Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

Light and Dark: Koans and Dreams, Part 3 of 4

July 18, 2015

Yet all this – kensho, koan training, deep awakening, and so on – is only one side of the practice. Zen training opens up space for another side too, less dramatic but equally important.


Click to read Light and Dark: Koans and Dreams, Part 1 and Part 2.

Koans and Dreams: Zen and Psychotherapy

What is the sound of one hand? What is your original face before your parents were born? Why has the bearded Bodhidharma no beard? In all, there are said to be some 1700 classical Zen koans. In the Zen line in which I have trained and now teach, we use around 650, nearly all of them recording the sayings and actions of Zen masters from Tang dynasty China (618-907). They are “teaching stories,” with an extraordinary power to bring about a dramatic shift in our experience of self, world and consciousness. We call this sudden shift kensho – seeing our real nature. If pursued assiduously, koans can thoroughly break our attachment to, and release us from enthrallment to, the self-protective sense of “I, me, mine.” Zen, if it’s anything, is a training in becoming less self-absorbed, less self-centered, but it’s really much more than that.

The koan is a short anecdote or story that contains some apparent paradox or enigma that cannot be resolved by the thinking mind. “What is Buddha?” a monk asked Tozan; he replied: “Masagin! (three pounds of flax).” While it may be possible to work out a conceptual explanation of this koan, the teacher is looking rather for a living embodiment of the koan in the student, who must “present” it with an action. By surrendering to the enigma of a koan we allow it to take us over, and to open us up to an unknown and vast field of both being and non-being. The first koan will in time break apart the barrier between our sense of self and the world around us. Suddenly we have a moment of true awakening. Thereafter, once a hole has been knocked through our limited sense of who we are, we become able to allow the koans to use us, to present themselves through us. After such an initial breakthrough, out of dualism and into the “dharma-body,” we will typically construct a new kind of duality, one composed of awakening on the one side, and dualistic delusion on the other. This is where authentic koan training really kicks in.

By sitting with one koan after another, week after week, year after year, and taking each one to an authorized teacher, the difference between the world of awakening and world of delusion can get weakened to the point where they both crumble altogether. Everything may disappear in one unimaginable, unspeakable, unthinkable collapse. After that, we are freed to meet each moment as it arises, without attachment, with compassion.

Yet all this – kensho, koan training, deep awakening, and so on – is only one side of the practice. Zen training opens up space for another side too, less dramatic but equally important.

If the first side is sudden, this other is gradual. In a new spaciousness within our experience, we learn to accept ourselves more thoroughly, and in doing so heal the wounds that need healing, and become kinder and wiser, more able to function helpfully. At least, that’s the ideal.

It was more on this side of Zen training that after several years of koan study, I started to get interested in my dreams. I was going through a difficult phase in my marriage, and was finding my work life stressful. We are multi-dimensional beings, and healing in certain areas does not imply healing in all areas. Even though Zen might have clarified that “I” and “I’s world” were both inventions, dreams, illusions even, I still wanted some extra help negotiating those inventions. My Zen teacher Joan Rieck Roshi had done some dream work herself years before, both with Robert Johnson and at the Jung Institute in Switzerland, and I was curious about it.

Through reading Rodger Kamenetz’s History of Last Night’s Dream, I was attracted to the work of the brilliant, maverick dream-worker Marc Bregman. His approach, which he calls Archetypal Dreamwork, treats the dream in a way that is partially analogous to koan work. A story or image (in this case a dream) is used as a means of personal transformation; here too, there is an authority higher than the personal…

In koan training we sit with stories of the masters; in Archetypal Dreamwork, with the stories told by our dreams.

While these are not equivalent by any means, the work in both cases involves being prepared to sit with the material patiently. In both, there are lessons to be learnt about who we really are. Both often ask us to be open to discomfort. The prick of a koan, the nub of a dream, the part that sticks in the throat – in both, this often turns out to be the point that contains a power beyond its parts, and the release of that power can be cognate with a shift in consciousness. The key difference is in the precision of the dream with regard to our own particular blocks, wounds and feelings. The dreams are about feelings, emotions, psychology; the koan about reality, existence, the fundamentals of the human experience, we might say. It is not at all right to conflate them. Yet for some, it may helpful to do some work with both.

It seems to be a characteristic of much Mahayana Buddhist training generally (of which Zen is one school) that it’s important to have a one-on-one relationship with a teacher. And in the case of Zen, because its core experience passes from person to person, it’s therefore necessary to dissolve whatever interpersonal defences may obstruct that relationship. This is the area where the dreamwork most helped me – it showed me with clarity my fear, suspicion and distrust of others, especially male elders, and how I compensated for that with more openness to women. Both tendencies had to be let go of.

Repeatedly in my dreams men would come for me. I’d be afraid of them: a scary chef with a large knife, a long-range desert truck-driver whose eyes seemed to look right through me, a captain on a ship asking me to participate in a sea-battle with nothing but a boat-hook, and so on. Time after time, I would engage superficially with these men, then turn away, in either fear or anger. The therapy required me to sit with these feelings, rather than seek to escape them. Bregman’s work has a loose template for male dreamers, which is basically the journey of the Prodigal Son, who surrenders his pride and returns, broken, to his true father.

As Bregman outlines the process, and as it unfolded in my own case, after a while I began to have dreams where I dreamed as a boy. One night I dreamt that I was being rowed across a lake in Scotland by my own father, to a castle where a banquet was being prepared, and a man on a throne held out his hands to me. I sank to my knees in front of him, put my head in his lap, and began to sob. When I worked the dream, I was overcome by waves of grief. For weeks after, I only had to put myself back in the dream (while doing my dream “homework”) to feel a profound well of sorrow. I’d weep as I hadn’t in years. It was profoundly healing, as if at last I was able to surrender myself to a wound, and find it somehow OK. At last I had opened to the trauma that had swamped me when I’d returned home at nineteen, which clearly dated from much earlier childhood losses and pains. I allowed them in, and through. I wept buckets of tears. It was like rediscovering myself as an innocent, a child, a boy full of intense, fresh feeling; as a boy who loved his father, and who had somehow come home.

In my outward life, I began to restore my long-broken relationship with my own dad, fraught as it had been with divided loyalties, and establish a sweet friendship. In my dream-life, I frequently dreamt of myself as a child – riding on a man’s shoulders, playing on swings with a man overseeing me, and so on. At the same time, I started to dream of being killed – by a grenade, by an assassin who shot me through the heart, and so on. I had dreams where I learnt to breathe under water. All these, according to Archetypal Dreamwork, are indicators of “dying to the self,” or becoming less attached to our ego-selves. I started to dream of myself as a girl. In one memorable dream I was standing before what I took to be a far-off range of hills, until it moved and I realized it was a giant reptile turning towards me. Instead of being scared, I made my stand, and with complete courage cried out: “I come from God!” I didn’t care what happened to me. I was functioning with a heart full of a power not my own.

Soon after that, I had a dream of being in dokusan with my Zen teacher John, laughing and weeping in his presence as some kind of release swept through me. A few weeks later, this actually happened. I was in dokusan after an all-night sit when the last bastion of my self finally let go, and was swept away in a great tide of true Dharma. All disappeared. The entirety of self and world vanished.

The healing power of this experience is without parallel. In the last minutes of the sesshin, I wept and laughed on the dokusan room floor, while John had to go to the retreat’s closing ceremony. When he came back and got me to my feet, I didn’t recognize the world at all, but I was home. The true “original face” Zen speaks of appeared everywhere. “The ancestors have not deceived me!” some masters have cried on their awakening. At last I knew that every word the Zen ancestors had spoken was absolutely true. So this is what Zen is really for. This is what human life really is. And who can even say what that is?

Click to read the 4th and final installment of Light and Dark: Koans and Dreams.

Written by Henry Shukman and originally published in Spring Journal, Vol. 89, Spring 2013

Image Credit: Fantasy Castle, by Dlee, CC0 Public Domain, from
Featured Image Credit: Alien Planet, by ChadoNihi, CC0 Public Domain, from

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