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Zen master Henry Shukman contemplates coronavirus

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Henry Shukman (right), zen master at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe, is shown in 2016 with Yamada Ryoun Roshi, who is now abbot of the Sanbo Zen school. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe author and spiritual teacher Henry Shukman recently published “One Blade of Grass,” which he calls a “zen memoir.” It’s his first book since his 2007 novel “The Lost City” about a recently discharged soldier’s search for an ancient Peruvian city.

Since the coronavirus has prevented gatherings at the Mountain Cloud Zen Center, where Shukman is zen master, he has been conducting virtual seminars online to help people stay grounded during these trying times.

Journal North checked in with Shukman last week to talk about his latest book and his journey from English author to a Santa Fe spiritual teacher. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

Q: When I met you in New York in the early ’90s, you were a novelist. Now, you’re a spiritual teacher in Santa Fe. How did that happen?

A: I’m still wondering that myself! I was still pretty young then, but I had already been quietly practicing meditation since the age of 24. Over time, the practice became more and more important to me.

In part, this was because of finding some marvelous teachers, most of them in the zen meditation world, who exemplified a truly inspiring way of living. Yet, they were very grounded and down-to-earth people, with ordinary lives in the world.

I wish I could say I had attained something like their consistent clarity of mind and heart. It’s obvious to myself (and my wife and kids) that I haven’t, but I’m happy to be on a good path that perhaps brings me a little closer.

Q: Tell me about your latest book.

Henry Shukman’s new book, “One Blade of Grass.”

A: It chronicles how the chronic eczema I’d had since childhood was healed through meditation. It was quite amazing to me that something as simple as being still each day for a period of time could transform my skin affliction, along with some associated mental health challenges, and generate a lot more happiness and well-being. I hope the book may inspire others to try meditation – as well as provide an interesting read.

Q: You’re from England. What brought you and your family to New Mexico?

A: I first came out to Taos as a young writer. I was working on a book about D.H. Lawrence’s time in New Mexico. I soon learned that he had spent less than two years in the state, even though his ranch above Taos is the only home he ever owned. The book, “Savage Pilgrims,” which was published in 1996, broadened into a wider cast of characters.

But I was lucky enough to make some lifelong friends here. Although I have been back to England for some fellowships, I have spent most of the past 29 years here, 20 of them with my wife, the artist Clare Dunne, and our sons, who are now grown up.

Certain periods of study and work helped keep us here, like teaching down in Las Cruces at New Mexico State University and at the Institute for American Indian Arts here in Santa Fe. Since I had fairly stable relationships with publishers in New York and London who didn’t care where I was, it was relatively easy to keep on working as a writer out here.

It just got harder and harder to think about tearing ourselves away from this incredible place – the beauty of the land, the deep cultures, the exceptionally gifted and creative people, the innovative thinking, and so on. If you can get by out here, why not stay?

Q: How did you get interested in Buddhism?

A: I was struck by a random spiritual awakening experience when I was 19 years old, but had no idea what had happened to me. This strange experience brought a profound peace of mind and a real sense of revelation about life. But I didn’t have any interest at that point in the deeper side of life.

I had grown up in Oxford, England, where both my parents taught at the university. I was basically a young rationalist who happened to love writing and fantasized about living like one of the ancient wandering poets of China.

That strange moment gradually faded, but it did leave an indelible mark on me. I longed to find some way of revisiting whatever it had been. Eventually, I found it in meditation practice, particularly in the zen approach.

Q: Has your spiritual practice affected your writing?

A: Initially, I think meditation helped the writing. A lot of writers turned to zen in the mid 20th century – Salinger, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and so on. When I first came here, the writer Natalie Goldberg – a real New Mexico treasure – showed me how much zen practice and writing could go together.

However, in my case, at a certain point, meditation turned things around to an extent where the ambition and high-strung nature that had fueled much of my writing were punctured and dissipated. Writing became less vitally important.

Around then, I began to be asked by my meditation teachers if I would start doing some teaching myself. I used to go into the Santa Fe County jail to lead inmates in meditation. Then, I was formally appointed a teacher and the Mountain Cloud Zen Center invited me to come in as its teacher.

Q: What is your role at Mountain Cloud Zen Center?

A: I’m the guiding teacher there, which means I am in charge of programming and also do a lot of teaching myself – talks and interviews, primarily, and leading retreats and supervising the instructors for our introductory classes.

I’m also a co-director of the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute, which is a program of Mountain Cloud for bringing the practice into communities that might not otherwise have easy access. We began the program in collaboration with the Sky Center in Santa Fe and have done a lot of work since then with the public schools.

Of course, right now, our teaching is happening online, which means people all over the world are attending some of the events – from Australia to Austria, Norway to British Columbia.

Q: Do you think the coronavirus will bring more people to a spiritual way of life, whatever that may be?

A: I surely hope that everything we experience will collectively bring us to wiser, kinder ways of living, not just individually, but as a whole society. We have obviously reached a point in the human story where the major challenges facing us are not nation-based; they are world-based.

The time for division is over. We have to come together to heal the grievous wounds of this world and to cease creating more wounds. I doubt that coronavirus in itself can turn around our collectively heedless modern ways, but maybe it will give us all a little pause.

I find my practice repeatedly calls me back to the uncertainty of things, and the pandemic has surely raised people’s awareness of uncertainty.

There is a zen koan where a master says: “Not knowing is most intimate.” Maybe feeling less certain can be a good thing, even if it is uncomfortable. Perhaps it can even be a gateway to a deeper way of living.