Mu soon opened me up: suddenly, one evening… the world vanished; there was nothing at all. I remember thinking: all this training of the mind, yet there is no mind! There’s absolutely nothing! Not a speck in the sky.
In what ways is literature a sufficient response to deep spiritual experience, in what ways not?
Why did O’Neill remain miserable? Why did I become even more miserable? Eventually, through my late twenties and early thirties, I made various attempts to find a Zen teacher. My life as a travel writer at the time gave me a lot of mobility, and I sat in a Northumbrian abbey, a monastery in upstate New York, a zendo in New York City, a makeshift ecological retreat center up a mountain in New Mexico, but felt ready to entrust myself to none of them.
Finally I resolved to sit a whole sesshin. I worked with the most fundamental and explicit koan: Who am I? One afternoon, in the midst of acute knee pain, while listening to the wind plunging through trees, I suddenly disappeared. The ship of me had no captain! It was uncrewed. It was a tremendously liberating moment, but the teacher, a maverick rookie, offered no help with it. Besides, I wasn’t a student of his, and had neither a sangha nor a practice to return to. The initial euphoria wore off after a few weeks and left me more desperate than ever, feeling as if a hole had been blown open in the middle of my life, one that at all costs I had to fight, vainly, to cover over again. I didn’t want to know what I had seen. I scribbled desperately for magazines, zigzagged around the globe on expenses, fulfilling writing assignments that brought in good fees but meant nothing to me any more. I did all I could to forget what I had glimpsed, but couldn’t.
Meanwhile, I somehow kept on hoping my literary life would fulfill the promise of these insights. I don’t know why I was so stubborn, so fixated on writing as my one and only path, but I was. Then, suddenly, twenty long years after the first opening experience, when I had long since given up the search, I did find a master—in my hometown of Oxford, of all places. Without even looking for one, here he was. And not just a master, but a sangha, a community of fellow students, and a vibrant lineage, the Sanbo Kyodan, in which my teacher operated under the guidance of our abbot. Not only that, but their main method of teaching was koan study. As I took the koan “Mu” about with me everywhere, and then as Mu started to take me about with it, I felt I was at last attending to something I had long postponed. Mu soon opened me up: suddenly, one evening, as I was carrying two plates of food upstairs for my wife and myself, the world vanished; there was nothing at all. I remember thinking: all this training of the mind, yet there is no mind! There’s absolutely nothing! Not a speck in the sky.
Thus I entered koan training in earnest.
Looking back on those three preliminary insights—everything is one thing; there is no self; everything is nothing at all—I can see that in each case a koan provoked it: the sound of one hand; Who am I?; and Mu. All delivered as though on time. Somehow, I was a natural fit for koan study, and I had stumbled, without my knowing it, into a lineage where that constituted the core method of training. The good fortune of that stumble continues to amaze me, even as I have continued my training with the guidance of a second teacher in the lineage, Joan Rieck Roshi.
How to be in the World, by Henry Shukman, was first published in Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2010.
Image: Sun, by Arno, CC0 at Pixabay.com