Zen enlightenment - or any form of enlightenment - is much misunderstood.
In my experience there is at least as much a lack of understanding about this within Buddhist circles as there in the non-Buddhist and secular world.
Put simply "zen enlightenment" (and all other forms of enlightenment) means to be free of the effects of the mind, to be aware, to be present-moment-aware, and unencumbered with thoughts about the past or the future – just totally present. That’s all.
There is something in human nature - a desire to glamorise, sanctify, objectify and idolise – that elevates people who have offered deep insights to the human race and thus put distance between them and the rest of us.
But these great ones have exactly the same psychological, emotional, and physiological equipment as the rest of us. To put it bluntly – we all share the same basic equipment.
We get very hung up on the idea that "zen enlightenment" - or any form of expression of "spiritual progress" is ahead of us - something to be attained - something to be aspired to - something that we may experience one day in the next life or subsequent lives (for those who subscribe to a belief in reincarnation).
We see it as always in the future - yet never the only place it can be - NOW!
Being stuck in seeking is the single biggest stumbling block to present moment awareness.
There is nothing of truth that we can find anywhere but NOW right here in this present moment.
Lost In Our Delusions About Zen Enlightenment
Former American Zen Master Dennis Merzel aka Genpo Roshi (creator of the "Big Mind" process) expresses all this rather well in his article "Never Ending Clarification"
The Buddha And Jesus
The Buddha and some of his monks were out wandering one day and a man approached him and observed (I am paraphrasing slightly!): "What is it that’s different about you guys– you walk, talk, chop wood, eat, sleep, use the bathroom – you seem just like the rest of us?"
The Buddha replied: "Yes, that is true – but when we walk, talk, chop wood, eat, sleep, use the bathroom we KNOW we do."
Jesus said (and again I paraphrase): "I can guarantee this truth with certainty, that unless you change and become like little children - who are unencumbered by thoughts of past or future and just live and enjoy the present moment - you will never enter the kingdom of mindfulness".
[Quick biblical footnote – the "I AM" statements of God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament are statements of absolute present moment consciousness.]
The only difference between highly developed spiritual people and the rest of us is one of degree.
They have acquired or developed or been blessed with (however you choose to express it) the capacity to enter and maintain a mindful or present moment awareness state whenever they want to or need to and can do so at will for as long as they choose to or need to – and then engage with what we conventionally refer to as the "normal thinking mind".
The key to this is having the capability to move freely between these states at will and NOT to become stuck in either state.
The State Of Enlightenment
States Become Stages Become Sages
The initial state of "zen enlightenment" - more accurately expressed as "waking up or awakening or transformation or basic realisation that things are not what we thought and that there is more" - is a state that may only last briefly – but once we have experienced it, we can’t unlearn it.
And with practise, dedication and discipline that state become a more frequent part of our experience until eventually we enter it as a stage – where we can stop thinking at will – and access transcendent states of awareness at will.
True wisdom occurs when we draw daily guidance and inspiration from this source rather than the output of our thinking minds.
This is sometimes referred to as "growing in grace" or "spiritual maturity".
What is Nirvana?
Thich Nhat Hanh gives us a lucid and profound explanation that defines nirvana as the cessation of all suffering, and our suffering comes from our wrong perceptions...
The Neurology of The Enlightened State
Dr Andrew Newberg is regarded as one of leading pioneers in the field of neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual experiences, increasingly referred to as – neurotheology.
His research work focuses on the nature of religious and spiritual practices and experiences and specifically how brain function is associated with various mental states, especially the relationship between brain function and mystical or religious experiences.