Attainment too is emptiness
Heart Sutra

Rinzai Zen emphasizes the importance of kensho or satori, that is, a sudden awakening after an intense and often bitter spiritual struggle. According to Hakuin, father of the Rinzai tradition that has survived today, kensho is the touchstone of authentic Zen practice.

Rinzai Zen uses koans that are designed to bring doubt to such a pitch that one ultimately breaks out of the cocoon of dualistic understanding. The process can be very painful. One could even call it “extreme meditation”. Shibayama puts it this way:
One has to be prepared to risk his life and, even then, satori may not be accessible. Zen has been described since the olden days as the way for only a handful of geniuses.
A Flower Does not Talk
(Hakuin's tough love attitude has been passed on to his Rinzai heirs, and not without his unfortunate elitism.)

Looking beyond the fact that Rinzai poses as superior to other practices that lack its machismo, there are other questions one might raise about its placing so much emphasis on attaining kensho, the most salient being: how can kensho simultaneously be an awakening and an experience that can purportedly be authenticated by a master as “shallow” or “deep”? Is awakening measurable and, if so, where is one mind then?

But also, although koans are interesting practice tools, awakening is not exclusively about transcending conceptual understanding. Suffering is everywhere ready to be transcended in many different guises. Is it necessary to tease out doubt so ruthlessly with koans?

Finally, does awakening need to come as a shock to “revive us from the abyss of unconsciousness” (Shibayama) or is living awake a gradual unfolding of what we already are?


  1. Patricia, I believe that awakening is both gradual and sudden. It need not be a shock if one has prepared the ground with years of meditation. The difficulty of practice is that we keep banging our heads on the bars of our cell, ignoring the open door behind us.

    Hakuin (Rinzai) tells us to bang harder until we are finally fed up. We turn around because there is nothing else to do and are shocked to see the open door.

    Dogen (Soto) tells us we are already free. The door is open; we are not captive. We intuit that, but we must practice until we trust ourselves to turn around and walk out the door. No shock. Nothing special.


  2. Thank you, Bruce, for your comment, and for bringing up the distinction between Rinzai and Soto (the peasant's practice).

    If awakening is akin to going through a door, or crossing some other threshold of transformation (sudden or gradual), then it is an experience.

    I think the word/verb awakening (kensho)is misleading for this reason. Being awake is not an experience but that which enables us to experience everything, including going through that door...

  3. Thanks Shipwright.

    Well, there may be a door, but no real division.


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