Posted inHenry's Messages

Dangerous Formulae

January 16, 2015



When treasures of the human heart become explicit, there is a greater risk of their becoming doctrinal, then formulaic, then ritualistic and ceremonial, and ultimately banal, mere forms of words and no longer living treasures at all.

When Jesus talked about dying and being reborn in the kingdom of heaven, for example, it seems likely he was referring to an actual experience he knew himself, which caused a fundamental shift in his entire experience. When the vicar dabs water on a baby’s forehead and pronounces the same phrases, he is surely referring to something quite different – more like an idea in his own or the congregation’s mind, rather than a living reality. It may be an idea he likes, and that causes a stirring of feeling within him, but that may be a far cry from the living and breathing experience Jesus meant. In Zen too, the annihilation of all that we know, and the entry into a whole new kind of experience that we can never know, yet which we can indeed experience, is very far from any possible form of words (such as these).

However, my point is not to speculate about what Christianity means by such a phrase, or to encourage the spread of yet more entangling vines.

The point is the same in other areas of life. One of the functions of art, for example, can be to strip away our platitudes, our habit of thinking we know things, and to give us a breath-stopping taste once again of what it is to meet something face-to-face, naked as it were, without a layer of conceptual clothing coming in between.

In Zen, we strip off all the clothes, and then we strip off the skin, flesh, bones and even the marrow of our experience. And what do we find at the bottom of it all? What we find cannot be put into words. It has no form, much less a name, as Daio Kokushi said. Yet to meet it, to discover that we are it, has a tremendous power to help us. It saves us. It is us.

But once we call it something, once we air it, expose it in the form of words, the tendency inevitably begins of turning it into something.

Another example of this would be intimacy with our Zen ancestors. This is a special experience that can grow in us as we move along in a traditional koan training. But if we start talking about it as if it were ordinary and a matter of course, then it could turn into an idea against which we may try to fit our experience. Instead, it must hit us out of the blue as a big surprise. It is not something that comes from us, but from them.

So let us beware of turning living experience into forms of words that will then become the formulae of an ossified institution that (fortunately) we have not for the moment yet constructed. We are lucky to be encountering Zen as it finds new expression in the West, before the institutes have been formed. Not that they aren’t coming – they already are. But let’s make the most of the freedom of the brand-new ages-old dharma our ancestors worked so hard to sustain and pass on. Remember it is ever new, and ever one and the same. As Dogen said: It is neither passed on from before, nor is it merely arising now.

By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.

Image: Jade-Necklace, By JamesDeMers, CC0 Public Domain, from

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