I keep trying to put into words my long-standing view that dramatic experiences like satori (and their equals under other names) stand in sharp contrast to experiences reported by people who’ve experienced death but then were eventually revived.
In the one case the experiencer produces a sort of closure. He feels that all questions have been answered, perfect liberty achieved. At the same time his experience itself lacks content and hence, not surprisingly, is sometimes called the Void. It doesn’t matter what this end result is called—Buddha Mind, union with God, union with Plotinus’ One; these are all functionally equivalent. But we never learn anything at all about the structure or meaning of reality. What we view as the world or cosmos is said to be the consequence of ignorance—or an illusion produced by it. The blood-clotting cycle is an illusion? Produced by ignorance? The hibernating butterfly’s ability to produce a kind of anti-freeze to keep itself alive during months of frost? Whose illusion is that?
In the second case a person experiences separation from his/her dying body, observes events in the hospital, and eventually enters another world where he/she meets other already departed relatives and, often, a luminous person who seems to be in charge of this “reception.” A decision-process takes place. The person then learns that she or he is not yet ready to depart and is sent back—often quite unwillingly. The minimum content of this near-terminal experience is that there is another realm beyond this one; that it has visible and very pleasant aspects; and that some who have died are still there; they are “alive,” capable of communication, capable of being perceived by the discarnate visitor.
In both cases the experiencer, be it of satori or of near-death experience (NDE), is changed for the better in this life. The change usually persists but may fade with time. In both cases, occasionally, the person may have acquired what we call psychic powers; this sort of change is not pronounced or universal; and such abilities may also fade.
The chief differences here are that those seeking enlightenment work very hard and with a will to achieve the end result. Those experiencing NDEs do so passively, often with great surprise. Satori-seekers, you might say, are specialists; near-death experiencers are ordinary people, the usual proportion of men and women, whereas in D.T. Suzuki’s famed essays on Zen no woman ever appears to have been struck by the bold of Enlightenment. The satori is produced by major concentrated labor. The NDE seems to be nature’s way of signaling that there is something beyond the border and, moreover, it has real content.
There is hope, in other words, that humanity’s masses can get there too—and without grinding nonsensical koans for decades counted on two hands.