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Satori (悟り?) (Chinese: 悟; pinyin: wù; Korean 오) is a Japanese Buddhist term for "enlightenment." The word literally means "understanding." "Satori" translates as a flash of sudden awareness, or individual enlightenment, and while satori is from the Zen Buddhist tradition, enlightenment can be simultaneously considered "the first step" or embarkation toward nirvana.

Satori is typically juxtaposed with a related term known as kensho, which translates as "seeing one's nature." Kensho experiences tend to be briefer glimpses, while satori is considered to be a deeper spiritual experience. Satori is as well an intuitive experience and has been described as being similar to awakening one day with an additional pair of arms, and only later learning how to use them.

Attaining satori

Practitioners of Zen Buddhism attain satori through personal experience. The traditional way of achieving satori, and the most typical way taught to Zen students in the West, is through the use of koans such as those found in the collection known as the Gateless Gate, which is also known as the Mumonkan. Koans are riddle-like rhetorical puzzles that students use to assist in the realization of satori; these words and phrases were also used by the early Zen masters.

The Gateless Gate was assembled by the early 13th century Chinese Zen master Wumen Hui-k'ai (無門慧開). The Zen master Yuelin Shiguan (月林師觀; Japanese: Gatsurin Shikan) (1143-1217) gave Wumen the koan "Zhaozhou’s dog," with which Wumen struggled for six years before he finally attained realization. After his understanding had been confirmed by Yuelin, Wumen wrote the following enlightenment poem:

A thunderclap under the clear blue sky
All beings on earth open their eyes;
Everything under heaven bows together;
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.

Satori and kensho

Satori is sometimes loosely used interchangeably with kensho, but kensho refers to the first perception of the Buddha-Nature or True-Nature, sometimes referred to as "awakening." Distinct from kensho, which is not a permanent realization but a clear glimpse of the true nature of existence, satori is used to refer to a "deep" or lasting realization of the nature of existence.

Japanese symbol for satori

Satori in the Zen tradition does not actually happen to an individual, rather it is a realization out of all concepts including the individual. Practitioners of Zen Buddhism, however, work to realize the true nature of existence. The student's mind often must be prepared by rigorous study, with the use of koans, and with meditation to clear the mind of all attachments to the physical world.

It is therefore customary to use the word satori, rather than kensho, when referring to the realization of the Buddha and the Patriarchs with Bodhisattvas; these figures recognized that "all things are Buddha things" and therefore any separation between self and the universe is illusory.

According to D. T. Suzuki, "Satori is the raison d'être of Zen, without which Zen is no Zen. Therefore every contrivance, disciplinary and doctrinal, is directed towards satori."[1]

See also

  • Zen
  • Koan - a means for causing Satori
  • Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
  • Kensho
  • Daigo
  • Enlightenment (religious)


  1. Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, Rider & Co., 1948

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