Mirror of Zen Blog

Reply to a Reader: “On Kenshō”


Hello Hyon Gak Sunim, 

I was wondering if you could share a bit about the importance of Kensho in Zen? For some background, I have had some interest growing for Zen and primarily have studied a bit from Japanese authors as the temples around here are mostly in the Japanese lineages. There is both a Rinzai and a few Soto centers in the area, but as I continue studying I am getting confused due to some of the internal debates between the two schools regarding kensho. 

Many Rinzai texts talk about pushing yourself to the extreme to try try try and get kensho and once a kensho “experience” is had, the training of integrating it into our experience is done. On the other side, I see Soto authors arguing that this experience is not necessary and can even be a hindrance if clung to. I see sides to both arguments, so I wanted to reach out to you to see if you could share how it is seen outside of Japan? 

I watch your lectures and videos on YouTube and greatly appreciate all that you share so I thought this question would best be answered by you. 

Thank you, 



Dear N-,

Thank you for your letter. Thank you for your question about Kenshō (“seeing your true nature”). This is apparently a big deal in Japanese Buddhism, the discussion or even consideration of it. There are all these mentions in the literature of Japanese Zen, and then there was D.T. Suzuki’s introduction of the term into Western philosophy in the 1950s.

Human beings will argue and debate about absolutely anything, because they are attached to the flowing force of their conceptual thinking, and do not want to let go. So, something as simple as Kenshō — inside/outside become-One — can be parsed and debated between two eminent schools of Buddhism — and both devoted to meditation! What a stupid fucking absolute waste of time, from the practitioner’s point of view, to even consider any of the conceptual-flickering caused by such people. You should just throw all of this shit completely in the garbage, understanding it “this” way rightly or “that”. “Kenshō” is just experiencing this infinite-moment Now, and it eventually integrates into one’s whole way of Being. What is there to discuss? Such discussions and debates cannot help your practice. They are just intellectual Zen, and intellectual Zen is not Zen. Can a beautiful menu satisfy a hungry man?

In Korea, as in most other countries, Christian believers self-identify either as Catholic or Protestant. The Catholics practice as Catholics do, and the wacky Protestants – – their mental stock derived almost entirely from the American missionaries who began flooding Korea beginning right after the US Civil War, during the heyday of the anti-alcohol “temperance movement“ – – the Protestants practice with the more fundamentalistic-adjacent mindset that we see so prevalently in big pockets of American culture. The loud crackpots believe that they are practicing the purer form of Jesus‘s teachings, closer to his actual words and deeds, and not this debased cannibalistic tradition originating in Rome, or these democratized secular-beliefs of their Christian brethren in our denominational traditions.

One defining aspect of the life of a Protestant pastor in Korea is that, if they drink alcohol, or are known to have drunk alcohol, or even rumored to drink alcohol, their career is basically finished as a minister. As a pastor in Korea, you can have all of the millions of dollars in the world, expensive cars and real estate, and it is no big problem. But if you are known to have a glass of wine, you are totally toast. Hard delete.

On the other side of the spectrum are the good Catholic priests. Of course, everyone knows that wine and bread are consumed during the Catholic mass. I was an altar boy in Catholic grade school, and I can report with total clarity that priests who served two or three masses per day – – and throw in the usual funeral service, or some blessing mass of another kind, or a baptism – – were consuming alcohol several times per day. (In fact, one senior Korean Catholic nun told me that, among religious personnel in Korea, the religious leaders with the highest fatality rate by road accident are her own Catholic priests. She said that it is not only the wine drunken during mass: but they are constantly being invited out for commemorative luncheons and dinners and graduations and awards ceremonies and wedding ceremonies and funeral commemorations, all of which involve some sort of toasts and social lubrication, just as a matter of course. And then they must drive back-and-forth to hospital visits, schools, parish meetings, etc. The combination is a little more lethal than the general public is aware of, she told me.)

So, both Protestant pastors and Catholic priests all get their teachings from the same book, from the same teacher: Jesus. There really isn’t a substantial degree of separation in the teachings they follow, since it all comes from the same narrow set of experiences of a certain teacher in a certain time and place, who led a very, very short (three-year) public career. 

The Protestant pastors believe vehemently that even touching alcohol to the lips is an abomination against their God. And yet Catholic priests regularly drink wine, basically every single day that they attend Mass! My uncle was a prominent Catholic priest whose Catholic parish in Elizabeth, New Jersey maintained a fully-stocked Irish bar in its “Catholic Club”, with a pool table and dart boards, in their building right next to their school. That old European blending of life and spirit…

Largely on this basis, among several others, many Protestant pastors – – not only in Korea, but also in the US and places in Latin America wherever the evangelical mold spreads — teach that Catholic priests represent a debased form of Jesus’s pure teachings. There are various doctrinal reasons for this disdain, but chief among them are the fact that Catholic priests drink wine, real wine, and give it to others. I have heard from a Korean Protestant that he can never respect Catholic priests as his fellow ministers because they encourage the drinking of wine!

Holy shit! 

So I sometimes ask these guys, these Protestants: “What’s the story with your ministers and alcohol? Jesus and his teachings are filled with stories about wine, about vineyard workers, about ‘new wine versus old wine’. Jesus’s very first public ministry is a miracle, changing water into wine at the marriage in Canaa! Even in his last meal with his disciples, he shared bread and wine with them, and encouraged them to do that together after his death. How can you possibly claim that his teaching forbids the drinking of wine?“

You cannot imagine the conceptual pseudo-intellectual gymnastics that the usual Christian pastor needs to contort through in order to bridge the gap between the very clear ease with which Jesus touched the subject, and their obviously bent, moralistic view. They’ll say stuff like, “Oh, that was not fermented wine.“ I’ve been told that. Some theology professor in Korea stated to me once, “Oh, there was a low-fermentation wine at the time, which would not qualify as wine by our standards.“ Like, all these parables that Jesus used concerning vineyard workers, they were this massive industry devoted to making faux-wine. Someone even said this to me: “Actually, Jesus was talking about a form of vinegar, not wine. You know Italian people dip their bread in balsamic vinegar? That’s Jesus meaning bread-and-wine. Like that…!” These are actual statements I have heard from people, several with divinity school educations.

So, Protestants of a certain stripe think this way about the prophet who made and drank wine, and Catholics practice that way about the prophet who made and drank wine. Who’s right? Who’s practicing the authentic teaching?

Same as your question.

Just practice, N-. Don’t get into the doctrinal-debates of this or that school. Just practice. Do retreats — multi-day retreats are extremely important for your practice development. Find a physical sangha that you can connect with, energetically. Keep your eyes open — don’t accept obvious bullshit (yet don’t snoop around for any, either). Just practice what they offer, and see if it has positive benefits for you. And the real “positive” benefits are not just whether or not you feel relaxed from the meditation — this is “ spiritual materialism”. But do you taste at least some glimmer of that “something” before thinking arises? Does their practice and atmosphere support my efforts to attain that? This is all you need to “inspect” the sangha for, if anything.

Kenshō just means “seeing your true nature”. It’s no big deal, actually. But actually “maintaining” that clear view, in the midst of daily circumstances, can be extremely challenging. We are creatures of entropy, too. So that is why constant practice is necessary, even “after” you have had some glimpse into your true nature, call it “kenshō” or not (better!). Connecting with Sangha is essential for supporting our constancy in practice.

I’m glad to hear that some of our videos are helpful for your practice. Best wishes on your efforts to wake up (and stay awake).

Yours in the Dharma,


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