Like other Buddhist schools, Zen is interested in dismantling the tough shell of self, but it seems to insist that this be done within the vessel of relationship.
When Soko Morinaga Roshi was a young monk in the late 1940s, he left the small temple where he had studied under his first master, Zuigan Roshi, and moved into the large training monastery of Daitokuji several miles away across Kyoto. There the monastic training was severe, and Morinaga, in a desperate quest for the experience of satori, or awakening, added to its rigors with long late-night sitting on his own. After two or three exhausting years, one night he was sitting late when something unexpected happened, as recorded in his engaging memoir, Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity.
One night I sat, in the middle of the night, a lump of fatigue sitting on a zazen cushion, both body and consciousness were in a haze, and I could not have roused the desire for satori if I had wanted to when, suddenly, the fog cleared and a world of lucidity opened itself. Clearly seeing, clearly hearing, it was yet a world in which there was no “me”! … I could not keep still in my uncontainable joy.
Without waiting for the morning wake-up bell, I made an unprecedented call on the roshi and received permission to leave the temple for about two hours to deliver the news of my experience to Zuigan Roshi. It did not take me an hour to walk through the black darkness to Daishuin [Zuigan’s temple]. When I arrived, Roshi was still in bed. I crawled right up to his pillow and said very simply, “I finally saw.” Roshi sprang from his bed, examined me for a time, as if with a glare, and said, “It’s from now on. From now on. Sit strongly.”
On the face of it, the experience Morinaga had just had in his solitary sitting would seem to have been entirely sufficient unto itself. Its clarity and joy had overwhelmed him, and he felt his years of earnest practice had found a deep fulfillment. Yet he felt compelled to leave the monastery, at short notice and in the dead of night—which meant breaking monastic protocol on several counts—in order to intrude, wholly inappropriately, into his old teacher’s room while the master was asleep. Why was it so important to go and meet Zuigan Roshi?
It may be hard for Buddhist practitioners in the West to understand the urgency felt by that young student. Our contemporary spiritual sensibilities are, to varying degrees, shaped very differently. Since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, a defining reorientation of the modern period in the West has been to understand spirituality as primarily an interior matter. It’s not that ethics and outward behavior don’t matter, of course, but since the Reformation part of our cultural inheritance has been the belief that a soul’s wellness in God’s eyes is an internal issue.
The Protestant notion of “justification by faith” ushered in the view that spiritual life was a matter just between the individual and God. To be sure, this is not the whole of Western heritage, and such an internal notion of spirituality is not so strong in the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, nor indeed in Judaism or Catholicism. But the confluence of individualizing tendencies found not only in the rise of Protestantism but also in the roughly contemporaneous growth of capitalist economies and the emergence of Newtonian science effected a great transformation in Western culture—and with that a sense of the self as an isolated entity, and thus a sense of spirituality being individual and interior. The rise of psychotherapy in the 20th century has strengthened this tendency: the many modalities of therapy generally (though not exclusively) concur on being internal processes that result in a client’s feeling better. In other words, the focus has mostly been on inner well-being.
Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting: Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .