When a Zen student sits with a koan, she is also sitting under the wing of her teacher, and indeed of all the ancestral teachers, historical or mythological, stretching back through time immemorial.
Given that experiencing intimate connection with others has been the abiding concern of Zen over the centuries, it follows that the engineering of conditions that make this possible has been a feature of its practice. For example, Zen meditation periods are generally shorter than in other Buddhist meditation schools. Even on retreats the sitting is broken up by frequent walking meditation, by work practice, chanting, and private interviews with the teacher. It’s not that there is no emphasis on meditation, but there is a decided emphasis on something else too. On Zen retreat, activity is important, and not merely as a break from meditation. If it were all about meditative cultivation, then the orchestrated bustle of the meditation hall, the frequent and usually brief meetings with one’s teacher, the liturgical forms, and the collective work periods would be mere distractions rather than integral parts of the training.
The forms of any practice are shaped by the aims and values of the practice. Zen might be less good at bringing one to understandings and virtues as construed in Tibetan or Theravada Buddhism, because its forms are suited for those prized qualities of spiritual life as construed specifically in Zen. Without these more external elements Zen might still be a fine spiritual practice, but the distinctive characteristics that make Zen Zen could well get lost.
We find in Zen a kind of distillation of the ways in which ordinary life is most meaningful for us. When we hold a newborn in our arms, for example, or in the course of a conversation feel, “You really get me,” or read a poem and feel astonishment at being met and understood— we can’t help but recognize something of surpassing import in such everyday encounters. Whether it arises in a meeting with one’s teacher, in the final chapters of a great novel, or in a transmission on Vulture Peak, this kind of encounter is something we can’t help but seek out and affirm.
When a Zen student sits with a koan, she is also sitting under the wing of her teacher, and indeed of all the ancestral teachers, historical or mythological, stretching back through time immemorial. Somewhere in the back of our mind there’s awareness that the koan is going to bring us closer to them. The refuge of immemorial practice is burgeoning both within and around us. We are not alone. There is in this a measure of sleight of hand, of smoke and mirrors. We think we are being led further along a path of individual training, and we are, but all the time we are unwittingly sinking deeper into community and relationality too.
It’s not that practice is either about the liberative experiences found in meditation or about connection. Rather, it’s that liberative experience isn’t fully actualized until it finds expression in connectedness. “Only connect,” wrote E. M. Forster in his famous epigraph to Howards End. Connection with others loosens the bonds of self-concern and helps us find our best course of action in the world. In Zen, the relationship with the teacher, fraught with some risk though it may be, is a crucial juncture where the capacity to connect gets opened up.
Read Part 7, the conclusion of The Meeting.
Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting:Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .