Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Random Thoughts from Japan

May 27, 2015

Our practice is a kind of experiential science, a personal science. The science of authentic self-discovery, as passed down by Zen through many generations.


A poster in the Tokyo Metro showing what looks like a city of the future; I guess it’s advertising some kind of real estate development, or possibly mortgages. There’s a glamorous young woman standing beside a red sports car, alone. Beyond her the idealized development spreads hazily. She’s the only person in the picture. The man who you might think should be with her, as the second half of this couple of the future, is missing – he is understood. He isn’t shown in the picture but he is understood, he is there anyway.

That’s how the Dharma is, how Buddha is, how Sangha is. We look at this world, we walk through it, we say we live in it. But if we only knew, we might not say that. Because in all we see, do, hear, speak, and so on, the Dharma is understood, the Tathagata is understood – like an invisible presence betokened by all that we experience. We see only the glove, not the hand in the glove. All this world, all our experience, is merely the glove, not the hand. And when we do experience it, all that we have known and put our trust and confidence in simply disappears. So what is left then? What is all this then?

We are engaged in a great project whether we like it or not. Maybe the greatest project – the uncovering of reality, of the fundamental truth of existence. At times the means of making this discovery has been more or less available and known. We are making it known again now in this part of the world.

But it is not just a truth or reality that we somehow find and observe. It also must be lived and acted upon, it compells us into a different way of living. It must because its discovery can’t be made without incurring a radical reappraisal of who we thought we were. It’s so intimate, it thoroughly concerns us. It’s not an objective discovery. It’s both subjective and objective. And it can never stand still.

Our practice is a kind of experiential science, a personal science. The science of authentic self-discovery, as passed down by Zen through many generations.

“A holy hermit does not wish to be appointed lord,” says Mumon, meaning that you may live alone with very little, like the Tang-era hermits (and some today), but so long as you have clarified your real self you know that you lack nothing. Therefore the clear-eyed practitioner doesn’t need a grander station in life.

Somehow in this practice we push ourselves on as students, and endeavor to keep clarifying our experience, and our practice in a sense is driven by our determination, our faith and our inner search. But at the same time, we somehow must also become more open, more receptive, more ready to receive the teaching. It’s a two-handed business. It’s like Master Kyosei’s “picking and pecking” style of Zen: the chick pecks from inside the shell, the hen picks from outside.

As if the more we drive ourselves on in practice, the more we are also going to be met. Both sides need one another.

When Dogen says “drop the self” or “forget the self,” it is easy to think of the self as a solid, droppable thing. But it’s not. It’s a chimera, a mirage, a reflection, a vapor, a process, an illusion. There is nothing there to drop. Dropping it is not a matter of getting rid of it, but realizing it was never there. The point is to get clearer about that, then clearer again.

But why bother? Because of the clear world that then opens up, of peace and great beauty. And not only that. Also because what is revealed is actual reality.

Anyway – enough of all that….

More importantly, in Japan these past ten days the film crew making a documentary about Sanbo Zen, guided by Sato Migaku Roshi, and also by Azuma-san Sumiko on the last two days, both so kind and wise, met with and interviewed a host of extraordinary practitioners, of all ages and walks in life. We visited zendo’s in Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto and Obama, all on the trail of the ancestors of our lineage. Luke the director, Matt the cameraman, and Chris the producer, assisted by Astrid, got unbelievably beautiful footage of the trees and temples of Engakuji, where Yamada Koun Roshi had his first opening in Zen; of Sanzen-in, one of the holiest, oldest and most revered temples on Mount Hiei, where Horisawa Sensei, an abbot in the Tendai Sect, and a student of our own abbot Ryoun Roshi, runs the most beautiful ancient monastery with a moss garden filled with soaring trees; of Hosshinji, our ancestor Harada Sogaku Roshi’s monastery in the quiet far-western town of Obama (yes, Obama); of San’un Zendo (Three Clouds Zendo) where Yasutani Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi led many students in Zen, and which is still a thriving home of authentic practice under Ryoun Roshi’s guidance; and of Ryoun-an, the roshi’s Tokyo zendo…

Much to report on. Tomorrow Thursday in the Mountain Cloud zendo I will be talking about the trip and maybe drawing some conclusions, or at least opening up some questions about our practice and the project we are all engaged in as Dharma students.

Looking forward to being together with the Sangha again in our beautiful earthen sanctuary.

Image Credit: Valentine Lightfulness, 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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