The first time I met Koun Franz, a friend and I had arranged to visit his center in Halifax. We arrived early and found the door locked. Then we saw a young man with a shaved head, wearing Japanese samugi, approaching with a wide smile. “Wouldn’t it be great if I wasn’t the guy?” he asked us.
I’ve come to know Koun slightly over the years since; he has been a guest in my house a couple of times. I like him; I admire him. I have no doubt that he’s the genuine article, and yet his concept of Zen is so different from mine that at times is seems they have little in common except the word.
Or perhaps it’s just a matter of vocabulary.
Kensho – awakening – has been fundamental to my understanding of Zen, my personal experience in Zen, and to the teaching of Albert Low, with whom I practised from 2003 until his death in 2016. Albert was blunt: “ . . . the word Buddha means awakened. To be awakened is to be awakened in, and therefore to, true nature. Zen teachers who teach anything less than this are cheating their students.” Just to be clear, what Albert meant when he said “awakening to true nature” is the attainment of “enlightenment.”
“At this point in my life,” Koun tells me without apology, “I really don’t have any interest in enlightenment. That was such a driving force for so long, but to me, now, it doesn’t hold up. The people I’ve met, by and large, who claim to have had some sort of enlightenment experience are no more mature – by any measure – than anyone else that I know.”
That’s something I recognize from personal experience as well. Over the years, I have met several people whose “enlightenment experiences” have been acknowledged as genuine and yet who remain miserably unhappy – and frequently not very nice – people. The fact is that kensho is not necessarily transformative.
So if Zen practice isn’t about kensho – awakening – what is it about?
“What I’m really interested in,” Koun tells me, “is maturity. I think Zen offers a vehicle by which people can grow up in a profound way. I tell this story a lot: When I was in my senior year in high school, I was about to graduate, I went to a Hallmark store in my town, and they had the graduation gifts – you know they always had the shelf for the season – and one was this little framed thing, and it said something to the effect of, ‘Being an adult means taking responsibility for your actions.’ And for me – I was 17 or something – that was a tiny ‘falling away of body and mind.’ I looked at it, and it was absolutely true. And I knew it, and I didn’t want to hear it. I wished I hadn’t seen the sign. But I knew that it was right. And I think what the Zen path does is it offers – through the model of the Bodhisattva – a way to take responsibility for your actions that goes beyond what we usually think that is into a much, much broader vision of adulthood. That’s inspiring to me.”
“What, then,” I ask, “is kensho?”
“It’s an experience. It’s like . . . The first thing I wanted to say is that it’s like a burp of the mind. I mean, it’s a good experience. No one would say it’s not. I think it’s positive when people have those experiences. It’s not a negative. It’s not like, ‘Go put it back.’ But it is as temporary as anything. It doesn’t mean anything. It means you had a good experience. It’s like a drug experience. If someone takes mushrooms, and it inspires them to look more deeply into their mind, to think in a more universal way about something, great. If they take mushrooms and the first thing they do is want to go back and take more mushrooms, they blew it as far as I’m concerned. They missed the opportunity. For me, Zen practice is about a kind of honesty and about a kind of maturity. And that doesn’t require some kind of mind-blowing episode.”
I agree that “mind-blowing episodes” aren’t necessary. In fact, I often find myself agreeing with Koun.
“There’s an important model in my mind of some person who lives in the woods and has no exposure to any of this and discovers all of it. It has to be possible for that person to do that in order for Buddhism to be true, as far as I’m concerned. And if there’s any element of it that that person couldn’t discover, then that is not central to Buddhism. That’s an invention of Buddhism that somehow holds Buddhism up in some way, becomes scaffolding for certain teachings. Right? But to me, that’s a critical part of getting to what’s at the center.”
“Which is?” I ask.
“The basics. Can that person in the woods arrive at impermanence, not-self, and dukkha as kind of unassailable fundamental principles of experience? If they can, that’s a verification, to me, of those things and a verification – to me – of what Buddhism is.”
And that, too, is my personal experience, that one can come to a recognition of these principles without having been led to them by someone else or by the tradition we call Buddhism. But then, I might also have called the attainment of that recognition “kensho.”
The Story of Zen: 382-89, 394, 405, 424, 425, 428, 435.
Zen Conversations: Pp. 44-45; 52-54; 87-88; 103-05; 134; 168-69.