To meet, to really connect, to encounter another as deeply as possible—this is an abiding human concern.
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. Whatever else this seminal moment in Zen’s lore may be, it is unavoidably about relationship, and about relationship as both an expression and an instrument of the dharma.
Of course, there is emphasis on relationality of various kinds within many Buddhist traditions. There is the teaching, support, and encouragement of a kalyanamitra, or “spiritual friend.” There are the devotional traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism, including the practice of guru yoga, where regarding the words and deeds of one’s teacher as those of a buddha is a means to opening to one’s own buddhanature. There is the famous statement by the Buddha in the Pali canon that association with good friends is “the whole of the holy life” (Samyatta Nikaya 45.2). Perhaps it could be said that Zen grows out of and extends this tendency that can be traced to the earliest Buddhist sources.
Modern Westerners tend to be suspicious of religious institutions, and this carries over into how we adapt Buddhism, often viewing it as a largely individual matter. But ever since the Buddha established the monastic sangha, the establishment and support of participation in institutions has been key to Buddhist life and to Buddhism’s ability to thrive in vastly different cultures across Asia. This includes the establishment of temples, universities, lay communities, and monasteries. Yet it seems to me that there is still something singular about how thoroughly a non-interior sensibility is lived out in Zen.
Meeting, communion, recognition, intimacy—these are deep human desires. Not surprisingly, they show up in many fields. To meet, to really connect, to encounter another as deeply as possible—this is an abiding human concern. Great writers know this. The first great work of the Western tradition, the Iliad, ends with an iconic meeting between two sworn enemies, the Greek warrior Achilles and Troy’s elderly king, Priam. After all the bloodshed of the Trojan War, after 23 sections of graphic slaughter and unrelenting enmity, in the poem’s final section Priam makes his way, under cover of night and in disguise, to his enemy’s tent, where he plans to beg for the body of his slain son Hector, so he can give him proper burial rites. Rather than fight, the two men drop all hostility and weep together for their fallen, shedding tears of mutual forgiveness. At this moment the subject of the poem—the “anger of Achilles,” as announced in its very first line—finds its resolution. The hostility is transcended, a previously unimaginable communion is forged, and with that the Western literary tradition begins.
Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting:Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .