A disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been a serious Zen Buddhist practitioner. I have never been a formal student of any Zen Buddhist teacher, nor have I ever meditated using Zen techniques for more than an hour a day outside of several intensive retreats. At the moment I am not affiliated with any Zen sangha and I sit on my own for perhaps 20 minutes a day.
I have been a regular daily meditator since 2005; I have had dokusan, or brief one-on-one meetings, with several leading American Zen teachers; I have participated in three 2-3 day intensive meditation retreats, or sesshin; and in two 7-day retreats. I left the second of my 7 day retreats in the middle of day 6, due to intense frustration and psychological tension. I have not practiced with a sangha or met with a Zen teacher since then.
I would say that Zen meditation has brought to light and helped me to cope with some of my own psychological vulnerabilities. At points it has led me to see myself as an integral and tiny part of a much larger, connected whole; at points it has tuned me into the beauty of the world in a very immediate and intense way.
I want to write here about what I think is a common teaching method among Zen teachers, which I have found frustrating and disorienting, and for me at least, counterproductive. To make no bones about it, this is the bait-and-switch.
The Zen teachers with whom I sat were members of sanghas that combined Japanese Soto and Rinsai methods and traditions. American teachers in these traditions, and certainly the ones from whom I sought guidance, believe in the central significance of kensho, a sudden glimpse into the way things really are, known in American popular culture as the moment of “enlightenment.” ”Kensho” is usually the result of long, disciplined meditation practice, but can also, like Christian “grace” come suddenly as a gift, to someone who has not prepared with regular spiritual practice. Sophisticated and thoughtful teachers, and those with whom I sat are certainly that, say that “kensho” is a sudden and brief glimpse of the truth, not a sudden shift into a permanent state of enlightenment.
Books intended to inspire beginning Zen students, in particular Phillip Kapleau’s classic “The Three Pillars of Zen,” present meditation as a path towards kensho, admittedly a long and grueling one. In such works kensho appears as the ultimate prize, the reward for the long hours of silent, uncomfortable sitting. Or at least so it appeared to me as a niave student. The teachers with whom I sat affirmed that they belonged to the kensho “school”: for them kensho was a central experience of / landmark on the Zen path. At the same time they would caution students to sit without striving for or desiring kensho…a very difficult task, as the idea of a breakthrough vision of the world “as it really is” has a way of gripping the mind.
The bait and switch is this: when the student has what they believe to be a kensho experience, the teachers may “approve” that experience as the real thing, or declare it to be different…intense absorption, perhaps, hallucinations, maybe, but anyway, not kensho. In either case, however, the teacher downplays the importance of the experience, either because it was not in fact kensho, or because kensho, once “achieved,” is just another experience, something to be let go, something in a certain way insignificant.
In my case, I had an experience that I interpreted as kensho. After six days of intensive meditation and silence, I was sitting and became so deeply absorbed in the immensity and constant activity of the world around me … a fly crawling across the sunlit floor, motes whirligigging through the sunlight, the buzz of a distant lawnmower … that briefly my self melted into that world. I was it; there was no observer.
That at any rate is how I would describe it now.
The teacher that I spoke to in dokusan soon after this experience declared that it was not kensho, and that kensho was not particularly important anyway. I gather from reading the experiences of many other Zen students (Brad Warner, James Austin) that teachers often react this way to kensho or in my case perceived kensho. They let the students know that this experience really hardly matters…in short the bait is yanked. The switch is made, presumably to the open question posed by Suzuki Daisetsu…is to satoru (to reach enlightenment or kensho) not to satoru?
I think that I understand that this is a radical technique for teaching the student self-reliance, for jolting her/him out of well-worn mental paths, for teaching the acceptance of paradox… that logically opposed experiences/propositions may coexist and be part of a larger truth.
But for me, and I suspect for many other students inclined to approach their spiritual paths with some scepticism and critical distance, the bait and switch deeply undermined my trust in the teachers. Perhaps that was one of the purpose of the method…to teach the student self-reliance. But my reaction was anger and distrust.
The teachers would do better to present the Zen meditative path (really I should say paths here) to students with more honesty: you meditate using the traditional techniques…first counting breaths, then focusing on the breaths without counting, letting go the thoughts that move through your head, and finally “just sitting” ….and you may come to know much better the tricks and turns of your mind, and you may be opened to deep experiences of the beauty of the world. This brief intense experience of opening known as kensho may come your way, but it is not more important than the other experiences of meditation, or of life.
When I sit I no longer sit with any goal in mind, nor any expectation of “enlightenment.” I think that such experiences are not important, nor are they any more real than the experiences of our daily lives. Perhaps I did learn something from the bait and switch. But I think that I could have learned that without the trickery and the resulting internal drama and distrust.
Originally posted June 11, 2011