Henry Shukman - 'Finally, I Gave Myself Up'
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain McNay Hello and welcome again to Conscious TV. I'm Iain McNay, and my guest today is Henry Shukman, and he's in Colorado and I'm in Oxfordshire, so we're going via Zoom again. And it's always interesting how we get to hear about our guests. I wasn't aware of Henry until my birthday beginning of July this year, when good friends Sandy and John Chubb gave me this book, which Henry had written. I read the book and I really enjoyed the book. And it wasn't just the book I enjoyed, it was the way that Henry can write. Because I've read hundreds of books in terms of research for Conscious TV, and most of them are fine. Nothing wrong with them. But Henry is a real writer. Henry, your writing is superb. You must realize that - you've written other books. The subtitle is “a Zen memoir,” but it's more than that. It's a literary art piece as well, we might say. Anyway, we're going to run through Henry's story, talk about certain things in depth and see where we go. And hopefully enjoy ourselves in the process. So at the start of the book One Blade of Grass, is the quote (wasn't Henry's quote, was somebody else's quote): "I sought, and I found." And so that's my first question, what did you find, Henry?
Henry Shukman Oh, wow. Well, what a great question. Hey, I just got to say thanks very much for having me on Conscious TV. It's a real honor. I've enjoyed a lot of your shows and the people you have on. I never thought I'd be among them. So thank you. Well, yeah, that's the big matter. What is our life about? I could say, you know, I found myself, I found who I really am. I found a kind of answer. Home, peace, love. Sort of an unshakable love. I could put it any of those ways, and still wouldn't quite catch it. It's odd in a way. My story's a little - well I don't know if it's particularly unusual - but I did have a random spiritual awakening when I was 19 years old, at a time when I knew nothing whatsoever about spiritual practice or awakening. I wasn't interested in anything like that. But I did have this sudden, very powerful moment, out of nowhere. And I felt then like I hadn't sought, and still I found.
Iain McNay But you didn't know what you'd found. That was the thing, wasn't it? And actually, maybe we should just be a little bit more sequential here, because I kind of threw you in that deep end without telling you what I was going to ask, which is a little unfair. But there are certain significant things that happened in your life. One was when you were very young, six months old, and your parents - I think you were in Finland or in Scandinavia at the time - and your parents left you because they went to Soviet waters. And when they came back, you had these terrible skin rashes which plagued you for a lot of your early life. Probably at that age you weren't aware, but that must've been a really, really difficult challenge. Eczema all over the body.
Henry Shukman Yeah, yeah. It was very severe. I was in hospital frequently as a young child. I think I went through a very intense, traumatic experience when my mum went away for 10 days. That was how she weaned me. And so I was in the care of somebody I didn't know who was unfamiliar to me, being fed formula, and I think I went through hell for several days. As a result of which, my body developed this really severe eczema all over. Not really just rashes, but bare flesh, I mean, really terrible. And it stayed pretty severe right through my early life and into my early adulthood. It was sort of starting to get better in phases and lulls. By my late 20s, I was mostly through it, you know, out of it. But it was a very difficult thing to live with because the skin is our interface with the world. So hugs were painful and there was this constant itching - either itching or pain. It was definitely a very traumatic start to life. In the midst of that, when I was 19, I was far from home actually, on a gap year working in South America. And my skin, for the months I was there, was way better, funnily enough. And towards the end of my time there, I had this profound awakening, really. I hadn't been seeking, but I knew that I'd found what it had been my life's purpose to find. I felt actually I could die now, because I'd done it. I was completely at peace. And then a few weeks later, I came home and had a very, very difficult reentry. Basically, I had a nervous breakdown. Eczema came back, and despair for a few years, and then I gradually started to enter a real search, actually. That's when my search really began.
Iain McNay Yes. It's interesting because when I asked you the question at the beginning, one of the things you said was, you found yourself. And I also read Sons of the Moon, which was the book that you wrote about your time in South America. Because I think you were there a lot more than a month. You had two months on a cattle ranch, and then you went to the Bolivian Andes for another period of several weeks. And you know, it was really interesting for me, having read this initial book, One Blade of Grass, and then Sons of the Moon - just seeing how sequentially it fit in, and the impact of various things in your life. One of the things you said in Sons of the Moon was that you wanted to meet people more connected with nature, because they had less insecurities. And you wanted to go to places and meet people that were completely different from those you had known in your life experience so far. And as you say, the eczema completely disappeared when you were traveling in South America. This is something that applies to so many of us - once we completely change our environment, which can change our mental outlook, something else changes. Physical ailments can just disappear. Not always the case, obviously. It seems to me, looking back on it, that is what happened. And of course, at the end of your stay in South America, you had this amazing experience on a remote beach. Just explain a little bit more about what happened on the beach.
Henry Shukman In a nutshell, I'd say I found that I wasn't just part of everything, like a part within a whole. I was the whole. What I really was, was not this separate sense of being a me that was separate. I discovered I wasn't there. I guess what happened on that beach was that I found that I wasn't who I thought I was. I wasn't this separate being - I was everything. I was one. There was one whole that included everything, and that's what I was. And the ordinary me was gone. Because it was gone, I realized that what I really was, was not that separate me, as I always thought. What I really was, was everything. I felt like the very fabric of the cosmos was my fabric. It was really intense. It wasn't seeing that there's a great awareness that includes everything. It was more intimate than that. I was just everything. And what that everything was, was also somehow empty. So there was this sense of becoming this reality that had no space in it, or no time in it. I remember very vividly somewhere in the midst of the experience, I had this feeling that I was pressed up against the end of time, and the furthest reaches of the universe were just immediately, intimately here. So, time vanished and space vanished. And it was the answer to everything. It was like, this is reality. This is what's real. And you know, there was an intense primary apex of the experience, and then it kind of tailed off a little bit, and then I was just filled with love. It was like, oh wow, the whole appearing world was just made of love. I could feel for days afterwards this sort of flame of love in my chest burning away. It was just the best. Really, just the best. You know, it was the answer. Like I said, it was THE answer. I had found the truth - this is what I felt.
Iain McNay So the burning of the skin somehow remanifested as a completely different burning of the heart, on the inside.
Henry Shukman Yes. Beautiful. Beautifully put. Yes. Thank you.
Iain McNay And you got home back to Oxford, where you were living with your parents, who had got divorced by this time, hadn't they? And you were living with your father, or you came back to the house where your father and brother was?
Henry Shukman Yeah, that's right. Well, I initially came back to my dad's house. It had been a very difficult divorce many years earlier, when I was six or seven years old. And that was another trauma really. It was for all three of us kids, I think, and in some ways for them as well. And so I came back initially to my dad's house. I had some kind of breakdown. Essentially, the way I view it now is that through my childhood, I'd got by by shutting out the trauma and the emotional difficulties of it, so that I could function. But when I came home at 19, I was in such an opened up state. My heart was undefended. When I came home, I think all the trauma of childhood, that I had in a way suppressed, was freely accessible, and it overwhelmed me. In a certain way, I look back on it and I kind of see it as a blessing. It just happened too much, too soon, with no support. But the process that my heart was trying to make happen - a healing process of letting all this trauma be known and worked through and released - I see that as a beneficent process. But at the time, I felt like I just recently found all there was to find, and my life was resolved. And suddenly I lost it, and felt I'll never find it again. I messed up. I've done the worst possible thing I could do, which was to come home, and I'll never get over it again. This was the way my mind went for several years. So I was semi-functional for a few years. Very, very unhappy. And really in despair, until I started meditating in my early mid twenties. That was when I started to find a bit of space and peace and calm again. I fairly quickly recognized that I was in a pretty messed up state. And fortunately, I had a couple of friends who were in therapy, and took me along with them to this radical Californian maverick therapist who was living in Bayswater. He loved having young people, and he was very flexible with payment and understanding about that. And there was a group of us in our mid-twenties who were diehards in his therapy group every Saturday morning. He's an interesting guy actually, called Harvey Karmen. We'd heard rumors about him. He was from California. He'd been a psychologist at UCLA, I think. I found out much later that he had been a real pioneer in abortion rights, actually, as a result of which he'd gone to jail for two years in the US. And then he had invented a method for abortion that he is credited now with saving the lives of millions of women worldwide. We knew none of this actually at the time, just that he was kind of a maverick guy. But he was profoundly helpful. So the combination of meditation, which was TM, by the way, and therapy really got me rolling on the path of healing.
Iain McNay But when you went to your first meditation class, or initiation, again something dramatic happened, that's what I picked up anyway. It seems it's a pattern in your life that things happen the dramatic way - didn't you practically sleep for a week afterwards? At first, you were just so, so tired. All that strain you'd had with this struggle, with the eczema, and with your father - somehow, the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, started to click in here, and you started to relax. You slept for almost a week.
Henry Shukman Yes, it's true. I was a postgraduate student at the time at UCL, so I had a very flexible schedule. After the first week, I was sleeping an average of 18 to 20 hours each day. It was insane. You know, I remember the morning after I'd done my first sit. In TM, I don't know if they still do it, but back then there was this rigid rule. You had to do 20 minutes, twice a day - or don't bother, you know? I was desperate, so I was really diligent. I clung to that.
Iain McNay So in TM, there's a little ritual, isn't there, because I did it too at the time. You take a piece of fruit and I think a flower or something.
Henry Shukman Yeah, that's right, exactly. And then they give you your mantra in a little ceremony privately. And so I've got my mantra and the next morning I do my sit, had breakfast, put my books in my backpack to go to college, and I had hardly walked to the end of the street, when I realized I was absolutely exhausted. I thought, I must be getting the flu, so I went back and just lay down. And next thing I knew it was lunchtime and I thought, I must be able to eat a sandwich, and then I lay down again. Next thing I knew it was 6 pm. You know, it was just crazy. I was so exhausted from years of deep stress, and my nervous system was just ragged. It was so healing. And it was amazing - after seven days like that, I did my morning sit, expecting that I was going to be reeling as soon as I stood up and have to lie down again. But I just felt clear as a bell. It was like waking up on a dewy morning in summer or something. It was a fabulous feeling. Whatever all that fatigue had been, it had cleared. Just lovely.
Iain McNay Yes. And then I thought what was interesting was that you started a new career. You had a trombone, you loved music and you played in Notting Hill Carnival. And then you got invited out to Trinidad and you played with a quite well-known local group there and traveled around. And you wrote another book, which I also read and enjoyed: Travels with my Trombone: A Caribbean Journey. It's not necessarily a spiritual book, but it has a lot of insights into the culture there. And I learned a lot more about you as well. Another side of you. And the thing I wrote down that I wanted to ask you about is about this dance you were doing out there. Is it pronounced winning dance?
Henry Shukman Winding dance.
Iain McNay Winding dance, which is a very exotic dance, which somehow you got well into, didn't you?
Henry Shukman I got kind of a sort of stark initiation into it with the band. It was a multiracial band, but I was the only white guy, actually. And it wasn't unusual for them to have a white guy in the band. The horn section tended to change as people came through town. But they really had fun with me. They had these great vocalists at the front of the band, the front of every show we did. And two of them, two women, came back at a certain point while the band was still playing itss beat, and just pulled me right up to the front. Taught me how to wind in front of 10,000 people or something. It was right in the middle of the concert and I hardly knew what was going on and just kind of went along with it. The stiff, English Jewish body wasn't so good at this fluid hip thing, you know? That was quite an initiation.
Iain McNay And so you had the adventure there, and then you came back to England - Oxford again. The smallest passing mention you put in the book - that you discovered your father and your mother were part-time spies - I thought was extraordinary. I understand you may not want to say much about it, but it just seems yet again, it's another something you had to deal with. Any spy has to lead a double life and certainly can't tell their children that they're part-time spies. And of course, that would have impacted you as well in your life.
Henry Shukman Yeah. You know, it's funny. It all came out after the fall of the Soviet Union. Things started to come out. My dad was a fellow of St. Anthony's College Oxford. Both my parents were academics. My mum was a professor, who spent much of her working life in various universities as well. My dad was a straight-through Oxford professor all his working life - a lecturer and then professor. Later in life, he started revealing more of what had been going on in those years, the Soviet years. And he even ran and hosted a major conference on espionage in about the year 2000. It sounds kind of exotic, I know, and almost sort of fanciful. But the fact is that anybody in Russian studies back in the 50s and 60s, which both my parents were - it was likely they might be approached by the secret services, because they were desperate to find Russian speakers. And both my parents were fluent in Russian. Here's a bizarre little thing about this. The story is that actually my mum's uncle, way back in the forties during the war, he'd been a very significant figure in espionage, apparently. He was based in Ankara throughout the war, running a ring of spies, apparently. This, again, all came out later. But as a result of that, my mum had been recruited when she came out of Cambridge and trained in how to do some spycraft: tailing people, losing a tail, and doing a drop. All the stuff in John le Carre. And actually, it was she who was first involved and who got my dad recruited. He didn't know until later that she had encouraged her bosses to recruit my dad. It was all low level stuff. It wasn't like John le Carre, in the sense that it wasn’t major scary things they were doing. But nevertheless, they had a role. In fact, probably when they left me as an infant at the age of six months, it was in fact to go to Leningrad and do something. I don't know what it was, some kind of little operation or mission or something that they were both on. And that's why they left me, because it felt to them, understandably, like it was very important work. And in those days, you know, there was this, I guess, an assumption that infants and kids look after themselves to some extent. As long as they're getting their nappy changed and getting milk, they're okay. I think our understanding of infancy and early childhood, thank God, has really changed a lot recently.
Iain McNay Yes, yes. So maybe we'll come to that a bit later. But I wanted to just keep the sequential thing going for the time being. Your skin was getting better through the TM meditation. Then a friend of yours opened a book and read something to you. I just thought it was great what they read. So I'm going to read it out. Now, it's a very short piece: "Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore, they always abide in ease and always walk. You should examine in detail this quality of the mountain walking. Mountains walking is just like humans walking accordingly. Do not doubt mountains walking, even though it does not look the same as humans walking." And that had an impact on you, didn't it, when she read that to you?
Henry Shukman Yeah, yeah, that's a passage of this great Japanese monk-mystic-poet-master called Dogen. And actually, it was read to me by Natalie Goldberg, She became a close friend. Still is. Some may know her writings. She wrote this famous book, Writing Down the Bones. I met her in New Mexico, which I was visiting in my late 20s. That was my third book. After the Caribbean trombone book, I was writing this book about D.H. Lawrence and his time in New Mexico. By the way, I'm in New Mexico actually right now, not Colorado. So yeah, I'd come out to do that third book and met Natalie. She read that passage to me one evening out on her front porch. And I didn't understand it. I still actually find it a little challenging, although I love it. But a couple of days later, I found I couldn't stop thinking about it, you know? And I suddenly got this hit that whatever it meant, that experience I had had on the beach when I was 19 would understand it. It was mostly intuitive, but I had this strong sense that Dogen was speaking out of that experience. Nothing logical would explain what Dogen meant. But in that experience, where all space and time had gone, what we find we are is inseparable. Total inseparable-ness. Somehow, I felt that experience would unlock what Dogen was saying and the other way around. What he was saying is a little bit koan-like, really...
Iain McNay I was just thinking that, yes,
Henry Shukman It could invite us like a koan back into that home. Where everything is present and nothing is left out. And where we find that we're so easily just home with everything. Yeah. I had this hunch that that's where that was coming from. And I decided I wanted to try Zen then and there. All these several years by now I'd been doing TM. I just hadn't had any notion that TM could help me with what that experience would be, or be any kind of path back to it. I don't know why not really, it seems now, well, why not really? But I just didn't get that. For me, TM was so remedial and therapeutic. But this Zen I knew right away - it understands what I experienced back then when I was 19. It knew it and understood it. It was such a relief. Ever since that experience, not once had I thought I must have been mad when that happened or psychotic or something. I knew that what I'd seen then was the truth. I had no doubt. I just didn't have any idea what to do about it. It was like, how do I try to go back to it? But it arrived by itself. Do I reflect on it? Think about it. But somehow that didn't seem right or necessary. And yet I knew that I was a million miles from living it. And I really wanted to. I wanted to learn - how do you live that reality? How do I get back there? And then how do I live it? You read that paragraph beautifully, by the way, Iain. It's difficult. Your pace and the matter-of-fact way you did it was just perfect, I thought. I really felt it while you were reading it. Thank you. I sensed that paragraph was at last a kind of a pathway back to my experience at 19 - there was a promise in that little paragraph, anyway.
Iain McNay Yeah, that is so interesting how these things appear. One of the things that I picked up from your first book, Sons of the Moon, were your amazing powers of observation. I know you kept a journal at the time, but it was a few years before you got the publishing deal, I think, for that book. And that's a quality you always had, obviously. Presumably, you had it when you were a young child as well. The power of observation. We can call it also being present. You can call it different things. But that is so important on our journey of life, whether we call it spiritual or whatever - that power of observation, of being present, of being as much as possible in tune with what arises. And that was an example of you being in tune there. I know you talk about this briefly in the book - you felt uneasy about letting go of TM because it had been helpful for you. Helped with your nervous system, helped with your skin, helped with your character to be a bit more relaxed. And the fear and depression that you had felt was a lot less than it was because of TM. So you have to let go of something else, which is the way life is. And then the next thing I picked out from your book was you did this week long retreat at nine thousand feet elevation, and that was a real adventure, wasn't it? Talk us through that.
Henry Shukman Oh man, it was so hard. That was my first hardcore Zen retreat, first meditation retreat actually. I'd done some weekends before, but this was seven days. And oh man, basically it was just hell, you know, sitting still, hour after hour. We did a little walk every half hour. There's a little walking meditation, and then back to sitting. And obviously, a break for meals and stuff. But basically that's all you were doing, all day. You get up, wash your face, brush your teeth, go to the loo and go sit. Then stop sitting to have breakfast, do some chores, and then a little stroll. Then back to sitting. Then lunch, rest, sitting. It was just sitting, sitting, sitting. And you know, that's how they do them. It was such a shock to my system to be so still for so long. And it was actually, in some ways, kind of bitterly disappointing, because by then I'd been sitting for daily meditation for a number of years, probably seven, eight years by then. Yet I was totally unprepared for this serious, deep retreat. I found a lot of anguish and frustration and despair and all these old emotions just bubbling up. And oh my god, what do I do with them? Because after all, all I can do is sit still. And I started to itch. It was...
Iain McNay And you mention your knee was really painful as well.
Henry Shukman That's right. In retrospect, I should have just moved to a chair, you know? But most people were sitting cross-legged on cushions. So I wanted to do that. I'm a young man, I've got to do it the proper way, that kind of thing. There was searing pain in the knee and it was so hard. Also, by the way, it was way up in the middle of nowhere. Very difficult to get to. And basically pretty much impossible to get out of it until the retreat ended. So I was stuck there. I just sat it out. And eventually, more than halfway through, in the latter part, I just got so lucky. Suddenly everything changed, and it was because the teacher had invited us to use a koan if we wanted. And this koan is one of the basic koans in Zen. It's a little unlike many koans, because it's not that strange. It's simply the question, "Who am I?" "Who am I?" In the midst of all this desperation, occasionally I remembered, "Well, why didn't I just try repeating, 'Who am I?'" You're supposed to repeat it on every out-breath. Occasionally, I remembered to do that. And sometimes it would actually help a bit just to have that, almost like a distraction, just to focus on that question. But one time, suddenly, it really changed everything. I suddenly saw the answer. It suddenly happened. It was like a flash bulb went off all through me and all through the world, bam. And I just saw, "Oh my god, I'm not anybody. There's no one here. There's no one here." It was just astonishing, you know. The rest of the retreat was like a golden bliss. Just so easy - effortless presence. What an honor and privilege and joy to be having this time of stillness and quiet among other bodies and people. It was just heaven. So I think if that hadn't happened, I can well imagine that I wouldn't have followed the Zen path, actually.
Iain McNay You also said in the book that you realized you were no one, and you also realized you'd made yourself up. Which is even more extraordinary. And of course at the end of the day, we all make ourselves up, which seems so far out. But you knew that was true, with yourself.
Henry Shukman Yes, I saw it undeniably. I'm so happy, actually, that it's not necessary to go through those kinds of torments to make discoveries like that. How wonderful and merciful that actually, it can be done more easily. Because really all we're doing is just releasing. We're just letting go. We got this coagulation, a constricted contraction into this sense of self that's separate. And we're just releasing it. And when it releases, we see, wow, it was never really here. Not the way I thought. It was never really here. It just invented itself and believed in itself. And we just release. It's so easy. Somehow my path wasn't that easy - I had to sit through days of torment to just make this simple letting go. And luckily, you know, it doesn't have to be that hard, I don't think.
Iain McNay So they had the retreat, and the teacher basically just encouraged you to keep your attention on what you're doing, and not actually make a big deal out of your realization, although it was huge. You talk later about how Zen has its way, it has its time, it's very patient, and it just encourages you somehow to keep going and keep going and keep going.
Henry Shukman Yes. Yes. Yes. Just coming home again and again and again, and patiently tending to our ordinary life. Zen's got this big emphasis on ordinary life. There's one koan that says “ordinary mind is the way”, way with a capital W. Which means awakening, really. What we awaken to when we awaken. Finding we're part of everything, finding in some sense, it's all empty, finding that it's all arising right now and that we're inseparable from it. All creatures and all creation is participating in it. And it's so simple. And even as we may realize this more and more, we just carry on with our ordinary life. Trying to live kindly, helpfully and non harmingly, but just simple. There's this famous story in Zen. Some monk from some other training who could walk on water. And the Zen guy is unimpressed, saying my miracle is just chopping wood and carrying water. Those are my miracles. Like recognizing more and more the miracle of right now, just being able to be aware, and talk, and share thoughts and be experiencing this, the richness of this moment. You know, why would we look for more? It's all here right now.
Iain McNay Absolutely. I'm still roughly sequentially following your journey. You decided shortly after that retreat - you felt you needed a teacher. But the problem was you didn't like teachers. So you had to somehow find this special teacher, I guess. But again, you had the courage somehow to follow what you needed and you found the teacher, didn't you?
Henry Shukman Yeah. And it took a while. I went and did more retreats. There was a Zen monastery I used to go to in New York state. By this time I was well into this life of a professional writer. I wasn't very good at living in a single place. I was pretty itinerant, and I just kept getting sublets, mostly in the US and then occasionally back in the UK. And when back in the UK, I used to go to this Zen monastery in Northumberland, a beautiful place called Throssel Hole. It's a lovely, lovely place. They were quite religious, a little different from what I was familiar with from Zen in the US, which is pretty secular on the whole. I sat every day and kept looking, but it took a while to find the teacher that I was comfortable with. That happened, in the end, back at Oxford, funnily enough. When I had a fellowship at Oxford Brookes University in poetry, I started going to the Oxford Zen Center. Sandy and John Chubb, who you mentioned early on, were a part of that and still are. And the teacher at that time was a guy called John Gaynor. I just found I was comfortable with him right off the bat, and he was a deeply compassionate man. And dare I say it, he looked ordinary. He didn't dress in robes, and there wasn't elaborate ritual. It was just really simple. He was an ordinary guy and a retired lawyer, running two charities. Like I said, a deeply kind man. Very straightforward. And amazingly profound. His realizations are so deep. So you'd have a normal conversation, and then I might bring up something a little bit more spiritual, and boom, he'd be in this vastly deep place. It was so fantastic to be able to meet and be met by somebody who had gone further, and realized more than I had. He really showed me that the awakenings I'd had were valid, and there was more. He really affirmed these realizations, but encouraged me to sense that there was more, that there was even more to realize. And there's also the great project of really living what we realize, moment by moment, all the time. It's a real possibility. Somehow that was what I'd wanted all along, and I'd almost forgotten that that's what I was hoping for. It was so helpful to have somebody show that, yeah, there's a real possibility of living a spiritual realization. Really living it. That's what I wanted.
Iain McNay And that's something you'd struggled with for a time, wasn't it? Bringing those two together, your spiritual practice and your day to day life. You had met Clare, you got married, you had kids. And initially with that relationship, it was really hard to bring the two together, the family life and the practice. You said in the book, "The Dharma is infinitely patient." It waits for you.
Henry Shukman Yes, yes, yes, exactly. Yeah, the way it feels to me now is that I spent so much time trying to make that happen. And really, it's all just about letting go and releasing and finding through a kind of effortlessness. Really, we don't need all those efforts. It's actually always here, we're always living in a kind of infinite support. We just have to trust it more. At least I'm speaking, of course, about myself. You know, I had to learn and still have to remind myself at times. It's about letting go. It's about trusting. It's about less effort, not more...
Iain McNay But sometimes it takes more effort to have less effort. Ironic, isn't it, because you have to bring the awareness there. I'm talking a little bit personally here, I guess. You have to bring discipline in to somehow catch yourself when you're putting in more effort, while knowing that actually, less effort tends to be the key at that point.
Henry Shukman Yes. Yes, yes. Zen has got this term “wu wei,” which means "not doing," or "action without doing" - something like that. And I think it's like what other traditions just call effortless being. Effortless doing. The reminders, you know - "oh, wow, oh, I forgot about that. Let me come back. Let me just take a breath and then release. Ah, here we are again. So simple - right here. Vast and boundless and effortless and right here." More and more, we just learn to trust that, and to find it easier and easier, but not perfect by any means. I've been through a lot of training, you know, which I evidently needed.
Iain McNay Yes, and it was John who encouraged you to start doing the koans. For someone that doesn't know a lot about Zen and about koans in that tradition, explain very briefly what a koan is. Not so much what it is, but what your experience of understanding the koan is.
Henry Shukman Yeah. These little phrases record something that an enlightened, awakened master did or said, usually either in the early days of Indian Buddhism or the days of early Zen (Chan) Buddhism in China, in the second half of the first millennium, roughly 500 or 1000 CE. They're just little phrases that don't seem to make sense, usually, that contain the awakened wisdom, the awakened clarity, ease and reality of the master who said or did that. And we just sit with them. We can use them in our meditation. We just repeat them during our meditation, or just repeat them a few times and then kind of forget about it and do whatever our meditation might be. But we can also bring them in in the course of daily life as we're walking down the street, as we're walking across a room or as we're just having a little pause in the day. Just refer to the koan. What they offer is a quick hit, a path back, dropping back into effortless, broad, infinite awareness. Infinite ease, infinite love, infinite energy. They contain all of that in a little tiny nugget. And so we just bring them in and whoa, there it is, you know? And sometimes they trigger very big awakenings as well. They have that capacity. So they're like fertilizers for our spiritual life.
Iain McNay Yes, there's some things that I wrote down from the book. That with a koan the key is to be still, and give in, because the koan wants to show itself to you. So they require patience and surrender. And that's pretty much what you said, that patience, picking it up at a time, and then letting go for a time, and whenever you feel to do with the koan, I guess, or how it shows itself to you in terms of clues.
Henry Shukman Yes, yes, yes, again, you said it beautifully there. Just picking it up, putting it down. And just trusting it is a path that teaches us trust and patience and surrender. To whatever extent we may need to learn those things, and I certainly did need to a whole hell of a lot. And so it was a good path for me. I mean, I wouldn't say that it's a path for everybody, but it is a really amazing path. And I like the fact that it's very compatible with ordinary life, with living a life in the world, not having to extract ourselves from ordinary life and live a sequestered life in a monastery, or as a hermit or something. No, you don't have to do that with koans. It's all about living, and awakening, in ordinary life.
Iain McNay And how did you deal with the hand? The sound of one hand clapping, the koan, the famous one we've all heard about.
Henry Shukman Yeah, well, I can't give it away. And it wouldn't really help if I did. But if we think that every koan is about dropping the separate self and falling back into boundless, boundlessness... It's the same with this koan. The idea is that we know what two hands clapping sounds like, you know? But do you know what one hand sounds like? That's slightly strange language. The sound of one hand. But actually, it's the same thing, it's an invitation. What do we find one hand is when the separate self is gone? So it's inviting a deep experience, a deep sense of things. What is one hand in the context of boundlessness? What is one thing? A pen, a hand, a leaf, a car. You know, a door, a seat, a bird. Just one thing in that boundlessness? What is it, really? So in a way, the koan's not like, “Well, here's the answer.” It's more, what do we experience from it? So it's a move from duality - two hands to one. To all inclusive one. And it seems like it's some riddle about hands. It's not. It's an invitation to awaken from duality into nonduality. People who haven't practiced with them, or maybe have a bit, they might get the idea that they're sort of puzzles, riddles. But they're not. They're invitations to awaken, to awaken out of dualistic mind.
Iain McNay And you fell with one koan - you fell into a groove of centuries of practice. So I understand that it isn't just about what you're doing or not doing. They are a gateway into this historical, amazing history of practice, I guess.
Henry Shukman Yes. Yes, and it's so beautiful that it is historical, and yet it's timeless.
Iain McNay Yes.
Henry Shukman So it can be this sense of joining all these practitioners across time and space. And then it can become like all beings are present, and all creation is present and we're just joining all of it. And this is what koans are gateways to. There's this famous collection called the Gateless Gate, which again sounds like another kind of mind bending puzzle, but it's not. The gateless gate means there's no gateway. It's all one. How can there be a gateway, it's gateless. But there's realizing that. So that's a kind of gate. So before we realize it, there's a gate. After we realize it, there's no gate. The Gateless Gate. Kind of a gateway. Before we awaken, there's a gateway and once we're through the gateway and awakened, there's no gateway. It's just one. One awareness, one body, one consciousness, one reality. One marvel, and it's just functioning all the time as this very moment, in all its details.
Iain McNay And then something also happened to you when you were driving a car towards Glasgow Airport. You talk about it in the book. It's just another example of a reminder, something significant opening up. Could you just talk us through that briefly?
Henry Shukman Yeah. It was sudden. This is the kind of thing that koans can trigger. It was another moment, really of just of a different flavor. The one thing that I love about koan training is that there isn't only one awakening. Actually, there are different faces of awakening, different dimensions of awakening. And in this one, I saw so clearly that there was this nothing, just nothing at the heart of everything. And it was pouring. All reality was sort of pouring out of it, pouring out of it like a river of lightning, just pouring out of this nothing. All that I was experiencing in the moment was just pouring out of this nothing. It was like a black hole in reverse, giving, giving, giving. It was very, very beautiful, actually just breathtaking and beautiful, overwhelming. And I could, you know, I was really blown away by that. I had to stop driving. I felt actually, in some ways, later when I learned that John of the Cross talked about this fountain that flows and flows in the darkness never stops flowing, I felt, "Oh man, I wonder if that's what he was talking about, this ever-giving nothing." Zen is is part of what they call Mahayana Buddhism, which is an evolution of Buddhism around the time of Jesus, approximately, that really emphasized that everything is actually nothing, but that nothing is very busy all the time making everything, being everything. So it felt in this moment like I was seeing how emptiness functioned - making, producing, giving birth to everything in this very moment.
Iain McNay Yes. After that you had personal challenges, which you talk about very openly in the book. Your marriage was on the point of breaking up. And what you didn't want to do, and I thought it was really good that you mentioned this, you didn't want to get a divorce, because one of your sons was the age that you were when your parents split up, I think it was 14 when your parents split up, and you didn't want that experience to be carried down the generations - of him going through what you went through with your parents breaking up. And you saw that. The task for you was to resist passing on the programming, which I thought was a very astute way to look at the practical side of the situation. Because yes, you have these amazing awakenings, you see reality. After your Glasgow experience you said "I'm more a system made of nothing, a phantom, a dream." But, there's the human reality, and everything might be a system, a phantom, a dream. But there's a parallel, something in terms of the practicalities, as we've talked about earlier, of life. And one thing on the human side is to put things as right as possible.
Henry Shukman Yeah, yeah. There's one famous Zen master called Yamada Koun from the 20th century, who's part of the Zen lineage that I'm in. And he used to say, well, this world may all be a dream, but we must still work to make it a happy dream. It's beautiful. I have this feeling these days that if we're interested in awakening, we might say: "We're human in order to awaken. But we awaken in order to be human." So after awakening, as we get clearer and clearer in the process of awakening, I feel we must live our human side ever more fully, and ever more helpfully, and less harmingly. I see the healing of trauma as one of the great functions of awakening, actually. Because awakening shows us a boundless love, which is the ultimate agent of healing. And awakening gives us the space for a trauma to release itself. It gives us the space for our own conditioning to untie itself. It gives us the space to be freer from conditioning. And to act and live more consciously, more helpfully. So I feel that life, human living, is the arena for awakening to happen in, if you see what I mean. When we awaken, it's enough, it's done, you know, it's all fulfilled. But in a way, Zen wants us to go further. Zen says it's not done, because there's a world full of suffering. Even though in awakening, we see that somehow, on some level, all is well. That's not the end, because there's still a world that doesn't feel that way. The multifold task is to work to help this world be free of suffering.
Iain McNay You talk about a time when you found it not so easy to work, you didn't know which direction practically your human days would go. It's very beautiful. At the end of the book, you talk about starting to work in a hospice with dying people and the process of just sitting with someone who was dying and then died. And you also helped to teach yoga and meditation in prisons, something else very valuable as well. I know Sandy and John, who we talked about, have helped in Oxford with the Prison Phoenix Trust. So we're going to finish shortly. I'm not going to frighten everybody off by saying that there are six hundred and seventy koans at all. I won't even ask you how far down the line you are. It wouldn't be a fair question. But what I do want to say is that at one point you talk about how you finally gave yourself up and you felt like the war was over. You weren't sure whether you won or lost, but you walk around in a daze of gratitude for weeks: "And finally, I knew what life was about. Life was an overwhelming marvel," which you kind of resonate with. So that's putting into words somehow, how you come across anyway. But let's finish maybe by just talking about how you now have taken over the ownership of the Mountain Cloud Center. Is that in Arizona or is that in Santa Fe?
Henry Shukman Yeah, that's in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It's a nonprofit corporation, which means its members own it. And they invited me in to be their resident teacher about, well, now 11 years ago. And so I've been sharing the Zen way as I've received it from my teachers. Through these last 18 months with COVID, we've gone online and people from all over the world are joining our sits. And actually, just recently, we've launched a new meditation program called Original Love, which is a broader introduction to meditation, a broader base of meditation. Zen alone may not have quite such a broad base. And that's been proving really popular as a lot of people seem to be finding it helpful. It touches on different areas, four main areas that I feel are important in our path to awakening, but also to healing. I'm including this vital dimension of personal and communal healing in the whole process. And this is not just about awakening, it's about healing too - individually and collectively. So that's something I'm giving a lot of energy to at the moment, as well as the traditional Zen approach.
Iain McNay And meantime, meanwhile, your practice goes on.
Henry Shukman Exactly. Yeah, just now, just as it is. There's nowhere to go, just now, just a beautiful sense of purpose on the one hand and aimlessness on the other, because it's just now.
Iain McNay Purpose and aimlessness, that's something to think about in the same sentence. OK, thank you very much, Henry. I've enjoyed our conversation a lot. I just want to share your book again, your autobiography One Blade of Grass, which I just enjoyed, and it's the kind of book I might read again, because there's a lot in there and it's a great story as well, and I'm always a sucker for great stories. It makes someone's journey more real somehow when I am able to understand and feel part, by people revealing themselves, of their life and their ups and downs, and you certainly had ups and downs and there's a richness in that, as I think we both know. Yeah.
Henry Shukman Well, I must say, a watchword for me as I was writing it, was "total frankness." I never wanted to pretend I was better than I was, if you know what I mean. And so I think it is quite frank. I also, for a long time, I didn't believe that this spiritual path for me could really be fulfilled, in the sense of really finding a more stable peace and fulfillment and ease, and an awakening that was stable. I never believed that I was a candidate for that. I thought, I've got too many problems, too much trauma, too much psychological turbulence. I didn't really believe that I would get there. You know, I could see that some people seemed to, but then I wasn't even sure whether they really or they're just talking about it like they did, you know? But I wanted to really try to convey to people that I do think now that it is possible for all of us. And it's not a myth. And it was not easy for me by any means. And not that I'm free of all human trouble now. By no means, but man, it's so different. There really is a kind of corner we can turn, there's a hump we can all somehow get over, get to the other side of, where it's really kind of different. Same, but different. Hey, it's been so nice Iain, and I'm really very grateful to you and honored by your invitation. And actually I don't know what to say, just humbled that, you know, you'd taken the trouble to read not one, but three of my books...
Iain McNay But I enjoyed them. I didn't read them because I felt I had to read them, I enjoyed reading them and that's the key to life in general. You try to enjoy what you're doing. As I've said many times before, for Renata and myself, Conscious TV is a journey. But we only read books that we enjoy reading. Otherwise, what's the point? Yeah, so thank you for writing them. And I might even delve into some of your novels, which I've seen online, which I haven't I haven't tried yet.
Henry Shukman Well, actually, you know, I could imagine you might enjoy my first poetry book, which is called In Dr No's Garden.
Iain McNay OK.
Henry Shukman It's easy poetry, it's not difficult, and people often seem to like it, and I got a feeling you might just based on the conversation.
Iain McNay Okay. Thank you again, Henry, and thank you everyone out there for watching Conscious TV. And I hope we see you again soon. Goodbye.
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