Posted inHenry's Messages, Koans

Message from Henry: Rice Cake

January 6, 2016

A monk asked Unmon: What is meant by the pronouncement “to go beyond the Buddha and ancestors”?

Unmon answered: Country rice cake (kobyo)

–Hekiganroku, Case 77


Finding peace – after all, what could be better? To taste a peace beyond conditions, that pertains to all existence, eternal, infinite, filling the universe, and to discover that we ourselves are not separate from it – what balm for the human heart. A degree of belovedness, ease, rest, and fulfillment beyond anything we had hoped for. What a jewel.

I recently read an online post by a man who felt he had attained an unparalleled enlightenment, and that he was ready to start teaching what he had realized. It reminded me of Hakuin, aged 23, having his first awakening and claiming that “in 300 years no one has had such a clear enlightenment.”

This kind of pride, the feeling that one’s enlightenment is unique – in a way, it’s not wrong, but it’s also a little dangerous, and not the whole story. There are self-appointed spiritual teachers who are so sure of their awakening that they feel they had no need of guidance. The eye opens, we awaken to infinite empty oneness. It has been here all along yet now for the first time we recognize it. It’s home. It’s who we are. It’s everywhere. It’s nothing. Marvelous! Self-discovery, self-actualization, human potential fulfilled. The road is ended. We are no longer seekers. We have found. We are done, cooked, finished. In fact, so is the whole universe. There is nothing more to be done. Et cetera.

There are some ever-present dangers for people in spiritual practice: of getting removed from ordinary life and humanity; and of getting a little full of ourselves. Though obviously no lineage is perfect, Sanbo Zen has a few ways of trying to address these hazards, handed down from centuries of Zen training.

First, teachers remain students. We continue to acknowledge more reliable authorities than ourselves, and make a point of pursuing our training, basically forever.

Second, we abide by the wisdom of the ten oxherding pictures. The Zen perspective on the above realizations would be that we have now finally reached the third oxherding picture. We have seen for ourselves that there are no stages, all is abundantly fulfilled already. So why then are there seven more ox herding pictures?

The short answer is that we remain fallible ailing human beings. What stretches ahead is the wonderful path of training, of learning to live what we have seen, transforming our behavior, in thought, word and deed, so that in every moment we embody that reality.

Now more than ever we need a guide. Without a guide – one who has been led by another guide – we are liable to get caught in just the kind of arrogance referenced above. We have seen through the basic duality, in which I am here and everything else is there, to another level of reality where this is not true.

But now we are caught in a second duality: delusion on the one hand, awakening on the other. How are we to resolve this?

“Country rice cake,” was Unmon’s answer.

At this point we pick up koan training. Through years of working with koans, of slowly, invisibly, moving toward the fourth oxherding picture, where true intimacy wakes up, this second duality will dissolve. A different kind of experience may occur, where any difference between the “world of awakening” and the “world of delusion” disappears. In fact the two have never been two. Now the “original face” appears everywhere. We understand why Unmon spoke as he did above. That ordinary cookie on the plate before us – there is no other reality. We no longer need such a thing as “awakening.” That was a dream. Every “experience” we ever had – they were just dreams. At last reality presents itself. Our humanity shows itself.

Yet even this is merely the fourth oxherding picture. Another six “stages” of spiritual, or human, development stretch before us. Now we are likely to be dealing with a more subtle kind of pride, more like a lingering glow of self-consciousness. Having forgotten the duality of delusion and enlightenment, we have to work to forget that we’ve forgotten it. Just as we trained hard to turn earth into gold, now we face the harder task of turning gold back into earth. As human beings we discovered our intrinsic enlightened nature. As enlightened nature, we must now become ordinary human beings again. As the Bible says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

But please remember that this kind of overview offered here is also a disservice. More intimate is this: just now, here.

Coffee warm in the cup.
Dawn sky clear after a few days of cloud.
Frost smooth on the car windows.
Early sun filling the crevices on the hills with shadow.

And….people are cold, people are hungry, people are without homes.

Please, let’s consider: what will we do today?

Message from Henry taken from our January 6, 2016 Newsletter.

Image: Rice Cake, by Kanko, CC by 2.0, from

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