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Template:Buddhism Template:Zen Buddhism

KenshōTemplate:Refn (見性) is a Japanese term from the Zen tradition. Ken means "seeing," shō means "nature, essence".Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

Kenshō is an initial insight or awakening, not full Buddhahood.Template:Sfn It is to be followed by further training to deepen this insight, and learn to express it in daily life.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn

The term kenshō is often used interchangeably with satori, which is derived from the verb satoru,Template:Sfn and means "comprehension; understanding".[web 1]Template:RefnTemplate:Refn


The Chinese Buddhist term jianxing (Template:Zh) compounds:

  • jian "see, observe, meet with, perceive";
  • xing "(inborn) nature, character, personality, disposition, property, quality,gender".


Buddhist monks who produced Sanskrit-Chinese translations of sutras faced many linguistic difficulties:

Thus, jianxing was the translation for dṛṣṭi-svabhāva, "view one's essential nature".

The (c. 8th century) Chinese Platform Sutra (2, Prajñā "wisdom, understanding") first records jianxing.[1]


The Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation jianxing historically derives from (c. 7th century CE) Middle Chinese kienCsjäŋC.

East Asian Languages, particularly the Sino-Xenic Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese tongues, borrowed the Chinese Buddhist term jianxing as a loanword:

Meanings of kenshō

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Translating kenshō into English is semantically complex.

Encyclopedic and dictionary definitions

Some encyclopedia and dictionary definitions are:

  • Soothill (1934): "To behold the Buddha-nature within oneself, a common saying of the Chan (Zen) or Intuitive School."Template:Sfn
  • Fischer-Schreiber (1991): Lit. "seeing nature"; Zen expression for the experience of awakening (enlightenment). Since the meaning is "seeing one's own true nature," kenshō is usually translated "self-realization." Like all words that try to reduce the conceptually ungraspable experience of enlightenment to a concept, this one is also not entirely accurate and is even misleading, since the experience contains no duality of "seer" and "seen" because there is no "nature of self' as an object that is seen by a subject separate from it.Template:Sfn
  • Baroni (2002): "Seeing one's nature," that is, realizing one's own original Buddha Nature. Kenshō is a Japanese term commonly used for an enlightenment experience; in many cases, it is used synonymously with satori. In the Rinzai school, it most often refers more specifically to one's initial enlightenment experience attained though kôan practice.Template:Sfn
  • Muller (year unknown): To see one's own originally enlightened mind. To behold the Buddha-nature within oneself, a common saying of the Chan school, as seen for example, in the phrase 'seeing one's nature, becoming Buddha' 見性成佛.Template:Sfn

Definitions by Buddhist scholars

Buddhist scholars have defined kenshō as:

  • D.T. Suzuki: "Looking into one's nature or the opening of satori";Template:Sfn "This acquiring of a new point of view in our dealings with life and the world is popularly called by Japanese Zen students 'satori' (wu in Chinese). It is really another name for Enlightenment (Annuttara-samyak-sambodhi)".Template:SfnTemplate:Refn
  • Dumoulin (1988/2005): "Enlightenment is described here as an insight into the identity of one's own nature with all of reality in an eternal now, as a vision that removes all distinctions. This enlightenment is the center and the goal of the Zen way. Hakuin prefers the term "seeing into one's nature", which for him means ultimate reality. The Buddha nature and the cosmic Buddha body, wisdom (prajna), and emptiness (sunyata), the original countenance one had before one was born, and other expressions from the rich palette of Mahayana terms were all familiair to him from his continued study of the sutras and Zen literature."Template:Sfn
  • Peter Harvey (1990): "It is a blissful realization where a person's inner nature, the originally pure mind, is directly known as an illuminating emptiness, a thusness which is dynamic and immanent in the world."Template:Sfn
  • G. Victor Sogen Hori (2000): "The term consists of two characters: ken, which means "see" or "seeing", and sho, which means "nature", "character", "quality." To "see one's nature" is the usual translation for kensho".Template:Sfn

Definitions by Buddhist teachers and practitioners

Buddhist teachers and practitioners have defined kenshō as:

Further notions

The term kenshō refers to the realization of nonduality of subject and object in general,Template:Sfn but the term kenshō may also be applied in other contexts:Template:Sfn "How do you kenshō this?"Template:Sfn

Kenshō is not a single experience, but refers to a whole series of realizations from a beginner's shallow glimpse of the nature of mind, up to a vision of emptiness equivalent to the 'Path of Seeing' or to Buddhahood itself. In all of these, the same 'thing' is known, but in different degrees of clarity and profundity.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

"Kenshō" is commonly translated as enlightenment, a word that is also used to translate bodhi, prajna, satori and buddhahood. Western discourse tends to use these terms interchangeably, but there is a distinction between a first insight, and the further development toward Buddhahood.

Insight versus experience

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Kensho is insight, an understanding of reality as-it-is.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn Contemporary understanding also describes kensho as an experience. The term "enlightenment experience" is itself a tautology: "Kensho is a kensho-experience".

The notion of "experience" fits in a popular set of dichotomies: pure (unmediated) versus mediated, noncognitive versus cognitive, experiential versus intellectual, intuitive versus intellectual, nonrational versus rational, nondiscursive versus discursive, nonpropositional versus propositional.Template:Sfn

The notion of pure experience (junsui kuiken) to interpret and understand kensho was introduced by Nishida Kitaro in his An Inquiry into the Good (1911), under influence of "his somewhat idiosyncratic reading of western philosophy",Template:Sfn especially William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.Template:Refn Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of "religious experience" to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of "religious experience" was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular citique. It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Nishida Kitaro to western philosophy, took over this notion of pure experience, describing it as the essence of all religions,Template:Sfn but best represented in the superior Japanese culture and religion.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

The influence of western psychology and philosophy on Japanese Buddhism was due to the persecution of Buddhism at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, and the subsequent efforts to construct a New Buddhism (shin bukkyo), adapted to the modern times.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn It was this New Buddhism which has shaped the understanding of Zen in the west,Template:Sfn especially through the writings of D.T. SuzukiTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn and the Sanbo Kyodan, an exponent of the Meiji-era opening of Zen-training for lay-followers.Template:Sfn

The notion of "experience" has been criticised.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn Robert Sharf points out that "experience" is a typical western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn The notion of "experience" introduces a false notion of duality between "experiencer" and "experienced", where-as the essence of kensho is the realisation of the "non-duality" of observer and observed.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn "Pure experience" does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even determine what "experience" someone has, which means that this "experience" is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching.Template:Sfn A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by "cleaning the doors of perception"Template:Refn, would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.Template:Sfn The notion of "experience" also over-emphasises kensho, as if it were the single goal of Zen-training, where-as the Zen-tradition clearly states that "the stink of Zen"Template:Sfn has to be removed and the "experience" of kensho has to be integrated into daily life.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn In the Rinzai-school this post-satori training includes the study and mastering of great amounts of classical Chinese poetry, which is far from "universal" and culture-transcending. On the contrary, it demands an education in culture-specific language and behaviour, which is measured by specific and strict cultural norms.Template:Sfn Emphasising "experience" "reduces the sophisticated dialectic of Ch'an/Zen doctrine and praxis to a mere "means" or set of techniques intended to inculcate such experiences".Template:Sfn

Kenshō "experiences"

Classical accounts

The classical Zen-texts, such as the Kao-seng-chuan (Biographies of Eminent Monks) and the transmission lists, called "Transmission of the Lamp"Template:Refn the yü-lü genreTemplate:Sfn (the recorded sayings of the masters, such as the Linji yü lü); and the various koan-collections,Template:Refn contain accounts of "enlightenment experiences". These accounts are not verbatim recordings of such "experiences", but well-edited texts, written down decennia or even decades after the supposed sayings and meetings.Template:Sfn

The Denkōroku, "The Record of the Transmission of the Light", written by Keizan Jōkin 瑩山紹瑾 (1268–1325), is an example of the "Transmission of the Lamp"-genre. It contains literary accounts of the patriarchs of the Soto-lineage, from Shakyamuni Buddha to Koun Ejō, in which kensho plays a central role. They are not to be taken as literal accounts of awakening, but as stories underpinning the legitimicay of the Dogen-shu, which in its early history had seen a fierce internal conflict over the correct lineage during the Sandai sōron.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Refn

The Denkoroku gives the following account of Dogen's awakening: Template:Quote

Contemporary accounts

Although the Zen tradition is reluctant to speak openly about the 'experience' of kensho,Template:Sfn personal accounts can be found in Zen-texts.

Hakuin gives this description of his first kensho, when he was 21:Template:Sfn Template:Quote

Hakuin's kensho was not approved by Shoju Rojin, who subjected Hakuin to more koan-training. This resulted in a second kensho, where-after Hakuin left Shoju Rojin. It was only when he was 41 that he attained "his final great enlightenment":Template:Sfn Template:Quote

Keido Fukushima, a 20th-century Rinzai abbott, gives the following description: Template:Quote

Other accounts can be found throughout the Zen-literature.Template:Refn

Spontaneous kenshō

Kenshō may be attained without the aid of a teacher. For example Richard Clarke (1933), who studied with Philip Kapleau, states that he had a spontaneous kensho when he was 13.[web 2] Dennis Genpo Merzel states he had what he described as an "awakening experience" in 1971:[web 3] Template:Quote

More descriptions of "spontaneous kensho" can be found throughout the Zen-literature,Template:Refn while a classic example may be Ramana Maharshi's awakening.

Training towards kenshō

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According to Harris, working towards kensho is usually a lengthy process stretched out over years or even decades.Template:Sfn Contrary to this, Victor Hori notes that with koan-study kensho may appear within six months. Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

Sōtō tends towards a gradual approach, preferring to let the experiences happen on their own. Rinzai tends toward the use of Koans as a technique to unroot the habitual workings of the mind.Template:Sfn

During intensive zazen various hallucinations and psychological disturbances may arise. These are referred to as makyo. Distinguishing these delusions from actual kensho is the primary function of the teacher, as the student may be erroneously convinced they have realized kensho.


In the Rinzai school, kensho is seen as indispensable: Template:Quote

In the Rinzai-training, the student is expected to pour oneself totally in both koan-study and daily activities 'to become one' with it.Template:Sfn Kenshō is used to describe the first breakthrough in kōan study.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn


In the Sōtō school there are two kinds of awakening.Template:Sfn One is the practice of shikantaza, which is the "actual enlightened activity of the Buddha".Template:Sfn The other is the accumulation of little bits of understanding, which come together, giving way to a deeper intuitive knowledge.Template:Sfn

The "genjo-koan", or the "koan of everyday life" which "appears naturally in daily life",Template:Sfn is emphasized. Students are not encouraged to actively seek out kenshō experiences. In Sōtō practice kenshōs "are allowed to occur naturally, as a by-product of practice. Meditative training is seen as the unfolding of one great kenshō:Template:Sfn Template:Quote

Sanbō Kyōdan

Kenshō also plays a central in the Sanbō Kyōdan, a Japanese Zen-organisation which played a decisive role in the transmission of Zen to the United States.Template:Sfn Yasutani, the founder of the Sanbo Kyodan, was disappointed about the lack of interest in kensho in the Soto-school. Yasutani's emphasis on koan-training and the importance of kensho was transmitted to his American students:Template:Sfn Template:Quote

It is also reflected in the inclusion of a relative great amount of kensho-stories in "The three pillars of Zen", written by Philip Kapleau, a student of Yasutani.Template:Sfn

Training after kenshō

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Zen Buddhist training does not end with kenshō. Practice is to be continued to deepen the insight and to express it in daily life.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn According to the contemporary Chan Master Sheng Yen: Template:Quote

And the contemporary western Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett: Template:Quote

To deepen the initial insight of kensho, shikantaza and kōan-study are necessary. This trajectory of initial insight followed by a gradual deepening and ripening is expressed by Linji Yixuan in his Three mysterious Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin,Template:Sfn and the Ten Ox-Herding PicturesTemplate:Sfn which detail the steps on the Path.

Seitai choyo

Post-awakening practice is called seitai choyo, the "long nurturing of the sacred fetus".Template:SfnTemplate:Refn According to Spiegelberg, Template:Quote

During the T'ang-era, the term became associated with the ideal of the recluse who leaves the world.Template:Sfn An ideal period of "twenty years" was taken for it, echoing a story from the Lotus Sutra about a prodigal son who wandered in poverty for twenty years before returning home.Template:Sfn References to these twenty years are found throughout the Chán-tradition, for example Linji, who is reported to have studied under Huang-po for twenty years,Template:Sfn and Daito, the founder of Daitoku-ji, who famoulsy spent twenty years living under a bridge with beggars.Template:Sfn

Cultivating bodhicitta

According to Hakuin, the main aim of "post-satori practice"Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn (gogo no shugyoTemplate:Sfn or kojo, "going beyond"Template:Sfn) is to cultivate the "Mind of Enlightenment",Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn "benefiting others by giving them the gift of the Dharma teaching".Template:SfnTemplate:Refn According to Yamada Koun, "if you cannot weep with a person who is crying, there is no kensho".Template:Sfn And according to Barry Template:Quote

Further practice

One also has to purify oneself by ongoing practice,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn since Template:Quote

And "experience" has to be supplemented by intellectual understanding and study of the Buddhist teachings;Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn otherwise one remains a zen temma, a "Zen devil".Template:Sfn Finally, these efforts are to result in a natural, effortless, down-to-earth state of being, the "ultimate liberation", "knowing without any kind of defilement".Template:Sfn

Sudden insight

Kenshō is described as appearing suddenly, upon an interaction with someone else, at hearing or reading some significant phrase, or at the perceiving of an unexpected sound or sight.Template:Sfn The idea of "sudden insight" has been hotly debated in the history of Zen. It became part of the Traditional Zen Narrative in the 8th century.Template:Sfn

Chinul, a 12th-century Korean Seon master, emphasized that insight into our true nature is sudden, but is to be followed by practice to ripen the insight and attain full Buddhahood. The contemporary Korean Seon master Seongcheol opposed this, emphasizing "sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation". But Jiyu-Kennett, a contemporary western teacher, warns that attaining kenshō does not mean that a person is free from morality, the laws of karma, or the consequences of ones actions.Template:Sfn This warning is reflected in the Wild fox koan.

Mushi-dokugo and mushi-dokkaku

Kenshō may be attained without the aid of a teacher,Template:Sfn as in the case of mushi-dokugoTemplate:Sfn or (mushi-)dokkaku, a self-awakened pratyeka-buddha.[web 4]

Though the literal meaning is self-awakened, or awakened on one's own, the emphasis in Zen, when using these terms, lies in the ultimate reliance on one's own insight, instead of the authority of a teacher: Template:Quote

Similarities with other traditions

While the Japanese term "kenshō" is generally used by practitioners of Zen Buddhism, the insight it refers to is not limited to Japanese Zen Buddhism, or even to Buddhism in general.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn


The Theravada tradition, which is best known in the west through the modern Vipassana movement, discerns four stages of enlightenment, in which Nirvana is being reached in four succeeding sudden steps of insight.


The Dzogchen-traditions states that the ultimate nature of all sentient beings is pure, all-encompassing, primordial awareness, or naturally occurring timeless awareness. This intrinsic awareness has no form of its own, and yet is capable of perceiving, experiencing, reflecting, or expressing all form. It does so without being affected by those forms in any ultimate, permanent way.

The analogy given by Dzogchen masters is that one's nature is like a mirror which reflects with complete openness, but is not affected by the reflections. Rigpa is the knowledge that ensues from recognizing this mirror-like clarity,Template:Sfn which cannot be found by searching nor identified.Template:Sfn One knows that there is a primordial freedom from grasping his or her mind.Template:Sfn

Advaita Vedanta

In Advaita Vedanta moksha is attained by jnana, insight-knowledge. In Shankara's philosophical synthesis insight samadhi is used as a subsidiary to this goal. Swami Vivekananda emphasized the experience of nirvikalpa samadhi as a means to validate religious, transcendental knowledge.Template:Sfn

See also



  1. Hanyu Da Cidian 汉语大词典, vol. 10, p. 314.


Published sources




Further reading



Sanbo Kyodan


External links

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