Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: A Little Word

April 5, 2016

Zen is not a palliative. Zen is not a contentment device. It is not a path to bliss, or to some Lotus-land in the distant West. It is a path to life itself.


Zen is a small word, and has been visiting our language for less than a century, which is a short time. Yet it has already had to live through the kind of abuse and misuse you’d think would take much longer to accrue. It has seen booms and busts. (And bust-ups: centers that one after another imploded under the shock of their lonely, miscreant masters’ abuses.) Once a buzzword, now eclipsed by its first cousin “Mindfulness,” Zen has been maligned as a byword for complacent contentment, for foreign disciplinarianism, for heartlessness even, and embraced as a concise icon of a coming secular spirituality. Once clutched to an older counterculture’s breast, now it is held at arm’s length by a more pragmatic almost-mainstream.

But I stand up for it. Maybe the name will change, or the name must go, but as a practice, as an inheritance of wisdom that has reached us from exotic shores, only to show us a way back to what is most close to home, it remains unparalleled.

It confronts us with the nonnegotiable fact of our mortality, right here and now. It invests us with a capacity to know our nonnegotiable vitality, here and now. It allows us to taste, firsthand, gloves removed, what it is to be alive. This can’t be put into words. It would only turn stale if it could. But it lets us know the taste of coffee, the sound of traffic out in the street on a rainy morning, the feel of our child’s little fingers vainly seeking to detain us at night, and happily succeeding, and the sound of the garbage being wheeled over the neighbor’s frozen yard in the dark before a winter dawn. And to know the pain of a loved one’s pain.

Zen is not a palliative. Zen is not a contentment device. It is not a path to bliss, or to some Lotus-land in the distant West. It is a path to life itself.

To be sure, it takes us by a circuitous route. For those inclined to go the whole hog, it takes us by way of our own death. It asks us not to imagine but to find and enter the world after we have died – again, not some enchanted isle in the sunset, but this here-and-now; in other words, our very life, lived in an intimacy previously unimaginable.

It asks only one thing of us – our self. In exchange it gives us the whole world. But instead of this being some Faustian pact we will later rue, it turns out to be the one true thing we can do, the one true act on which our life and loves depend.

Zen is right: to live, first we have to die.

* * *

Until you’ve died you can’t teach the Dharma. Once you’ve died everything is teaching it. And teaching isn’t what you thought. And dying isn’t what you thought either.

It turns out Manjusri with his sword that kills, and Kanzeon with her overflowing heart, are joined at the hip.

With love and thanks,


Message from Henry taken from our April 5, 2016 Newsletter.
Image: Photo taken by Cherie Manifest, used with her permission.


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