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A Story of Enlightenment

Updated on August 2, 2013
Famous Zen teacher Dogen.  A little terrifying, no?
Famous Zen teacher Dogen. A little terrifying, no?

A Preface

Firstly, I must provide a short background to the concept of "stories of enlightenment." They are, technically, tales of how individuals achieved, or received, the elusive concept of "enlightenment" in the East. Some of these stories come from Buddhist contexts (see suggested further reading below), but others pre-date Buddhism and fall under the umbrella of what some scholars would call "Taoism," as indefinable as that might be.

These stories range from the laughably mundane to the horridly shocking. They are meant to cause a shift in consciousness by breaking normal consciousness with irony, paradox, or confusion. In other words, they are less a works to be understood through the lens of reason, and more pedagogical tools for the initiate of consciousness and cultivation.

Some of these stories, occasionally told in their entirety (although they are almost always rather short) have evolved into the koan, the “Zen conundrum” students must solve and which reveals to the teacher the student’s spiritual progress. The most familiar of these are “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “What was your face before your mother was born?”

This particular story, however, is meant to instigate us through the violation of ethics. I shall present the story, and then provide me own commentary, and quite interested in other’s opinions as well.

Religious Perspective of Reader

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The Story

There once was a young man who sought enlightenment.

After years of searching he heard of a teacher who lived on a mountainside on the edge of a remote town.

The villagers warned him to stay away -- that the old many was crazy, and it would be a waste of his life living up on a mountain.

But the young man paid them no heed.

He had searched too long to give up now.

So he sought out this teacher.

As the young man approached the teacher was sitting in silence.

The young man waited for the teacher to acknowledge his presence, but the teacher didn't budge.

"I have come to find enlightenment," declared the young man.

Without opening his eyes the teacher responded, "are you truly ready?"

"Yes," said the young man, "I have sought for enlightenment for lifetimes, and now at last I will complete my journey."

"Are you ready for what must be done? Is your mind truly unshakable?" questioned the teacher.

"Yes, it is," replied the young man.

"Then now is your chance -- the final gate you must pass is attachment. Do not react, do not move, and do not speak. Those are the rules. If you can do that, you will be enlightened."

"I am ready," said the young man.

And upon uttering those words the young man was suddenly looking through the eyes of a beautiful woman. He was no longer himself, his life as a young man some strange fantasy he had dreamed a thousand lifetimes before.

She looked upon her husband. He was burly and unkept, and on this night he beat her, as he always does, but she uttered not a word. Not even the smallest of sounds escaped her lips, for some reason she knew she must never speak out.

Every night she bore his wrath, and every night no resistance met it, no cries were let out, no sounds but those of violence upon her.

Years went by this way, until one day, in his fury, the husband turned his mad eyes not to his wife, but to their young child.

Having become accustomed to bearing his abuse, the woman had no problem for years, but suddenly terror coursed through her heart. For her entire lifetime she had silently absorbed her husband's rage, but this was something for which she was wholly unprepared.

Time seemed to stop. Each step he took towards the baby seemed to echo through the night and her soul. Almost upon the child, the husband's arm extended outwards, only to be met by a sound that had never been heard -- the woman's shriek of anger, despair, and resistance. A lifetime of burden unleashed in a single moment.

And with that sound all time and space dissolved.

The young man stood, having lived a lifetime but not a day the older, in front of the teacher, confounded. Slowly it dawned upon him -- it was all an illusion, a play of light and sound, no more real than a hallucination.

"Perhaps, in your next lifetime," said the teacher.

And with that the young man left the mountainside.

My Own Thoughts

Generally speaking, stories of enlightenment rarely offer practical, ethical, or instructional education. In fact, they often use the violation of common sensibilities to prove their point. They are, in this way, completely foreign to "western" sensibilities and operate within a totally different discourse. From a typical "western" perspective this story is awful and repulsive on so many levels -- it insinuates that violence and evil are to be tolerated for some mysterious spiritual achievement, the attainment of which necessitates indifference to the horrors of the world. It seems to encourage reticence in the face of evil and situations that most would say require swift and right action. Thankfully, I believe, this story is not to be read this way.

Firstly, I believe the story attempts to shock the reader deeply. Enlightenment is an experience that forces us to confront all our preconceptions of good and bad, right and wrong, and attempts to cut through the dualistic level of the mind and bring us to a deeper place of oneness. I believe westerners often want to gloss over this part of the spiritual experience in hopes for the beautiful ending -- where all is perfect and holy and one. But we truly cannot get there without traversing through our own darkness, our own self-created Hell. This story attempts to bring us face to face with our deepest fears, insecurities, and preconceptions extremely quickly (and did so for me!). So in this sense it instigates the phenomenon of enlightenment, although it is incredibly uncomfortable and unsavory (as is part of the awakening process).

Thoughts? interpretations? Would love to hear them!

Reaction to the Story

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Another Collection of stories -- this one including pre-Buddhist accounts


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      radhapriestess 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your prespectives on enlightenment. It is an experience to be lived, yes.