The Many Things Are Good Friends: Lurianic Kabbalah and Shunryu Suzuki
by Matthew Gindin
I had an insight into Kabbalah today while reading the words of a Japanese sage, Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi (as he is called by his North American students) was instrumental in bringing Soto Zen spiritual practice1 to the United States. I have some slight connection to his lineage, having practiced Zen meditation with students of his lineage- Peter Levitt2 and Norman Fischer3. Like many people in North America who have practiced Buddhism (perhaps most) I have read Suzuki Roshi’s beloved book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Today, however, I was reading a lesser known book of his called Branching Steams Flow In The Darkness. It is a transcription of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings in the 70’s on an ancient Japanese poem called the Sandokai, which can be translated as “The Interpenetration of The Ultimate and the Relative.” This, like all of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings, is marked by gentility, humour, maturity, and an enticing combination of nuance and directness. As I read it I am struck both by how I resonate with many aspects of his teaching and not with some others, which don’t fit my own deepest intuitions. In any case, as I read it today I was struck by something which shot like an arrow through my mind and hit a surprising and seemingly distant target: a teaching by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century Spanish-Israeli Kabbalist known as the Arizal, who reshaped Jewish mystical teachings in his brief life (1534-1572). The Arizal was also much concerned with what could be called the “interplay of the ultimate and the relative” or the interplay of the being of God, “The Endless One Blessed Be” and the being of phenomena- “materiality” or “the concealing shell”.
The passage from Suzuki Roshi I was reading is this one: “Kai means to shake hands. You have a feeling of friendship. You feel that the two of you are one. In the same way, this one great whole being and the many things are good friends, or more than good friends because they are originally one.”
According to the Kabbalah of the Arizal, when the Holy One, Blessed Be created the universe it burst into a million fragments racing madly away from eachother. From an original point which was so unified, so whole, that it transcended our mode of existence entirely, came being and being implies beings4. These quanta of being raced away from eachother, sparks of light becoming enclosed in the “husks” (klipot) of materiality. These energetic threads thus spun forth to become a great web of interdependent moving, humming, transforming strands of materiality concealing divine light within. With the birth of phenomena of greater and greater complexity came, paradoxically, greater and greater individuality for each compounded phenomena. This apparent individuality is the essence of the Arizal’s idea of klipa as understood by the Alter Rebbe5. Klipa conceals Divine Oneness because it appears to be independent phenomena.
In the world of the senses- the sensual universe which reveals materiality to us- we perceive a complex field of disparate objects with no obvious relation to eachother besides contingent functional relationships. Our toaster and our running shoes appear to be unrelated inanimate objects with seperate origins and purposes. It appears that way to me even when I consider the existence of the running shoe a miracle- why does it, or anything, exist at all?-or reflect that every moment, according to Torah, the whole of creation is willed into being by the Creator. The individual objects in my perception still seem alienated from eachother. But perhaps they shouldn’t.
Rashi6, commenting on the story of the Garden of Eden, asks why we are told that Adam was formed “from the dust of the earth”. He answers “To tell us that we all have a common origin- no descendant of Adam can claim higher rank.” In a similar way, all material phenomena- the running shoes, the oven, the flower on the table- are all united by a deep internal bond. A familial bond.
According to Lurianic Kabbalah all of the phenomena of our world were born from the same “singularity”- the singularity of Hashem’s willing of the Creation to arise in the womb created by tzimtzum7. In that sense all things, no matter how high or low, are one family, deeply intimate with eachother, sharing an infinite bond and identical internal signature in their hidden recesses- much like human beings. This was what I was struck by while reading Suzuki Roshi’s comment “the great whole being and the many things are good friends…because they are originally one”.
If we reflect on this we can remove the illusion of being an alien in the universe, trapped in an expanse of lifeless, impersonal objects. We can contemplate the truth of the kinship of all things, that they are “all good friends”. Our apparent individuality is a common inheritance from a common parent.
We are united in our common origin in a way deep beyond our imaginations. In the end, paradoxically, even the fact of our individuality, as well as its nature, unites us as something we share.
1Soto is a sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Zen emphazises waking up to the true nature of mind and world in a way which liberates from afflictive emotions and suffering. Soto emphasizes doing this through sitting meditation where one simply sits and is lucidly aware while not grasping at or rejecting any phenomenon which arises.
2Peter is the teacher of the Salt Spring Zen Circle on Salt Spring Island, BC Canada. He is a student of Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a spiritual heir of Suzuki Roshi’s.
3Norman Fischer is also a teacher of Jewish meditation and spirituality.
4For something to be it must not be something else.
5Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad (1745-1812)
6 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, great Torah commentator of Medieval France.
7Tzimtzum: Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that in order to create the world the Infinite One had to contract her infinitude and create a wombal space where she was not and the world could be.