Glossary: Satori

Satori is the Japanese term used in Zen Buddhism to refer to awakening and the realisation of the true nature of the self, or Buddha nature. It’s also sometimes called Kensho, where ken means ‘seeing’ and sho means ‘nature’ or ‘essence.’

Kensho is generally understood to be your first experience of realisation and is often a tiny glimpse of Buddha nature. It doesn’t last and has no deep roots in the personality built through spiritual practice and meditation. Kensho may be enough to encourage you along your path, but it’s not the goal. Satori, on the other hand, is considered to be a deeper spiritual experience and will have longer lasting consequences.

For D.T. Suzuki, satori is the whole point of Zen, since without satori there is no Zen. It’s an illumination of the mind and involves the dropping of all ego attachments, all assumptions about the nature of reality and existence. Through your practice, you become aware of your true nature as Buddha by means of a series of satori, ultimately leading to full enlightenment or nirvana.

In satori there’s no perception of self, no awareness of duality or concepts, or even of satori. You become one with Buddha nature and see reality with direct perception. Usually all attempts to describe satori on returning to your normal perception prove impossible.

In fact, it’s said that if you can express it, you haven’t had satori. This is why awakened practitioners often talk about the supreme experience in poetic language, using metaphor and story to point towards the truth. It can’t be stated directly because it’s beyond language, beyond duality and concept.

I love this description from Li Bai, quoted at the start of Addled:

“The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.”

D.T. Suzuki makes six observations about satori:

You can’t think your way into satori. It isn’t a state of self-suggestion, hypnosis or trance. It’s a new way of looking at things that goes beyond the normal duality of subject and object, taking you into absolute subjectivity.

It happens suddenly and often comes when you least expect, when you’ve given up on ever seeing the truth. Satori is:

“a sort of mental catastrophe taking place all at once…”

Satori is the raison d’être of Zen and all the practices of Zen – the meditation, the koans, the incomprehensible stories – are geared towards its realisation. But you can’t be attached to the experience of satori either, as this works against its realisation.

It’s not the absence of thought or the wiping away of all mental activity. There may be a quieting of the mind, a falling into emptiness, but satori is a total revolution in perception – the obliteration of the idea of self.

It’s not seeing God, as some Christian mystics might claim. In Zen there’s no need for a creator and satori doesn’t reveal any such thing. God is another object in consciousness, an idea which must be transcended and seen through.

“When you have God, what is no-God is excluded. This is self-limiting. Zen wants absolute freedom, even from God.”

In other words, the true nature of reality is more than a name or an idea.

Finally, it’s not a morbid state of mind or a sign of abnormal functioning. Satori is normal and brings with it awareness that your everyday mind is Buddha mind. Through awakening to Buddha nature you realise absolute freedom and this brings joy and peace into your ordinary life transforming everything you see.

I’ve attempted to write about how this works in reality on my website:

  • the opening glimpse of kensho in First Contact
  • then the first mind shattering satori in Stop Making Sense