The Sublime and the Profane..., Enlightenment and Shit (Part 1 of 2)

Siddhartha Gautama, after a long and (up until then) unsatisfying quest for ultimate wisdom, is said to have vowed to remain seated under the bodhi tree until either awakening to the true nature of reality or passing away. In between the time of that vow and the time of his awakening, Siddhartha is said to have been visited by many “demons” – demons that we modern contemplatives might best understand as the darker manifestations of Siddhartha Gautama’s mind. As the days and nights progressed these distractions became more and more intense, culminating, it is said, in the future Buddha facing one final but monumental doubt: What right did he have to such profound wisdom? It is said that Siddhartha Gautama then reached down to touch the earth, and as the morning star rose in the sky he realized enlightenment, he became Buddha – Awakened One. Much can be read into the symbolism of touching the earth, but I’m inclined to view it in terms of Siddhartha Gautama having recognized that his consciousness is a manifestation of the earth and all beings that came into being before him and with him, consciousness which would, in turn, set the stage for all beings yet to come.

From the PBS presentation: The Buddha

Zen Buddhists traditionally commemorate and imitate (as best they can, anyway) this important milestone in the development of human consciousness with a period of intense meditation known as rohatsu sesshin. Rohatsu, in Japanese, means “eighth day of the twelfth month”, and sesshin means “collecting” or “touching” the “heart-mind” (Aitken, 1992; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994). Rohatsu sesshin, then, commonly refers to a period of intense meditation ending on the eighth day of December, the day that is recognized as the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment – sometimes celebrated as Bodhi Day.

At Sanshinji Temple, rohatsu sesshin consists of six days worth of fourteen 50-minute meditation periods commencing at 4:10 in the morning and continuing until 9:00 in the evening, and a seventh day of sixteen sittings ending at midnight. Perhaps it goes without saying that a week spent in such fashion is intensely difficult and challenging, but the precise nature of the challenge is only revealed as the days pass by and one’s personal karma unfolds within the general milieu of sleep and sensory deprivation, physical pain, and mental duress accompanying the seemingly endless rounds of seated meditation. This is the profane component of the story. The stress of so much sitting tends to bring out all of the ugliness that the mind is capable of generating – and that is actually quite a lot. Don’t say you don’t believe in the Jungian conceptualization of the shadow until you’ve spent some time in meditation in this way! And, yet, the process of watching as the mind reveals its shadows, without identifying with them nor denying them, provides insight into the nature of the self, i.e. its emptiness, its impermanence, its dependence upon causes and conditions. Such insight is truly sublime indeed.    

This story begins on the morning of my third day of sesshin (I arrived at Sanshinji a couple of days late due to my work schedule): Now, some people will contend that sitting zazen is good for digestion due to all of that diaphragmatic breathing gently massaging the lower alimentary canal and all. I suspect that this is probably true, in general. However, it is my experience that the effect on my aging digestive system of all of that deep, rhythmic breathing is to turn it into something more akin to a trash compactor than a conveyer belt…, if you know what I mean. And by the beginning of my third day my little trash compactor had been churning right along with no end in sight!

In a fog of sleepiness, I sketched out a plan for the coming few hours: I would “power through” the pre-dawn sittings without relying on any caffeine. Then, since I was not assigned any post-breakfast cleanup duties that day, I would grab a brief but suitably relaxing catnap – waking in time to brew a pot of coffee and partake in sufficient enough quantity thereof that my system might be nudged into, um…, “activity” prior to the commencement of the next round of five, count ‘em, five sittings.

The plan was going quite well. Breakfast was enjoyable, as always. The catnap was just enough to sweep away the sleepiness of having awakened so early. I watched patiently as the coffee maker gurgled its delightful mantra in the little kitchenette just outside of the zendo. It was going to be dark; it was going to be rich…; and, most importantly, it was going to be “energizing”. Unfortunately, though, that delightful mantra was interrupted by a little hiccup that preceded a muddy mixture of steaming water and coffee grounds overflowing from the brewing receptacle and spilling out onto the counter. What happened next was a flurry of activity that didn’t end until the mess was cleaned up and I’d salvaged as much of the priceless beverage as could be salvaged. All was not lost! My plan was still on track! Sip after quick sip, I partook of the fine brew – enjoying the sensation of it awakening my body and mind. My gut was talking to me again. “Varoom!” it said. Ah, but what’s this activity outside the kitchen door? People are beginning to assemble again for zazen. I looked at the clock. “Shit!” It was time to take my seat once again.

Almost as soon as I’d settled into zazen it occurred to me what a perfect lesson I’d been given – profane as it might be: Much of our karma is like sitting with a belly full of crap that we’d love to get rid of but can’t. Isn’t it the case that we often realize the error of our ways long before we cease experiencing the negative consequences of those ways? Yes, we can change our mind…, we can even change our behavior; but the repercussions of our past mental and physical activity continue until such karma has been exhausted. This playing out of karma is not magic. Think of it in terms of a chronic liar who must be proven truthful time and time again before people return to trusting him, or an alcoholic who must maintain sobriety for months or even years before her family will really believe that she has changed.

Much, or maybe even all, of spiritual practice takes place within the context of “sitting with a belly full of crap”. We want to get rid of so many things! That jerk of a boss, the illness that we’ve contracted, a relationship that’s gone sour, the financial mess we’ve become mired in, the meaninglessness that we feel, the depression that weighs us down, the anxiety that has our heart racing when least we expect it, our grief at the loss of a loved one, the contentiousness that seems to permeate all of our interactions – wouldn’t we love to simply wave our hands and make them all go away? And yet all we can really do is take a really hard look at the causes and conditions that brought these things into existence in our lives, recalibrate our outlook and our intention, adjust our behavior, and maintain patience as the karma that we’ve created plays out.

But here’s the beauty of it all: We don’t have to wait for all of the crap in our lives to get flushed away before realizing awakening. Awakening occurs just as soon as we see our lives as they really are, for what they really are. Flowers sprout from the compost pile if given the opportunity!

Part 2: A wild beast wherever I turn! Please stay tuned…



Aitken, R. (1992). Some words about sesshin for newcomers to Zen practice. Transcription of a lecture given at Sydney Zen Center, accessed via

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.


Image Credits

Image of Buddha, Bodhi Tree, and morning star via:

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


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