Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

Koans and Relationship

January 2, 2015

This is the lifeblood of Zen: the transmission, the intimacy of a bare-bones meeting between two people, between reality itself and reality itself. 


Occasionally I’ve heard people ask if it’s valuable to read a book of koans. Some koans are beautiful; some seem to have humorous moments; some contain vivid dramas and narratives. Wouldn’t they make good reading by themselves?

All koans can stir up a niggling sense of doubt. Have I missed something here? This surely doesn’t make sense! What’s this guy talking about? Why does he—or sometimes she—say that? And: why don’t I understand this?

That’s good. They are little doubt machines. But without a sparring partner, a guide, or help-mate, what are we going to do next? Bury the niggling doubt and forget about it, most likely. Yet the doubt is the very point of the blade of the koan. It’s where its real work is just beginning.

To read koans on one’s own is, from the point of view of Zen training, analogous to trying to play tennis not just alone, but without a ball.

The Dharma is never what we think it is, but this much we can perhaps say: it passes from person to person. One way or another, every koan is both a record of that happening, and an opportunity for it to continue to happen right now.

This is the lifeblood of Zen: the transmission, the intimacy of a bare-bones meeting between two people, between reality itself and reality itself. This is how the Dharma at one and the same time evolves and manifests in its spectacular “acrobatics,” as Yamada Koun Roshi put it. It remains at once singular and infinite.

It’s so easy to imagine that Zen is somehow a solitary occupation. Don’t we sit in silence when we do zazen? Didn’t Buddha himself say: “I alone am the honored one”? Yes. But the true Dharma is the opposite of solitary. We have to find for ourselves who uttered these very words; who is it that is alone and honored?

There may be times in training when solitary practice is helpful. But those of the old masters who spent time as hermits only did so after their masters had approved their Dharma eye and explicitly sent them away. This shouldn’t mislead us. We are practicing within the banks of a river of transmission, of the flow of Dharma, and we—our very selves—are the medium of its flow and its existence. The flow happens person to person.

No wonder the latest neuro-imaging is confirming that the brain circuitry connected with relationality becomes more developed in long-term meditators.

By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.

Image: Girls, By cherylholt, CC0 Public Domain, from

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