This is the first (and possibly only time) I’ll be recommending a book that I haven’t even finished reading yet.
The main title alone would have gotten it into my good graces, paraphrasing as it does a Zen Buddhist epigram found at the end of my email messages: “After enlightenment, the laundry.”
But a catchy title isn’t the only merit to Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. The earnestness of the subtitle notwithstanding—of a degree that would have placed the book in Oprah Winfrey’s good graces—the work contains perhaps the most compassionate and compelling accounts I’ve ever read of the journeys that advanced practitioners have taken in their search for illumination or enlightenment.
The extraordinarily relevant question that motivates Mr. Kornfield’s book is this: does the experience of enlightenment last? Following the moment of ecstasy, illumination, rapture—or beatific vision if you will—does the spiritual master walk in a state of permanent transfiguration?
The answer, Mr. Kornfield presents in numerous, evocative accounts from practitioners of varying faiths (e.g., Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sufi, etc.), is a resounding no. Citing the case of one particular master who experienced satori (sudden enlightenment) during a week-long sesshin (Zen retreat):
I had felt bliss before—big waves of it on some retreats . . . —but this was different. All struggle stopped, and my mind became luminous, radiant, vast as the sky, and filled with a most delicious scent of freedom, of awakening. I felt like the Buddha sitting effortlessly hour after hour, held and protected by the whole universe. I lived in a world of unending peace and unspeakable joy . . . . For days I rested in this timeless utter peace, my body floating, my mind empty. I would wake up and waves of love and joyful energe would stream through my consciousness. Then, insights and revelations came, one after another . . . .
A few months later, the same master says:
. . . after all this ecstasy came a depression, along with some significant betrayals in my work. I had continuing trouble with my children and family too . . .
In short: after enlightenment is the laundry—tons of it, in fact, irrevocably stained, nauseatingly rank and vastly unsorted.
But why should we read a book whose honesty, even if refreshing, also makes it potentially dismal? Don’t we all start our spiritual quests motivated by aspirations towards achieving an imperturbable (and now apparently ephemeral) serenity? What are we to make of Mr. Kornfield’s assertion that “enlightenment cannot be held by anyone. It simply exists in moments of freedom”?
Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of it for an entire evening either—and consequently spent a gloomy hour staring at the ceiling in the dark. Then I remembered something Mr. Kornfield had said in his introduction to the book in describing a company of Buddhist teachers assembled at a gathering hosted by the Dalai Lama:
We all [shared] the problems that come with bodies, personalities, family, and community. . . . Fortunately we also shared the astonishing gifts that spiritual practices had given us, the joy and freedom we had learned to carry with us in the difficult and changing circumstances of the world.
This, I suppose, is Mr. Kornfield’s intention: to dispense with the ultimately disillusioning misconception that perfection is attainable—to tell us, gently, that moments in time are all that separate the sinner from the saint, BUT, also to tell us that practice can, and does, make the periods of grace longer and the consequences of iniquity lighter.
And we all have that capacity for practice, Mr. Kornfield insists. The occasional frailties of Zen masters notwithstanding, thinking that we can never aspire to the Dalai Lama’s tranquility is laughably erroneous. Quoting Pir Vilayat Khan, the head of the Sufi order in the West, Mr. Kornfield writes:
Of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to America, get them a house, two cards, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance, and taxes . . . they would all have a hard time.
In short: trust me and take heart, you’re farther along the path than you think.