Posts Tagged ‘gaining idea’

61. Batter up

On Saturday, August 4, 2007, Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th home run. When Elvis left the building, as sportscasters sometimes say, the thirty-two-year-old Rodriguez became the youngest player to join the 500 Club. He also became the third player to do so while wearing a Yankees uniform, the previous two being Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.

However momentous A-Rod’s achievement—the ball he drove into the left-field seats later sold for more than $100,000—it was not brought about by an act of will. On the contrary, his fervent desire to hit one more homer had stood in his way. On July 25 Rodriguez had hit his 499th home run at Kansas City. With expectations rising to a frenzy, he had tried through the next five games to hit his 500th, adapting his swing for that purpose. Only when he returned to his regular swing, trying only to hit hard, was he able to succeed. “I’ve conceded the fact,” he said afterward, “that you can’t will yourself to hit a home run.”(1)

In Zen practice, the counterpart of a home run in baseball is the experience  of kensho, which means “seeing into one’s true nature.”  Kensho arises from two primary conditions, the first being “accumulated samadhi”—rigorous meditative training—and the second a “triggering event,” such as the sight of a falling leaf or the sound of a stone striking bamboo. In kensho, the practitioner experiences a dramatic falling away of the personal ego and a profound sense of unity with all things. Of the many accounts of kensho in Zen literature, one of the most vivid is that of Peter Matthiessen, who experienced it while training at Dai Bosatsu Zendo:

And very suddenly, on an inhaled breath, this earthbound body-mind, in a great hush, began to swell and fragment and dissolve in light, expanding outward into a fresh universe in the very process of creation

At the bell ending the period, I fell back into my body. Yet those clear moments had been an experience that everything was right-here-now, contained in “me.”

With this experience came laughter, then weeping, then “a spontaneous rush of love for friends, family, and children, for all the beings striving in this room, for every one and every thing, without distinction.” (2)

Given its prominence in Zen lore, particularly in the Rinzai school of Zen, the experience of kensho can easily become a goal of the Zen practitioner. If he or she can just attain that experience, the long and often painful hours of sitting will be vindicated. Yet if there is one thing Zen teachings, Soto and Rinzai alike, agree upon, it is that striving to experience kensho only undermines one’s practice and defeats its purpose. In the words of the Soto master Kosho Uchiyama, “to think that people become great by doing zazen, or to think that you are going to gain satori, is to be sadly misled by your own illusion.”(3)  Or, as the Korean master Seung Sahn memorably puts it, “wanting enlightenment is a big mistake.”

What, then, is one to do? In his book Zen Action, Zen Person, T.P. Kasulis likens the longtime Zen practitioner to a seasoned batter at the plate:

Although the novice is always thinking about what he or she is doing while doing it (left shoulder down, eye on the ball, shifting weight to the front leg), the accomplished player, once readied in the batter’s box, ceases such dualistic thoughts and becomes purely reactive. Hinging total awareness on the pivotal moment we call the present, he or she merely waits, poised to respond to the virtually infinite number of paths the ball might travel.(4)

And Tetsugen Bernie Glassman, an American Zen master, has this to say about kensho:

I think kensho is essential—it has to happen. And so long as the practice is constant and steady, so long as the student continues to practice without being intent on achieving some “special” state, something that he or she has heard about, it will. When that idea of gain falls away, people open up. (5)

What these statements together suggest, and what centuries of practitioners have confirmed, is that if we commit ourselves to the daily practice of zazen, without a “gaining idea,” we will not only quiet our minds and ready ourselves for whatever life might throw our way. We might also find, in some future hour, that Elvis has left the building.


(1) Bryan Hoch, “A-Rod Belts Historic Homer,” yankees.com, August 4, 2007.

(2) Peter Matthiessen, Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals (Shambhala, 1998), 129-130.

(3) Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought ( Wisdom, 2004), 18-19.

(4) T.P. Kasulis, Zen Action, Zen Person (University Press of Hawaii, 1981),58.

(5) Matthiessen, 126.

Read Full Post »