by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part II
The Five Kenshos

In the sea of suffering, the waters of karma are flowing high;
In the river of desire, the evil current is streaming fast.
Whose gift is the light of compassion, sympathy and wisdom?
When we cross the stream we might perish in the mass of water that has no end.
But the boat of Compassion appears and shows us our Divine Endowment.

Introductory Note

This Part of these Reflections is intended to supplement the short essay on kenshos in the Foreword to the second edition of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom (titled "Kenshos" in the first edition). Please note that training and enlightenment is one continuous, infinitely complex process. No one can fully comprehend that complexity, much less describe it adequately in words. Nonetheless, for those who wish to do deep training, the teaching of the five kenshos provides invaluable teaching. Just as Newtonian physics describes the behavior of large bodies accurately enough for us to put a man on the moon, even though the discoveries of relativity and quantum physics reveal a far more complex and puzzling world than is described in Newton's laws, so the teaching of the five kenshos provides an accurate, if abstract, representation of the full process of training and enlightenment.

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett taught that everyone goes through the same stages in training, but that everyone experiences these stages in their own unique way. Within the stage of the third kensho, in particular, different people may experience some of the sub-stages within the kensho in different order from one another. The Eternal meets the spiritual need of each individual with the exact form of help that the need requires, and at the exact moment that the help will be of greatest benefit. No one can fathom such Wisdom and Compassion. But we can experience it. As Rev. Master wrote, "It is the stages of this particular path that the reader should carefully study, not so that he can have my experience, but so that he may have his own."

The First Kensho

Imagine a great, windswept sea separating two lands. A person stands on one shore and looks in the direction of the other land across the sea, but it is far away and cannot be seen. The person feels a strong inner need to get to that land across the sea. Is one hearing in one's heart a distant call, a beckoning from a far-off land? There is a small boat at hand. But one would be going into unknown perils with no guarantee of safe arrival on the distant, unseen shore. The choice to set out on such a journey is a serious choice. Much time may be spent on the shore pondering the pros and cons of making such a journey.

Suppose our friend decides to begin the voyage. It is a vast sea and no land is in sight across the waters. How is this person going to know which direction to go? It would make sense to sail directly away from the shore. But when that shore is not in view anymore, how is one to navigate?

If others have made the journey and returned, providing directions for succeeding voyagers, that is a big help. But what if all the directions refer to a particular star that the voyager must identify and steer by? And what if one is having trouble identifying that star? One hunts and hunts, gradually eliminating the competing stars. And then one finds it. There is a great "Eureka!" moment, together with a flood of certainty that one can indeed make this journey. Though there may be times when clouds will obscure the star, it has not ceased to exist: it will always reappear to show the way.

The sea is the sea of suffering. The boat is the boat of training. The land from which the voyager departs is worldly life before beginning training. The land which is the voyager's destination is reunion with the Eternal. For all people who make this journey, there are five stages in the voyage. These are the five kenshos. The word "kensho" means "awakening to our True Nature". So there are five stages of awakening. But it is equally true, and in some ways more helpful, to think of the kenshos as five stages in one continuous process in which the total spiritual need of the trainee receives the full help of the Buddha Nature.

The "Eureka!" moment in which one knows that one has found the guiding star is the first kensho, for in the first kensho one has the first great awakening to the Buddha Nature. At the beginning of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom Rev. Master wrote, "Whether I am well or sick, brightly alive or dying, hold fast to the Lord of the House." This certainty of the Refuge of one's True Nature is the great gift of the first kensho. How does one keep one's course fixed upon the guiding star? Rev. Master wrote, "Nothing matters; mindfulness is all."--In other words, let go of external things and meditate. We look to the Eternal through pure meditation.

This, then, is the first stage of the voyage across the sea of suffering: the reorientation of our mind and heart away from false refuges and toward the True Refuge of the Eternal. When we know how to take refuge in the Eternal, we are on our way. The Buddha designated the person who had reached this stage as a "stream entrant". The Buddha also made it very clear that the first kensho is a new beginning, not an end, of training. It is said that the person who has experienced the first kensho will need, at most, seven more rebirths in the realms of suffering in order to complete the conversion of karma. That is very cold comfort indeed when one considers how much suffering can be packed into a single lifetime. "At most, seven more rebirths" can thus be understood to be saying, "Yes, you have had a first kensho. Good beginning! Now get on with it, because if you stop here, you are in big trouble! Greed, hate and delusion--the causes of suffering--still need to be trained and converted."

The Second Kensho

Having left the shore and found the direction in which to sail, the voyager now traverses a great expanse of water, sometimes placid, sometimes turbulent, and hiding dangerous reefs and shoals that threaten to sink or ground the boat. The voyager quickly finds that it is one thing to identify the guiding star and another to keep on course when it is temporarily obscured by clouds, or when winds blow in a contrary direction, or when one has to go out of the way to avoid a reef.

This is the stage of the second kensho, an "on-going" kensho in which the course of training takes one through many moments of insight and acceptance alternating with periods of spiritual confusion and pain. What is going on during this period, which usually lasts for years?

In the second kensho the trainee is struggling with deep-rooted habitual tendencies that result in suffering. These tendencies have been reinforced in this present lifetime, but their deep roots lie in the past-life inheritance, and it is only when we see the dark ignorance that characterizes the most confused and anguished parts of that past-life inheritance that we can fully appreciate why some of these habitual tendencies are so insistent and obdurate. This is called the "habit-energy" of karma. Of course, there is more to the second kensho than seemingly-interminable slogging through misery: there are the many "little moments that make one dance" as well--the encouraging reminders from the Eternal: "I am here with you through all the twists and turns. Keep looking up!"

The trainee is presented with many crucial choices during the second kensho. Karma "comes due" (a term I will discuss in a later essay in this series) in forms that challenge faith, certainty and resolve. Again and again, the trainee has to choose whether to go the way of the world and worldly religion, or whether to walk the lonelier and seemingly more risky path of deeper spirituality. In Zen is Eternal Life, Rev. Master writes that the evidence of successful training in the second kensho is willingness, "in face of all opposition, distrust and misunderstanding" to "carry on in the path he [the trainee] has chosen, truly caring nothing for material things, fame, fortune, reputation, honour, life or death."

The person who has completed the second kensho is said to be a "once-returner," meaning that, at most, one more rebirth in a realm of suffering will be needed in order to complete the conversion of karma. The trials undergone in the second kensho strengthen faith and willingness. And faith and willingess will be required when the trainee arrives at the great spiritual darkness that is the threshold of the third kensho.

The Third Kensho

In the metaphor of the voyager crossing the sea of suffering, the third kensho begins when the boat leaves the shallower waters with their reefs and shoals, and enters into deep water over which fierce winds howl, driving great waves that toss the boat and crash against its hull. But as the boat sails on through the storm, the wind and waves diminish. At last the sun breaks through the clouds, the winds die, and the voyager sails across a bright and serene sea.

In the third kensho the deepest spiritual need finally meets the help of the Eternal head-on. The intensity of the spiritual darkness that precedes this "happy meeting" is proportional to the depth of the need. When the preliminary work of conversion has been completed in the first two kenshos, the unconditional willingness of the trainee makes it possible for the Compassion of the Eternal to transform great need into great enlightenment in the third kensho.

A great spiritual brightness accompanies the "happy meeting". The light of Wisdom shines back over the whole stream of karma, illuminating all the tragic events, all the anguish and confusion, grief and despair, anger and self-judgment, the doubt and desire--and all are seen in their wonderful True Nature: "When we look upon the stream of karma with enlightened eyes, we see not a single speck of dust." The path into the future is also illuminated, for a flood of Teaching shows how to live so as to stay fixed upon the "guiding star" of the Eternal through the constantly-changing conditions of daily life. This is the deep meaning of the Precepts, and in the third kensho the Precepts are comprehended at a new level. The single most important part of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom for all who long for full reharmonization with the Buddha Nature is Rev. Master's commentary on the Precepts in the text accompanying Plate XII. I will have much more to say about Preceptual practice in the pages that follow.

The trainee at the level of the third kensho is said to be a "non-returner," meaning that, if any future rebirths are needed, they will not be in realms of suffering. This can be looked at like this: The deepest spiritual need has received the help of the Etenal and has dissolved into Immaculacy. However, at the time of death there still be may some unfulfilled purpose that requires a rebirth. For example, the trainee may, either before or after commencing formal training, have made a vow that has not been fulfilled at the time of death.

The Fourth Kensho

The voyager in our metaphor is now approaching the distant land toward which he embarked so long ago. Again shoals and reefs appear. But now the voyager is much more experienced and more readily avoids the hazards. When they are not altogether avoided, he more quickly frees himself and continues on. Sometimes he sails through emerald islands surrounded by turquoise waters in which dolphins, fish and turtles freely swim. He sails on, and his heart rejoices in the voyage.

The fourth kensho is, like the second kensho, an on-going kensho. Just as the orientation upon the Eternal initiated in the first kensho is more deeply and thoroughly established through all the twists and turns of the second kensho, so the reharmonization of body and mind with the Eternal that takes place during the third kensho is deepened and broadened in the fourth kensho. There is no limit to the degree to which reharmonization can be developed through on-going training. Nor is there any lack of problems to be solved. But now the trainee knows how to turn to the Eternal for the solutions, how to "wait upon the Lord", how to listen for the quiet prompting of the Heart, and how to follow gladly and willingly when that prompting comes.

Great Master Dogen's master told him, "Study in detail. Do not think it is easy." The deep understanding of Preceptual Truth that is given in the third kensho flows forth into every aspect of daily life in the fourth kensho. The trainee finds the Love of the Eternal in joy and in sorrow, in tragedy and in triumph, in health and in illness. The training of illness, old age and dying is hard training. And it is Buddha.

The person who has reached this level of training is said to be an "arahant", one for whom the conversion of karma is so complete--the spiritual need so fully met--that there is no longer a need for rebirth in any realm. The training of a person who so fully reharmonizes with the Eternal benefits all beings. The merit of such a life is incalculable.

The Fifth Kensho

At last the voyager reaches the destination and steps out upon the shore. He takes nothing with him, and the whole world is his. He is alone, and That which he sought in making this journey is with him wherever he goes. He is free to go on into an unknown land or to return to his boat and return to his land of origin in order to show others the way across the sea of suffering, but he will not wilfully do anything. He came to this shore because Something called to him and he intuitively heard the call and said "Yes" to it. Now he will only go where It leads him, for in truth, and beyond any possibility of the possibility of the possibility of doubt, It is all of him.

I believe I remember Rev. Master speaking of the fifth kensho as normally happening at the time of death. This makes sense to me. Just as the first kensho is a new beginning, I believe that the fifth kensho is a new beginning in which the merit of a lifetime of training dissolves into the infinite Ocean of Merit of the Eternal. This merit can then be used by the Eternal for the benefit of all beings. In this fifth kensho there is undifferentiated oneness with the Eternal. In Sir Edwin Arnold's majestic and beautiful words, "The dewdrop slips into the shining sea."

That which is called the "Bodhisattva Mind" is simply the unconditional willingness to be a vessel and instrument of the Eternal: "The leaf goes where the Wind blows and does not disobey the Wind." This willingness transcends all opposites. It originates in, and returns to, the Eternal. All we have to do is not obstruct its flow through clinging, self-judgment or fear. If at the time of death we can meet the infinite Love of the Eternal with the willingness that is wholly of the Eternal, then indeed will the leaf go where the Wind blows--to the benefit of all beings, past, present and future.

I think of the fifth kensho as a new beginning via the Eternal's dispersing of merit--the fulfillment of the first Bodhisattva vow: "Living beings are beyond numbering. I vow to row them to the other shore." The endless following of the Eternal is Eternal Life.

The Boat of Compassion

The boat in the metaphor that I have used in discussing the five kenshos represents training. The verse that heads this Part of these Reflections refers to the "boat of Compassion", which represents the help flowing from the Eternal. We can get a more complete picture of the process of training/enlightenment by imagining the boat of training and the boat of Compassion sailing side by side through the sea of suffering. Most of the time, the voyager does not see the boat of Compassion that is always by his side. He has to trust that it is there. Yet, whether he sees it or not--indeed, whether he always trusts that it is there or not--it is always present, providing help in all need.

This relationship between our spiritual training and the help of the Eternal is the subject of Part III of these Reflections.


Click here to go to Part III, "Training and Enlightenment"

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