Posted inHenry's Messages

Relief From Suffering

December 5, 2014

“To awaken is to realize for ourselves that our suffering was never ever separate from awakening.”


We tend to think of relief from suffering as a direct tending to the suffering. In other words, the model is along the lines of a sick person whose symptoms are addressed by the physician’s care. The symptoms need alleviation and treatment. I have anxiety, please alleviate my anxiety; I am full of sorrow, please heal me of my sorrows. But the insights of Zen don’t see suffering quite this way.

In a sense, if asked whether Zen can help us with our suffering, the correct answer is: “Absolutely not!”

Why? Isn’t that what this is all about? Relief from suffering? Didn’t Buddha find, then teach, the path out of suffering?

The second Chinese Ancestor Sosan went to Bodhidharma with his troubled mind. Master, my mind is not at rest; please put it to rest for me, he said.

Bodhidharma responded: Bring me your mind and I’ll put it to rest.

To which Sosan, after some period of intense self-enquiry, returned: I have searched for my mind and cannot find it.

Bodhidharma then said: I already have put it to rest for you.

Zen’s way is the way of not-two. Without this momentous discovery – not-two – there really is no true Zen. But “not-two” does not exactly mean “one,” by the way. We might fill out the sentence like this: not-two, but also not-one.

The third Ancestor Sosan went in his turn to Eka and asked for healing of his “sins.” Eka said, Bring me your sins and I’ll heal them. To which Sosan said: I’ve searched for my sins and can’t find them. And Eka said: I’ve already healed you of them.

What do these stories mean? What is their implication for our suffering and its healing?

It’s quite simple, though not so easy to realize for ourselves in a way that truly convinces us. Suffering and awakening are one thing. To awaken is to realize for ourselves that our suffering was never ever separate from awakening. The same is true of our suffering selves – they were never separate from realization. They were never separate from Buddha. They were never separate from anything.

This is precisely the content of Zen’s great liberation. Realization and delusion are one. Suffering and awakening are one.

But what is that “one”? And where is it? And when? Surely it couldn’t be right here, right now, just as things are?……. or could it? What would this experience right now, right here, be then?

With love,

By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.
Image: Sentenced to Self-Knowledge, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0, from

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