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Aug. 4, 2020

The Mysterious/Unsolvable Zen Koans - Henry Shukman, Associate Master of Sanbo Zen

"A koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries." In this episode, Kevin interviews Henry Shukman, associate master of Sanbo Zen at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center. They discuss koans, meditation, enlightenment, and more.

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Henry Shukman (Ryu’un-ken) is an Associate Zen Master of the Sanbo Zen lineage, based in Kamakura, Japan, and he teaches at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM. He has trained primarily with Joan Rieck Roshi, Zen teacher John Gaynor, Ruben Habito Roshi, and now continues his training under the guidance of Yamada Ryoun Roshi, current abbot of Sanbo Zen. Henry is dedicated to what he sees as core Zen training — clarifying our essential nature to our own satisfaction, and thereby finding true peace of mind, and then living that essential nature in every moment of daily life, in freedom, love, and deep responsiveness.

Henry is a writer and poet of British-Jewish origin, who has published eight books to date, of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He writes regularly for Tricycle, The New York Times, and other publications, and his most recent book is One Blade of Grass: Finding the Old Road of the Heart, a Zen Memoir.



  • How we each began the journey toward practicing meditation. [01:30]
  • Henry suffered from extreme eczema for decades. Here's how meditation was instrumental in relieving his condition. [04:38]
  • The pros and cons of Transcendental Meditation (TM) as we understood them, and why we each chose to move on. [09:09]
  • An awakening epiphany Henry experienced around the time he wrote his first book -- before he discovered meditation. [11:00]
  • One problem with epiphanies: they don't come with a user's manual. [17:53]
  • Further musings (and concerns) about TM. [22:22]
  • Henry shares an overview of Zen and how he became involved with it. [25:49]
  • What is a koan? [28:41]
  • Zen vs. psychedelics. [29:48]
  • Can enlightenment be explained by existing language, or does it need to be experienced? [34:25]
  • The "emptiness" of Buddhism, the relief of lightening psychic burdens, and some thoughts on the way our senses process reality. [36:09]
  • Zen is not always about enlightenment, but applying the practice to the practical aspects of our lives. [43:10]
  • What does Henry's Zen practice look like, and how does someone get involved? [45:21]
  • What are the benefits of having a guide when you're learning to meditate? Does Henry consider it necessary for everybody? [47:42]
  • A koan awakening. [52:23]
  • The importance of recognizing life's transformational passages as we encounter them, as well as the beauty of valuing the ordinary. [54:50]
  • How does Henry go from appreciating life's mundane moments to coping with 2020's more sensational aspects like politics and COVID-19? [58:50]
  • Feeling powerless to engage in the political process? Take a lesson from the bodhisattvas and help work toward good without getting wrapped up in potential outcomes. [1:06:04]
  • A deeper dive into koans and how we can work with them. [1:08:13]
  • A computer science guy's approach to understanding koans. [1:12:52]
  • Henry takes us through a few particularly famous koans. [1:16:07]
  • Are koans ever meant to shock a student into enlightenment? [1:20:59]
  • What can we expect from Henry's latest book, One Blade of Grass: Finding the Old Road of the Heart, a Zen Memoir? [1:24:48]
  • Parting thoughts and ways to get in touch with Henry. [1:27:07]