Often Zen students, and even some Zen teachers, are confused about the Japanese terms kensho, "to see the nature" (Japanese けんしょう ; Chinese 見性 jianxing) and satori, "to awaken" or "awakening" (Japanese さとり; Chinese 悟 wu), and assume that the terms describe enlightenment as if there is only one kind of enlightenment. In this way, some students may project onto the teacher the idea that because the teacher has experienced an awakening that is called kensho or satori therefore the teacher is fully enlightened and in some manner omniscient or infallible. This is a grave error on the part of the student, and if the teacher encourages such projections, then the teacher is putting the student into a straight jacket and chains.
In Buddhism (i.e., the Buddha Dharma), the Sanskrit term for the full enlightenment of the historical Buddha is anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (variously translated into Chinese as 阿耨多羅三藐三菩提;, 無上正等正覺, etc.). Leading all beings to realize for ourselves this awakening is the goal or aim of every Buddha manifesting in every world. In discussing the Buddha's awakening, confusion arises when people misunderstand primary aspects of awakening: (1) that awakening is essential and indispensable to the path of the Buddha, (2) that awakening is sudden and immediate in that it transcends temporal-spatial perspectives, (3) that from a temporal-spatial perspective cultivation of the path takes place both before and after awakening, and (4) that there are different degrees of awakening. Here I want to mainly address the fourth point, that there are different degrees of awakening, with some comment about how the fourth point relates to the other three points.
The term anuttara-samyak-sambodhi reveals within itself four basic degrees of enlightenment:
Because there are these distinguishable degrees of awakening, Zen Master Hakuin related stories of his own multiple great satoris as well as many minor satoris. The traditional depictions of training stages such as the Eight Jhanas, the 10 Bodhisattva Bhumis (Stations) or the 10 Ox Herding Pictures depict variations of the steps of cultivation both before and after awakening.
When we talk about step-by-step cultivation before awakening, we are talking about learning of and opening our mind to the possibility of awakening, developing our faith and confidence in awakening as a real experience, and taking the steps necessary to realizing awakening in our actual life. However, no matter how much we may wish it were so, there is no plain and simple formula for this step-by-step cultivation that is like a step-by-step process for learning to crochet or drive a car. Because awakening is essentially an unraveling of or seeing through our delusions and bifurcated false conceptualizations, and because our delusions and bifurcated conceptualizations have both a social and individual component, the general formulations of the step-by-step cultivation before awakening can only address those socially shared aspects of our ignorance with the final unraveling of our individual delusions and illusions occurring in an unformulated process. That is why Zen teacher Robert Aitken would say enlightenment happens as if by accident, but that our training makes us accident prone.
When we talk about step-by-step cultivation after awakening we are talking about the realization of the different degrees of awakening from initial bodhi to fully matured and complete anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. In Zen, the system known as Dongshan’s Five Positions (A.K.A., Tozan’s Five Ranks) is one such description of cultivation after initial awakening.
A Zen student should practice with a teacher who has at least an initial awakening kensho, and this is essential. A student may practice with another student who has not “seen the nature” but should not consider that fellow practitioner in the way as their teacher. Students should only look to someone with a modicum of awakening, whether called kensho or satori, at their teacher. However, students should not be deceived (by themselves or another) into thinking that all awakenings are equal and fungible or that training after initial enlightenment is unnecessary. This is why Zen Master Torei said:
Look! Why did the Buddha kindly, clearly, and in detail point out for you the stages of the Way? All of them are means to advance and progress in true training after Satori – the skillful means of no means, the grades of no grade. The same holds true for Tozan’s ‘Five Ranks’, for Rinzai’s ‘Four Positions of Person and Circumstance’, and his ‘Four Positions of Guest and Host’. All are stages after Satori. (From Yoko Okuda’s translation of The Discourse on The Inexhaustible Lamp of the Zen School by Zen Master Torei Enji.)
The words of the Buddhist scriptures and the Zen ancestors are the superbly skillful means of measuring the degree of our awakening. To read the Sutras is to check our own understanding against the words of the Buddha, and if there is anything that we do not understand or comprehend, then that is the measure of the shallowness or depth of our own degree of awakening. This is why Torei said:
So as to test the Dharma-Gates you have attained to, you have to check them against the Buddha's Sutras and the Treatises (Shastras), and study these again and again in detail and with insight. Always ask yourselves whether what you have attained tallies with what is said in the Sutras and Treatises.