Posted inHenry's Messages

How to Be in the World: Part 2 of 5

February 10, 2015

Dogen said: “Directly upon encountering the dharma, we will abandon the law of the world.”


Click to read Part 1 and Part 3 and Part 4 and Part 5 of 5 of How to Be in the World..

Salinger became an entry point into the dharma for me in two ways. First, that inherent seeking manifest in his characters, who, with their troubled integrity, seemed to be searching for a truer way of living spoke to me of my life. Second, there was that koan. But I got nowhere near finding the answer to it, or to my own troubling sense that I was disconnected from the source of what I intuited was life’s most vital knowledge. Now, instead, I threw myself into study—ancient Greek, Russian, and English literature. Perhaps I’d find the answer in books. I secured an early place at Cambridge, then decided to take a year off, a gap year, and went to work in South America, where I wrote my first book.

“Whatever Master Gutei was asked about Zen, he would simply raise a finger.” “Show me your original face, before your parents were born.’” Koans can inspire profound impatience, as if they were designed with no purpose other than to infuriate. They can curdle the mind, tie the brain in knots. But by rousing discomfort and doubt, they can also lead to deep release. Sometimes when an “answer,” or presentation, arises in the student, it may bring with it a stream of laughter and tears, at the simplicity of it, the bare, bald understanding of it, the depth, the love, the revelation of life itself that seems to arrive with it. But equally, the value of a koan can lie in the mysterious trail whose start it suggests, which in turn demands that it be given time; away from the desk, away from our relationships, the shops, the gym. Holden Caulfield, in an inchoate way, seems to have understood the sense of another order of priorities, outside the conventional constructs of our world, where we drop the getting and spending with which we generally lay waste our powers. He was a seeker who didn’t know what he was seeking, but only knew what he didn’t want.

Salinger’s work is full of incipient dharma—an apprehension of the truths conveyed through Zen training. The precocious children in whom a more compassionate wisdom abides, and who are the lodestone of the books; the adolescents who reject the adult world, which they perceive as a sea of hypocrisy; and the Glass family, living a kind of modern fairy tale, where children of unusual perceptiveness withdraw from the opacity of the city around them. There is Franny Glass, who openly embraces the mystical life, teaching herself, even if arguably for all the wrong reasons, to recite the “Jesus Prayer” continually, a standard Orthodox contemplative training. By the close of Franny and Zooey, it seems that Franny is less likely to continue with the prayer than to return to the adult world, with all its hypocrisy, and to try to be “in the world but not of it,” which is what she and Zooey, her brother, recognize as the path they must take despite their feelings of not fitting in.

Although Salinger had little if any formal Zen training, his work is full of the kind of questions that might lead one to such a training. If the adult world is as dire as it seems to Holden and the Glass children, is there in fact any way to gain adulthood without losing one’s integrity? Is there after all a Catcher in the Rye who can stop us all from going over the cliff? Obviously, a spiritual answer must be an emphatic Yes. In the case of Zen, there is a refuge, the refuge of the Three Treasures—the “harbor and weir of the world,” as Dogen called it, the Catcher into whose arms we practitioners are lucky enough to stumble.

Dogen said: “Directly upon encountering the dharma, we will abandon the law of the world.”

In other words, once we discover the true order behind the appearance of things, our lives will no longer be dominated by the conventional values of society— the seeking to outshine, outrace, outgain. In Dogen’s day, this generally meant “renunciation” and “home-leaving.” Today, like the Glass family perhaps, most Western practitioners pursue lay lives. Once again, the Glass kids, with their uneasy, restless seeking, seem dharma students in the making. Like them, we too surely would prefer not to join conventional social life if all it contains is hypocrisy. Instead, we will follow the elusive trail in our hearts suggested by the koan. But in the end, this must surely lead us back to our own actual lives.

Click to read Part 1 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 3 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 4 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 5 (of 5) of How to Be in the World

How to be in the World, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2010.

Image: Pier, by SplitShire, CC0 at


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