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God. Life. Spirituality.

A Glimpse of Oneness: A Zen Practitioner’s Experience of Our True Self

with 3 comments

ICM House of Prayer (Photo: Baguio Zen Center)

When a flower blooms, the world springs forth.


Sometime in March of 1999, I attended a one-week Zen retreat. Up to that time, I was practicing Zen meditation on-and-off, mostly by myself, for a little more than 20 years. I attended the retreat to simply jump start my Zen practice. Never did I expect that something wondrous was going to happen to me.

The retreat started uneventfully. Sr. Sonia Punzalan Roshi, our Zen teacher, was late. She explained that the traffic was terrible. It started with an orientation talk.

For a day or two, we were asked to count our breaths, after which we were assigned the koan Mu. We were asked to synchronize the koan Mu with our breath. Sitting with an erect back in the meditation hall, we were asked to say Mu mentally with each out breath. These instructions, simple though they may be, when followed, has effectively transformed the lives of many Zen practitioners for almost a millennia.

To summarize, for Zen practice to be effective, Zen masters emphasize 3 things:

  1. Settle the Body
  2. Settle the Breath
  3. Settle the Mind

First, settle the body.

To settle the body simply means to take a posture where the spine is properly aligned, with the back erect, and with an attitude that is relaxed yet alert. The Three Pillars of Zen is one of the first English Zen books that came out which emphasized the need for practice. Written in 1965, it is now a Zen classic. Philip Kapleau, the editor of the book, who also later became a Zen teacher, writes:

We can now consider in fuller detail the reasons why Zen masters have always stressed an erect back… It is well known that a bent back deprives the mind of its tension so that it is quickly invaded by random thoughts and images, but that a straight back, by strengthening concentration, lessens the incidence of wandering thoughts… Conversely, when the mind becomes free of ideas the back tends to straighten itself without conscious effort.

Second, settle the breath.

We are now at the heart of the matter. In Eastern spirituality, the breath plays an important role in meditation practice.

A Zen teacher puts it this way:

Breath is life. The word spirit means breath. The words ki in Japanese and chi in Chinese, meaning power or energy, both derive from breath. Breath is the key to zazen. It is the vital force in our bodies. In zazen you will discover how breathing and posture are closely allied to your emotions…

In working with the breath you are automatically working with the body and mind. Body, breath, and mind are one reality. We tend to see them separately, but in zazen they unify and we experience their interpenetration directly. In sitting and in daily life, try to return to an open, balanced posture and full, even breathing. As you recognize and consciously influence your posture and breathing patterns, you will discover within yourself more patience, calm, and emotional stability. Such equanimity is an asset that imparts tremendous strength.

That is why when we are starting in our Zen practice, the Zen teacher usually assigns to us breath-counting meditation. Eventually, the Zen teacher assigns the koan Mu to those of us who want to know who we truly are. In Zen, the initial glimpse of who we really are is referred to as kensho, which literally means “seeing into one’s true nature.” Which brings me to the next point.

Third, settle the mind.

To settle your mind means to be one with your practice, whether it is breath-counting, following the breath or practicing with the koan Mu.

For those of us sitting with the koan Mu, these pointers by Yamada Koun Roshi from his commentary on the koan Mu are vital:

What does Mu mean?

This is the point of the koan. If you try to find any special meaning in Mu, you miss Joshu and you’ll never meet him. You’ll never be able to pass through the barrier of Mu. So what should be done? That is the question! Zen practitioners must try to find the answer by themselves and present it to the roshi. In almost all Japanese zendo, the explanation of Mu will stop at this point. However, I’ll tell you this: Mu has no meaning whatsoever. If you want to solve the problem of Mu, you must become one with it! You must forget yourself in working on it. Your consciousness must be completely absorbed in your practice of Mu.

As one Zen master said when he was asked about the essence of his teaching: “You must die!”

Indeed, Mu is the sword that kills and gives life!

Now for the practical matter of dealing with wandering thoughts.

If I’m not mistaken, when Zen master Dogen came back from China, one of the first things he wrote was Fukanzazenji or Recommending Zazen to All People. Part of that essay reads:

Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Beyond thinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

These are enigmatic words. But herein lies the essence of our practice. What does it mean?

Simply this: not to be caught by thought, neither chasing after it nor resisting it. In other words, when thoughts come, let them come and let them go. Which reminds me of what Zen master Nansen said:

The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness.

And to borrow an image used frequently by one of the Zen masters, it is the process of “opening the hand of thought.”

To go back to the retreat, we assiduously followed these 3 basic points: sitting with an erect back and breathing Mu with each out breath, we sat absorbed with Mu for many hours in the meditation hall.

But it wasn’t easy sitting in meditation for about 5-6 hours daily. I spent most of the time putting up with the physical pain (at one point I was sweating because of the almost unbearable pain) and battling with mental distractions. I mentioned this to Sr. Sonia. She told me: “The reason you’re in pain is because you are fighting your thoughts.”

Somehow when I followed her advice not to resist my thoughts, but, instead, just letting it be – letting it come and letting it go – I felt better.

By the 4th day, I was achieving a certain level of stillness and depth during our meditation sessions. During our morning break, as I was holding a piece of biscuit in the dining room, something extraordinary happened to me.

In a flash, the world, as I knew it, collapsed! Time stood still, and space disappeared! There was no time and space, no I and you, no inside and outside! I had a glimpse of the world of Zen. I could only describe it as a thunder-and-lightning realization that the universe is a palpable Whole!

Touching a piece of biscuit,
Heaven and earth are recreated.
Sipping a cup of coffee,
Whole rivers are swallowed in one gulp.
Emptied of notions of “self” and “other,”
In a flash, the True Self revealed!

Initially, I was filled with trepidation and fear. I thought I was hallucinating, going crazy and losing my mind! I shared this with Sr. Sonia. She reassured me: “This is as close as you can get to experiencing your True Self.”

Those words of Sr. Sonia made a whole lot of difference in my life. Had this happened outside of the retreat without Sr. Sonia’s guidance, I would certainly have dismissed it as a hallucination, or, worse, a psychotic breakdown. And that would have been a monumental blunder on my part.

After the experience, I viewed the world in a fresh way. It was as if scales were peeled off my eyes and I saw the world for the first time in all its splendor and beauty! Everything and everyone was luminous and radiant! And I saw every being and every object as precious and having an absolute value.

This was accompanied by a deep peace which I haven’t experienced before. To use biblical language, it is what probably St. Paul meant by “the peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I experienced, too, a freedom and spaciousness in my life that is “as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament,” to borrow the words of one of the koans of The Gateless Gate.

The after-effects of the experience lasted for weeks. And just remembering those days gives me an exhilarating feeling of joy!

This happened many years ago, and looking back now I can see that my Zen experience has opened my eyes to possibilities in my life that I never knew existed. Above all, it has transformed my life in a way that I could not have imagined.

In the end, what Zen means to me is summed up in these words of Goto Zuigan Roshi:

What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple. Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.

Note: Seven months later, during a one-week Zen retreat, this experience was confirmed by the Zen master Kubota Jiun Roshi as kensho, i.e., a Zen enlightenment experience.


Written by MattAndJojang

March 17, 2021 at 11:48 am

3 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Matthew, I look forward to sharing this with new sitters, if I may.

    corito reyes

    March 17, 2021 at 6:35 pm

  2. Hi, Corito,

    You’re welcome.

    This revised version of my personal sharing is specially geared to those interested or are new to our Zen practice. Please feel free to share.

    I and Jojang send our warmest regards to you and Ricky…



    March 17, 2021 at 7:12 pm

  3. What a beautiful account of your Zen experience! Thank you for sharing. ❤


    March 18, 2021 at 12:17 pm

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