Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

Light and Dark: Koans and Dreams, Part 1 of 4

July 4, 2015

A Moment of Awakening

Many people first get into Zen by reading a book about it, or by meeting a Zen master, or from a general curiosity about meditation. For me it was different.


One afternoon when I was nineteen years old I found myself alone on a beach. As I stared out at the water, I saw that it looked coal-black yet at the same time dazzingly bright, where the sunlight licked over it. I was trying to figure out if it was actually black, or was blindingly white, when suddenly everything changed. It was as if the whole world that I had always believed to be outside me – the phenomenal world – was suddenly not outside me, and never had been. That light on the water was in me. It was me myself. At the same time…

…it was as if I split open, and my heart was filled to overflowing with a love I couldn’t explain, or name, yet which was deeply familiar, and precious. It seemed to fill the entire universe as if I was made of the very same substance as the cosmos.

I had never known anything like it. Nothing in my liberal humanist education had prepared me for it. Yet I knew I had just seen an absolute truth of the universe, of who I was, of what it meant to be a human being. The afterglow went on for days. I lived in a world transfigured. In the hours immediately afterwards, the sand was unimaginably soft and powdery, and the sea looked like it came straight out of the Bronze Age Aegean I knew from my schoolboy studies of Homer. Everything seemed like it was both real and unreal – like an ancient dream I had had many centuries ago, in another lifetime. A flame of love wouldn’t stop burning in my heart. My heart had been swamped, overtaken, overwhelmed by a kind of love I had never known before, yet which was powerfully familiar.

Cut forward ten years. I’ve been to university, I’ve worked in various odd jobs, I’ve begun a life as a writer, having published one book and being in the middle of a second. It seems that after a rocky start my “career” is beginning to work out. Yet I am unsettled. One major reason for this is that although the experience on the beach has faded into the background, I still can’t forget it. Whatever it was, it still feels like the most important thing that ever happened to me. But what was it? And how can I get back to it? Sometimes I feel a kind of guilt, or even failure, because I seem incapable of recapturing it.

Then I meet someone who happens to be a Zen student. One evening she reads me a passage of Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Zen master who founded the Soto Zen sect in Japan. I don’t understand a word of it: something about mountains walking, and mountains not being mountains. But something happens as I listen. Somehow, I know this man Dogen understands what I saw on the beach. He was speaking from that incredible world I had stumbled into. So I get myself trained in zazen – Zen meditation – as soon as I can. I also begin a long search for my own Zen teacher. Finally, another ten years on, I settle down with a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan, a Zen lineage that employs traditional koan study.

I come to discover that every koan is about that very reality I glimpsed on the beach. They are about the “essential world” – a world that we can apprehend only through direct experience, which seems to radically contradict our “dualistic” or everyday view of things. There is indeed another side to everything. Through the course of koan training, and through a series of further plunges into the vast, ever-changing, ever-empty, unitary world of Buddha-nature, all of them new yet at the same time identical to the one I’d had on the beach, each one completely unexpected, a complete revelation, this world starts to penetrate my psyche more and more, until finally one day the wall between the two worlds – the everyday world, and the world of awakening – comes tumbling down in one radical thunder-crash.

Life has been much easier since.

The above is one version of my story. Here is another…

When I was eighteen I escaped from the ruinous broken home in which I had grown up, occupied by my siblings, myself and my depressed mother, who had been abandoned by her husband, my father, in favor of her own first cousin, with whom he set up home just down the road. In addition to the difficulties of life with a betrayed, depressive, single mother, I spent my childhood encrusted in eczema. The disease was ugly and painful, and itched with a fury beyond any number of mosquito bites. I was often in hospital, and when home, was regularly visited by district nurses.

Finally at the age of eighteen I went away to work in South America, and the eczema lifted like a magic spell. For the first time my skin ceased to cause anguish. It became a thing of pleasure. I could hug without pain, shake hands without shame, and look at people without quaking at the thought of the rashes and gashes on my face and limbs. I also earned some decent money. Then I backpacked with a friend to remote corners of the Andes, seeing things more beautiful than anything I had ever imagined, and wrote my first book (Sons of the Moon, Scribners, 1989). Near the end of the trip, I went down to a beach and had that strange moment of union with all things. Then I went home.

Just six weeks after the epiphany by the sea, I pulled up in the English rain outside my father’s and stepmother’s house in Oxford. After a few minutes of awkward conversation in the living room, sitting on a chair and feeling like I was perched over a cliff, I went upstairs to take a bath. And there something else happened, in its way as dramatic as the moment on the beach. As I listened to the sound of the plumbing whistling in the fabric of the house, and the murmur of the voices coming from downstairs, a terrible familiarity swept over me. This was the nightmare I had grown up in: I had walked right back into it. I seized up in despair and sobbed like I hadn’t in years. All the misery of my childhood, held at bay while I was living through it, tumbled down on me. The person I had started to become, the new hopeful life I was embarking on, seemed to be destroyed and lost, because I had done the worst thing possible: I had come home.

For the next few months I lived in a daze of grief, unable to converse for fear of breaking down. But I couldn’t understand it. What was going on? Why so upset? First, a doorway of light opened on that beach; now, a doorway of darkness opened back home. It never occurred to me that both doors could possibly lead onto one and the same path.

Click to read Part 2 of Light and Dark: Koans and Dreams.

Written by Henry Shukman and first Published in Spring Journal, Vol. 89, Spring 2013


Image Credit: Beach, by UnSplash, CC0 Public Domain, from
Featured Image Credit: Alien Planet, by ChadoNihi,  CC0 Public Domain, from

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