The pilgrim Lingyun was wandering in the mountains and became lost in his walking. He rounded a bend and saw peach blossoms on the other side of the valley. This sight awakened him.

(Entangling Vines, Case 8)

The conditions for enlightenment are mysterious.  Try as we might, it doesn’t seem possible to manufacture a change of heart purely through effort or intelligence or really clever meditation techniques.  Although there are things that seem to help–meditation, retreats, koans, companions and conversations with a teacher, for example–it’s less about following a recipe than becoming prone to happy accidents.

Zen lore suffers no shortage of accidental enlightenment stories.  Yunmen got a taste when his leg got slammed in a gate; Xiangyan, wallowing in self-pity, woke to the sound a stone striking bamboo; and of course, the pilgrim Lingyun was out for an innocent afternoon stroll when he got hit. But events such as these aren’t just myth and legend.  A friend’s first koan opened up while in the middle of falling apart at a funeral.  Someone else, feeling lost in despair, was bowled over by the sight of tree branches brushing the night sky.  Everything fell away for my father upon hearing the gentle sound of bed sheets rubbing together.  Enlightenment, delivered right to your door when you least expect it.

Here’s a story from a recent retreat:

It began unexpectedly. For one reason or another—miscommunications, my own wrong assumptions, wrinkles in the schedule—I found myself on the third day of the retreat without having seen either of my teachers. All day I watched others go, but no one came for me. Despite having a wonderful time at the retreat so far, I began to worry, to obsess. What if I don’t get to see the teacher?  His liaison doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s plotting against me! My teacher must not care about me either, the retreat will be over soon and I will have missed out, I screwed up, they screwed up . . . Oh, the humanity!

On and on I simmered.  I had enough awareness to doubt the veracity of my thoughts, but recognizing that didn’t make them go away.  I tried concentrating harder, being more mindful of my surroundings.  I tried believing alternate explanations for the situation that didn’t include me being unlovable or others being incompetent or malicious. I even tried accepting my lot completely, resigning myself to an evening of self-pity and petty resentment, but nothing worked.

Then something interesting happened.  For no particular reason, I decided to stay in my seat when the timekeeper led walking meditation.  Just as he walked past me, he struck the wooden clappers used to signal the end of the period. CRACK! It felt like they were right in front of my nose.  The sound shot right through me and that whole landfill of worry under which I had been heaped was gone, as though it never happened. No resentment, no regret, no criticism or blame or sense that something was missing. I was dumbfounded. I started laughing.

Lingyun offers this poem about his experience:

For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman.
How many times did the leaves fall
and the branches break into bud?
But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms,
I’ve had no doubts.

I’ve been around long enough to know that awakening isn’t about finding something that isn’t already here (not that I always remember that, of course).  If we’re expecting that carefully arranging environmental conditions or purging ourselves of certain thoughts and feelings will woo a change of heart, we’re in for some seriously hard labor.  Most of us have certainly thought at some point that perhaps a Very Special Meeting with a Very Special Teacher might utter some charmed words to help us break through to the unknown, but this seems to be unreliable as well.  We might search in this way through many seasons of the heart and mind—and in fact this searching seems to be an essential part of the quest—but when we see the peach blossoms, it becomes utterly clear that what we seek has never been anywhere other than right here.

Consider this commentary, added to Lingyun’s story by a Japanese teacher named Keizan:

The village peach blossoms didn’t know
their own crimson
but still they freed Lingyun
from all his doubts.

Enlightenment is a team sport.  When I’m suffering, it can feel like the whole universe is pressing in on me, but it also feels as though everything participates in supporting my awakening.  The moment after the timekeeper struck the wooden clappers, I had the brief thought that he had done it right in front of my face on purpose.  Suddenly the liaison who, presumably, had every intention of getting me in to see the teacher, seemed wise for not doing so. The ache in my back, my feelings of self-pity and resentment, my worry and self-loathing, even the trees and grasses outside the window in the dying light played a part.  What I thought was a shitty high school play suddenly revealed itself to be a profound and moving Broadway production, and everyone played their part magnificently without script or rehearsal.

The experience of awakening is both vividly intimate and strangely impersonal.  It is not something that we achieve for ourselves, but rather a song that the universe plays as a matter of course, like wildfires and babies and love and sunsets.  It appears freely, regardless of whether or not we think we deserve it, and sweeps away our sense of being an individual, small and separate, to reveal our identity woven into the vast instrument upon which all of existence plays itself.  And so when awakening does appear, it is not something we must work to maintain—like keeping our bedroom clean or being able to run an 8-minute mile—but rather a melody that carries us along with or without our permission.

After an experience like this, it’s easy to see that nothing needed to be changed, added or subtracted, and that I could not have orchestrated it myself.  Having felt the ground, firm under my toes, I never need to pretend again that it’s not here.  And maybe next time I find myself crammed into a prison of my own thoughts, I can have a little more trust in where I stand.  If awakening can visit us when we are lost, or in despair, or grieving, then perhaps it can strike at any time.   And we can be not ready for it.


It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas

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