How Often Does Enlightenment Occur

Of a thousand or ten thousand attempting to enter by this Gate, only three or perhaps five pass through.

Master Huang-po1

Huang-po had rigorous criteria. In 1975, Greeley published a national survey of 1460 Americans.2 One questionnaire item was: "Have you ever felt as though you were very close to a powerful, spiritual force that seemed to lift you outside of yourself?" Eighteen percent of the respondents reported that they had such mystical experiences once or twice, and 12 percent said "several times." What does it imply when this many Americans say that they have had more than one powerful uplifting experience? It confirms that such experiences are not rare. It also suggests that they tend to recur.

In one particular subgroup, 43 percent of the subjects reported having mystical experiences.2 Who were they? People then in their fifties, all of them born during the ten-year period starting around 1914. Was there anything unusual about this generation? For one thing, it had been raised under a set of circumstances that John Burroughs might regard as "adverse". This particular generation had been sobered at the youngest age by the consequences of one or two world wars, by a major depression, by the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and then by the turbulent 1960s. If its members did not bear the burden of such sufferings firsthand, they could not have escaped being assailed by suffering as it was presented in the new photojournalism. For this generation had seen seemingly kind humans wage cruel wars against one another on an unprecedented scale. Death struck everywhere, not only out on the front lines but in cities far removed and in concentration camps. During the Second World War alone, civilians suffered two thirds of the estimated 50 million casualties. This was a generation of gravitas, the first ever that would need to add chapters on poison gas and on radiation sickness to its textbooks of military medicine.

Does profound adversity sensitize a person to existential issues? Several historical reasons lead us to consider this hypothesis valid. Siddhartha Gautama's mother died shortly after he was born. He led a sheltered life as a young child, shielded inside his enclave from the suffering world outside. As a result, he was profoundly shaken when he first encountered out on the streets such harsh realities as a dead man, a beggar, a sick man, and an old man. It was the heavy burden of these life-and-death issues which finally compelled him to begin his quest for enlightenment. In later centuries, many who followed the spiritual path as masters or as laypersons had also struggled through adversity. Their fathers died when Hui-neng and Dogen were both children. Dogen's mother also died when he was seven. Dr. Bucke's parents both died when he was only a few years old.3

Hardships enter every era. And though many are called, few go all the way. According to Master Dogen, it would be only one or two, out of several hundred or even a thousand disciples, who became truly enlightened, even after they had trained with a great Zen master. Presumably Dogen was then referring to what we will take up later, in part VIII: to total awakening in its most advanced ongoing form. Elsewhere, he was more inclusive, saying, "A person who gives rise to a real desire and puts his utmost efforts into study under a teacher will surely gain enlightenment . .. Those who have this drive, even if they have little knowledge or are of inferior capacity, even if they are stupid or evil, will without fail gain enlightenment."4

In a traditional Rinzai monastery, monks were expected to reach some level of kensho after two or three years of training. Thereafter, it would usually take another ten to fifteen years of training before they fully matured.5 In confirmation, Kobori-roshi also told me that it would usually take three years "to get through the Gate." Following this he smiled and said "But not into the temple yet." He also estimated that it would require another ten to twelve years before the awakened monk became skillful enough to teach other monks, at least in the rigorous Rinzai tradition.

A famous Chan master of the Sung dynasty, Ta-hui, was said to have experienced eighteen great awakenings and innumerable smaller ones.6 Hakuin describes some thirteen experiences of awakening, each of differing kinds and degrees, starting when he was twenty-two years old.7 Neuroscientists need to pay more attention to how mature a brain must be before it reaches its full capacities for awakening.3 The existing quantitative EEG techniques suggest that the human brain matures in stages. For example, not until we are between seventeen and twenty-one years old will our prefrontal region finally attain its mature adult characteristics, at least by EEG criteria.8

A century before Hakuin, 108 nuns attended a training retreat. Thirty-five passed through koan studies.9 From such random observations does it appear that it will take several years of meditative practice before the first significant awakening occurs. Thereafter, some of the greatest Zen masters will go on to have multiple experiences. These vary in kind and in depths that can be only hinted at in the pages of this book.

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