Posted inDogen, Henry's Messages

The Meeting: Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality, Part 5 of 7

April 30, 2017

As Dogen said, to attain the Way is merely “to put one’s head through a gate.” There is a path beyond the door. It must be stepped through.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of The Meeting.

One of the best-known opening passages in literature comes from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy never explains exactly what he means by this, instead cutting right to the action of the novel, and the meaning of the book’s opening sentence has been picked apart, disagreed with, and elaborated on by countless commentators. It’s an enigma the reader must wrestle with, just as Tolstoy himself wrestles with it over the course of the book. But its meaning is surely tied to the parallel stories of the two protagonists, Anna and Levin.

Late in the book Levin has a religious epiphany. As a seeker prone to despair (rather like his creator), he comes to a profound, sudden resolution of his life questions. But that resolution is not sufficient until Levin goes on to assume his place in the world and affirm his relationships with his wife and family. Individual happiness is not the end. What is it about Levin’s “family happiness” that is the same as that found by anyone? Perhaps it is that without devotion to what is beyond one’s own happiness, attempts to create happiness for oneself alone cannot help but lead to the kinds of infinite convolutions of misery found in the relationship between Anna and Count Vronsky, where pursuit of personal happiness happens at the cost of the happiness of others.

There is an echo here of the bodhisattva ideal that underpins all Mahayana teachings, including Zen: our happiness turns out to consist largely in our devotion to the happiness of other beings.

In my own small way, I can relate to this personally. At one point in my Zen study, an unexpected experience of the emptiness of things left me feeling shaky, elated, and quite new. I couldn’t imagine how it might be possible to talk with another about something so uncanny and unspeakable; yet it also left me with an urgent longing to see my teacher.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the experience might have had anything to do with a koan she had recently given me. As I started describing the recent events in my practice, it was clear she knew what I was talking about. She asked some odd questions about the koan, and to my surprise I was able to answer them. As I did so, I felt the two of us growing closer and the experience coming alive in a new way. The point wasn’t just to be able to “answer” the koan; it was that the koan opened up not only a new way of experiencing but a new way of meeting. We met in a vast, fresh space, a space free of agenda. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, not just for the opening experience itself, but for the fact that it cleared the way to a kind of meeting that was incredibly intimate, not quite like any other I’d known. We laughed, then out of the blue I was crying. I think of that as the moment when my Zen training started in earnest.

The new, strange intimacy with my teacher soon affected other relationships too. Rather than being entangled in my own agendas, the starting point for relating with others could now be openness to their concerns. I began to understand that such experiences are openings in the sense of a doorway.

As Dogen said, to attain the Way is merely “to put one’s head through a gate.” There is a path beyond the door. It must be stepped through.

But it can take an understanding and experienced guide to lead us under the lintel. Otherwise, such an experience may fade into memory or become just another brick in the wall of our static and constricted sense of self. The affliction of pride and the fascination with spiritual experience have long been concerns in Zen. As Master Chosa Keishin said in the 9th century: “One standing at the top of a hundred-foot pole must step off it.” The scintillating taste of something at the core of existence must be lived in a daily life of concern for others. The meeting of minds so prized in Zen offers the first step off the top of that pole.

Read Part 6.


Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting:Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .

Images: 1) Silhouette by Vuralyavas, 2) Doorway by terimakasih0, 3) Mother by Mojpe, 4) Ancient, by sasint; all images CC0 Public Domain from

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