Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Coke Zero

March 25, 2015

Only through the gateless gate of absolute zero does our real life spring forth most wonderfully: “the iron trees come into bloom.”



Sometimes people talk about “traditional” versus “innovative” approaches to practice. I want to suggest that both these terms might be missing one point. The true fact, the fundamental reality of Zen is enshrined in the core of the Heart Sutra. Commonly translated as “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” this line, according to one of our most brilliant, scholarly and profound masters in Sanbo Zen, is more accurately rendered as: “all phenomena are nothing at all; nothingness is all phenomena.” In other words, each and every phenomenon, everything we ever experience, is absolutely nothing at all; and this very absolute nothingness is precisely the totality of our experience and existence. This is the utterly radical teaching of the core of the Zen koan tradition.

But even to put it into words like this is to run a grave risk – of turning it into an idea, perhaps even an inspiring idea, or else a shocking idea – but anyway to miss the point of practice, which is that it is arrived at only through the great “gateless gate” of actual experience – in the very heart of our life and consciousness.

In this kind of a context, it’s easy to see how concepts like “traditional” or “innovative” are far beside the point. When it’s so utterly radical, who could give it any epithet? The real core of Zen teaching is a heart-stopping, life-overturning reality that it goes far beyond the tameness of either “innovative” or “traditional.” Is a mountain too traditional, or a river or fire too innovative?

As the “Coke Zero” ad says: “You don’t know zero till you’ve tried it.” No zero, no Zen. Beyond all words, all judging, all thought, all understanding, all life and death. Any watering down of this, and the core of Zen, which is nothing less than the core of a human being and the core of existence, is not yet alive and authentic.

Only through the gateless gate of absolute zero does our real life spring forth most wonderfully: “the iron trees come into bloom.”

The Dharma of Zen took about three to five hundred years to find its form in China, and about the same in Japan. Why would the West be any different? If we patiently trust our masters, then there’s reason to hope all will work out just fine. Actually, not to trust our masters is to lack one of the three “Essentials of Zen” – namely having “a great root of faith.” Without that, no true Zen.

Surely when it comes to koan practice this is something worth bearing in mind: each koan is the very heart of the sun: a burning reality with the capacity to vaporize all else, and simultaneously to bring all to “bright and shining” existence, as Yamada Koun Roshi says. But the teaching, the training, is so long, hard, frustrating, humiliating, stubborn, intransigent, that some have been tempted to try to make it easier. But there are struggles that earnest seekers over the millennia have always had to pass through. Again, why should we be different? Impatience is surely understandable, but maybe we can put it on the shelf for a while, and just sit and practice with no mind at all.

Koans, among other things, are the record, the map, of the trials, struggles and efforts of generations of practitioners who have come before us. They are an incredible resource for us on our spiritual journey toward resolution of our humanity. They are “dark to the mind, radiant to the heart” – they can’t be approached conceptually; nor can they be gone through with a crib sheet like some kind of bizarre exam (which does happen). Nor is the awakening enshrined in them merely a kind of drug experience, a tweak to the neurochemistry…

True kensho, real satori, is an utterly confounding glimpse of reality.

As Mumon said, “Mu will astonish the heavens and shake the earth.” Mu is something entirely outside human agency. Yet it is most intimate and intrinsic to who we are. We basically place ourselves at its mercy, and come to accept the extraordinary fact that there is a sisterhood and brotherhood of people who over the millennia have “abandoned the law of the world,” as Dogen put it, in order to devote themselves to this reality “hidden in plain sight.” Why wouldn’t we be thankful for that, and do our utmost to maintain their work, rather than risk diluting or distorting it?

Until proven otherwise, it seems to me the greatest privilege and honor and gift is to receive, maintain, join and share the incomparable teachings of our ancestors, masters and forebears, to the best of our ability.

Image Credit: Between Yin and Yang, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Featured Image Credit: Zen Path, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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