When I began looking into Buddhism, I got the idea that enlightenment was something that happened to serious practitioners after lifetimes of practice. I didn’t even believe in reincarnation. I had the idea that enlightenment was a state of mind reserved for a special group of people and not something I could hope to achieve. Then I came to Zen.
Enlightenment is central to Zen. My early impression of the Zen practice was that there was an urgency to experiencing enlightenment. It was not something that could wait for several lifetimes, it was something that had to happen, now. That idea was reinforced through the use of sudden or subtle noises in Dharma talks, chanting, sitting for meditation, transitioning between sitting and walking meditation and eating. When we chanted, we began with the large bell and chanted and bowed to the rhythm marked by a stick and a gourd. When we began sitting meditation there were three soft bells. When it was time for walking meditation, bells again. When the Dharma talk was over, three loud claps of a clapper. When sitting meditation was over, those startling claps sounded again. Each of those noises was a reminder, an opportunity, and an urging to wake up. Before we ate, we recited a verse that ended with, “I shall receive this food in order to complete the task of enlightenment”. In Zen, enlightenment is not something that can wait for your next life. It should always happen now.
Although our teacher did not encourage us to read, he asked us to read the Platform Sutra about the Sixth Patriarch in China, Hui-Neng. Besides teaching sudden-enlightenment, Hui-Neng taught that enlightenment is our basic state. Everybody is enlightened. That is how enlightenment is always available to anybody at any time. It is what we are. That is why trying to become enlightened interferes with being enlightened.
I think our pre-meal chant was a bit of a joke. How can we complete the task of enlightenment? How do we complete the task of being ourselves? We can put our task aside and be enlightened as we taste the food that nourishes our bodies. Yum yum.