Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

Message from Henry: Genuine Kensho

July 10, 2018

Kensho is a revelation, meaning that it reveals a whole other order of things. We may feel: OMG, how wrong I’ve been all my life!

Most of us will not have had a thoroughly transformative experience at the start of our koan study. It may feel that way at the time, but it is rare for the initial breakthrough experience to be thorough-going.

Nevertheless, an initial breakthrough needs to have at least one of three clear characteristics for koan study to begin. This might sound a bit stern but I believe it’s right. Occasionally I meet someone who went through some koan training and was disappointed in it, and felt either the koans or the teacher or even the ancestors were misleading everybody. Actually nothing could be further from the truth, and as long as we’ve had a “real” kensho, we will sense this anyway. But in each such case, when they described their initial breakthrough to me, it lacked at any of these theee “marks” of genuine kensho.

Kensho is a revelation, meaning that it reveals a whole other order of things. We may feel: OMG, how wrong I’ve been all my life!

So these are three putative minimum characteristics.

First, everything is revealed as one life, one existence, one dream, one single body. It’s not that’s all is connected— rather, all is actually one single phenomenon.

Second, the infinite is right here, right now. It’s not apart from here. This here, right now, is absolutely boundless. A cup, a leaf, a footprint in the sand, a key in a lock — each of these is suddenly shown to be boundless and infinite.

Third, this here right now is completely empty. It has no substance whatsoever. It is gone. It was in fact never really here to begin with, the way we thought it was. This can be experienced of the sense of self — I have never been “me”! All along, there has been no me. Or of the world, that is, of objects that the self experiences as apart from itself — any and all objects are “gone”. Or it can be discovered of both self and world at the same time. Then, all is gone, all drops away, and “ the bottom falls out of the bucket.”

At least one of these three is needed for koan study. If not, it won’t serve either the person or the system of koan study. The reason is that then there is really nothing the poor student can do but attempt to grapple with the koans with their mind. Thus defeating their purpose. The life of the koans begins where the mind ends.

In fact these three “marks” — when we get right down to it — are the basic referents of buddha, dharma and sangha.

Buddha— the basic fact: gone, utterly gone, beyond utterly gone.

Dharma— the infinite expression of each last thing, arising, given, emanating, emerging, surging forth out of nowhere, from nothing. The existence of each thing arising and filling the universe.

Sangha— all phenomena are one. Our birthplace right here and now is absolutely common to us all. “All things are one family,” as Master Mumon (Wumen) said. Therefore all is blessed, ten thousand times blessed, as he also said.

If I’ve made it sound like these are three items to be checked off a list, how misleading I have been. Each one is a thorough and devastating blow to our ordinary sense of things— in a most marvelous way. Each one overturns our life, our world, our self, as we have known them. Each one places a key in a keyhole we didn’t know our heart possessed, and unlocks it. What then pours forth as our heart’s door swings open is no less than the whole universe.


Message from Henry is from our July 9, 2018 Newsletter
Image: Panorama by jplenio, and Foliage by stevepb.  Public Domain CC0 1.0 from
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