Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: After Enlightenment, the Laundry

March 18, 2015

The clarity is what matters. And clarity in Zen can only come from depth of experience.


“After enlightenment, the laundry,” as one Zen proverb has it: whatever may happen in our practice, no matter what revelations may or may not befall us, we always trust our daily life to be our endless primary teacher. This very moment and its needs and demands and challenges – in a sense, how could this immediate reality be anything other than our constant teaching?

In a more metaphorical sense, Yamada Koun Roshi often said in his writings and teachings that after enlightenment, we must “wash away” all trace of it – and that this is often a harder and longer process than coming to realization. First there’s the long journey up the mountain, then an even longer journey back down. It was so hard to get up there, why on earth would we want to come down?

In authentic, core Zen training we have another point: after enlightenment, the koans.

It is through work with the koans in the dokusan room, one on one, that the practice can so greatly expand, deepen and clarify whatever we have “realized,” so that we may forget all about it and be freed to live it. Traditional work with the koans is the means by which the real Dharma of Zen is conveyed from one generation to the next, and shines forth ever the same and ever new.

In other words, after enlightenment, the koans can take us much further than we could ever have imagined there might still be to go. How this works in practice is too big a subject for now (suffice to say the traditional method, of one on one meeting in the dokusan room with a teacher who has been led through that process with his or her teacher, is the profound, true way).

But we may take a quick look at one koan, Mumonkan Case 2, which comes immediately after the koan Mu. In summary, in this Case we meet a student who has had some awakening, and in a sense got “stuck” in it. For him there is nothing at all to be done. Life is totally empty, infinite and one – so what need could there be for any further practice?

Ruben Habito Roshi is fond of quoting Buzz Lightyear from the movie Toy Story on this point: “To infinity – and beyond!” In Zen, infinity is not enough! We must go beyond it. And sure enough this student in Case 2, though it takes him 500 more lifetimes, does eventually encounter just the push he needs in order to keep progressing on the path of practice, in the form of master Hyakujo. Hyakujo gives him a nudge, a jolt, a “turning word,” as a result of which he is set free of the prison that his awakening has become. He moves beyond his stuckness in infinity. Now, thanks to Hyakujo, he can act freely at last, equally at home wherever he is and whatever he does, no longer subject to the dualities of delusion and awakening, of form and emptiness. This is truly the great liberation of Zen. As master Mumon said, we must throw away both form and emptiness, if we are to find the principle of Zen.

Truly, the path is unsurpassable – it can’t be outdone and it can’t be avoided. It’s a tenet of Mahayana Buddhism that all beings are inevitably in the process of becoming Buddha – and that would even include us, no matter how unworthy of such a destiny we may often feel.

Of course, the path is long, in fact endless. But it seems very real to hope that from our first steps as beginners in Zen training, into the first koan, and then all the way through the classical koan collections – that that segment of our path can be an absolutely crucial part, where major pieces of our conditioning fall away, and where we shift our allegiance from “myself” to “the Dharma,” from “me” to “all beings.”

Which is to say, to the very wonder of daily life, with all its joys, travails, demands and ordinariness. Life as it is is nothing but the heart of our practice – which is none other than the very heart of existence, right here and now.

So far as we can, let’s trust this incomparable training, and endeavor to pass it on intact. But we don’t need a mighty Mississippi of a practice center or lineage to do that – we just need one small brook, so long as it’s clear.

The clarity is what matters. And clarity in Zen can only come from depth of experience.

And we are blessed to have a wondrous medicine for our spiritual health that we have inherited – namely the koans. Our forebears have shown how to practice with koans in an authentic way, in order to bring about a revolution in a human life, and in the life of humanity. They keep the water clear—the true water of this very moment, with whatever it is bringing.

Image: Water, by articonn, CC0 Public Domain photos, from

footer support banner image

Support Mountain Cloud

You can show your gratitude for Mountain Cloud events, retreats, podcasts and other teachings by making a one-time gift, or by becoming a supporting member.

Donate to Mountain Cloud Become a Member