Recogniton of the true nature of the mind
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by Michael Erlewine

Just as there are many forms of Buddhism, but only one Dharma, it is helpful to compare two different forms of Buddhism as they relate to the same spiritual event, in this case “Recognition” of the mind’s nature, as represented in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. 

If we are practicing the Buddhist path, we are going for enlightenment and know it is a “good thing,” but we can’t help but wonder what “enlightenment” is like. One thing we can know for sure is that we don’t yet know what enlightenment is or feels like.

Zen Buddhists like to talk about their “enlightenment” experiences; it is part of their tradition. I have heard it said that the Tibetan Buddhists talk less, but if you look into the more pithy of the Tibetan texts, what are called upadesha (sometimes also called the quintessential instructions or secret-oral instructions), they speak of little else. The Tibetans certainly talk about it; it is just that their pith texts are not yet easily found in this country, but they are certainly there and known by Tibetans.

And, thank goodness, the key terms for referring to spiritual attainment are parallel in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; otherwise, it would be confusing, or could be. And in both traditions, there are two main terms relating to recognizing the true nature of the mind.

The first major event along the Tibetan Buddhist path is called “Recognition,” being the recognition of the true nature of the mind by a student. The Zen Buddhists call this event “Kensho” and they translate that term as “seeing one’s own true nature” or “Seeing the Natural Essence.” I sometimes point out that Recognition is like a speed bump, meaning, as the old phrase says “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.” In other words, while we can pretend to ourselves that we are more or less enlightened, and perhaps get away with it, we can’t in all honesty pretend to Recognition. Why? Because, unlike spiritual “experience” (which goes up and down, “Recognition“ is a form of ‘realization’, meaning once you have realization, it never goes away. So, if you believe you have Recognition and still experience spiritual ups and downs, you are having an experience, not realization.

I wish I had a nickel for the number of times I have met with my dharma teacher and described a wonderful state of mind that I had, only to have him tell me to forget it, as it was just an experience, and just keep practicing. In other words, recognition does not have “bad” days. You can’t fake Recognition and have it too, because it is a once in a lifetime experience. We don’t have Recognition again and again, but only once. It’s like turning on the lights with a one-way switch. 

I know, you can find on the Internet all kinds of definitions, some suggesting you can have just a little bit of Kensho and then a little bit more, but this only leads to confusion. The truth (as I understand it) is like the old saying “You can’t just be a little pregnant.” In a similar way, you either have or have not achieved recognition. With recognition, you either “recognize’ the mind’s nature or you do not. This should not be confused with the need to extend or deepen Recognition, once you have it, but, as mentioned, you either have recognized the true nature of the mind, or you have not. Period. End of story.

In fact, a great Tibetan Rinpoche, Garab Dorje, wrote out three rules that he called “Three Statements That Hit the Essential Point,” and, briefly put, they are:

(1) Recognition: We are directly introduced to the nature of the mind.

(2) No Question: There is no longer any doubt, so if you are wondering if you have achieved recognition, you have not.

(3) Confidence: We are suddenly of one-mind and have full confidence to continue in the path to liberation. There is no going back.

With “Recognition,” we have reached the point of no return, and I find these three “rules” to be profoundly accurate in describing what happens when Recognition takes place. However, it is important to know that Recognition is not what we call Enlightenment, but merely the transition in our practice from uncertainty to certainty. 

It is endlessly pointed out both in Zen and in Tibetan Buddhism that any kind of realization (like Recognition) is beyond elaboration, meaning it is ineffable, i.e. cannot be put into words. That being said, then everyone (including me) goes right ahead and tries to put it into words, believing that somehow we are the exception, that we can break this rule and somehow find the words. I too am foolish enough to try.

I find that it is important to place the term “Recognition” into some kind of context. Where and when does it occur? As to where Recognition occurs, that would be, in order of appearance, somewhere after the Understanding (conceptual and intellectual) of what “Recognition” is, which then leads to Experience. We have many experiences that come and go. It is stated in the Tibetan texts that in the middle of experience, eventually “Recognition” can arise. 

So, we initially ‘understand’ intellectually (and conceptually) what Recognition is about. We then attempt to experience it, and have experiences of one kind or another, which experiences come and go. “Come and go” simply means that we have a spiritual experience one day (or one week), but two weeks later it is gone and, unfortunately, we are back to normal. That is what the Tibetans call “Experience.” It is transitory, like trying to carry water in our hands. In short, “Experience” is dialectical (dualistic), while “Recognition” of the mind’s true is existential (non-dualistic).

Then, with the proper “Pointing-Out Instructions” from a realized teacher, from the middle of one of those intermittent experiences, “Recognition” arises, is attained, and never goes away. Recognition is a “realization,” rather than an experience. Once you have, you always have it. When you wake up in the morning each day, there it is.

As to “when” we have “Recognition,” the answer is whenever possible, when we have completed whatever preliminary practices are needed for Recognition to take place. And while many Zen and Hindu references suggest that Kensho (Recognition) can take place without a teacher, the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists are quite clear that “Recognition” can only take place through the intervention of a realized teacher, who proceeds to point out to us the true nature of the mind until we recognize it. 

Keep in mind that what happens in Pointing-Out Instructions is that they make clear the difference between the true nature of the mind and our highly-conceptualized expectations about what the mind is. The teacher who already has this realization attempts to get us to let go or our preconceptions or expectations and kind of snap into our natural state. Once we have done this, then we can gradually shift (expand) our view over to the more relaxed natural state. 

Now, in Zen Buddhism there are two main schools, Rinzai Zen and Sōtō Zen. The Rinzai Zen practitioners, like the Tibetans Buddhists, are into having a realized teacher point out to the student the actual nature of the mind, what we call “Recognition,” just as the Tibetans do. Rinzai Zen uses what are called Koans to bring this about.   

However, the Sōtō Zen Buddhists don’t suggest any kind of intervention or attempts to “rob the cradle” (so to speak) by making efforts to precipitate Recognition by manipulation. Rather, their method is to continue with the practice of sitting meditation (Zazen) until the fruit of that meditation naturally arises as Recognition. Both methods work and make sense, although the Sōtō method can take much, much longer I imagine. I happen to be of the Rinzai Zen persuasion, although realized through Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. I guess I am in a hurry.

In Zen Buddhism, what we call “Recognition,” they call Kensho or sometimes Satori. While the terms Kensho and Satori are used interchangeably these days, traditionally Kensho refers to our initial recognition of the mind’s nature and Satori to that same recognition, as deepened through practice. What is called “Enlightenment” is what happens after Recognition, Kensho, or Satori takes place, and our practice is extended or deepened for some very, very long time. Enlightenment is the end result of Buddhist practice, while Recognition and Kensho mark a pivotal point where we enter the path to enlightenment in a more substantial way. Enlightenment is “timeless,” but our realization of it takes place in the course of time. 

Is this clear? Any questions?
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