November 28, 2023

Zen and Ken

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D

Zen Man

When I was in my late thirties, I decided to get serious about my spiritual life. I had already been strongly drawn to Zen Buddhism and, generally, to Japanese aesthetics. I was fascinated by Japanese cultural practices and had become intrigued with Zen, which had for so long been an integral part of Japanese spiritual life. I loved gazing at Japanese rock gardens (and had visited one twice in Dallas). Although it took many years before I actually was able to travel to Japan, and, still later, to discover the films of the masterly Japanese film director, Yasujiro Ozu, I already felt the pull of Zen, which likewise had exercised an immediate appeal to me.

So, being a young professor at the time, I started reading books about Zen. But I quickly realized that reading books, though informative, was not Zen. After all, as the old saying goes, if you want to know what food tastes like, it will do you no good to spend your time looking at menus. Zen is a practice, not a religion.

To do Zen, one had to meditate doing a form of meditation called zazen.

So I got myself a little Seiza bench that enabled me to sit on my butt with my knees on the floor (I could never even come close to assuming the lotus posture), and tried to meditate, with indifferent success.  It was not long before I knew if I were to pursue this seriously, I would have to take myself to Zen centers and receive instruction there. 

And so I did. I travelled to Rochester where there was a well-known Zen center with a famous teacher, Philip Kapleau; I also went to a Zen center in Providence. But I finally lucked out when I found there was actually a Zen master who conducted zazen sessions in a home not ten miles from the university where I taught. I soon learned that he had a small but devoted following and was himself an exceptionally gifted man – not only a Zen master, but a poet, translator and psychotherapist (I later sought him out for therapy). I came to have enormous respect for this man and learned a lot from being with him.

Nevertheless, I found sitting (i.e., zazen) difficult.  It was very hard on my knees and physically taxing.  Still, I persevered.  I knew Zen would not be an easy path to walk.  But I enjoyed the atmosphere at that house and had already been drawn to the quietude of the Zen centers I had previously visited when sitting with other Zen aspirants.  I really did feel “at home” in such settings, even if my knees did not. 

In Zen, there are special intensive Zen sessions lasting several days called sesshins. My first one lasted three days, and, frankly, it was a bitch, though I found it worthwhile. I finally decided I needed to undergo a longer one, so I signed up for a weeklong sesshin in Massachusetts. 

I had a paradoxical reaction to it. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life and its effects lasted for days afterward. My mind was calm and serene, absent its usual chatter. A sense of stillness pervaded my consciousness and I experienced the world in a different way, which was beautiful. 

At the same time, it left me with no desire to go through another ordeal like that. Regretfully, I found that despite Zen’s appeal for me, I did not have what it took to become a dedicated practitioner of Zen.  I could definitely see its value; I just wasn’t prepared to pay its price.

So I had to admit that I had flunked Zen 101. Besides, by then my work on NDEs was taking up more and more of my time, and that was where the excitement was for me.  And it didn’t require sitting!

Nevertheless, I never lost my interest in Zen or in Buddhism generally. I still “hung out” in those circles and at conferences. I even danced one memorable night with a well-known Zen teacher in San Francisco, and for a time I became very friendly with a Tibetan lama. I met him once at his home in England where we drank sak√© together.  And another time, when we were both speakers at a conference in California, he actually gave me a backrub when my back was ailing, and it really helped, too! He was very jolly and had a great sense of humor, but I never studied with him – I just enjoyed his company. 

Finally, I should mention that the woman I had lived with during my “Zen years” had also been practicing Zen with me, but unlike me, she stuck with it and became a Zen teacher herself. We have remained loving friends ever since we separated as lovers, and I’ve spent a lot of time hearing about her Zen-based life and listening to some of her recorded teishos (a sort of discourse on Zen practice).

So much for my abortive life as a Zen practitioner, but just recently I finally learned “the secret of Zen,” and before long, I will reveal it to you.

Huston Smith

Someone who truly did practice Zen in a serious way is the famous scholar of religion, Huston Smith. He is best known for his bestselling book on religion, originally called The Religions of Man and, later revised and expanded, it was renamed The World’s Religions.  It has now sold millions of copies, and it is a wonderful introduction to the religions of the world. Smith also authored about a dozen other books, and though I haven’t read any of them, I have read several articles by him. In any event, he was a renowned and eminent scholar and lived to a great age, dying a few years ago at 97.

I knew Huston, but was never really friends with him. We just had a nodding acquaintanceship when we would encounter each other at conferences or, once, at Esalen. That is, we would just nod at each other and sometimes exchange a few pleasantries.  I know he was familiar with my work on NDEs, and of course I had read his book on religion, but we were never really drawn to each other. He had actually grown up in China, the son of Methodist missionaries, and wherever I looked at him he really did seem to have the visage and bearing of an old Chinese sage. Huston was widely beloved, both venerable and venerated, and, frankly, I was somewhat in awe of him. He had an august and serene presence of the sort that only a spiritual adept could evince.

Oddly enough, the only time I actually had a conversation with him was years later when I met him in an eye doctor’s waiting room.  I had taken my mother there so she could be examined for her glaucoma, which had developed when she was in her early eighties.  (I’ve had glaucoma since I was sixty, but my mother was a late bloomer.)  But this was not an upscale office. It was full of down-and-out people like my mother, who by then was indigent and on Medicaid. I was shocked to see Huston there, and he seemed to be embarrassed when he saw me. Still, he was pleasant and kindly and we had a warm exchange. It proved to be the last time I was to see him.   

The Secret of Zen

I spent Thanksgiving this year quietly by myself, mostly reading during the day and taking care of my ailing body. I was still recovering from some very nasty oral surgery a few days ago whose details I will spare you apart from saying it was the worst and most painful experience I had ever had in a dentist’s chair.  Extracting in infected molar, which took over two hours, was like giving birth.  There were times when I wasn’t altogether convinced I would survive or even wanted to.  I’m better now, but the healing is slow and I won’t be able to get my sutures out for another week or so. Meanwhile, I can only eat “soft” foods in little itty-bitty bites, which will explain why I could not participate in any elaborate turkey festivities this year and just had to settle for some of Amy’s ravioli for dinner.  

Nevertheless, that evening, I received a delightful surprise, courtesy of a dear friend, now in England, who was kind enough to forward me something she had received from an American colleague.

You will now see why I was tickled all shades of pink to receive it.  Here’s what my friend sent to me:

At the end of Huston Smith’s extremely arduous month-long practice period in a Japanese Zen monastery (the last week without sleep for most of the monks; though as a sybaritic Westerner, Huston was allowed 3 hours nightly), Huston went to pay his respects to the teacher, Goto Roshi (from whom, he says, “a Marine sergeant could have learned a few things”). 

Goto Roshi then proceeded to knock Zen off its pedestal.

Koans can be a useful exercise, he said, but they are not Zen.

And sitting in meditation, he went on -- that is not Zen.

Then why had I been torturing myself with koans and body aerobatics, I wondered, and what the hell, then, was Zen?

 "You will be flying home tomorrow," he said.

"Don't overlook how many people will help you get home -- ticketing agents, pilots, cabin attendants, those who prepare your meals."

He bowed and placed his palms together, demonstrating gassho, the gesture of gratitude….Then he did a gassho to me.

"Make your whole life unceasing gratitude," he said. 

"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.
Have a safe journey home."
And he gave me a wonderful smile. "I am glad you came." 

Huston Smith. (2009). Tales of Wonder. HarperCollins 

Huston’s autobiography published on his 90th birthday.


There you have it, friends – the secret of Zen. It is one of Zen’s many paradoxes that you are still required to sit until your balls ache and your knees start to scream.  That, at least, is not so simple, but I still prefer Goto Roshi’s version of Zen.

And now for a final word from our sponsor….

On My Last Legs

My mother died at the age of 88. In her last years, living in a nursing home in Berkeley, she was unable to walk. When I inquired as to the reasons, I remember being told that my mother was suffering from “contractures.” I had no idea what that meant.  I don’t think I pursued the matter. The fact was that my mother could no longer walk. And that was that. From then on, she would be confined to a wheelchair.

In those days, when I would visit her, I would take her out for a spin, so to speak, pushing her chair around the level streets in her neighborhood, chatting away while my mother, for the most part, remained silent, stoical and forbearing. She once told me that I talked too much.

She never did walk again, of course. She mostly lay in her bed, quiet and uncomplaining, waiting for death to come.

In a few weeks, I will turn 88. In the last year, my legs, already weakened by years of spinal stenosis, have become even more unsteady and fragile. For various reasons, I have not been able to exercise since the beginning of the year, but I used to be able to walk down and back on my street. No more. I can’t even walk to the end of my little court without stopping a number of times, so I no longer even try.  My daughter, Kathryn, gave me some leg strengthening exercises in hopes that they would help me, but when I try them, they just strain my back and put it out of alignment.  At least I am spared from having to do any more zazen!

I have to be very careful now when I walk, very mindful, which is the only form of Zen practice I can still manage. I must avoid making any sudden changes in direction.  When I get up from my chair from which I watch my TV, I do so very gingerly. I hold onto surfaces as much as possible, lest I fall.  I do stumble a lot as I shuffle about, but so far I have managed to avoid falling. Since I live by myself, falling could not only be serious, it could be a calamity.  I’m not sure I could get up again.

Right now, I am writing this while sitting in my computer chair, which I have rigged up to ease the pressure on my back. Since it has wheels, I’m thinking I might have to begin using it as my non-motorized vehicle to scoot around the house. Fortunately, my house is small and all on one level.  I might have to locomote that way if my legs finally give out like my mother’s did.

I am my mother’s son, all right, and I seem to be following her course toward immobility.

Of course, I have no intention of winding up like she did. Sure, like everyone who has ever lived, one day I will die. But how and under what circumstances, that is the question I am pondering. I’m definitely not going to end up in a nursing home like she did. No way! I want to remain in my house until I croak, even if I have to crawl around the floor. But no, before it comes to that, I will have to find a way either to live with some dignity or to do myself in.

I have long joked that my body has expired before I have, and that’s true. But I have been lucky – knock on Formica – that as of now I am not suffering from any great pain, just the tedium of crippling infirmity in my small-compass life as a shut-in.  For the most part, it’s not really that bad, and there are many days (I will elide the rest) when I feel tolerably well and can enjoy my life.

But as I grow weaker and more unsteady on these last legs of mine, which formerly and for many years had been so sturdy and reliable, I can see that the end is in sight. Whether it is in the distance or, figuratively speaking, around the corner, who can say?  All I know is that I’d better watch my step.  In any case, I’m determined to live on my own terms until the good Lord relieves me of the burden of my life.


  1. Brian Anthony KraemerNovember 28, 2023 at 1:28 PM

    Ken, I always enjoy reading your latest contributions to thinking about life. As you know, my father died at 87, almost 88, on June 24, 2023, just five months ago. I was with him at his bedside for the last several hours of his life. I kissed his forehead many times, something I had never done in my whole life. He was breathing terribly hard and moaned occasionally even though he appeared to be unconscious. We were giving him powerful medications to sedate and calm and relax him provided by hospice, but I still felt helpless and kept apologizing to him for not being able to do more to alleviate any possible suffering he might be experiencing.

    I feel somewhat the same way with you in that I know you are suffering and there is so little I can do to lessen your suffering. I know you are overwhelmingly an optimistic man and manage to find joy even in the midst of suffering. I am grateful for this and I hope that even in the closing act of your well-lived play, that you are finding pleasant diversions in reading, watching a pet perhaps, noticing a spider sitting in the lotus position in the corner of the ceiling in your living space contemplating the meaning of existence, or listening to bird sounds outside your home. I know you love great music. Perhaps you are listening to some of the greatest performances of all time.

    Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said at the end of her life that she thought she would have handled it better having been at the bedside of so many of her dying patients, but she was feeling impatient, perhaps even angry. Why was she forced to taxi out to the runway, but not given permission from the tower to depart from the runway? Why leave her stranded in this place of waiting, sitting idly, waiting for permission to take off and continue this journey into the heavens? I just don't have any answers to any of these greatest mysteries of life.

    Everything is born, everything. Everything has a life cycle, sometimes half a second, sometimes two weeks, still others months, and still others for years. Then everything dies, everything. Planets are born. I wonder if baby planets are cuter than adult planets. Even galaxies have a life cycle. Anything that is so universal as birth, life cycle, to death must be exactly the right thing to be happening. There is no alternative. Your mother did it. Your father did it. My father did it. My grandparents have all done it. Everyone who has ever lived and then died has done it.

    If I could somehow be there in your home, perhaps sitting in the same place I have sat before, or if I could somehow be in your weakening body and whisper, "Ken, we are all one. Let's grow old and die together," I would do it. I would be there with you right now and not just now, but always, and we would get old and cross that stream together. I suspect that what I am proposing is actually what is happening. I suspect that every baby born today is you and I being born today and every plant and animal and organism disintegrating today is you and I dying today. We are all in this together. You are not alone and I am not alone.

    It is someone else's turn to run and skip and giggle and sing arias and make love and roast marshmallows and it is our turn to embrace the zen mind, not trying hard, but ceasing trying, not aspiring to, but letting be, not longing for, but knowing that the longing itself is evidence that our longings are already met. We long for oxygen because oxygen exists. We long for food because food exists. We long for water because water exists. We long for absolute union with perfect love because absolute union with perfect love exists. I do not need to get what I desire. I only need to know that it exists. Because I am one with all that is, its mere existence is assurance of our consummation.

  2. Thanks for sharing so intimately. I will be turning 70 in a few weeks, and I have been wondering about the phase I am headed into. On another note, the first book I read on my spiritual quest, when I was 19 (in 1973), was "The Three Pillars of Zen." I, too, tried zazen, and I still practice it at times, but I did not go into it to the degree that you did.

  3. Dear Ken, Thanks for sharing! I send you goodness and light. With gratitude, Jane Katra

  4. I am grateful that you put so eloquently into words the essence of Zen philosophy. You note that Zen is not the assuming of particular body positions some of us never in our lifetimes could attain. Zen is a state of mind and a way of being in this world.

    Zen asks us to be contemplative and compassionate, always open to serendipity, and attentive to experiencing fully the everyday interactions in our lives. The way we choose to see the world affects the quality of life we bring to others. Giving to others brings us happiness. Gratitude brings us joy.

    You will always be. I hold you in my heart and mind and am grateful for your teachings. You will always be⸺ beyond words, living within the actions of those you have taught.

    Susan L. Schoenbeck, MSN, RN. Author, Zen and the Art of Nursing