Christian context. As I said before, this is an open question, and I invite your responses to it.
On Christian Enlightenment, by Philip St. Romain
During the past eight years I have been experiencing a state similar to what is described in the Zen literature as enlightenment. In my journals, I have called it the “awareness state” or the “cosmic state.” it may not be appropriate to call it enlightenment since that terminology belongs to the Zen tradition, and my own experience has not been validated or confirmed by a representative from Zen.
The term “Christian enlightenment” is, perhaps, sufficient nuancing since it acknowledges both the context in which this state has been developed and its similarity to the Zen experience.
My first experience of this was while taking a shower sometime in 1988. It was just a regular old shower – not particularly enjoyable. But at some point I “noticed” the droplets of water running down the wall and felt as though I had entered another world. There was nothing outstanding about these droplets, only that I found myself observing them in such a manner that they were immediately present to me. I use the words “I” and “me” here only as conventions of language, for what was most unique about the “experience” was that it was as though there was no personal, intentional self at all. Observer and observed had fused somehow; the droplets were dribbling “inside of me.” Within a few seconds (I don’t really know how long it was), my mind snapped into action and I began to try to understand what had happened. The experience vanished just as quickly as it had arisen.
During the days and weeks that followed, this sort of thing happened again and again. I would be talking to someone, walking, working in the garden, and then all of a sudden, I was immediately present to what was happening. All boundaries seemed to disappear, and with them all fear. I did not know what was causing this to happen, although I sensed that it had something to do with the deepening of my prayer, and the activity of the energy I was calling kundalini in my brain–especially in the third eye.
Having experienced contemplative prayer many times through the years, I noted similarities between this new experience and contemplation. There were distinctive differences, too, however. Whenever I experienced contemplative prayer, there was absolutely no doubt that I was in God’s presence. The silence was of varying degrees, sometimes so deep that the mind could not even think, other times a bit more shallow, as in the prayer of quiet. I felt as though I was being grasped from deep within by God, and was being drawn to deeper union with God through the energy of love. This new experience was similar to mystical contemplation in the depth of mental silence and in the clarity of perception which ensued. It was distinctly different, however, in that there was no sense whatsoever of a relational union with God through love. In fact, it seemed as though God disappeared completely (or else “I” disappear); it is difficult to describe this nonduality, but that is one of its primary charac teristics.
After a year or so, I had learned how to “tune in” to this state, and how I fell out of it. No operation of the mind or will could produce it; what was called for was a certain shifting of my awareness from the particular to the general, then the state came in and of itself. It was never the same in depth and clarity; the condition of my body, mind, and intention seemed to account for something of its intensity and clarity, but not its manifestation. In time, I came to see that this state was, in fact, always there, and had always been there. It was the “background consciousness” out of which all my experiences of intentional consciousness had arisen. Everyone has it, only most people take it for granted and don’t know how to tune into it.
In particularly intense experiences of unity, I have a sense that the one who is looking out of my eyes is looking out of everyone else’s eyes, including animals’ and even plants’. Plants have no physical eyes, of course, but it seems, nonetheless, that they are apertures through which awareness views reality in the space-time world. This overwhelming sense of unity does not annihilate one’s ability to relate to others, nor to fulfill one’s responsibilities. Quite obviously, it provides a qualitatively different context in which individual life is exercised. Individual life is real, and this is seen clearly. It is not separate from other lives, however, nor from the awareness which “sees” through all reality.
Several other positive characteristics of this state deserve mention:
absorption in the present moment; the past can be remembered, and plans can be made, but without nostalgia, anxiety, or other interfering emotions.
benevolence toward all creation; compassion toward all forms of life; after beginning to experience this state, I gave up hunting.
deep serenity and subtle bliss; other emotion, – even positive ones – disturb the state.
sense of having a body through which one acts in space and time, but of possessing a consciousness that greatly exceeds the boundaries of skin and bones.
there is no memory of what it was like when it is gone; it leaves no impression on the brain, no affective trace whatsoever, except a vague recollection that things were more clear; and yet, strangely, it is “missed,” although the mind cannot produce what it was that it misses.
immediacy of attention and objects present in field of attention.
This last characteristic is a highly distinctive one. It is what I noticed when I first saw the droplets of water in the shower. By immediacy of attention, I mean that whatever comes into the field of attention is present without triggering a mental reaction of any kind. There is no movement of the mind to relate the perception to a previous one, nor to a particular intention we may be working out of. What is seen (or heard or touched) is present to one without distortion, as though reflecting off of a spotless mirror within one’s being. In this state, it is possible to know an object “as it is,” rather than for any kind of meaning imposed on it by the mind. There is a natural delight in encountering anything in this manner. Even the simplest of things – a leaf, or blade of grass – can be a source of deep mystery and wonder.
Learning to tune into the background awareness is the next step, and it is here that some very specific disciplines can be helpful. The simplest and most effective way for me is to let go of all ideas concerning “who I am,” and to look out of my eyes as though they are windows into space-time reality. I then simply note that a being is peering out of these eyes, and I rest in this awareness of the fact “that I am.” Sometimes, I will also note that the observer is greater than the body, and I experience that this is so – that my body is part of my being, and that my being goes out beyond my body. The mind can suggest these simple disciplines, but what happens after that is not in any way created by the mind. Before the simple awareness “that I am” a being whose boundaries are virtually limitless, the mind is struck dumb, for it has no sensory perceptions upon which to operate. Its conceptual understanding of God and soul is such that it does not shut down the experience by generating anxiety or confusion, but I wish to make it clear that the awareness state is not like other roles or identities created by the mind to accomplish a certain task. It is, instead, an experience of being-here-now: nothing more, nothing less.
Another prayer and meditative practice that I use is, with eyes closed in a quiet place, to simply be present to God in the moment, consciously surrendering to God all thoughts and desires that make any claim on my attention. This is similar to Buddhist vipassana meditation, only it is done in a relational context. By letting go of everything with the intent to be present to God more deeply, the mind and will are calmed. If the grace of mystical contemplation is given, I enjoy it. If not, I rest in the deep silence of cosmic awareness with eyes closed. There is boundless tranquility, and sometimes I see brilliant blue and purple lights, which energize the mind and heart.
But what to make of all this from a Christian context? After all, I was not (and still am not) a practicing Buddhist. Even though I had read about the beliefs and practices of other religions for years, and had made a retreat on Zen, my coming to this experience was in the context of Christian spirituality. I had heard of enlightenment, and had an intimation of what it was – thanks in large part to the writings of Thomas Merton. But I had never expected to experience it, and had certainly not set the realization of it as the goal of my Christian life. It appeared spontaneously, and whenever it did so, I endeavored to learn what I could about from whence it came, and how it went. That I could eventually tune into it at will distinguished it from mystical contemplation, whose comings and goings I could not control, even though I desired it greatly. It was, to me, an experience of the “natural” order. But what kind of experience was it? A good one, for sure: there was no doubting that! Yet finding confirmation of this experience in the Christian literature has not been easy. The overwhelming concern there seems to be with mystical contemplation.
I will not pretend to have a completely satisfactory philosophical or theological explanation of this experience. To say that it is natural, for example, does not in any way imply that it is not also an experience of God. The identity of the “observer” is a great mystery. It is clearly not the intentional Ego, and yet it is very familiar. That it leaves no impression in the personal, affective memory also makes me suspect a transpersonal origin; so does the experience of the observer looking out from all of creation. It is difficult to attribute this to any kind of individual self, and so increasingly, I tend to think of it as Christ, who has bound himself to me through his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension so that my life and all of creation now unfolds in him. The absence of fear and the benevolence toward all is also testimony to the presence of the Love which knows no anxiety and wishes the best for all. Between Christ and my deepest self, from which my individuality springs, there is no separation. So it seems, at least.
And yet, as I have related, mystical contemplation is a different encounter with Christ. In contemplatives experiences, I sense that Christ is sharing with me his own inner, Spirit bond with the Father. In mystical contemplation, one is brought into the inner life of God – a life which is present to the deep Self, but which the Self cannot penetrate. Even in the state of cosmic awareness, where other people are seen in clarity and freshness, the inner life of another remains an inaccessible mystery. I might see the other clearly and know my spiritual connection with him or her, but the other must reveal his/her inner life to me for me to know it. Cosmic awareness cannot penetrate into the inner life of another person, much less God. Mystical contemplation is such an experience of God, and so it is a supernatural grace rather than a natural capacity.
In my view, there is no conflict between the two states. Even though they are not the same kind of experience of God, they can co-exist in a person, and even enrich one another. Mystical contemplation can help to open one to cosmic awareness, and cosmic awareness can provide the optimal conditions for opening to mystical graces. The role of faith, here, is extremely important. Cosmic awareness does not annihilate Christian faith in any way. When in this state, there is a disinclination to seek God through words, symbols and rituals, but faith preserves an openness to receive communication from God (Who is not a concept). One is content to simply rest in God as the Ground of one’s being, but this does not imply a resistance to mystical grace. If it should happen that the Ground wants to erupt, or to communicate something of Itself, there is no boundary to obstruct It. This openness to a mystical relationship with the Ground is a contribution of Christian faith, and it is in no way diminished by cosmic awareness. Faith transcends all states of consciousness, and continues to be one’s primary stance toward God even in the state of cosmic awareness. For this reason, there is no reason whatsoever for a person of Christian faith to denounce Eastern experiences of enlightenment. Nor, as I have shared in this brief report, is it really necessary to turn to the East to come to enlightenment. As the Buddhists say, we are already enlightened! We just need to learn how to wake up to this fact. That we can do so within the context of Christianity is, perhaps, an affirmation not sufficiently appreciated thus far.