Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Subject and Object

December 15, 2015

To reach the treasures of meditation practice and training, we all have to pass through a thicket of thorns.


I used to think growing up meant becoming an adult. We spend the first nine or ten months in our mother’s womb. If we’re lucky, we spend the next seventeen years or so in the womb of an immediate family which is a supportive enough environment for us to grow and develop. Then we leave and are in the broader womb of the world and society and work and relationship and so on. By now we are fully grown in body and brain.

Yet perhaps we’re not really grown up. There is more growing up to be done. In a sense we are now ready to do the major piece of our growing up. We are human beings. We are at the prime stage or state within the great Mahayana – the one wherein we are able to wake up from the dream, or emerge from the womb, of life itself.

Every koan is a midwife at the labor of this birth, this waking up. They stir it, they bring on labor, they help us through it, and they help us beyond it. Every master in the whole descending lineage of ancestors is holding our hands as we learn to walk once again.

* * *

Master Ryokan, the wandering eremitic poet-monk, has this to say about our teachers:

If you’re going to study with a teacher, above all, you’ve first got to grasp her or his realization. What does it mean, to grasp their realization? If your view is different from theirs, for the time being, you must cast your own view aside and devote yourself to penetrating their teaching. Once your understanding conforms to theirs, then you can calmly reflect:

Where do their strengths and weaknesses lie? Where are they right? Where wrong? Then, abandon the areas of weakness, affirm the areas of strength. Abandon what is wrong, and affirm what is right. And going along step by step like this, you’ll arrive at the wisdom of enlightenment.

Personally, I find this quite comforting.

* * *

To reach the treasures of meditation practice and training, we all have to pass through a thicket of thorns. Here is a sample list of thorns:

Leg pain
Other body pains and discomfort
Irritation and annoyance
Disappointment in the present
Remembered disappointments
Reluctance to go and sit
Reluctance to be sitting
Distaste for sangha
Disgruntlement with our teachers
Reluctance to go to our teachers
Long-forgotten angers that surface
Sadnesses that surface
Hopelesssness, pervasive pointlessness
Bitter feelings toward practice, as well as the so-called “three treasures”
Feeling too hot or too cold
Unscratched itches
Nihilistic attitudes

I would guess that most of us will taste most of the above, and perhaps many other thorns besides, at times in our practice. Hopefully, over time, we learn to be patient with them, and with ourselves, and to have a more welcoming attitude toward them. The sting of their tips is taken away when we accept them, and often it turns out they have something important to teach us. Anyway, it’s by accepting the pierce of the thorns that we move closer to the treasures.

What are the treasures? They are pointless to enumerate. As Unmon said: “Everyone has their own bright light. When you look at it, you can’t see a thing, it’s completely dark. Now, what is your bright light?”

* * *

Subject and object are one.

What a small, abstract and innocuous-looking sentence that is. We may have read or heard these words many times, and if we’ve been in practice long enough, we might have acquiesced to them many times, without much more than a knowing nod of agreement. If we’re new to practice, or have yet to begin a meditation practice, we might gloss over them and pay them little heed, as just more baffling bulletins from the misty hinterlands of meditation.

Yet these five brief words actually relay a most remarkable insight into our customary ways of seeing and experiencing. What they say turns everything on its head. All our planning, striving, fearing, hoping, hating, fretting, worrying and loving is cast in such a new light that it is overturned. Ultimately, our very understanding of life and death, self and world, is blown away by them.

Kyogen said: Everything I ever knew has been forgotten, when he discovered that subject and object are one.

Buddha said, I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way, when he did.

Joshu apparently said nothing, like Vimalakirti with his famous silence.

How easy these words are to say; how easy to ignore; how easy to acquiesce to. Yet they are neither a proposition nor an idea. So what are they?

Message from Henry taken from our December 15, 2015 newsletter.
Image: Icy Thorns, by Nestor Galino, CC BY 2.0, from

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