You can choose to be enlightened this moment. Your enlightenment does not depend on any skill such as the ability to concentrate, the ability to stay in the present moment, or the ability to overcome your attachments.
Perfect Zen meditation, or zazen, is the same thing as enlightenment. The reality of enlightenment can never be completely conveyed in words, but these point toward it: resting in the sufficiency of being. Letting go of the concern for self that leads us to ponder the past and anticipate the future. Existing wholeheartedly in the moment. Open, aware, ready and dignified. Drinking in the truth that is beyond dualisms like good and bad, useful and useless, like and dislike. Coming home to true self-nature.
We don’t practice zazen in order to get enlightened, we practice being enlightened as we practice zazen. How do we do this? Usually we are taught techniques for concentration, or for returning our attention to present. For most of us, it is a struggle to employ these techniques, and we don’t end up feeling very successful at them. A few people may be good at controlling their minds, but then they tend ask, “Is this it?”
It is an unfortunate misunderstanding of zazen, and of Zen practice in general, to think we need to become very skilled at some technique in order to penetrate to the truth and attain enlightenment. This often results in people giving up their practice, or in people thinking that they just don’t have what it takes: they plod along, trying to be satisfied with the small benefits that come along with practice, figuring enlightenment is far beyond their current grasp.
For many of us, it is more helpful to think of trying to convert our hearts, minds and bodies to a willingness to choose enlightenment. To choose enlightenment requires great courage. It requires an experiential understanding that we can let go of our habitual ways of being and thinking, and be supported by reality. It requires that we face our fears, and work with our conditioning. We have to generate the determination and curiosity that lets us take a leap into what we fear will be a void, but which ends up being the fullness of infinite potential.
As we try to sit zazen and be enlightened, we notice all the ways we resist it. We learn to recognize all the ways we avoid, fear, neglect and dismiss reality. There are reasons for all of the things we do. The body, heart and mind are not resisting just to be difficult. They are not simply disobeying the part of us that would like to meditate, concentrate, taste peace, let go, and cultivate insight. They are acting out our delusions and fears while trying to take care of us as best they know how.
Looking at practice this way means that simply trying to return the mind to the present over and over isn’t good enough. It’s not enough to strive to improve a skill, as if enlightenment or “good” zazen is something we can attain if we just try hard enough, for long enough. When we do this we are pitting ourselves against enlightenment, which is contrary to the whole idea of waking up.
Instead, we recognize that we aren’t willing to choose enlightenment yet – but it is essential that we do this without the slightest bit of judgment. It is just what it is. This can be a fruitful way to approach practice if it results in the generation of compassion for ourselves, gentle patience, and a determined curiosity. What is it that keeps us from choosing enlightenment? What is it that keeps us from settling into the sufficiency of being in our zazen? What we are still holding on to? What fears or beliefs keep us grasping after things?
If we notice something that is keeping us from choosing enlightenment, we work with it. Perhaps we are afraid of lack and can work on cultivating generosity in our daily life. Perhaps we believe that if we let go of thinking, our life will get out of control. If so, we can try letting go for a few moments at a time and observe closely how we end up better able to take care of our life. Perhaps we assume that the simplicity of this moment is not worth our attention, and we can examine our concern for the constant gratification of the self’s desires. This kind of work continues for our whole life, even after we have tasted enlightenment, because we want to continue choosing it, more and more often.