Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

A Quiet Self

November 18, 2014


Sometimes people say their sitting is still and deep, and that there really isn’t much sense of self active in their experience. That’s great: it’s growing samadhi.

We could call it the start of “extinguishing,” where the process of “emptying” is getting under way. At the same time, it’s not at all the same as “realizing.”

When we “realize,” things change fundamentally.

In our practice of Zen, we’re not merely trying to get the “self” to be quiet, or to bury it, suppress it, or avoid or deny it. We’re just patiently waiting to see what it actually is, and through that, to be liberated from it. To this end, we could almost say it’s better that the self be active, present and palpable to us. Then it may be easier to study it. Although it’s also true that becoming quiet makes it much easier (usually) to get it in focus, as it were, in order to see at last what it truly is.

So it may be more accurate to think of our sense of self as the key, the door, the gateway, the royal entrance to Zen. It is at once the most formidable of barriers—“an iron cliff 10,000 feet high, a range of solid silver mountains,” as Engo has said—and at the very same time the one and only gateway. Always, in this practice it seems, what appears to block us is precisely our path to liberation.

So let’s not fear anything. Truly, there is absolutely nothing to fear, nothing to accomplish, and certainly nothing to hide or suppress. As the woman of Taizan said: “Just go straight on.”

Two more ways to look at this…

1. To begin to find ourselves in samadhi, in deep absorption, is a fine thing in practice. Yet the difference between samadhi and kensho is infinite. One is a sign of deepening practice; the other is an actual lash of Manjusri’s sword that cuts open our self and our world. There is nothing else at all like it.

2. Koans are the treatment for a person who has been blessed—graced or gifted, and wounded—by that lash. No kensho, no koans. That is the traditional and one right way to practice Zen. Why? Because the koans speak of the world revealed by kensho. They are that world. If we haven’t seen it, then the koans are meaningless. Worse, to study them could be to invite a diminution of their power for healing.

To attempt to “understand” koans with the very self they are designed to heal us of would be like mixing the cure with the sickness itself, the very virus they are designed to heal.

This Zen Way is long and hard and incomparable. It surely helps to trust that Zen knows what it is doing; that this Way of training, of coming to the deepest existential resolution, of liberating the human heart, has been tried and tested over a very long time. It’s not necessary to be at all concerned with changing it. Far better to undertake the long and hard path of learning to follow it.

With this attitude of trust, our hearts can be at peace.

By Henry Shukman, from our April 24, 2014 newsletter.

Image: Peace of Mind  CC0 Public Domain,  from

footer support banner image

Support Mountain Cloud

You can show your gratitude for Mountain Cloud events, retreats, podcasts and other teachings by making a one-time gift, or by becoming a supporting member.

Donate to Mountain Cloud Become a Member