When Soko Morinaga Roshi was a young monk in the late 1940s, he left the small temple where he had studied under his first master, Zuigan Roshi, and moved into the large training monastery of Daitokuji several miles away across Kyoto. There the monastic training was severe, and Morinaga, in a desperate quest for the experience of satori, or awakening, added to its rigors with long late-night sitting on his own. After two or three exhausting years, one night he was sitting late when something unexpected happened, as recorded in his engaging memoir, Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity.

One night I sat, in the middle of the night, a lump of fatigue sitting on a zazen cushion, both body and consciousness were in a haze, and I could not have roused the desire for satori if I had wanted to when, suddenly, the fog cleared and a world of lucidity opened itself. Clearly seeing, clearly hearing, it was yet a world in which there was no “me”! … I could not keep still in my uncontainable joy. Without waiting for the morning wake-up bell, I made an unprecedented call on the roshi and received permission to leave the temple for about two hours to deliver the news of my experience to Zuigan Roshi. It did not take me an hour to walk through the black darkness to Daishuin [Zuigan’s temple]. When I arrived, Roshi was still in bed. I crawled right up to his pillow and said very simply, “I finally saw.” Roshi sprang from his bed, examined me for a time, as if with a glare, and said, “It’s from now on. From now on. Sit strongly.”

On the face of it, the experience Morinaga had just had in his solitary sitting would seem to have been entirely sufficient unto itself. Its clarity and joy had overwhelmed him, and he felt his years of earnest practice had found a deep fulfillment. Yet he felt compelled to leave the monastery, at short notice and in the dead of night—which meant breaking monastic protocol on several counts—in order to intrude, wholly inappropriately, into his old teacher’s room while the master was asleep. Why was it so important to go and meet Zuigan Roshi?

It may be hard for Buddhist practitioners in the West to understand the urgency felt by that young student. Our contemporary spiritual sensibilities are, to varying degrees, shaped very differently. Since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, a defining reorientation of the modern period in the West has been to understand spirituality as primarily an interior matter. It’s not that ethics and outward behavior don’t matter, of course, but since the Reformation part of our cultural inheritance has been the belief that a soul’s wellness in God’s eyes is an internal issue. The Protestant notion of “justification by faith” ushered in the view that spiritual life was a matter just between the individual and God. To be sure, this is not the whole of Western heritage, and such an internal notion of spirituality is not so strong in the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, nor indeed in Judaism or Catholicism. But the confluence of individualizing tendencies found not only in the rise of Protestantism but also in the roughly contemporaneous growth of capitalist economies and the emergence of Newtonian science effected a great transformation in Western culture—and with that a sense of the self as an isolated entity, and thus a sense of spirituality being individual and interior. The rise of psychotherapy in the 20th century has strengthened this tendency: the many modalities of therapy generally (though not exclusively) concur on being internal processes that result in a client’s feeling better. In other words, the focus has mostly been on inner well-being.

As Buddhist teachings have grown in popularity in the West, it’s only natural that we view them in the light of our own most adjacent fields, religion and psychology, and understand them too as primarily internal. In many ways this is fair enough. In dharma practice we receive instructions on how to meditate; then it is up to us to sit down and learn to follow them. We may meditate in group settings, we may or may not report back to a teacher now and then, but either way it’s up to us privately to find for ourselves the help and growth the trainings can offer. In practice, we fly solo. What matters is our own experience of doing it. Meditation is in large part an examination and transformation of inner experience. Buddhist scripture and commentary offer a wealth of teachings and instructions to be studied, practiced, and mastered by oneself. But this view of practice—or rather, an exclusive allegiance to it—is in key respects actually challenged by Zen Buddhism.

An individualistic perspective on spirituality has tended to skew the ways in which Zen is practiced and presented in the West. But in comparison with other meditation approaches (Buddhist and otherwise) the Zen tradition is striking because it frames spirituality as not being an internal matter.

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.

From its very beginning, which like other Buddhist traditions Zen understands to be the awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha, Zen challenges both the idea that spirituality is individual and that it is interior. In the Pali canon, the Buddha-to-be is said to have sat under the Bodhi tree and undergone a series of inward breakthroughs, which constituted his awakening. He went through the eight meditative states of absorption, he contemplated dependent origination through countless past lives, and he experienced nirvana. But in Zen’s version of Buddha’s awakening, the crucial event is simply that he looks up from his seat beneath the boughs of the tree and sees the morning star twinkling in the sky. That one glance, that seeing of something familiar outside himself, triggers his great realization. This awakening is not an interior event at all; rather, it is characterized precisely by the elimination of inward and outward altogether. 

Having awakened, the Buddha then says, “I and all beings and the whole great earth have simultaneously attained the Way together.” His realization implicates all beings, and the very earth too. It is relational. Ever after, the Zen tradition continues squarely in this mold.

Some 1,600 years after Shakyamuni’s awakening, Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in a famous passage of his Genjokoan: “To study the self is to forget the self,” which might sound somewhat interior, except that he goes on: “To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.” There is no interiority here at all. Elsewhere in the same work, Dogen writes, “To carry the self forward is delusion, but that the myriad things carry themselves forward and actualize themselves is awakening.” The awakening of Zen is all-inclusive; it is something in which all things participate.

Zen Buddhism’s ancestral narrative begins when the Buddha recognizes his disciple Kashyapa as his one true successor. During an assembly on Vulture Peak attended by hundreds of his most accomplished disciples, Buddha holds up a flower and twirls it in his fingers. All those present sit silently, without response. There is, though, one exception—Kashyapa—who looks up and smiles. At that moment, something happens that enables the Buddha to declare: “I have the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the treasury of the true Dharma eye, the true form of no-form; this I now entrust to Kashyapa.”

What happened was a meeting—a special kind of meeting, a mutual recognition, discovery, communion—an order of meeting that would come to be enshrined at the heart of Zen. The iconic encounter of the Buddha and Kashyapa becomes the emblem of the whole ensuing transmission down the generations to the present day. From Zen’s point of view, while Shakyamuni Buddha may have been fulfilled as a human being at the moment of his great awakening, it is only at this moment of meeting with his successor decades later that he is fulfilled as a teacher. Thus Zen is born. In the “four marks of Zen” attributed to the great ancestor Bodhidharma, Zen is identified as a “mind-to-mind transmission outside scripture.” Ever since that first meeting on Vulture Peak, the transmission has been handed down through a kind of “eternal return,” in Mircea Eliade’s phrase, of that archetypal encounter between Buddha and Kashyapa. The understanding that brought together the Buddha and Kashyapa is reenacted and renewed in the forms of Zen life and practice. Many koans, for example, which form the core of Zen lore, are records of attempts at just such a meeting; some of these find their fulfillment, while others do not. Either way, the meeting is the matter. Such encounter dialogues, as they are sometimes called, are both the means and the content of much of Zen training. The encounters between teacher and student, which are so central to Zen, are most often based on examining the legendary encounters that are the stuff of koans. In this way, stories of past meetings are taken up as devices to facilitate ever deeper meeting in the present. The story of the succession of Zen’s sixth Chinese ancestor, Huineng, is one of the most famous of these. Huineng is said to have experienced a sudden awakening on hearing a line of the Diamond Sutra, following which he makes his way to the monastery of the fifth ancestor, Hongren. As an illiterate member of an ethnic minority, Huineng is not permitted to become a monk, and instead is put to work pounding rice. But Hongren comes to recognize Huineng’s state of mind and secretly invites him to an all-night meeting, in the course of which Huineng’s “dharma eye” is further opened. It is here that the potential of Huineng’s earlier awakening is released, deepened, and made dynamic.

Later, a leading monk of the community, jealous at Huineng’s having received Hongren’s robe and bowl, the emblems of succession, chases Huineng into the mountains, where Hongren has advised him to hide. The monk finally catches up with him, whereupon Huineng immediately proposes a seminal Zen koan to him: “Just as you were chasing after me, what was your original face before even your parents were born?”

At this, it is said, the monk has a great awakening. Trembling, sweating, weeping, all enmity and envy forgotten, he bows to Huineng: “Now you, lay brother, are my master.”

Whatever else this story may be about, it is also about reconciliation and forgiveness. As a result of an experience of opening, the enmity is suddenly dropped. The two men truly meet—“truly” in the sense of a shared revelatory dropping of preconceptions. Freed of earlier constrictions and limitations, they now connect in a way in which both are humbled by gratitude and compassion. They go on to recognize this as having come about through their mutual discipleships under master Hongren. As Master Setcho, compiler of the koan collection Blue Cliff Record, would comment some three centuries later, the three men—Hongren, Huineng, and the monk—are all “skewered on one skewer.”

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. 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.

To meet, to really connect, to encounter another as deeply as possible—this is an abiding human concern. 

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.

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.

Connection is not, however, only about connection with people. For Zen students, it is something to extend to all beings, even inanimate ones. The Zen virtue of menmitsu, a tender caring for objects, extends mindfulness beyond inwardness to caring for gardens, teacups, floorboards, old needles, and so forth— all the things of life. It’s no accident that the koans are full of nonhuman things: bridge, dog, cushion, pitcher, chinrest, duck, pillar, and ox. In Dogen’s words, “Buddha is also tiles and pebbles.”

All this is especially important for modern Westerners. It can be hard for us even to conceive that our interior way of understanding experience is heavily mediated by culture, or that Zen, rather than augmenting our isolated sensibility, challenges it—and has always done so, even in societies that were far less individualistic than our own. Understanding across difference, whatever the difference, lies at the center of spiritual life and aspiration.

Moreover, like it or not, we as Western Buddhists need to do more than simply let the dharma find indigenous expression here. Our situation asks that we facilitate a conversation in which Buddhism speaks to Buddhism. We are the locus where the great traditions are meeting in an unprecedented way. If, under the influence of modern individualism, we blunt the finer points of a tradition with a generic approach that rhymes with our own notions of spirituality, we may risk losing some of what is most vital within each tradition. Pluralism is not the same as generic practice constructed to suit us. How deeply dharma practices come to affect our society and institutions may in the end depend as much on the warmth of our welcome as on its precision. To valorize singularly an interiorized self, even while engaged in a practice that contains a core recognition of the primacy of relatedness, would be to allow the process of acculturation to obscure the specific treasures of Zen, and affirm our own habits of understanding even where the tradition runs counter to them. It would be to create another spirituality that confirms, rather than upends, the particular way our delusion is constructed.

One story we tell ourselves is that we are born alone, live alone, and die alone—and that is true. In a culture shaped so fully by an ethos of individualism, that is the easy story to see. But there is another story that says just the opposite—and it is harder to see, and goes largely unseen. It is this story that fulfills us, completes us, and heals us.