Posted inHenry's Messages


December 23, 2014

The tree is the self. The day it falls is the day we let ourselves go, and drop into a vast truth that has been with us all along yet which we didn’t see..


I’m sure there are people out there who don’t need a teacher but I’m so happy I’m not one of them. One of the many errors (as I now see it) that I made for years was imagining that “enlightenment” was some kind of solitary attainment. These days I have no idea what enlightenment is, I’m pretty sure it’s not an “attainment” but rather a basic fact, and I’m very sure that in my own case at least, nothing about it could be solitary. It must be the opposite of solitary. It’s a collaboration, and to join it we have to gently open up our tight grip on ourselves and on our cherished way of seeing things.

This can take a long time. But all along the way we are growing and changing in ways we both see and don’t see. It reminds me of that Chinese bamboo that doesn’t seem to grow at all for five years. But it is secretly developing a deep root-system. Then all of a sudden one day it shoots up eighty feet in height in a matter of days. No one sees the stealthy preparation that has been going on, and without which the sudden growth would be impossible.

That’s like practice. As a Chan master said, many small blows with the hatchet day in day out, and one day a mighty tree falls.

The tree is the self. The day it falls is the day we let ourselves go, and drop into a vast truth that has been with us all along yet which we didn’t see – a day of awakening, of death and rebirth.

It’s a matter of trust, of being able to give up our precious individuality, and give ourselves into the hands of we don’t know what – of nothing at all perhaps. Yet in trust that it’s OK. In that surrender and humility, for the first time we can discover the real depth of our support and our connectedness – how unsolitary we are, if only we let it all go.

Personally, my teachers showed me this. Never deliberately perhaps. But the week after week of sitting together, of dokusan, helped the root-system grow stronger, until one day it was safe to drop everything I knew, and something I could not have imagined sprang forth.

I understand an engrained cultural and psychological distrust of authority. It’s certainly part of America’s great history, and it surely has its healthy side. In my own case, I was an angry rebel much of my life, not really trusting anybody deeply, doing many things I shouldn’t have done out of an anger at authority.

It took me a long time to accept that my teachers in Zen were a totally different kind of authority from any I’d known before. That – in fact – I simply didn’t know what it was they were offering, yet something in me seemed to know it was right.

Whatever that something was, I feel eternally grateful to it for guiding me home.

May all beings be at home.


By Henry Shukman, from our newsletter archives.

Image: Tree,  By Amayaeguizabal, CC0 Public Domain, from

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