Do our retreats make any difference? Do they lead to an insight into enlightenment? Or are they merely spiritual hobbies in an age lacking in true wisdom? Although the Western Chan Fellowship is increasing in size and we offer a uniquely wide range of retreats of several types led by accomplished teachers, do our practitioners and local leaders truly understand the implications of the paths we attempt to follow? In this edition of our journal we provide deeply reflective texts in order that we can refocus where necessary on the demands that Chan makes on us as individuals – whether in groups, on committees, on retreat, in solitary reflection, trekking in the mountains or in the hassle of everyday life. Whether an institution is large or small, in Chan it is only individual motivation and personally self-aware criticism that makes any real difference. Consider your personal case!

Chuan-Deng Jing-di


Supreme accomplishment is to realize immanence without hope. (Tilopa1)

In the last couple of years several people have asked me to contribute something on the Western Zen Retreat to the NCF. This was indeed the founding retreat practised at the Maenllwyd before Shifu came there and the WCF was founded. We prefer all practitioners to begin by attending one of them before proceeding to other Chan retreats, Silent illumination and Koan etc. This is because in the WZR it is impossible to avoid an essential self-confrontation that can easily be avoided in a practice focussed solely on meditative sitting. A study of the manner in which Chan Masters have taught shows that self-confrontation is the way to opening a door to Dharma understanding based in a process that negates self-importance entirely. This is not a path that makes sense to many in our present individualistic age – yet it is the foundation of spiritual wisdom.

It is time therefore to take a further look at the WZR. I find the article I wrote for the book “Space in Mind” in 19902 still rings with an original freshness that does well as an introduction. I have simply updated it for our consideration today. Furthermore, it leads on effectively into Ron Henshall’s scholarly critique of experiences in these and similar retreats. Hopefully, it will stimulate contemporary retreatants to reflect carefully on the nature of what they are attempting.

The Vietnamese Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh (1974) has had this to say about Zen in the West:

Zen does not yet exist in the West as a living tradition. Many monks are teaching the practice of Zen there, but this practice remains oriental; foreign to western culture. The fact is that Zen has not yet been able to find roots in this soil. Cultural, economic and psychological conditions are different. One cannot become a practitioner of Zen by imitating the way of eating, sitting or dressing of the Chinese or Japanese practitioners. Zen is life; Zen does not imitate. If Zen one day becomes a reality in the West, it will acquire a Western form, considerably different from Oriental Zen.

The creation of a Western Zen also poses the problem of lay Zen because, although there are Zen monasteries in America and Europe following ancient traditions, the majority of those attempting to practise Zen (Chan) remain lay men and women. For these practitioners, instead of the protection given by the walls of the convent and the mutual endeavours of fellow trainees, there is the constant encounter with the many forms of egotistic energy with which most people relate to their everyday worlds. Tough as the monastic environment may also be, the often overwhelming effect of engagement in worldly relationships is commonly the one difficulty that can be reduced there. While strict training in the monastery can and perhaps should lead to a return to the market-place, those who try to train without the walls are often especially heroic in their endeavours. But many fall aside in confusion.

Several authors have already addressed this and related questions; some from an intellectual and academic viewpoint (Merrell Wolf, 1973; Humphries, 1949; Pirsig, 1974; Suzuki, 1953; Watts, 1957, Kasulis,1981 and the more recent scholarly works of Faure, 1996; Heine and Wright, 2000; McRae, 2003; and others), some with personal accounts of their own struggles (Kennett, 1977/78; van Wetering, 1972, 1984; Amphoux, 1986) and some with a close examination of Zen in the context of attempting to teach and practise it in the modern world (Brandon, 1976; Kapleau, 1965, 1980; Kennett, 1978, Sheng Yen with Stevenson 2001, Sheng yen 2006). In most cases, however, it is with the transmission of oriental modes of practice that these writings are concerned. Little attempt has been made to see what happens if the Western mind, using its own energies and contradictions, can realise Zen practically with minimum direction but accurate facilitation based on a clear comprehension of the goal of training. One particular effort in this direction has revealed startling insights and possibilities (Harding, 1974) and there have been important discussions in our journal, the New Chan Forum (NCF)3.

For over thirty years now I have been running several specially constructed five-day Zen sesshins (retreats) yearly for lay people at a remote farmhouse in mid-Wales (The Maenllwyd). This article puts together some key ideas about the nature of the process of change I have observed in participants during the retreat, and which some participants have described to me in letters weeks, months or years after their participation in a sesshin.

The Participants

The retreat is designed for lay people who may or may not have prior experience of meditation or Buddhist teachings, or even consider themselves Buddhists. People come often because they hear of the retreat from friends who are former participants but nowadays increasingly from reading about our programme in the NCF. Although in the early days retreat numbers were sometimes as low as 6-8 persons, I cannot recall having had to cancel a retreat for lack of interest. We often accommodate around 17-18 people even under harsh winter conditions, and have occasionally had up to 25 people, some under canvas, in summer. Participants are usually `middle-class' but with an increasing variety of class origins and social affiliations, and a wide range of incomes. Originally many were university-educated and a considerable proportion were in the helping professions. The proportion of counsellors, doctors, psychotherapists and psychiatrists rose annually over several years - some individuals being prominent in their fields. Nowadays however due to the internet there is a very wide range of applicants some basically ignorant of Buddhism but intrigued by what they have read. The age-range is great, from about 19 to 80, and individuals may profess inclinations loosely discernible as atheist, agnostic, Humanist, Christian, Marxist or Buddhist. Many have received some training in the sciences, and originally professional scientists and university teachers are often in evidence - perhaps influenced by my own academic qualifications (which, however, have little to do with the process in hand!). There are usually rather more men than women and the reasons for this remain unclear. Possibly they may have something to do with the rather deliberately primitive physical conditions in near wilderness. Comfortably warm hotel rooms and bathrooms are not in evidence here.

People come primarily not because of an interest in Buddhism or Zen, but out of a feeling that the retreat may be helpful in relation to a personal problem. Basically participants are seeking to alleviate their suffering. Some participants have had strong counter-cultural or feminist orientations, or may have embarked on a vigorous search for new or different ways of living. In summary, participants are not:

  1. necessarily committed to a particular path;
  2. especially convinced that Zen (Chan) offers a solution to their problems;
  3. experienced in religious retreats;
  4. monks or nuns; or
  5. practitioners of any sustained training schedule.

These facts are important in trying to understand the process. In particular the retreats can only be compared with caution to actual monastic Zen sesshins of the Chan, Soto or Rinzai traditions, conducted by monks either for other monks in training or for especially committed Asian Buddhists who may have been in training already for some years. It follows that descriptions of experiences by Western Zen Retreat participants cannot therefore automatically be equated with experiences reported by monks in the classical literature. I shall not therefore be assuming that reported experiences during retreat are necessarily kensho, satori or enlightenments. It can be said, however, that reports by WZR participants, and events occurring in interviews (dokusan) during the retreats, are sometimes very close in form and content to those described, for example, in Kapleau's 1965 transcripts of trainee interviews with a Japanese master and the retreat reports in Master Sheng-yen's book ‘Getting the Buddha Mind’ (1982). Furthermore, there have been one or two enlightenment experiences that have followed closely in time participation in a retreat. It thus follows that some of the underlying psychological processes may be the same. Furthermore, my personal experiences in a variety of forms of Buddhist training point to an underlying unity.

The Practice

The retreat is built out of a considered blending of three elements: zazen practice, the communication exercise (CE) invented by Charles Berner (see Love, 1976), and physical activity. These are combined into a daily schedule which changes slightly as the days progress. On the first day emphasis is on sustained zazen, on the second, third and fourth days on questioning in the communication exercise. On the last day zazen is emphasised once more. Interludes of physical exercise may include exercises or a run up the hill behind the house before dawn, manual work, and a one-hour hill-walk. Sessions of physical exercise are derived from Dharma Drum exercise schedules, Hatha yoga, Tai chi or Mahamudra training, and often there is an evening session of one of the action yogas of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. These can be especially powerful in helping participants break through emotional blocks.


The traditional sitting posture is adopted (see for example the Zazen Rules in Kennett, 1972) and a meditation method employed. There is a range of methods available: counting the breath; watching the breath; observing thoughts on an inhalation, letting them go on the exhalation and observing what is there when they have gone; repeating the Buddha's name; repeating a name of the Buddha, suddenly stopping it and looking into the gap so caused; searching the heart (see below); examining a hua-tou or mental device that evokes a witnessing of the mind before it is stirred by a thought (that is, an ante-thought - see Lu, 1964, p. 47); or seeking a response to a paradoxical question based upon a case history from old Zen records (koan).

In the WZR it is `Searching the heart' or shik-an-taza which is the main method employed in zazen. Here the practitioner endeavours to discover what 'just sitting' is; every thought that arises is allowed to do so until it is recognised as what it is (a worry over a child, a loss, a social blunder, a moment of sexual bliss, a theoretical inspiration) and then it is released, let go of entirely. The mind returns to the state before thought. The practice is summarised as `let through - let be - let go' - there is to be no encouragement of thoughts, but rather a repeated letting go of all states that arise. Searching the heart can be a long, exhausting process; with low energy states it is painful indeed, with high energy there is the occurrence of scattering. Eventually after many hours the mind seems to quieten down, the hassle reduces of its own accord. This is samatha, or stillness meditation. With persistence, the method leads towards deep inward trance. In zazen one is encouraged to look directly into this quietening mind to perceive its very nature. Penetrative insight can reveal a mind that is empty of thought and notional content - there is simply a reflecting process, like that of a mirror.

In the WZR, Zazen is used at first primarily to allow the participant to `arrive'; to let the diffuse energies which he has brought with him settle, and moments of tranquillity appear before the communication exercises begin.

The Communication Exercise

The onset of the communication exercise breaks up all this gentling, and sets the mind going again in vigorous pursuit of a question. But the initial practice of zazen has begun to clarify the enquiring mind so that penetration may now go deep. Zazen may also have loosened emotional feelings usually repressed or hidden behind layers of rationalisation or social pretence, and which are now clamouring for release. In Charles Berner's system, two participants sit opposite one another, each taking turns of five minutes to respond to a question from the partner who remains open and alert, receiving whatever comes with acceptance but absolutely no comment. This alternation continues for 30-40 minutes, after which there is a break before the process is resumed - each participant now, however, paired with a different member of the group but persisting with his/her original question. The questions are in fact root koans shorn of all traditional background. In the WZR the following questions are given and usually in the following order:

1. ‘Who am I?’ (= Tell me who you are);

2. ‘What am I?’ (= Tell me what you are);

3. ‘What is life?’ (= Tell me what life is) and

4. ‘What is another?’ (= Tell me what another is).

A useful question that is commonly used after `Who am I?' is `How is life fulfilled?', for which (3) may or may not be a helpful preliminary depending on the depth of the earlier answers. Other questions used in the WZR include `What is love?’ From where does love (truth, life, it, etc.) come? ‘What am I like if completely alone?’ ‘What is meaning?’ ‘What is Death?' or the more advanced. ‘Tell me what the Cross is?’ or ‘What is working with karma?’ These supplementary koans are given within contexts which arise in the interviews between practitioner and facilitator. The skill of the facilitator is needed to select a koan which has direct relevance at a heartful level for the practitioner - for example ‘From where does love come?’ given to someone recently deserted by a spouse or love or proposing to desert.

As Berner saw, the value of these misleadingly simple questions, lacking entirely the trappings and verbal paradoxes of traditional koans (‘What is the sound of one-hand-clapping?’), lies in their direct pointing to the state of the practitioner here and now. ‘Who am I?’ or ‘How is life fulfilled?’ have no enticing frills - they point straight to the basic dilemma. Like the Kamakura warrior koans (Leggett, 1985), they can arise on the spot in the relationship between practitioner and facilitator, and their choice is a matter of ‘skilful means’.

In traditional Rinzai Zen, the practitioner sits and meditates on his koan seeking to break through the barrier it represents. In the Enlightenment Intensive (as Berner called his system) and in the WZR the communication between two persons allows direct personal disclosure in which participants face the fear of risking to share their guilty, shameful or agonising thoughts and feelings with another. It may take several hours before a participant can trust partners sufficiently to disclose an emotional barrier which must be stated and released before further work on ‘Who am I?' can continue. Such issues of disclosure, fear, risk and trust are present in traditional settings when the monk faces the master. In the WZR they are constantly present as the participants work with one another in the communication exercises.

The communication exercise arouses strong emotions. Once a participant has shared emotion it is rare for the partner not to be deeply affected. The sharing can move to a very profound level of mutual understanding and compassion. Very deep suffering, undisclosed for years, can be released in this way with powerful effects. Sometimes states of great intensity and confusion are aroused and the facilitator's experience of humanistic therapies such as neo-Reichian bioenergetics, gestalt or psychosynthesis is needed in the interview room where body-work as well as heart-to-heart confrontation may occasionally be used.

Action Yoga

The use of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's action yoga involves the whole group in vigorous exercises which help literally to shake out (the ‘Kundalini’ exercise) or blow out (the ‘Dynamic') energies suppressed, cathected to unshareable ideas or simply too far below the surface to appear in verbal presentation. The permission to shout (wordlessly), rage, scream, dance, roll about and laugh is a shared act of trust with the facilitator, whose role as an authority-figure is thereby softened, allowing his care for the group to be more easily perceived. In addition, for some, it constitutes a previously inconceivable performance of fantasy themes involving experiences of regression to childhood. The personal meaning of these emotional events is subsequently explored when the communication exercises are resumed.

The Schedule

These main practices are combined in a timetable that begins at between 5 am and 6.30 am (depending on the season) and ends around 10.30 pm. The day opens with chanting, using orthodox texts from the various Buddhist traditions as well as hymns written specially for the purpose. The day divides into either Zazen sessions (2 x 30 minutes with a cycle of slow or fast walking between) or Communication Exercises (usually 2 x 30 - 50 minutes, with a five- minute break between) with walks, meals, work periods, and action yoga cropping up as appropriate.

Discipline and Leadership

The retreat is strictly disciplined in the manner of a traditional Zen sesshin. A set of vows - of silence, gratitude, compassion and diligent practice - is taken at the start of the retreat, and to break any of these persistently is taken to indicate an unwillingness to work and is followed by a request to leave (this has occurred only very few times). The prime rule is that of silence - which means a total absence of conversation rather than a prohibition of all remarks such as simple requests for information. Conviviality when it develops is not suppressed, but rather contained and reflected upon as a result of the silence rule and reminders to `Hold your Questions!'

Of necessity, the facilitator tends to have a high profile role, especially at the start of the retreat. This is in order to generate an outer discipline vital for the success of the inner work. Furthermore, an assertive expression of the role may be important in helping participants to feel secure. The facilitator must have confidence in the process, and complete openness towards anything a participant may produce. Once the pattern of the retreat is well established and the koans have taken hold, the facilitator can increasingly allow the group process to unfold naturally. He (or she) will be spending more time in giving interviews, and will ask assistants or senior participants to organise the time-keeping and other administrative tasks.

The two permanent figures around which the retreat unfolds are the facilitator (Retreat Master) and the cook. The role of maintaining discipline, and a willingness to exert authority in the interests of the group as a whole, may fall from time to time on either or both of them, and needs to melt naturally into a nurturing role as time goes along. Both facilitator and cook may in some ways be seen as occupying parental roles to the family of participants, and indeed oedipal expressions of feeling may sometimes make themselves felt. The facilitator needs to be able to use such responses creatively in the interests of the participant, and not to react with an authoritarian or overly ‘parental’ stance.

Anyone attempting to facilitate a process such as this will need to have completed periods of intensive Zen training including orthodox sesshins with a skilled master, training in counselling or therapeutic work with clients and some personal work on themselves in psychotherapy. Facilitators need also to be familiar with Berner’s manual of leadership instructions available in the Maenllwyd library. He or she will also require a ‘supervisor’ with whom to share the events and experiences of running a retreat. Untrained individuals should not attempt work with the degree of interpersonal involvement that characterises the WZR.

Nowadays, most WZRs are facilitated by Dr Simon Child as ‘Retreat Master’ who trained at length with me in this process and who is a Dharma heir of Master Sheng-yen. We have worked together in training a further two facilitators who will soon be ‘flying solo’ under supervision. Training new facilitators revealed a number of unexpected difficulties. Leading a WZR differs considerably from leading a meditation retreat such as Silent Illumination wherein the change in participants’ responses comes gradually and the teaching follows a consistent course. In the WZR the facilitator needs to be able to respond to surprising responses from participants right from the beginning. Furthermore, as the participants begin to work through their emotional origins at differing paces, the facilitator needs to keep pace with both the differing speed of shifts in individual reactions and the general movement within the group as a whole. This means that talks and teaching interventions cannot be fixed in advance but must move in accordance with the varying rates of changes that individuals and the whole group may show. This is no easy task and requires considerably more experience in training than either Simon or I had at first realised.

Another difficult task for the facilitator is to ensure that in interviews the participant is moved forwards in their personal enquiry. To return a person to the meditation hall without a renewed impetus from interview is a potentially serious mistake. If several people lose momentum they will inevitably share this with others during the CE and the risk of generating a ‘group in flight’ (i.e. losing trust in procedure and leader alike) increases. I am glad to say this has never happened yet but the potential danger is always present.

The Retreat Process

The evening on which people arrive is spent in organising bed spaces, getting to know the layout of the building and meeting fellow participants. Around 7.30 pm an assembly is held, and people asked why they have come and what their hopes and fears may be. This plenary sharing helps the facilitator to get a preliminary impression of individuals' attitudes - especially important where newcomers are concerned and to make sure that no one has come with severely aberrant or misinformed expectations. It also allows individuals to get to know one another a little socially before the discipline of the retreat is imposed, and to experience each other's seriousness in the endeavour. The sesshin begins with a short opening ceremony before lights out, after which silence begins.

On the first day Zazen is difficult, the mind chatters incessantly, the early start and a poor night's rest rapidly induce sleepiness and the struggle to resist leads to low energy states. During the day interviews to settle which koan people will wish to work with are given. This establishes contact between the facilitator and participant, helping to renew energy. Originally Communication Exercises began on the second day, but nowadays they commence on the first afternoon.

On Day 2 most participants experience an improvement in zazen, and some individuals may make rapid progress towards engagement with the koan. By the evening, however, the toughness of confronting the koan hour after hour, and the onset of difficult disclosure frequently bring about a return of low energy states. Again these may be alleviated by physical exercise and chant. People become deeply involved with their questions. Most answers to `Who am I?’ begin by references to roles and experiences, but gradually move to the sort of statement ‘I am the kind of person who...’ with verbal descriptions of feelings. Personal problems and situational dilemmas begin to be shared.

Day 3 calls for great personal application. Considerable emotional expression may occur, so that the sounds of weeping, rage, grief and distress often ring through the building. But these are helpful signs as individuals are freeing themselves to express their life dilemmas as they are actually felt in here/now experiencing. It is more difficult for those who cannot feel free to express emotion, cannot find emotions to express, or who feel imposed upon by the emotions of others. Rationalisers may get very angry, and this anger may be aimed directly or indirectly at the facilitator, who may sometimes feel he is riding a bucking horse. The expression of great emotion is, however, not always a necessary or even desirable activity. Those who have a clear perception of themselves, and those who get emotional blocks out of the way early, begin to look very directly at their moment-to-moment experience and try to see its form and source. Whether by reason of a highly focused intentionality or because of catharsis, some individuals may have breakthroughs into moments of serenity or joy - which, however, dissolve again into other hassling mental diversions as new thoughts come up for attention.

During Day 4 a subtle change comes over the group. Participants now tend to come forward for interviews (dokusan) either because of persistent perplexity, pain or distress or because insights seem to be arising. For those caught in circular or spiralling systems of thought, which like repeated traverses of a cul-de-sac seem to iterate endlessly without release, these interviews are often of great importance. The facilitator endeavours to mirror the individual process of the meditator, and by precise questions and other skilled responses, to bring the individual to insight into his own mental attachments and personal myths and the need for their acceptance.

Individuals now have the appearance of emptying themselves of self-expression. To an outsider they might appear drained or exhausted, but in fact they are entering a highly concentrated state with an increasing level of a type of energy that allows high attentiveness. Such a state may last for hours while the individual ‘crosses the desert’. The level of focused energy in the room may seem almost palpable - the atmosphere is intense but no longer tense - highly creative and insightful communication exercises occur. It is now possible for some individuals in their quest for themselves in ‘Who am I?’ to go beyond words and experience the living moment non-discursively with a clarity of apprehensive immediacy in which the subject - object dichotomy may dissolve. Such experiences may be accompanied by moments of profound inner stillness, a rising sense of physical and mental bliss, and an awareness seemingly unlimited by previous imputations of self-regarding thought. This extraordinarily acute awareness may be associated with feelings of profound gratitude, openness to others and compassion. Only a few experience this state in depth, but many discover a radically quietened mind in which self-acceptance leads to a loss of personal anguish, together with the emergence of a new view of life in which openness and optimism are characteristic. There is in particular a remarkable feeling of having shed a burden, and a consequent feeling of freed energy.

Day 5 sees a reduction in questioning, with the koan now used more as a simple focusing device than as a question to be answered. Many have realised that in any case there is no answer - rather the paradox inherent in the koan may be resolved through a change in perception. This is like observing those illusory figures in psychology textbooks - seen from one mental stance an old woman stands upon the page - a second later there is a beautiful girl. The cognitive reorganisation now has an opportunity for stabilisation into a changed attitude, but whether this can be maintained following the retreat depends upon many factors in an individual's life. Usually the experience fades quite quickly and much now depends on how an individual's philosophy of life and attitude to living have been affected.

A koan is ‘dropped’ when an individual experiences a certainty that he or she is quite clear about ‘Who I am’ (say). This certainty may be associated with the experiences described above, and usually crystallises into a form of words given to the facilitator in a manner which indicates resolution. The participant is now energetic, clear in mind, peaceful, resolved, self- accepting and certain, and this shows in marked changes in posture, breathing, eye energy and facial expression; so that the form of words used is of relatively less importance. When a koan is ‘dropped’ in this way, the participant is usually asked to savour the result and to continue sharing it with others. This may go on until the end of the retreat, or occasionally a further koan may be given.

Generally, about a quarter of a group's membership has an experience approaching the above description, another half have reached a degree of self-acceptance that frees them deeply to face life's problems, while most of the remainder have experienced and learnt a great deal about themselves and the human condition. A limited number may be profoundly disappointed or leave as puzzled as they came - but even here very few of this number actually regret attempting the retreat. They rightly feel that to have come through it at all is something which, on a wider scale, is exceptional and which may have hidden benefits.

Are these results an opening to the experience of enlightenment known in Japanese zen as “kensho” (Chinese: kai wu)? Usually this is not so but the work of self-emptying on retreat may facilitate such an occurrence – sometimes soon after leaving the event or much later on. The prime initial feature of a successful retreat is simply self-acceptance: the retreatant has discovered that being alive as ‘me’ is not so dreadful after all, that there can be mysterious joy in forgetting oneself, letting go into simple bare awareness of the present - whatever it is. We call this ‘self at ease’ and it is an opening to ‘clarity’. Deeper levels of this experience give rise to a sense of oneness with the world or cosmos in which the machinations of self are temporarily forgotten. An actual ‘kensho’ only rarely follows but may do so, sometimes taking the form of a sudden realisation after the retreat is over. In ‘kensho’ there is a personally surprising absence of all self-reference – an experience clearly distinguishable from the previous ones. (See further Crook (ed) Illuminating Silence p94-96 and Ron Henshall’s following article). Such insights are again normally of brief duration.

What is the long-term effect of participating in Zen sesshins? This is a difficult question to answer since over a period of years individuals grow in many ways, simply as a result of further life-experience and of joining in social activities. In the late 1970s, I distributed over a hundred questionnaires to past participants from which the above assessment of the actual experience of a sesshin was drawn, but apart from a general authentication of the value of the retreat specific detail was difficult to obtain. Personal letters, sometimes of great length, have, however, indicated the considerable influence of these retreats on the life course of at least some individuals.

Very rarely an individual may be adversely affected by the retreat. There is a condition known to the Japanese as ‘stinking of Zen’. After a WZR it is possible for the release of energy to produce excessive exhilaration, amounting to a manic euphoria which the subject projects in wildly ambitious expectations of others. Only two cases have occurred in thirty years, both young women, and a spell in hospital care was required before the condition subsided. It is likely that those subject to schizoid breaks are more at risk than others, but the rarity of these occurrences suggests that the proportion of people at risk at the WZR is no larger than that in the general population.

A Psychological View of Changes Experienced during a Retreat

The solving of a koan in a Western Zen Retreat has a strongly self-affirmative character, but one that appears in a curiously apophatic mode. Instead of assertions about identity and personal history, one finds a frequent use of process words - 'I am peace', ‘Life is living',

‘Another is an adventure', accompanied by a clarity of awareness which lacks easily attributed boundaries in either time or space. What is being affirmed is the quality of the living moment rather than the personhood of the experiencer - yet there is no self-doubt about who it is that manifests that quality. The conventional attributions of parts and processes to oneself as descriptive categorisations in social discourse are however replaced by expressions springing with direct immediacy from a realm of insight and feeling, which lacks the necessity of being named.

A way to explain this is by means of the concept of disidentification. The human individual is a self-conceiving mammal whose concepts of self function to maintain individual distinctiveness, both introspectively and socially, in a world of interpersonal relations. Infants come to impute to their body-mind experience the properties of agency in interaction with others - especially mother. The discovery of agency is followed by the imputation to the self so realised of properties or qualities which arise in social interaction (Lewis and Brooks, 1977; Horrocks and Jackson, 1972).

A powerful view of the way in which identification with such conceptual realisation occurs has developed in Western thought in the writings of G. H. Mead (1934), Homans (1961) and Tajfel (1978) and have been discussed in Crook (1980, 2009). Social acts are seen as events through which individuals learn the perspectives of others about themselves; and incorporate them into `identity constructs' which constitute their cognitive being. A person only becomes such through a progressively elaborated process of role-taking in relation to another. People not only conceive of themselves largely as others see them, but tend to act in accordance with the expectations that others may hold. More recent views, based both on observational evidence and sociobiological theory, affirm that, apart from needs for social approval, infants are from the beginning also strategists. They pursue nutritional, affectional and self- expressive goals that form the eventual basis for autonomous action in the world, the creation of economic well-being and the rearing of a family (Crook, 1980, Chapter 9).

Erikson (1950) and Sullivan (1955) show how the development of identity constructs is severely affected by the emotional content of the child-parent relationship. Whenever a child's need for support and explanation is met in an open, caring manner, its development can proceed in a constructive, positively self-evaluative way that leads to the learning of self- affirmative skills and expression, combined with tolerance for others. Where, however, the child is subject to loss (Bowlby, 1969, 1973), to repeated bad temper and punishment, to denigration or abuse, these threats to the emergence of a positive self-evaluation produce habitual anxiety which, when projected onto other figures, becomes the basis for the complex affect-laden habits in adulthood by which actual relations with others are distorted by fantasy. Furthermore, the contrasting, genetically based strategies of the male and female genders lead to contrasts in the fathering and mothering of children in a family. These are often sources of conflict and an important 'root origin’ of suffering (Crook 2009, Chapter 19)

Masking operations, suppression, schizoid denial and excessive egotism are devices to protect the self from largely imagined threats derived from fears of the parent. Such devices become deeply ingrained in the character of the individual - basically as attempts to support a negatively valued but necessary sense of personal identity. Naturally, interactional styles based on such patterns in adult life tend to evoke similarly distorted patterns in others leading to the whole range of ‘games people play’ (Berne, 1966).

At the onset of a retreat, some participants are presenting themselves to one another through the screen of such self-protective social attitudes based on their guarded suspicions of others. Their shaky identity constructs, often based upon years of hurt, determine an often highly defensive or over-assertive stance. Other individuals may have varying degrees of self and other understanding based on life experiences or work in therapy or `growth' groups. In either case, to come to the Zen Retreat has required an act of trust or courage, because participants know that these restricting habits of personal closure are precisely those they will confront in the course of the retreat. In the communication exercise it is precisely these attitudes that are disclosed to another.

Jourard (1971) has described the therapeutic value of self-disclosure of this kind. As trust develops and deeper topics are broached, the individual experiences relief from the tightly bound defensive positions of self-constriction with which he or she tends to face the world. Self-disclosure is an important aspect of co-counselling, a system of mutual therapy which Charles Berner used as a model for the Enlightenment Intensive process, and which has a close resemblance to the communication exercise. As the disclosure moves from the merely conceptual to the direct expression of hurt through weeping, rage or distress, so the whole body-mind process is activated and the ‘armour’ (as Reich termed it) can literally relax - muscular, endocrinal, sympathetic nervous and mental tensions all move towards release or relaxation. Every authentic statement or presentation becomes literally a letting go of ‘stuff’, and a thorough release of a theme allows a dis-identification from it so that, for the time being at least, it does not recur. There is thus a progressive abandonment of restrictive identity constructs, together with the forms of their physical incarnation.

The motivation for self-disclosure seems to lie in an awareness of the need to share. This sharing can, however, only occur with another felt to be positively regarding; a person not necessarily warm but certainly capable of non-judgemental sympathetic listening. There may be also an element of confession present, as thoughts of shame and guilt are spoken often with profound expressions of remorse, longing for clarification or atonement. Participants have to learn that they can trust one another's common humanity.

Dis-identification leads to an abandonment of conceptual constrictions, and the mind is free to look into the emptiness so created - a consciousness increasingly freed from self-regard and even from the dichotomy between subject and object itself. It is the nature of this consciousness that is the focus of Buddhist self-examination and about which Western psychology still has had little to say beyond complex theoretical disputes (see discussion in Blackmore 2003)

Conclusions: Perplexity and Preceptual Truth

Whether one is an Eastern monk or a Western lay person, the root of the motivation for Zen training lies in perplexity. Perplexity arises within the unsatisfactory character of life itself with its inherent difficulties in self-evaluation, in personal goal-satisfaction and its termination in death. Buddhism itself seems to have arisen in response to an increasingly complex life resulting from the emergence of an urban, class-based hierarchical society in ancient India with its consequent problems of identity, self-esteem and meaning for individual lives (Ling, 1973). Contemporary Western life, with its rapidly changing social norms, breakdowns of social and familial structures and secular value system, raises similar issues in florid form.

The Buddhist response may seem a strange one to anyone who has not undertaken training - for the uncovering of a characterless ‘unborn’ mind ‘empty’ of itself seems an unlikely basis for life in a highly fragmented and competitive social world. To understand the purport here, it becomes necessary to penetrate to the depth of meaning attributable to such definitions of Zen as ‘the self making the self into the self.’ Fortunately, there is an ancient Japanese story which helpfully illustrates the meaning and value of Zen training.

Once upon a time there was a bed of squashes ripening in the corner of a field. One day they began quarrelling. The squashes split up into factions and made a lot of noise shouting at one another. The head priest of a nearby temple, hearing the sound, rushed out to see what was wrong. He scolded the wrangling squashes saying `Whatever are you doing. Fighting among yourselves is useless. Everyone do zazen!'

The priest taught them all how to sit properly in zazen and gradually their anger died away. Then the priest said, ‘Put your hands on top of your heads.’ The squashes did so and discovered a peculiar thing. Each one had a stem growing from its head which connected them all one to another and back to a common root. ‘What a mistake we have made!’ they said, `We are all joined to one another, based on the same root and living one life only. In spite of that we quarrel. How foolish our ignorance has been.' After that this reader hopes they all lived happily ever after. (Taken from Kosho Uchiyami Roshi, 1973)

The story illustrates the experiential fact that as a result of Zen training the habit of discrimination in producing dualistic distinctions between self and others diminishes, and may even disappear altogether for a time. In this freedom from self-concern there is a sense of participation not only in a social but also in a universal process. ‘Emptiness’ of self-nature means awareness of the interdependence of all the phenomena of experienced life. This is the stem of the vine. Unthreatened by the processes of others in a sense of community, compassion arises, anger dies down, love in its broadest sense appears.

A training such as this recalibrates the meaning attributable to a person's sense of reality. Dualistic functioning remains appropriate in contexts where action is needed and planning done, but action itself is now perceived within the wider context of a pervasive non-dual base. The Zen task is to develop the skilful means to apprehend this wider, psychologically validated, holistic view of reality and then to discover how to move creatively within it. This is the self making the self into the self.

Given the current norms of society - the practitioner of Zen will almost inevitably find himself to be the possessor of an outsider's vision. Faced continuously with the problem of value in contemporary society, life becomes a permanent koan - how to live according to preceptual truth within contemporary society. Since training leads to the Bodhisattva's concern for the welfare of others, it seems inevitable that a Zen trainee, whatever the details of his personal strategy, will adopt values of a generally altruistic nature - focused more on the common good than on personal advancement. Yet, as skilful means to this end, action in pursuit of an appropriate career, economic livelihood and family life are not to be seen as inappropriate. In holding the koan ever in mind the appropriate way becomes plain. In this there is no magic solution - the effects of karma, personal conditioning, are very strong and need endless review, witnessing the failures, the errors and the disappointments. Life is making life into life and there are no short-cuts - only the emergence of an understanding. As Philip Glass the composer has remarked, the meaning of a work of art is always completed by the hearer. In the view of Zen that too is true of the work of life.


1       Chang, G.C.C., Six Yogas of Naropa, New York, Snow Lion, 1963

2       Crook, J. H. and D. Fontana (Eds) 1990. Space in Mind: East-West Psychology & Contemporary Buddhism. Element. Shaftesbury. (Vega, 2002. Out of print).

3       Our journal New Chan Forum is a potent source of discussions of practice in Western Zen and Chan. For examples: John Crook, NCF 11,Supplement; NCF 13,15-30; NCF 22 ,14-31; NCF 27, 8-19 ; NCF 28, 20-25 ; NCF 30 ,p 10; NCF 35, 2-8, 12-18; David Loy; NCF 36, 6-34; Simon Child NCF 9, 16-20; NCF 13, 9-13; NCF 34, 4-7; Stephen Batchelor NCF 14.3-8; Stuart Lachs NCF 10.12-19; Susan Blackmore NCF 12, 9-15.


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