The question: “How does a conditioned being experience Unconditional Freedom?”
My initial response was “Naturally,” and I still stand by that, though I realize it’s not very helpful or informative. The next response was “It can’t,” which makes sense and is more satisfying. But, reflecting upon it afterward, I realized, although more satisfying, it was an incomplete response. The more complete response, which is contained in the initial response of naturally, is this: “A conditioned being can’t experience Unconditional Freedom, but the experience of Unconditional Freedom is entirely possible because Unconditional Freedom is all there is.”
Let’s begin with the satisfying part: a conditioned being can't experience Unconditional Freedom. This makes perfect, sound sense logically. Unconditional Freedom cannot be experienced within conditions, it cannot be captured or spoken about because to do so would bring it into the conditional realm. Additionally, there are no paths or ways of being that can be devised to help one experience it, because such things are marked by contingency and conditionality. So a person cannot truly say “I have experienced it” or “I am experiencing it,” even though from an absolute standpoint both statements are indeed accurate: all beings are endlessly experiencing Unconditional Freedom because it is experience itself, it is existence itself. Yet to affirm it doesn’t do, and to deny it doesn’t do, either.
The crux of the matter here is conditioned and unconditioned are not opposed to one another, nor do they exist in mutuality with each other – they are completely independent of one another. Conditionality is of the realm of time, space, dimension, change, qualities, concepts; un- or non-conditionality is timeless, boundless, immeasurable, unchanging, beyond description, beyond knowing – it has no realm, and because of this, infinite realms exist within it. In regard to the theme of this post, this is to say conditioned reality exists as a facet of unconditioned reality. (And yes, an overdue disclaimer that to write a post saying so may be the ultimate contradiction, but hopefully it provides the gist of things and points to/illuminates something helpful.) Thus, the reason conditioned paths cannot lead to Unconditional Freedom is because there is no separation in the first place, they are not two, you can’t get to where you are already. Likewise, a conditioned being cannot experience Unconditional Freedom because it cannot not experience Unconditional Freedom. Once more, Unconditional Freedom is all that there is; it is what is. Therefore, by extension, a conditioned being cannot help but experience Unconditional Freedom.
This leads to the middle bit: the experience of Unconditional Freedom is entirely possible. First off, we toss out any “never the twain shall meet” ideas because, as mentioned above, there ain’t no twain to begin with. Second, we undo the assertion that it is possible, yet without denying its possibility – simply let it be, leave it alone. Thirdly, and lastly…and perhaps everlastingly, allow the experience to speak for itself, on its own non-term terms, in its own timeless time. Again, this is beyond/beneath assertion and denial, so there is no "this is it or “this isn’t it” – there’s just:
A term for that blank is suchness, and a term for the experience of suchness in the context of Zen practice is realization. As you may intuit, it’s not realization via the common route of studying something, getting the concepts down, connecting the dots and as a result having a moment of “Eureka! I found it!” It moves in the other way: things are undone (mostly of their own accord, yet with a little help), concepts deconstruct and fall away, the bottom falls out, and the reality of Unconditional Freedom (aka suchness) shines forth vividly. It is always shining forth, actually, whether it is realized or not; as Torei Zenji says: “In every moment and every place, things can’t help but shine with this light.” And whether it’s a momentary glimpse or a longer gaze, it can’t be unseen. And the seeing or experiencing of suchness having happened, things transform. This is where the evidence and noticeable effects of the experience of Unconditional Freedom come in.
At this point (and likely all of the points above), perhaps the less said, the better, because you can never reach it or convey it completely by talking about it, and you also risk mistaking what is being said for the thing itself. Yet you can talk at the edge of it or around it, and that seems to be helpful. In fact, the Zen tradition is littered with such statements and accounts, and not in the spirit of the individual(s) saying “I found it” but more so in the spirit of saying “Look – it is possible.” Here are a few examples, beginning with one that Donovan made popular back in his day:
Before realization, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; in the midst of realization, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after realization, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters. ~Dogen
Suddenly I realized for myself the fresh breeze that rises up when the great burden is laid down ~Fayan
Someone asked Dahui, “What’s it like when mind and buddha are both forgotten?”
Dahui replied, “The sun revealed in the hands of an old woman selling fans.”
And though there are many such statements and accounts throughout the history of Zen, realization isn’t relegated to the past…in other words, we’re not meant to ride on the waves of others’ realization but instead are meant to and can experience it ourselves. As stated before, this is because Unconditional Freedom is outside, beneath, and beyond time and space; it doesn’t belong to any particular place or person or thing – it simply is. And the experience of it is possible, regardless of the conditions of time, space, circumstances, etc. It's happening all the time and endlessly, and to illustrate this, I’ll share an experience with a student that happened not long ago.
He had been working with a koan for a period of time and then had a moment of breaking through. Though he didn’t say much at that particular moment, it resounded clearly and deeply. After spending a little time absorbing and experiencing it, followed by his mind trying to work things out, he asked me: “How do you know that response is authentic?”
I noticed my mind beginning to do its thing as well, too see what it might offer, but instead found myself leaning in closer to him and saying, “How do you know that it's authentic?”
We both sat back and shared a smile – nothing to assert or explain, nothing to deny, allowing it to speak for itself.
In closing, I’ll return briefly to my initial response of naturally, as all I have written here falls under its umbrella. Unconditional Freedom is - timeless, boundless, immeasurable, unchanging, beyond description, beyond knowing – naturally. Humans try to know it, find their way to it, describe it, capture it, create formulas to invite and invoke it – naturally. This is simply the way things are, naturally – there is no conflict or fundamental problem here, nor anything that needs to be fixed in this no-realm realm of these two-that-are-not-two. And lastly, regardless of opinions and agreements or disagreements and howevers or furthermores, and regardless of everything I’ve written here, Unconditional Freedom shines forth freely, naturally.
And lastly (for real this time), from the Daodejing (Stephen Mitchell, trans)
Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped.
Above, it isn't bright.
Below, it isn't dark.
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.
Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom.