Saying Too Much

In Zen — and I’m sure this is true of other Buddhist traditions as well — students are sternly warned not to talk about a kensho or “enlightenment experience” to everyone and his uncle. It’s fine to discuss these things with a teacher, but not to others. I know of at least three reasons for this.

One reason to keep silent about some things is to avoid jealousy or competitiveness among students. Another is that it creates expectations in less “advanced” students about what such an experience might be like, and expecting an imagined experience can get in the way of the real thing.

And the third reason is that most people will misunderstand everything you say.

In his book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, Brad Warner says that he “stupidly” wrote about a kensho experience in his first book, and he describes how people who have read the first book utterly misinterpret what he wrote. And these are people who found the first book inspirational.

He has a blog post up now recounting a Twitter conversation with another such person. The questioner can’t get past thinking about enlightenment as something separate from the “enlightened being,” something to possess or be touched by or otherwise experienced, and Warner keeps saying no, that’s not it.

And the questioner accuses Warner of being evasive, but I don’t see that he is. He’s said all he can say. He’s said too much,  perhaps.

Let me be clear that Zen is not an esoteric tradition. There are no secret teachings that are given only to high-level initiates. By now just about everything Zen has to say about anything has not only been made public but has been published in multiple languages.

But on an individual level, even genuine insights and experiences can contain dangers. If we blab too much, if we turn a mystical experience into a public narrative, the way we understand the experience can change also. Keeping it bottled up is not good, either, however, because then it becomes something to cling to. So do talk about it, but talk about it to a teacher.

Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

[This post originally was published on Buddhism on August 12, 2013.]

One thought on “Saying Too Much

  1. osumarko

    I recall Ajahn Brahm passing on advice he had heard. He was told, don’t ever say you’re enlightened because once you do, you’ll have to spend the rest of your life having to prove it.


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