James H. Austin (real name) has an M.D. degree and is Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He is the author of Chase, Chance and Creativity, and author or co-author of more than 130 publications in the fields of neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, and clinical neurology.
Dr. Austin graciously allowed an account of his first taste of kensho, an enlightenment experience, to be published in TASTE as account 00023, Vacuum Plenum. Following is an account of his second experience. It is taken, with his permission, from his amazing book Zen and the Brain (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998). This is a book I have been reading in – and expect to be reading in slowly, appreciatively, for a long time, as it is more than 800 pages long – with great excitement, for it is so rare to have someone who has real experiential knowledge of any meditative tradition also be able to compare various aspects of that tradition to modern understandings in neurology.
A Taste of Kensho: London, 1982
How bright and transparent
The moonlight of wisdom!
Master Hakuin, Chant in Praise of Zazen
It is the next sabbatical, from 1981 to 1982. My wife and I are spending most of the year in London, at the cradle of British neurology the National Hospital, Queen Square. I have joined the London Zen Centre led by Irmgard Schloegl, known now by her Buddhist name, Myokyo-ni. Having trained for 12 years in Japan, she is genuinely wise in the ways of Zen and is a most effective teacher. The event now recounted takes place on the second morning of a two-day sesshin in March.
It strikes unexpectedly at 9:00 A.M., on the surface platform of the London subway system. Getting up at home half an hour earlier than usual, I am en route to the sesshin on a peaceful, balmy Sunday morning. I am a little absent-minded, and take the first train available. I wind up at a station where I have never been before. There, I submit to the reality of a slight delay. After the clatter of the departing train recedes, the empty platform is quiet. Waiting at leisure for the next train to Victoria Station, I turn and look away from the tracks, off to the south, in the general direction of the river Thames. This view includes no more than the dingy interior of the station, some grimy buildings in the middle ground, and a bit of open sky above and beyond. I idly survey this ordinary scene, unfocused, no thought in mind.
Instantly, the entire view acquires three qualities*:
* Capitals, italics, and lowercase letters are used, in keeping with convention, simply to convey the unique qualities of depth and scope compressed into these interpretations.
With no transition, it is all complete. Every detail of the entire scene in front is registered, integrated, and found wholly satisfying, all in itself.
The new scene is set gently, not fixed on hold. It conveys a slightly enhanced sense of immediacy. And despite the other qualities infusing it, the purely optical aspects of the scene are no different from the way they were a split second before. The pale-gray sky, no bluer; the light, no brighter; the detail, no finer-grained.
And furthermore, this scene also conveys another sense. It is being viewed directly with all the cool, clinical detachment of a mirror as it witnesses a landscape bathed in moonlight.
Yes, there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-Me-Mine. Vanished in one split second is the familiar sense that this person is viewing an ordinary city scene. The new viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the further paradox that no human subject is “doing” it.
Its vision of profound, implicit, perfect reality continues for a few seconds, perhaps as many as three to five. Then it subtly blends into a second series of lancinating insights.
Within this second wave are three more indivisible themes. They penetrate the experiant, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond simple knowledge:
–This is the eternal state of affairs. It has always been just this way, remains just so, and will continue just so indefinitely.
–There is nothing more to do. This train station, in and of itself, and the whole rest of this world are already totally complete and intrinsically valid. They require no further intervention (on the part of whoever is remotely inferred).*
* Up to this point, we have been using the term experiant to refer to whatever experiences when the personal self is absent, a witness not “really” there. But there is a qualification in this instance. A distant quasi-person is being ever so remotely inferred. This curious inference is now indicated by placing it within parentheses: ( ).
–There is nothing whatsoever to fear.**
** Within this transformed perspective of the world, if there had been even the slightest lingering notion of death-and there was none-it would have had no bearing on the existence of whomever might have been remotely inferred above. We began the introductory discussion of this kind of transformation earlier, when considering how near-death experiences evolve into far-death attitudes (see chapter 104).
These insights penetrate for perhaps another three to five seconds. There is no counting of insights or of seconds.
Then a third wave of pulsing insight-interpretations wells up. It is a natural ferment, a fountain flowing with knowledge-ideas. By this time, some kind of diminutive subjective i seems to exist off in the background, because something vague is responding with faint discriminations. And the following ideas now arrive in sequence:
1.This totally new view of things can’t be conveyed. It is too extraordinary. No conceptual framework, no words exist to describe the depths and the qualities of these insights. Only someone who went through the same experience could understand.
2.i can’t take myself so seriously any longer. Because this particular interior feeling is that of a diminutive i, it is so indicated, using lowercase letters.
3.A wide buffer zone exists before this i gets involved in anything. The zone seems almost to occupy space, because it takes the form of feeling literally distanced from outside events.
These three ideas last for perhaps another three to five seconds. Then two others enter. The second idea is an observation now being made by a growing, self-referent awareness. It discovers that it has a physical center inside the bodily self of that vaguely familiar person who is now standing on the platform.
4.This physical person is feeling totally released mentally. Clear, simplified, free of every limitation. Feeling especially good inside. Revived and enormously grateful! Wow! But it is a big, silent exclamation mark. This expansion of capacities remains internalized, does not proceed into overtly exultant behavior. And even though this person is now standing straighter and moving more freely, these two physical feelings are much less obvious than they were just after the earlier absorption in Kyoto, years before.
5.This experience is Objective vision. No subject is inside. It lacks all subjective ties.
A thoughtful I then boards the next subway train to go to the sesshin. The feeling is of being awed, deepened, and calmed within a profound ongoing intellectual illumination. The sesshin takes on more resonant meanings and flows along easily to a graceful close.
During the rest of that Sunday, and the next two days, the following interpretations enter as gentle ideas, more or less separate. When I mull them over, they are now at or close to my usual superficial levels of reflective consciousness:
1.An objective Reality exists. In the past, whenever I sensed its presence, I had always considered it at an intellectual level. I had thought of it as “Nature.” Now, it is no longer a word, a concept, or a metaphor. It is really real, not an “as if.” It is both infinite in scope and profoundly intimate. I am one grain of sand in all of it.
2.Such Reality is the basis for all right thinking and right actions. If one were to act always within this perspective, one could do no wrong. Only ignorance and the insinuation of self-centered motives are the root cause of wrong actions.
3.If the subjective I had somehow still remained on that subway platform, it would have beheld the most subjective of potential experiences. But when this subjective I vanishes, an astonishing moonlight of utter objectivity pervades the scene.
4.I can’t now step out of this physical body. No decision or effort of will can bring me back inside that rare moment of being granted such a fresh vision of the larger Reality. But I understand now that this Ultimate Reality does exist, and that it is eternal. Understanding this, I take a more distant, objective view of myself in the present world. Graced by the larger perspective, it is easier now to be very critical about my personal inventory, to diagnose the roots of my liabilities, to work out solutions.
Not until Tuesday is it my turn to see lrmgard Schloegl in sanzen. I outline the experience. She listens carefully and nods supportively. After a few pointed questions, she then leans back, smiles in her kindly way, and says, simply, “I’m very happy for you.” With no pause for further discussion or congratulation, she promptly adds the following comments and suggestions.
“Now, move on. Leave the experience behind. Don’t hold onto it like you were keeping a picture or a photograph. Regard it as you would a scene you’d just glimpsed out of the window of a moving train. There it is; there it goes. Now it is past. Others will come. Do not grasp them tightly. Just take them to indicate that you are on the Way. Most will occur when one least expects them, not during zazen itself. Use their impetus to go forward, not as an occasion to look backward.
“These moments of no-I are not some ‘secrets’ of the East, and they certainly aren’t secrets in Zen. Anyone can read about them in books. Many people have them. Indeed, one can shout their message from the rooftops. No one else seems to pay much attention, for no-I must truly be experienced to be appreciated.”