Posted inHenry's Messages, Introduction to Zen, Koans

Message from Henry: Invention and Discovery

March 10, 2021

It’s (the Dharma) a condition not a discovery..If we then turn it into a thing, we have invented something: and at the same time we have invented a self that made the invention.


In religions, the boundless, formless, ever-loving freedom that we humans can discover in the midst of our troubled lives, is turned into a thing. But in Zen, we continually undercut our human urge to turn it into a thing…

Once it is a thing, it’s no longer one single living experience.

Once it’s a thing it’s ontologically separate from us, and we are therefore separate from it too – and not just from it but from everything.

Once there is a sense of a fixed solid self, all else is ranged against that self.

This is an inherently painful and restless condition to be in. Religion’s wise response to this restlessness and unease is to call for surrender to the “thing” that Zen would say is no thing at all.

It’s a bit like the difference between discovery and invention. The “discovery” we can make in Zen training, of an absolute boundless freedom and inseparability, of love without beginning or end, is not a discovery of a thing, but rather a dropping-away only of what obscured it, allowing our full participation in it now – in a process, not a thing, a process that is the natural law, the inherent bountiful generosity of being, that is everything. This is what we call the Dharma. It’s a condition not a discovery, in effect. If we then turn it into a thing, we have invented something: and at the same time we have invented a self that made the invention.

There’s another way of looking at this. Our practice may be viewed as either receptive or generative. Shikantaza is more of the former, and koan introspection more of the latter. In receptive mode we learn to allow all things, including of course our difficulty in allowing things. With koan study we may seem to “generate” a kind of practice, although that practice is in fact nothing but a giving up, a letting go, an opening up of our capacity to let things be as they are, in which we discover the misunderstanding inherent in our ordinary view of self and things.

That’s how we do it in Zen.

Many people have commented on the congruences in the experiences of mystics across religions. Yet at the same time other commentators point out that certain practices may lead to certain kinds of insight, in other words, that perhaps not all insights are really one and the same, tempting though it may be to believe they are. They may rather be contingent on the particular practice we are engaged in, as well as any world-view implicit in that practice. They may be in this sense “generated.”

The wonderful surprise here is that this in no way undermines the value or authenticity of any particular experience of insight. On the contrary. It just goes to show how vastly unknowable the great mystery of this existence truly is. All we can apparently ever hope to do is scratch its surface, just deeply enough that we find true peace of mind, and surrender ourselves whole-heartedly to its awesome and incomprehensible creative power, and then to committing ourselves to working everlastingly on its behalf. Even while it isn’t a thing.

What an extraordinary privilege and joy that would be.

By Henry Shukman, from our Newsletter archives
Image, New Invention, by Aitoff CC0 Public Domain,
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