Zen Definition

Zen Definition of Spiritual Enlightenment

Summary: In this series, we will look to deepen our understanding of spiritual enlightenment, by studying the views from various different teachings and philosophies.  In the first article of this series, we will explore the explanation of enlightenment given by the great modern day Zen Buddhist teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck.

Spiritual enlightenment is the greatest mystery and the greatest Truth available to man.  Many explanations, descriptions, views etc., exist for enlightenment and each of these gives us some insight and understanding into what this great phenomenon is.  In this series, I would like to provide these various definitions on enlightenment from various great teachings in order to help you understand better what it is for yourself.

We will start off this series with the Zen Buddhist definition of enlightenment and who better to quote, than one of my favorite Zen teachers Charlotte Joko Beck.  Here is what this great Zen master had to say about what enlightenment is.

Zen Definition

Enlightenment is the core of all religion.  But we have quite often a strange picture of what it is.  We equate the enlightened state with a state in which we have become quite perfect, quite nice and quiet, calm and accepting.  And that’s not it.

I’m going to ask a series of questions about certain unpleasant states.  I am not saying we should not have strong feelings or preferences about them.  Nevertheless from these examples we can begin to get a clue; and when we have a clue we can see more clearly what we’re doing in practice.  Here are the questions.  (I have selected only a few that she asked).

  • If I am told, “Joko, you have one more day to live,” is that OK with me? or if someone told you that, is that OK with you?
  • If I am in a severe accident, and my legs and arm have been amputated, is that OK with me?  If that were to happen to you, is it OK?
  • If I must lose whatever or whomever I care for, is it OK with me?

Now I can’t answer OK to any of of those.  And if you’re honest, I don’t think that any of you can either.  But to answer “OK” is the enlightened state, if we understand what it means for something to be OK.  (She goes on to say).

What is the enlightened state?  When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be, that is it.

Analysis of Zen Definition of Enlightenment:

Understanding and remembering well the above zen definition for what enlightenment is, will immediately change the way you look at your life.  Yes, immediately.  What is being explained is that you stop running away from the moment, no matter what it contains, and start instead, embracing it, observing it, being OK with it.  The more you are able to do that, the more “enlightened” you are.

This does not mean you will necessarily enjoy the moment, it may be full of hardship, but that is fine.  You will see hardship as an opportunity to evaluate, test and make progress in your spiritual growth.  Zazen, or Zen Meditation is one of the best techniques for developing this understanding and capability.

In Zen meditation, as you sit still for long periods of time, you learn to be OK and stay with the difficulties that inevitably arise, and that then translates into you being able to be OK with the difficulties that inevitably arise is your life.  The person who is evolved in this way, will have few complaints and selfish interests, and thus, will be far more capable of giving, enjoying and loving.

So, the Zen teachings are very clear as to what enlightenment is.  It is the state of residing in such great understanding and depth, that no matter what life throws your way, you are at peace with it, you are able to say, “That’s OK, no problem.”

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  1. Christa
    Christa says:

    Chris, on your next redeye, you may also find it it helpful to give thanks for the beautiful baby, a symbol of what we all have come from, who was letting his/her needs be known in the best way s/he knew how, without reservation.

  2. allen
    allen says:

    from experience i have discovered that everything is ok all the time no matter what. life is always giving us what we need. sometimes what we need isn’t what we want but when we relalize that everything works for our ultimate good and the good of the whole then it is easier to accept. give up all attachments sell your possesions and give to the poor let life live you and just watch.

  3. Anmol Mehta
    Anmol Mehta says:

    Hey Chris,

    Yes absolutely. Key to count one’s blessings, instead of always harping on what is “apparently” wrong.

    Thanks for your insights and guidance.


  4. Chris Cade
    Chris Cade says:

    Much easier said than done, but it’s getting easier to do and harder to say with each passing day. :)

    I’ve found gratitude to be extremely helpful in this practice. I remember a 10 hour redeye flight coming back from a business trip to Japan in which there was a baby screaming in the row in front of me which woke me up from my sleep on multiple occasions.

    Most people would probably be upset by this for any number of reasons… 10 hours on a plane is bad enough, but then having a redeye is insult to injury, and a baby keeping people up is the final nail in the coffin.

    But when all was said and done, I found that the baby’s crying couldn’t compare with the sense of gratitude I had for not just being alive, but being health, and also for even having a job that put me in that situation when many people don’t have a job (and I was once one of those people and can understand).

    So for those trying this out, I think it’s immeasurably helpful to initially focus on transforming frustration into gratitude.

  5. garry
    garry says:

    Yes! Zen wants us to ignore anything that arises, even mutilation, emotional attachments destabilization, even the proximity of death itself. Why? Because that is not the true self, and Zen is direct pointing to the final goal: realization of the true self. This means, this layers of attachment to the various skandhas are payed no attention to. Paring off these various skins one eventually reaches the refined nature of self. Its rather a beautiful and simple system of enlightenment.

  6. Anmol Mehta
    Anmol Mehta says:

    Hey Vern,

    Thanks for your feedback and great to have your presence here on Mastery of Meditation.

    Yes, it’s fascinating how various teachers and philosophies like to put across the concept of enlightenment.

    All Good Wishes,

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    My Mantra is going to be ” THAT’S OK. NO BROBLEM” from now till I can keep it. Life keeps dancing around us and throwing situations good and bad at us, for ever.

  8. Vern at Seemlessness
    Vern at Seemlessness says:

    Nice series, looking forward to the rest of the articles… ! I often wondered how ZEN looked at nibbana – and what it means to their practicioners… :)


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