Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Authoritative Rating

June 3, 2015

…what if there are no final answers at all, and the best we can hope for is to become OK with that?




First things first. When sitting, let the sit first and foremost be a chance just to be as we are. We start where we are. Where else could we start? Of course, sometimes we don’t want things to be as they are, nor do we want our own reactions to things to be as they are. So we let that reluctance be our starting place.

There’s a tendency to set up unrealistic ideals of practice – to be awesomely enlightened in such a way that all our problems are eradicated; to be fearsome people of the Way, beyond all ordinary human tribulation. Et cetera.

It may be that the path is more a matter of allowing our human foibles, having an attitude of tolerance and realism toward them, and patience. It may be true that a resolution of our human condition is actually possible. But if that were an eradication of our ordinary humanity, then it wouldn’t really be a resolution. Instead, it is surely more a matter of forgiveness blended with self-discipline, of love along with non-self-deceptive clarity. One koan speaks of both “roundness” and “sharpness – we might say both compassion and precision, clarity.

Is there a place where the two meet? Many parents would surely say yes: in a parent’s heart. You have to be firm at times. That’s a crucial part of parental love. If as Zen students are we are “Buddha babies” or “children of the Dharma,” then perhaps something of a parental attitude toward our practice is in order too.

Next time you sit, try a quick check-in. The traditional sequence of meditation practice is always:  body first, then breath, then mind…

How is my body right now? The belly – is it tight, agitated, or warm, open, spacious?

Then: the breath – is it tight, shallow, uneasy? Or calm, steady, comfortable? Let it be as it is. No attempt to “improve” it. Who knows what would be an improvement anyway. Let both breath and belly be as they are. What does it take to open up to them, and as it were welcome them as they are?

Then check in with sound. What are you hearing? In a way, all sounds contain an intrinsic peace. They are just the sounds produced by things and creatures doing what they do. Let them all do what they do. Then come back and let your body be doing what it’s doing. It too has it place and its life.

Then begin your practice of counting or following the breath, or sitting with a koan, or “just sitting.”


Authoritative Rating

Somehow we seem to naturally like there being some kind of authority or judge who could tell us how we’re doing, even though we may also dislike authority in general (some of us). As if there might be some imaginary category of people who “know,” who are experts. It’s natural to assume that teachers of meditation practice, for example, especially teachers with titles like “master” or “rinpoche” or “lama” really know something we don’t.

Yes they may have done extensive doctrinal studies, or they may have sat a long time, they may have put out many fires inside and outside, they may have had existential revelations about the nature of human experience—but what if the point is more that they are comfortable with not knowing, with not being any kind of expert? We hear it again and again from the Zen masters themselves: “I’ve got nothing to say” (Unmon). “You want to know who Buddha is? It’s three pounds of flax” (Tozan). “Don’t come here asking questions like a pack of hungry dogs seeking something to eat” (Joshu). And so on.

Maybe we assume they’re not talking straight with us – that it’s some kind of clever Zen shtick they’ve got going. But what if is isn’t? What if they are being straight?

How comfortable could we be in a world without authorities, a world where there is no one who can tell us definitively how things stand? For example, what about our own practice: is it good or bad? Am I doing well or not? Suppose no one can say? Dogen says: “Not even all the buddhas and ancestors can measure the merit of one person’s zazen.”

Or to take it a step further, he also says that this whole great earth is completely uninhabited. So then who on earth could tell us how we’re doing?

Or a step further still: what if no one can even note let alone rate our moments of insight, our “experiences”, our openings in practice. After all, there’s a little bit of a set-up gong on: we sit in straight rows, we have timed periods, we have organized times for interviews, and so on. We have a kind of program of practice, especially on the koan side of training.

Yet all that structure is merely to discover a realm of experience that is free of structure, and indeed free of anything at all. And then to clarify that that realm and this “ordinary” earthly daily realm were one and the same from the very beginning. They were never two. That realm is this realm, and vice versa. And then it’s to forget all about that “Zen nonsense,” and just live helpfully, if we possibly can. And if we can’t then so be it, but we’ll keep trying to do better.

In other words, what if there are no final answers at all, and the best we can hope for is to become OK with that?

However, there is still one point left. Master Mumon said: “There is still the all-surpassing hole.”

It is possible to taste for ourselves the all-surpassing hole he speaks of. More than taste it. And it does change things to experience it directly. Rather radically. We may not talk too openly about this, but there is a total or universal collapse which turns out to be marvelously, infinitely fruitful. Then “the iron trees break into bloom,” as one ancestor said. All breaks into marvelous everlasting bloom.

“Isn’t there anyone who would like to find this?” asks Mumon.


A small point about teaching: personally I don’t seek to change the traditional teaching at all. If it helped me, if it helped my teachers before me, then why change it? Why not seek to lead others through the same process? We are all babies in this traditional wisdom. It is all so new to us in the West. There are treasures in these traditions that we have barely glimpsed. Why not do our best to transmit the infinite treasures of the core of the Zen Way?

Related, I am in awe of the teachers in our Sanbo Zen lineage. Any of them might strike out alone and set up like the big-name “spiritual gurus” of our time, but they don’t. They have the humility to remain under the sway, the shelter, the refuge of the lineage and the abbot. Swagger, bravado, the pursuit of name and gain—these are just not part of the equation of true spirituality.

Image Credit: Wisdom-Diamond Light, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0. from
Featured Image Credit: Between Red and White, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0. from

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