AWAKENING & SAMADHI IN ZEN A Review of Gregory Shepherd’s Memoir “A Straight Road With 99 Curves”


A Review of Gregory Shepherd’s A Straight Road With 99 Cures: Coming of Age on the Zen Path

James Ishmael Ford

When I was asked if I would be willing to review a new book by a Diamond Sangha member who had once been groomed to be Robert Aitken Roshi’s first Dharma successor, I was, I admit, suspicious. I had not heard his name. And, I understood that person, the first person who was “groomed” to be Aitken Roshi’s successor was in fact someone named Michael Kieran, who left before getting that authorization, instead devoting the time necessary to build a business to support his family.

The offer came in an email and so I had enough time to check in with a Dharma sibling, David Weinstein, who was in Hawaii close enough to the right time, to know most of the people on the ground. He didn’t opine about the offer to become a teacher, but he did say he knew Gregory in Kamakura, not Hawaii, and he was a great guy, as well as “a hell of a singer.” David added Greg’s brother Paul is a Sanbo Kyodan teacher, living in Switzerland.

So, I responded that I’d be happy to read the book, and if I felt I could say something positive would write a review.

A Straight Road With 99 Curves: Coming of Age on the Path of Zen, A Memoir by Gregory Shepherd, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, 2013, arrived soon after.

When it arrived, it was comforting to see Ruben Habito had written a forward. Ruben is one of the handful of Sanbo Kyodan teachers in North America, someone I’ve known for years, and whom I deeply respect. I also liked that after a long hiatus after the time mostly covered in the book Greg would end up a student of Michael Kieran, now guiding teacher of the Diamond Sangha’s Hawaiian branch.

My short take away is, I like the book, and I recommend it as among the best of those Zen memoirs that are beginning to appear on shelves, like Erik Fraser Storlie’s Nothing on My Mind: Berkeley, LSD, Two Zen Masters, and a Life on the Dharma Trail. David Rynick, my collaborator at Boundless Way Zen, touches on the memoir of the Zen form in his This Truth Never Fails: A Zen Memoir in Four Seasons. Heck, my most recent book If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life is at least in part a memoir. As I said, they’re getting common. So, my saying I liked it nearly as much as David Chadwick’s Thank You and Okay: An American Zen Failure in Japan, which has been my stand out favorite of the genre, I hope says something.

The reasons I like it are several. First it is a compelling narrative. I can taste and smell and see the territory, and the people he describes live. It is just a good read.

And, another reason I appreciate it is how Gregory (we’re part of an extended Dharma family, at least as I see it, and I hope he wouldn’t mind the familiarity of using his first name here) plainly addresses his struggles, his projections, his intimate experiences, and, very much, his failures. He also raises the burning questions of kensho and samadhi, an understanding of which is central to an authentic engagement with Zen. First he addressed at great length the confusions about what kensho is and isn’t that have haunted Zen as it has taken root in the West, and the later as our Zen romance and reality of samadhi. He also writes about koan introspection with an authentic familiarity unusual in the literature.

But, I think how he holds up kensho and samadhi deserve deeper reflection.

First, kensho. Gregory’s book addresses it straight on, and particularly how it was engaged in the late nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies in North America. As Zen first came west, kensho, or satori, was the great prize. The Zen priest scholar Victor Sogen Hori tells us, “The term consists of two characters: ken, which means “see” or “seeing”, and sho, which means “nature”, “character”, “quality.” To “see one’s nature” is the usual translation for kensho.” Satori, which derives from the Japanese verb satoru, is for all practical purposes a synonym for kensho, although some suggest kensho be used for the initial insight, and satori for the deeper matured insight. However it seems Hakuin used the terms interchangeably, and as I said, for all practical purposes in contemporary Western Zen use, synonyms for the experience of awakening.

The first comprehensive writer on Zen in English was the lay Rinzai practitioner and scholar D. T. Suzuki. He gave a lot of attention to awakening, kensho, satori. For instance, he wrote, “Without the attainment of Satori no one can enter into the truth of Zen. Satori is the sudden flashing into consciousness of a new truth hitherto undreamed of. It is a sort of mental catastrophe taking place all at once, after much piling up of matters intellectual and demonstrative. The piling has reached a limit of stability and the whole edifice has come tumbling to the ground, when, behold, a new heaven is open to full survey. When the freezing point is reached, water suddenly turns into ice; the liquid has suddenly turned into a solid body and no more flows freely. Satori comes upon a man unawares, when he feels that he has exhausted his whole being. Religiously, it is a new birth; intellectually, it is the acquiring of a new viewpoint. The world now appears as if dressed in a new garment, which seems to cover up all the unsightliness of dualism, which is called delusion in Buddhist phraseology.”

Truthfully, I think Suzuki’s attention to awakening was a large part of what attracted the first generation of Westerners to give serious attention to Zen. It certainly was important, at least in the Rinzai school of Zen. For instance, the great Eighteenth century master Hakuin Ekaku was blunt about just how important. “If you don’t have the eye of kensho, it is impossible for you to use a single drop of the Buddha’s wisdom. These men are heading straight for the realms of hell. That is why I say: if upon becoming a Buddhist monk you do not penetrate the Buddha’s truth, you should turn in your black robe, give back all the donations you have received, and revert to being a layman.”

And this quickly became part of the Zen view in the West. After D T Suzuki, the next most important moment holding up the centrality of kensho was the publication of The Three Pillars of Zen, compiled by Philip Kapleau, later Roshi Kapleau, consisting of two major parts, the first principally lectures on Zen practice by the Sanbo Kyodan teacher Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, and the second part personal accounts of contemporary kensho experiences. I remember reading this book and particularly savoring the last parts over and over again. I wasn’t alone. Gregory described how “I would finish and then immediately start over again from page one, feverishly inspired by its rhapsodizing accounts of contemporary kensho (enlightenment) experiences…”

Gregory’s book is a detailed account of the problems in chasing after kensho, and of confusing small and large insights, and with all this missing a most important point. As did many of us. We at the beginning of Zen’s rooting in the west didn’t understand how kensho, satori, awakening, these nondual insights were critical, but they were also, merely a critical step along a very long path.

As naturally as evening follows the afternoon, there was a reaction. Among Zen teachers an important early figure in this reaction was Joko Beck, who trained in a koan school with emphasis on awakening. But she also saw the shadows, particularly how one could have these insights and still act inappropriately. As she became an independent teacher she famously would characterize people’s reports of kenshos, as “small intimations.”

But, this minimizing of kensho was also the general stance within the Soto line. Huston Smith tells of visiting the renowned Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, how, “When, four months before his death, I had the opportunity to ask him why satori didn’t figure in his book, his wife leaned toward me and whispered impishly, ‘It’s because he hasn’t had it’; whereupon the Roshi batted his fan at her in mock consternation and with finger to his lips hissed, ‘Shhhh! Don’t tell him!’ When our laughter had subsided, he said simply, ‘It’s not that satori is unimportant, but it’s not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed.’”

Others practicing within the Soto school would go much farther, denying the experience, or if not the experience, its centrality to the Zen project. They tended to turn to something else.

And that brings us to samadhi. Samadhi is a term of art used with somewhat different meanings in, I think, all the religions that birthed in India. Samadhi is the deep place of Zen and similar meditations of profound presence, where the breath and mind both slow, sometimes thoughts are barely noticeable. For many Soto teachers this is the summum bonum of the way. And many Rinzai teachers consider samadhi states the seedbed for awakening. No doubt there is something very attractive to the deep places one finds with samadhi states.

In fact Gregory spoke of the “narcotic-like effect that deep Samadhi had on my spirit…” And, with that a significant shadow of the practice emerges, how “the more my samadhi deepened… the more removed I felt from the world off my zafu, and I began to begrudge the time I had to spend doing almost anything else.”

I’ve seen people take to the pillow as an escape from life.

So, like with awakening, a problem.

Yamada Roshi offered insight into the particular problem of samadhi, when, as Gregory records, the master raised the question, “Why do Zen people get so attached to Samadhi?” And then he answered himself, “Because it feels so good. You don’t have a care or worry in the world.” Gregory then paraphrases the old teacher, “He went on to caution against forming an attachment to even this most unanimous condition of the heart and soul, ending the teisho with his usual theme, ‘Zen is the practice of the ordinary mind.’”

Zen is the practice of the ordinary mind.

What I loved most about Gregory’s book is that he takes us on a familiar path through the divided heart, with all the illusions and snares we set out for ourselves, and throughout he offers, almost as throw away lines, the necessary correctives. I notice that several people who have commented on this book miss those lines, littered through the book, small treasures most everywhere we look, when we look.

So, thinking about this book, leads us to consider Zen and what we will find when we embark on the way.

Here’s a central fact, as I see it, about Zen, that for some, seems to have been lost.

We need awakening. Zen without kensho, satori, is a lovely philosophy, but we need to drink the water and taste for ourselves whether it is cool or warm.

And, kensho is just a step on a very long path.

Similarly, samadhi is a lovely thing.

And, not the point of Zen, either.

Rather what the Zen way is, is walking that path of a full life, which includes time on the pillow, even as it includes dealing with the whole great mess, loving our families, finding, if we’re lucky, love, working, and, very much, acting in this world.

And, in astonishing moments, sometimes small, sometimes great, noticing right down to our bones and marrow the truth of the moment.

And then starting over again, time on the pillow, even as it includes dealing with the whole great mess, loving our families, finding, if we’re lucky, love, working, and, very much, acting in this world.

And then, again…

Just this.

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  • William Heineman

    Thanks to the author and you for these oh so necessary reminders.

  • caseyliston

    Thank you for this beautiful review. Must read book.

  • Stephen Slottow

    One aspect that really struck me was that, before Michael Kieran, he never seems to have trusted his teachers–he never told them what was going on. It’s like that scene in which Dumbledore asks Harry Potter “is there anything you want to tell me?” and Harry says nothing. For instance, he lied about his panic attack in Kamakura, although Yamada Roshi seems to have really wanted to know what had happened; and he appears not to have been very forthcoming with Aitken Roshi about his reasons for withdrawing from active training–an omission that led to decades of awkwardness between them.

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    Thanks for not joining the “naturalization” project to make Buddha Dharma naturalized into a non-Buddhist philosophy by throwing out the babies of kensho and Samadhi with the “bathwater”. In my view, the most important points about kensho and Samadhi for Westerners to understand is that the terms do not refer to just one experience in only one way.
    Seeing the nature 見性 (Ch. jiànxìng, J. kensho) “to see the nature” is the shortened name of “to see one’s own nature.” (見自性, Skt. drsti-svabhava) and includes the meanings “to see original nature” (見本性, Skt. drsti-mulaprakrti), “to see Buddha nature” (見佛性, Skt. drsti- buddhata), “to see true nature” (見眞性, Skt. drsti-tattva), “to see Dharma nature” (見法性, Skt. drsti-dharmata), etc. Some people get a glimpse or get a feeling of it. Some people taste it clearly but aren’t immersed in it. And some people are immersed but don’t drown in it, and some people are drowned (or burnt up, depending on the metaphor) entirely and die the Great Death.
    Also, Samadhi is not just one experience. There are sutras that speak of 108 different samadhis and more. I have never liked the words “concentration” or “absorption” as translations of Samadhi. I think “focus” is a much better word because focus can sometimes be a narrow one pointed focus or a broad wide depth of field focus. Too many people confuse the narrow focus as the only kind of Samadhi. There is the oceanic samadhi, the jewel mirror samadhi, the samadhi of uniformity (equality), the samadhi of one activity, etc. The sixth ancestor Huineng taught that the last two, the samadhi of uniformity (a.k.a., samadhi of one quality) and the samadhi of one activity (one act, unified activity), are the two most important samadhis for zen practice exactly because they are the primary samadhis of Dharma activity manifesting in the world, not quiescent sitting like a bump on a log samadhis. The term zen-samadhi is the preferred term for the meditation states of zen and in Hakuin’s “Ode to Zazen” he only mentions “zazen” in the title and never in the body of the text. In the text he mentions “zen-samadhi.” In the Chapter on Zazen in the 6th Ancestor’s Platform Sutra, Huineng mentions both “zazen” and “zen-samadhi” together and neither one is mentioned with reference to sitting postures but are defined by relationship to experience and being in activities without being perturbed.
    Also, there is not just one degree of enlightenment. There is the basic enlightenment of “Bodhi.” There is the next deeper level of “sambodhi.” There is the next profound level of “samyak sambodhi.” And then there is the most profound depth of “anuttara samyak sambodhi.”