A Moment of Awakening

Many people first get into Zen by reading a book about it, or by meeting a Zen master, or from a general curiosity about meditation. For me it was different.

One afternoon when I was nineteen years old I found myself alone on a beach. As I stared out at the water, I saw that it looked coal-black yet at the same time dazzlingly bright, where the sunlight licked over it. I was trying to figure out if it was actually black, or was blindingly white, when suddenly everything changed. It was as if the whole world that I had always believed to be outside me – the phenomenal world – was suddenly not outside me, and never had been. That light on the water was in me. It was me myself. At the same time, it was as if I split open, and my heart was filled to overflowing with a love I couldn’t explain, or name, yet which was deeply familiar, and precious. It seemed to fill the entire universe as if I was made of the very same substance as the cosmos.

I had never known anything like it. Nothing in my liberal humanist education had prepared me for it. Yet I knew I had just seen an absolute truth of the universe, of who I was, of what it meant to be a human being. The afterglow went on for days. I lived in a world transfigured. In the hours immediately afterwards, the sand was unimaginably soft and powdery, and the sea looked like it came straight out of the Bronze Age Aegean I knew from my schoolboy studies of Homer. Everything seemed like it was both real and unreal – like an ancient dream I had had many centuries ago, in another lifetime. A flame of love wouldn’t stop burning in my heart. My heart had been swamped, overtaken, overwhelmed by a kind of love I had never known before, yet which was powerfully familiar.

Cut forward ten years. I’ve been to university, I’ve worked in various odd jobs, I’ve begun a life as a writer, having published one book and being in the middle of a second. It seems that after a rocky start my “career” is beginning to work out. Yet I am unsettled. One major reason for this is that although the experience on the beach has faded into the background, I still can’t forget it. Whatever it was, it still feels like the most important thing that ever happened to me. But what was it? And how can I get back to it? Sometimes I feel a kind of guilt, or even failure, because I seem incapable of recapturing it.

Then I meet someone who happens to be a Zen student. One evening she reads me a passage of Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Zen master who founded the Soto Zen sect in Japan. I don’t understand a word of it: something about mountains walking, and mountains not being mountains. But something happens as I listen. Somehow, I know this man Dogen understands what I saw on the beach. He was speaking from that incredible world I had stumbled into. So I get myself trained in zazen – Zen meditation – as soon as I can. I also begin a long search for my own Zen teacher. Finally, another ten years on, I settle down with a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan, a Zen lineage that employs traditional koan study.

I come to discover that every koan is about that very reality I glimpsed on the beach. They are about the “essential world” – a world that we can apprehend only through direct experience, which seems to radically contradict our “dualistic” or everyday view of things. There is indeed another side to everything. Through the course of koan training, and through a series of further plunges into the vast, ever-changing, ever-empty, unitary world of Buddha-nature, all of them new yet at the same time identical to the one I’d had on the beach, each one completely unexpected, a complete revelation, this world starts to penetrate my psyche more and more, until finally one day the wall between the two worlds – the everyday world, and the world of awakening – comes tumbling down in one radical thunder-crash.

Life has been much easier since.

The above is one version of my story. Here is another: when I was eighteen I escaped from the ruinous broken home in which I had grown up, occupied by my siblings, myself and my depressed mother, who had been abandoned by her husband, my father, in favor of her own first cousin, with whom he set up home just down the road. In addition to the difficulties of life with a betrayed, depressive, single mother, I spent my childhood encrusted in eczema. The disease was ugly and painful, and itched with a fury beyond any number of mosquito bites. I was often in hospital, and when home, was regularly visited by district nurses.

Finally at the age of eighteen I went away to work in South America, and the eczema lifted like a magic spell. For the first time my skin ceased to cause anguish. It became a thing of pleasure. I could hug without pain, shake hands without shame, and look at people without quaking at the thought of the rashes and gashes on my face and limbs. I also earned some decent money. Then I backpacked with a friend to remote corners of the Andes, seeing things more beautiful than anything I had ever imagined, and wrote my first book (Sons of the Moon, Scribners, 1989). Near the end of the trip, I went down to a beach and had that strange moment of union with all things. Then I went home.

Just six weeks after the epiphany by the sea, I pulled up in the English rain outside my father’s and stepmother’s house in Oxford. After a few minutes of awkward conversation in the living room, sitting on a chair and feeling like I was perched over a cliff, I went upstairs to take a bath. And there something else happened, in its way as dramatic as the moment on the beach. As I listened to the sound of the plumbing whistling in the fabric of the house, and the murmur of the voices coming from downstairs, a terrible familiarity swept over me. This was the nightmare I had grown up in: I had walked right back into it. I seized up in despair and sobbed like I hadn’t in years. All the misery of my childhood, held at bay while I was living through it, tumbled down on me. The person I had started to become, the new hopeful life I was embarking on, seemed to be destroyed and lost, because I had done the worst thing possible: I had come home.

For the next few months I lived in a daze of grief, unable to converse for fear of breaking down. But I couldn’t understand it. What was going on? Why so upset? First, a doorway of light opened on that beach; now, a doorway of darkness opened back home. It never occurred to me that both doors could possibly lead onto one and the same path.

The Buddha’s Awakening

According to the Pali Canon, when Shakyamuni Buddha experienced his great awakening at the age of 35, it did not come about through grueling ascetic practices. Rather, after several years of mortifying his flesh under the guidance of spiritual masters, to the point where he had brought himself close to death, he realized three things: first, he wanted to live, and therefore took nourishment to restore his constitution; second, in spite of all his asceticism, he had come no nearer fulfilling his existential quest; and third, he remembered a time as a child when he had experienced complete happiness, without any special practices at all. Rather than put himself through more deprivation and torture, why couldn’t he just be happy as he had been then? He decided to abandon severe asceticism and instead sit quietly under a banyan tree, and let the memory of that childhood moment guide him.

According to the Pali Canon, the childhood moment in question had happened when as a young boy Siddhartha had been watching a man ploughing. His nanny had left him in the shade of a rose-apple tree at the side of a field, and as the boy saw the plough’s blade cut through the earth, he noticed dozens of insects scurrying for their lives. An overwhelming sadness welled up in him. These little creatures were desperate, and he could feel their pain as if it were his own. Then hard on its heels came an equally overwhelming joy. He suddenly saw that the insects were not just linked to him, but were actually part of him: he and they formed a single phenomenon, a single body, one life. That discovery, of a hidden existence manifesting as all beings, brought effortless joy. It arose spontaneously from his heart.

This moment could surely be labeled a “spiritual experience,” a clear apprehension of the “dharmakaya” or “Dharma-body,” the singularity of all phenomena. Yet it came about through feeling – through tenderness, hurt, compassion, love. The path to the “spiritual” ran through the heart. The heart, the organ of love and pain, was the master-key.

A common view holds that “spiritual practice” is not about feelings: it transcends feelings, it takes us beyond our “small self.” In a way this is true. But if spirituality is only about self-transcendence – about seeing through the story of “me” that we habitually inhabit – then it runs the risk of cutting us loose from that story so we no longer take care of the human wounds of self and other. We may even become dependent on self-transcendence as a means of avoiding subjective and intersubjective problems. No matter how imaginary the self proves to be, somehow it still needs its healing. If spiritual or transcendent insight doesn’t lead to healing and transformation in our actual daily lives, it is clearly incomplete.

Zen teaching is quite clear on this: the training is not about “transcending” the self but seeing clearly what the self is, seeing through it, and thus being free of it. In the first paragraph of his essay Genjokoan, Dogen says (to paraphrase): first, we see that all is one; then we see that there is no self; then we drop the whole system of self and world and are liberated. After that, we forget all about “enlightenment,” and let “the flowers fall amid our longings, and the weeds spring up amid our antipathies” – in other words, we lead lives rich in human response, with our hearts wide open. We may see through the self, yet we remain responsible for it. In the West, Buddhist practice is still very young, just about fifty years old by most counts. Nevertheless, perhaps that is old enough to begin to feel a responsibility to move from a simplistic view of enlightenment as transcendence to a more integrated stance of awakening as embracing the subtleties of living responsibly and responsively within our relationships and communities.

Koans and Dreams: Zen and Psychotherapy

What is the sound of one hand? What is your original face before your parents were born? Why has the bearded Bodhidharma no beard? In all, there are said to be some 1700 classical Zen koans. In the Zen line in which I have trained and now teach, we use around 650, nearly all of them recording the sayings and actions of Zen masters from Tang dynasty China (618-907). They are “teaching stories,” with an extraordinary power to bring about a dramatic shift in our experience of self, world and consciousness. We call this sudden shift kensho – seeing our real nature. If pursued assiduously, koans can thoroughly break our attachment to, and release us from enthrallment to, the self-protective sense of “I, me, mine.” Zen, if it’s anything, is a training in becoming less self-absorbed, less self-centered, but it’s really much more than that.

The koan is a short anecdote or story that contains some apparent paradox or enigma that cannot be resolved by the thinking mind. “What is Buddha?” a monk asked Tozan; he replied: “Masagin! (three pounds of flax).” While it may be possible to work out a conceptual explanation of this koan, the teacher is looking rather for a living embodiment of the koan in the student, who must “present” it with an action. By surrendering to the enigma of a koan we allow it to take us over, and to open us up to an unknown and vast field of both being and non-being. The first koan will in time break apart the barrier between our sense of self and the world around us. Suddenly we have a moment of true awakening. Thereafter, once a hole has been knocked through our limited sense of who we are, we become able to allow the koans to use us, to present themselves through us. After such an initial breakthrough, out of dualism and into the “dharma-body,” we will typically construct a new kind of duality, one composed of awakening on the one side, and dualistic delusion on the other. This is where authentic koan training really kicks in.

By sitting with one koan after another, week after week, year after year, and taking each one to an authorized teacher, the difference between the world of awakening and world of delusion can get weakened to the point where they both crumble altogether. Everything may disappear in one unimaginable, unspeakable, unthinkable collapse. After that, we are freed to meet each moment as it arises, without attachment, with compassion.

Yet all this – kensho, koan training, deep awakening, and so on – is only one side of the practice. Zen training opens up space for another side too, less dramatic but equally important. If the first side is sudden, this other is gradual. In a new spaciousness within our experience, we learn to accept ourselves more thoroughly, and in doing so heal the wounds that need healing, and become kinder and wiser, more able to function helpfully. At least, that’s the ideal.

It was more on this side of Zen training that after several years of koan study, I started to get interested in my dreams. I was going through a difficult phase in my marriage, and was finding my work life stressful. We are multi-dimensional beings, and healing in certain areas does not imply healing in all areas. Even though Zen might have clarified that “I” and “I’s world” were both inventions, dreams, illusions even, I still wanted some extra help negotiating those inventions. My Zen teacher Joan Rieck Roshi had done some dream work herself years before, both with Robert Johnson and at the Jung Institute in Switzerland, and I was curious about it.

Through reading Rodger Kamenetz’s  The History of Last Night’s Dream, I was attracted to the work of the brilliant, maverick dream-worker Marc Bregman. His approach, which he calls Archetypal Dreamwork, treats the dream in a way that is partially analogous to koan work. A story or image (in this case a dream) is used as a means of personal transformation; here too, there is an authority higher than the personal. In koan training we sit with stories of the masters; in Archetypal Dreamwork, with the stories told by our dreams. While these are not equivalent by any means, the work in both cases involves being prepared to sit with the material patiently. In both, there are lessons to be learnt about who we really are. Both often ask us to be open to discomfort. The prick of a koan, the nub of a dream, the part that sticks in the throat – in both, this often turns out to be the point that contains a power beyond its parts, and the release of that power can be cognate with a shift in consciousness. The key difference is in the precision of the dream with regard to our own particular blocks, wounds and feelings. The dreams are about feelings, emotions, psychology; the koan about reality, existence, the fundamentals of the human experience, we might say. It is not at all right to conflate them. Yet for some, it may helpful to do some work with both.

It seems to be a characteristic of much Mahayana Buddhist training generally (of which Zen is one school) that it’s important to have a one-on-one relationship with a teacher. And in the case of Zen, because its core experience passes from person to person, it’s therefore necessary to dissolve whatever interpersonal defences may obstruct that relationship. This is the area whee the dreamwork most helped me – it showed me with clarity my fear, suspicion and distrust of others, especially male elders, and how I compensated for that with more openness to women. Both tendencies had to be let go of.

Repeatedly in my dreams men would come for me. I’d be afraid of them: a scary chef with a large knife, a long-range desert truck-driver whose eyes seemed to look right through me, a captain on a ship asking me to participate in a sea-battle with nothing but a boat-hook, and so on. Time after time, I would engage superficially with these men, then turn away, in either fear or anger. The therapy required me to sit with these feelings, rather than seek to escape them. Bregman’s work has a loose template for male dreamers, which is basically the journey of the Prodigal Son, who surrenders his pride and returns, broken, to his true father. As Bregman outlines the process, and as it unfolded in my own case, after a while I began to have dreams where I dreamed as a boy. One night I dreamt that I was being rowed across a lake in Scotland by my own father, to a castle where a banquet was being prepared, and a man on a throne held out his hands to me. I sank to my knees in front of him, put my head in his lap, and began to sob. When I worked the dream, I was overcome by waves of grief. For weeks after, I only had to put myself back in the dream (while doing my dream “homework”) to feel a profound well of sorrow. I’d weep as I hadn’t in years. It was profoundly healing, as if at last I was able to surrender myself to a wound, and find it somehow OK. At last I had opened to the trauma that had swamped me when I’d returned home at nineteen, which clearly dated from much earlier childhood losses and pains. I allowed them in, and through. I wept buckets of tears. It was like rediscovering myself as an innocent, a child, a boy full of intense, fresh feeling; as a boy who loved his father, and who had somehow come home.

In my outward life, I began to restore my long-broken relationship with my own dad, fraught as it had been with divided loyalties, and establish a sweet friendship. In my dream-life, I frequently dreamt of myself as a child – riding on a man’s shoulders, playing on swings with a man overseeing me, and so on. At the same time, I started to dream of being killed – by a grenade, by an assassin who shot me through the heart, and so on. I had dreams where I learnt to breathe under water. All these, according to Archetypal Dreamwork, are indicators of “dying to the self,” or becoming less attached to our ego-selves. I started to dream of myself as a girl. In one memorable dream I was standing before what I took to be a far-off range of hills, until it moved and I realized it was a giant reptile turning towards me. Instead of being scared, I made my stand, and with complete courage cried out: “I come from God!” I didn’t care what happened to me. I was functioning with a heart full of a power not my own.

Soon after that, I had a dream of being in dokusan with my Zen teacher John, laughing and weeping in his presence as some kind of release swept through me. A few weeks later, this actually happened. I was in dokusan after an all-night sit when the last bastion of my self finally let go, and was swept away in a great tide of true Dharma. All disappeared. The entirety of self and world vanished.

The healing power of this experience is without parallel. In the last minutes of the sesshin, I wept and laughed on the dokusan room floor, while John had to go to the retreat’s closing ceremony. When he came back and got me to my feet, I didn’t recognize the world at all, but I was home. The true “original face” Zen speaks of appeared everywhere. “The ancestors have not deceived me!” some masters have cried on their awakening. At last I knew that every word the Zen ancestors had spoken was absolutely true. So this is what Zen is really for. This is what human life really is. And who can even say what that is?

Is There a Difference?

The way I see it now, that experience could not have happened, or would have taken much longer to happen, had I not done the emotional healing of the dreamwork. The transformative power of meditation has a profound ally in our dreams. They each work different defences, in different ways, until we give up and allow greater forces to work through us. Instead of knowing, we learn to not-know. Instead of being the hero of our own story, we become a servant, a helper, in a greater story. Archetypal Dreamwork has helped me in my emotional and relational life. My marriage has been transformed into a field of love, of welcome challenges. Increasingly the archetypes, animus and anima, direct my actions, rather than my own limited perspective. But it also helped me in my Zen training. It was basically a psychological and emotional block that I came up against in the course of that training, and by turning aside just a little, to dreamwork, I was able to make much faster “progress” in Zen. It makes sense to me. Why should we necessarily turn our backs on other kinds of help, just because we are engaged in one certain kind?

Coming back to those two early experiences at the age of 19, one of cosmic liberation, the other of existential despair, perhaps they were less important in themselves than as gateways into two parallel journeys, that in the end are only one journey: of the soul’s healing and awakening. We all know both rapture and despair: the first may drop us into a vast love; while the second asks us to face our own deepest wounds. It is useless to ignore either. Whatever is the way to wholeness, to healing, to true helpfulness for ourselves and others, it surely cannot ignore suffering, any more than it can ignore illumination by unnameable love.

Another way of looking at both koan and dream work is that our life is a story. We begin with one story of ourselves: our birth, childhood, adulthood, work, relationships. When we enter Zen training, we submit to another order of story in which we are deluded beings struggling to find our way in a universe that we understand quite wrongly. We are asleep. Gradually we awaken from the dream of “our life” into a liberation without any story. Only then can each moment arise fully and freely.

Comparably in dream work, we surrender to another order of narrative. We are no longer heroes in our own stories. Instead we are errant creatures lost from our true home, gradually being coaxed back into the fold. Then the “story” of the old self is given up. We die to that self, primarily by opening to the feelings our dreams are asking us to experience. We pass through the keyhole of feeling, of woundedness, of trauma, into a new story, one we could never imagine, an epic in which the only thing that matters is the wellbeing of our soul, which in turn is contingent on its part in a greater narrative of something like cosmic or divine love. In a sense, here we have only a bit part, but that is enough – more than enough.

Just as Zen opens up the possibility of dropping into timeless, spaceless reality, so dreamwork can open us to a vast wound. It’s as if there’s a psychological equivalent to spiritual experience, a place of infinite wounding in which we find infinite support. In the very heart of the feelings against which we protect ourselves, we find the love we seek, and our healing is found exactly where we’d last choose to look for it: right in the heart of the pain we thought we were trying to get away from.

Henry Shukman (Ryu’un-ken) is an Associate Zen Master of the Sanbo Zen lineage, based in Kamakura, Japan. He is also a dreamwork practitioner affiliated with the Natural Dreamwork community. Henry is a writer and poet of British-Jewish origin, who has published eight books to date, of fiction, poetry and nonfiction. He writes regularly for Tricycle, The New York Times and other publications, and his most recent book is the poetry collection Archangel. He lives near the center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife Clare and their two sons. For more about Henry and his work please visit Mountain Cloud