Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: A Little Reflection on Zen History

July 26, 2021


Dogen said, “Practice is enlightenment; enlightenment is practice.” Tahui said: “There never was any delusion, nor any realization.”

These statements are completely clear, yet we shouldn’t mistake what they mean. They are speaking from the perspective of complete awakening. Outside of that point of view, what they’re saying does not make sense.

In a sense, there is a kind of dividing line right at this point between Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen. Soto, following Dogen, says: just sit; sitting itself is enlightenment. On the other hand, Rinzai says: sit and awaken; we do need to come to realization, otherwise we will never see that practice itself is enlightenment.

The Soto position is the position of “complete enlightenment,” wherein it’s clear that delusion is awakening, and vice versa, and that there is only one reality, one fact, and all phenomena are its functioning, and that therefore there is nothing to do but sit. To sit is nothing but the enlightened reality itself.

The Rinzai approach, on the other hand, is just a bit more “human,” a bit less “supremely enlightened.” It would agree with the Soto view but it assumes the majority of us don’t yet have the enlightened viewpoint, and need a bit of help getting to it. Therefore it offers expedient means by which we may come to “see as the Buddha sees.” These means would include working with the breath, and especially with the infamous, notorious and marvelous koans.

Koans can be thought of as embodiments of the enlightened view. By immersing and dissolving ourselves in them, we may “awaken” to that view, as our very self disappears in the infinite benevolence of the koan.

But we do need that expedient device. We are not yet enlightened. Embroiled as we are in our mortal human hungers and hates, we are incapable of knowing that our very finite life, just as it is, is in fact the unbounded, infinite life of the Buddha-fact.

Both forms of Zen developed in monastic contexts primarily, and continued that way, predominantly though not exclusively, until the mid to late 19th century in Japan, whereupon the orders became more open, allowing the clergy to marry and the teachings to be conveyed to a wider public. D.T.Suzuki was part of that movement or development. So is our line. Much koan Zen in the West is a result of that opening up.

Essentially it is the Rinzai view that we need help in realizing that we are already the awakened reality itself – it’s not enough just to be told that – that produced the Sanbo Zen school. The “Three Clouds” – Dai’un Roshi, Haku’un Roshi and Ko’un Roshi (Great Cloud, White Cloud and Cultivating Cloud) – together did much to open the training to lay people, including westerners. Why, they wondered, did this realization of our intrinsic nature have to be confined to monasteries? Couldn’t it happen to lay people too, and help them? Couldn’t the sitting be beneficial outside monastery walls?

The answer, several decades on, seems proven to be yes, though perhaps with caveats.

Next week I hope to move onto some of the caveats. Meanwhile, please keep sitting. Don’t let up, as my teacher Joan Rieck Roshi would always say. And those of you who are local to Santa Fe and haven’t had dokusan in a while, please remember the traditional advice to Zen students: you must steal the Dharma from your teacher! (I know it’s not always easy to get in, but please persist.)

Message from Henry – excerpted from our August 26, 2015 newsletter.
Image Credit: Sakura, by Nan-ne, CC0 Public Domain, from

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