In my continuing inquiry into the mysteries of an awakened life, I frequently seat myself at the feet of teachers. Ven. Master Sheng-yen is a renowned Taiwanese Zen master, hailed by the Dalai Lama as “someone who is very experienced.” The following exchange is taken from an interview by Carter Phipps.
Interviewer: In your recent book* you write, “Sometimes the mind experiences something that it takes to be enlightenment, but it is actually just the ego in a very happy state.” Could you explain the difference between these two experiences—between genuine enlightenment and a condition where the ego is simply, as you said, “in a very happy state”?
Master Sheng-yen: The experience of happiness can also be a part of enlightenment; a person can feel happy whether they are enlightened or not. But usually when one is in this blissful, happy state, it is because, in that moment, one is no longer feeling burdened by one’s body or by one’s mind and emotions, and so one feels very at ease. However, this is not the same as liberation. One may feel very light; it doesn’t mean anything. A very peaceful, blissful, happy feeling is not the same as enlightenment.
Enlightenment is not being attached to any viewpoint or having any attachment to the body. There’s no burden at all, and that’s why one would feel happy. For example, [the historical] Buddha, after his enlightenment, sat under the bodhi tree for seven days to enjoy this happiness, this dharma joy from his liberation. But one can feel happiness whether one is enlightened or is not enlightened.
* (1999). Subtle wisdom: understanding suffering, cultivating compassion through Ch’an Buddhism. ISBN 0-385-48045-8.