Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

How to Be in the World: Part 3 of 5

February 13, 2015

“To study the self is to forget the self,” said Dogen. If you try to find who you really are, you may discover you’re not there at all. Dogen also said: “To forget oneself is to be actualized by all things.”


Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 4 and Part 5 of 5 of How to Be in the World..

All good literature, in a way, is an emissary from this other land of “truth.” Seamus Heaney speaks of the “redress of poetry,” which holds up an image of a realm of truth, intangible but undeniable. Why can’t we know this land directly, but only through ambassadors? Zen says we can, and when we do, we may find it is no different from exactly where we are anyway. But we have to go on a journey to get to where we are. We roll like a ball downhill, into exactly where we are. Sometimes, along the way, we make discoveries that truly “astonish the heavens and astound the earth,” as Master Mumon put it. We may even be fortunate enough to hear the sound of one hand. There are koans—Joshu’s “Mu” or “What is this?” or “What is the sound of one hand?”—that aim at pushing practitioners toward deep insights. Are these insights so different from the epiphanies found here and there in Western literature? In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for example, Edmund reminisces about an experience he had while crewing on a sailing ship:

I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving 14 knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved into the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.

Edmund’s epiphany is based on a journal entry that O’Neill wrote when he was in his early twenties, describing his own experience while at sea as a merchant seaman. Thirty years later he was still writing about it, it still tugged at him. When his ship docked, O’Neill went straight to the nearest dive and over the next several weeks nearly drank himself to death. The experience did not deliver him from despair but only deepened it. On the other hand, he named his last home, the house where he wrote Long Day’s Journey, Tao House, which seems to indicate that he continued to recognize in that early experience something of surpassing preciousness. But nevertheless he had no context that would deepen, stabilize, and make the experience intelligible, that would link it to the larger patterns of his life, and connect him to a community offering guidance, purpose, and inspiration. This can be the role of a spiritual tradition, whatever its methods—to give a context, to link a practitioner to a tradition that gives shape to our deepest intuitions.

“To study the self is to forget the self,” said Dogen. If you try to find who you really are, you may discover you’re not there at all. Dogen also said: “To forget oneself is to be actualized by all things.”

O’Neill’s epiphany seems to contain similar or even identical insights.

I was nineteen when something like this first happened to me. Brought up a fledgling rational-empiricist in that most rational of cities, Oxford, England, I wasn’t prepared to accept the experience at face value. Mentally equipped with Homer, Plato, Cicero, some D. H. Lawrence, chunks of Shakespeare and Milton, a dash of Chekhov—as well as my beloved Salinger—I decided the experience could only mean one thing: I had to be a writer.

I worked between school and college in Argentina, then backpacked through the Andes with a school friend. On long truck rides I stared out over the endless landscapes—the bulging suede plateaus of the Altiplano, the livid red canyons of the Pacific mountains, enflamed with dust like sore throats, the forested valleys thousands of feet deep—and tried to understand what they were, how come they existed at all. The culmination of the trip was a visit to the Galapagos Islands.

It was on the last afternoon of a boat tour in the islands that I found myself alone on a beach. The sun was low enough to shed a broad, scintillating path of light on the ocean. I stared at it, fascinated. I had recently finished writing what would become my first book and was inordinately happy. I had not only found my metier but had begun to put it into effect. I was also happy to be alone. It felt like I had put down a great weight I didn’t realize I’d been carrying. I hadn’t known until then to what extent I normally trammeled my mind, steering it in channels that enabled communication with others. Suddenly a great liberation opened, blissful. I forgot all plans for the future; all hope, all fear vanished. The joy somehow carried a promise of eternity, as if I were nose-up against the beginning and end of time.

I was staring at the shifting, dazzling scales of light on the surface of the sea. Water was transparent, as was air, and come to think of it, so was light. The three substances were in effect invisible. The surface of the sea was nothing but the sheet, infinitesimally thin, where they met. How come I could see anything at all?

As I stared in amazement, it felt as if I—the center of my consciousness—were not where I thought I dwelt, in my body, but had been swallowed by the world. An extraordinary feeling of belonging arose. I belonged utterly, right where I was, and everywhere, and always had.

Then I looked at my hand. It too was no different from everything else. It was one and the same as the sand, the sea, the rocks. It felt like everything, hand included, was engaged in one single declaration of love. The whole world was the single hand. There was nothing else. And somehow, I could hear not only it, but everything. It was the only sound in the universe.

A week later, back on the mainland, I sat down at a pavement café to write about the experience. Sentences, paragraphs poured out, and before I knew it I had written an opening chapter for my next novel, completed only many years later, and published in 2008 as The Lost City. Consequently, over the days and weeks that followed—and again before I really knew what I had done—I turned the experience not just into a memory, but into the stamp and branding of a literary calling. It meant I must be a writer. O’Neill had had such an experience. Tolstoy clearly had as well—he ascribes one to Pierre at a pivotal moment in War and Peace, when the imprisoned nobleman is stripped of all the trappings of his wealth, almost stripped of his life too, and suddenly finds an altogether different self. And Salinger must have known something of the sort too, or else he wouldn’t have offered us that inscrutable nugget of truth, the koan, at the start of Nine Stories. It seemed a safe bet that writing and epiphanies in some way went together, and I lived by that creed for many years.

Still, in spite of a growing career as a poet and writer, for many years I wasn’t happy. Not at all. Everything that mattered seemed to be wrong. Some singular vital task was not being addressed. Somehow, that moment on the ocean continued to haunt me. It seemed to have offered the hope of a complete resolution to the question of life and death. But what was one supposed to do? I’d been trying the only way I knew, following the most radical career path—writer, poet—that my cloistered Oxford upbringing allowed me to conceive. Yet it wasn’t enough. That glinting ocean and its scales of light still flickered in the back of my mind.

Click to read Part 1 of How to Be in the World
Click to read Part 2 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: Walkers, by cocoparisienne, CC0 at

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