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Commentary: Enlightenment is Something We Do Together

John Tarrant, photo by Roger Jordan

There’s a romantic idea of enlightenment as a solitary and heroic act, but even if you’re off by yourself in a cave, you are still part of a culture, and it’s observable that some cultures are more friendly to discovery than others. Building a culture has been an ongoing and repeated task of Buddhism since the time of the Buddha.

When I was teaching meditation at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, I read a Mary Oliver poem to a group of doctors. It had the line, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” This line gradually changed the retreat. Some combi- nation of meditation and permission encouraged people to talk about things they hadn’t talked about before. Painful stories are often kinder in the light.

We often disapprove of parts of our lives without really examining them—it’s like never going into certain rooms of your house. But meditation allows all the voices and all the images into the room. When we open the invisible doors, we can come to rest in the life we have; we can love it as it is instead of waiting for a shinier version. Every day is a good day, goes the Zen koan.

Just as doctors don’t normally talk about what they feel and the difficulties they face, meditators don’t talk about the personal stories that are the basis of their discoveries.

Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.

John Tarrant is the director of the Pacific Zen Institute and author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and The Light Inside the Dark, as well as Zenosaurus, an online course in koans.

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