Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

Message From Henry: A Little Reflection on Zen History, 2

September 2, 2015

…kensho is not the goal of Zen practice. It’s not a prize to be plucked from the tree of Zen. Rather, it is the source, the beginning, the origin of Zen life and practice.


Last week I was talking about the opening up of “kanna Zen,” or koan Zen, to lay people and the West, and ended by saying it seemed it could proceed well, but with some caveats.

Interest in Zen and Buddhism began to grow in the West in the late 19th century, partly in aesthetic, and partly in “esoteric” circles. Poetry played a part in the process. For example, when poets in Europe discovered the lucid imagistic poetry of ancient China, they championed it, as part of a general western fascination with things oriental. In the early 20th century London-based poetic movements like Imagism (of which the American poets T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound were members) were openly inspired by Tang Dynasty poetry.

Interest in Eastern religions meanwhile grew in the context of esoteric spiritual-psychological movements like Theosophy and Perennialism, which spread in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Meanwhile D.T.Suzuki (whose wife was a theosophist) was lecturing and writing in America, voluminously and popularly, on Zen. But it wasn’t until about the 1940s that some numbers of westerners began to enter actual Zen training.

In the 1950s the Beat generation picked up on this, and some went to Japan to spend time in Zen monasteries, among them writers and poets who would become famous, like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, who were part of the San Francisco counter-cultural scene that was already embracing Buddhism.

In the 60s and 70s Zen began to become less marginal in America. It struck a nerve with the counter-culture. The Three Pillars of Zen came out in 1965 and became a best-seller; likewise Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970); and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), which was only loosely about Zen, but struck a chord across the West, selling several million copies. The “Zen boom” started. Thousands of westerners in Europe and America began to take up zazen. There were several prominent teachers and lineages involved in this process, among them Shunryu Suzuki, Taizan Maezumi, Deshimaru and Sanbo Zen, and others.

Here things start to get a little murky. First of all, because the Rinzai tradition of Zen talks about “kensho” (an enlightenment experience) as a stage along the path of training, there was a natural tendency for this kind of experience to get coopted by a drug culture interested in alternate views of reality. There was a general assumption that drugs and Zen could open up similar states of consciousness. This fitted with the “perennialist” view that there was an unchanging eternal reality beyond our normal consciousness, revealed in mystical experience, whether induced by drugs or something else.

The above may seem convincing and easy to agree with; but my own view (for what it’s worth) is that there are various problems with this kind of view. (I’ve written about this elsewhere so will try to be brief here.) First, kensho is not “beyond” everyday consciousness. Rather, it’s a radical shift in perspective precisely on what “ordinary experience” is. It’s not a “beyond”. Rather, it’s a clear seeing of what is here right now.

Second, whether kensho comes early or late it is only one moment in a lifetime of practice. It may turn our life around, or it may merely be a glimpse that opens up a new view, without uprooting our habits of mind. Either way, to separate it out from the long years of hard sitting that both precede and succeed it is to misunderstand Zen. Only through long sitting is there any chance of shifting or allegiance from “me” to “all beings.” To seek a certain kind of experience is very different from seasoning ourselves like lumber through sitting still to the point where we may be able to give up our “self-clinging,” and thus be able to live out in our daily lives the reality experienced in kensho, where there is indeed neither neither self nor other.

Third, kensho is not the goal of Zen practice. It’s not a prize to be plucked from the tree of Zen. Rather, it is the source, the beginning, the origin of Zen life and practice.

Fourth, kensho is a taking-away of what we know. It is strictly speaking not even an experience. It is actually a removal of experience, at least when thorough.

In addition, the conflation of kensho with drug experience caused some western Zen teachers understandably to diminish or minimize the importance of kensho, regarding it as no more significant than a drug trip, something that came and went, and was merely a temporary shift in the neurology. But this too is problematic. There is no denying it either, nor the power it can have.

At the same time, in the West we may have tended to glorify the effects of kensho, and hyped it up as a magic pill that cures all ills. Actually Dogen said it was just “putting one’s head through the gate” – in other words, not the same as stepping through the gate. It is decisive, in that now we have tasted something we hadn’t tasted before, but unless we continue to practice, in many cases with the koans, allowing them to live through us time and again, under the guidance of a teacher, it may not change us that much. We may even “rest on our laurels” – now we’ve had the experience we wanted.

In fact, only through long training is there the possibility of thorough kensho befalling us, where our “self” is truly “seen through,” as Setcho puts it. It is this that has the power to bring about most significant change to our orientation, priorities and perspective. Dogen called this “body and mind falling away.” Sometimes it’s referred to as “great death” in Zen.

Many people might hunger for a glimpse of another order of reality. But this would surely fall under the heading of “spiritual materialism”, or the getting for oneself of some sought-after insight. Which is quite different from a surrender of, in effect, our whole life. Perhaps not so many would want to seek that. Yet this “Zen death” turns out to be the fulcrum of our life, the pivot on which life and death swing.

But no matter. If we just trust the Way and keep going step by step, we really don’t need to worry too much about these things. We just go moment by moment, breath by breath, tending to our lives and our loved ones as best we can. It will turn out that “great death” is one and the same as “great life” – it is indeed the one life of all beings. There is nothing to be feared. We were never practicing for ourselves, whatever we thought. In fact, the Zen life has been with us all along. “With realization, all things are of one family,” as Mumon says. Our life was never just “our” life. Welcome home – to everything! We never left! Welcome back!

So as we pursue and follow the Way, we might remember our vows: to give up greed and delusion, to save all beings, to discover that the Way is already fulfilled and “intrinsically accomplished,” as Master Dogen puts it. In the end, in Mumon’s words, there is “nowhere to put this whole body.” So where does that leave “me” and “my body and mind”? This is the great matter of our practice.

Message from Henry is taken from our September 2nd Newsletter.
Image Credit: Nature-Source, by Antranias, CC0 Public Domain, from

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