“Is awakening an instant event? Is it gradual? Or both? I know these questions have been debated in many cultures even to the point of creating different schools of thought within the same religion (eg. The Soto and Rinzai sects of Zen Buddhism come to mind). But I’d like to get your own take on it…”
How many ways are there to die?
One can die a slow, painful death over a protracted period of time due to some illness or disease. One can die suddenly before one even has the chance to become aware of what is happening, as in a car accident. Or one can die a short yet gruesome, terrifying death as in a violent murder. One can die peacefully, gradually and gracefully at a ripe old age surrounded by loved ones.
It seems like there are almost as many ways to die as there are to live.
What we refer to as awakening is a sort of death in itself. The death of an artificial sense of identity – the imagined self. Whereas the former kind of death refers to the dissolution of something physical, this kind of death is the disintegration of something psychological. It is the demise of the “imagined person” leaving only the real one to live out the rest of one’s life.
It is also possible to have an awakening experience and yet not have a complete dissolution happen. This is somewhat like a near-death experience (which is a misnomer since a “near-death experience” is really a DEATH experience one gets to live through). It’s possible and quite common for a person to experience a temporary disintegration of the imagined self and to see life for the first time without that lens. Yet, given some time, a portion of that construct may build itself back up.
In my own case, this is how it happened. My awakening happened suddenly when I least expected it. A “car crash” type of event. And my “death experience” lasted for four months. But my imagined self DID return following that period, although only a shadow of what it formerly had been.
After that, mine became a slow and protracted painful death of the diseased kind for almost a decade, where I wrestled and resisted, tooth and nail, against the gradual disintegration of some of the more stubborn and entrenched aspects of my imagined self. Yet, even that eventually transformed into that graceful kind of death when the being had ripened with age and was filled with acceptance for the inevitable hour surrounded by all whom I loved.
And one day, that fruit fell from the tree in and of itself.
So was it instant? Was it gradual? Was it both?
Does it even matter?
Looking back it all seems so ordinary and inevitable, just like the night gives way to the day.
The physical body appears to grow in size, stature and strength until it is weakened prematurely by injury or eventually by old age. The imagined self is no different. In both cases, the physical and the psychological, death is the certain destination. Does it matter how the destination is reached?
And why should one want to awaken? Does one wish for physical death in the same way?
One may argue that the evils of the world are caused by egos run amuck. If only we could awaken then there would be no more war, no murder, no hate and violence. But one could argue that the same would be true if all the physical bodies on the planet were weak, injured or aging. Sick people don’t kill others nearly as much. Old people don’t go to war. The injured don’t have the strength to do violence. So should we then consider that the solution to the world’s evils is to somehow arrive at a state in which we are all either old, sick or injured?
That sounds absurd. Then why is it any different for the imagined self? Why wish to debilitate or destroy something that nature has developed within us as a creative spark. Just because we often end up creating flawed or unattractive creations, does that mean we must seek to stifle that creative spark altogether?
Injury, sickness, old age and eventually death are an inevitability for both the physical body and the imagined self. But why wish for these things to come sooner than they naturally do?
Isn’t this a kind of perversion? Isn’t this a sort of death-wish? A denial of the very impulse of life?
Seeking awakening, seeking liberation from the suffering the imagined self causes is like a person suffering from illness wanting a quick end to their physical body. It’s a rational choice yet there is something tragic about it nevertheless.
However, glorifying awakening and building it into some holy grail kind of experience that one goes in search of is like glorifying euthanasia and lining up at the hospital to be euthanized even when one’s illness doesn’t warrant anything more than a simple prescription. There is something bizarre about it.
It reveals a deeply confused state of affairs.