striking at the heart

The shift in the story of Sen-jo and her soul, the unexpected strike at the heart of our assumptions, is the revelation that the split is not what we anticipated; it is not about resolving Sen-jo’s separation from her parents. Sen-jo has been her bedroom all these years since her loved one left. Within the culture, Sen-jo’s actions would have been an affront to the community, perhaps even bringing shame on her parents. The metaphysical analysis aside, the revelation of two Sen-jo’s is important in moving us into examining the dualistic view we have of our roles.

First, we see our suffering as different and separate from the other when it is intertwined. Despite her parents’ right to disown her, they appear to have kept her safe and nourished in their home. The suffering of Sen-jo in her exile has been shared by parents who lived with their emotionally inaccessible daughter. Regardless of the parents’ own conflict between seeing their daughter happy and following their cultural imperative, they have responded with what appears to be compassion. Reunited, Sen-jo and her parents experience Interbeing (Hanh, 1998b); they have an interconnected experience of feeling out of alignment with their aspirations as parents and child.

Second, the appearance of two Sen-jo’s shifts our own perspective; we see differently how deep suffering divides us against ourselves. Sen-jo who left to marry is incomplete without Sen-jo who embodies commitment. Sen-jo who is unable rise from her bed is incomplete without Sen-jo who embodies passion. Although the traditional question asks which the real Sen-jo is, the koan provides the answer before the question was born. Sen-jo and her soul are separated. The Greek word for soul is pneuma or breath. Sen-jo and her breath are separated; the vitality that animates her is no longer there.

The question of whether the Sen-jo who left or the one who remained behind is the real one is, in fact, irrelevant; the paradox is artificial and designed to create discomfort. Neither is animated by their passion and dedication; neither is aligned with their aspirations. Sen-jo and her soul are not separate; in fact, they have never been so (Shibayama, 2000). What had transpired was Sen-jo’s abrogation of her awareness of her true nature. She surrendered her self-stewardship. In a single breath, she had the possibility of becoming whole, of re-claiming her birthright of self-realization. With that we strike at the heart of this koan in our life.

….The heart of the koan is the revelation of boundlessness.  It is in how we sew together the patches of our work and personal lives.  Conventionally, when dealing with issues of burnout, the individual is encouraged to set boundaries, develop assertiveness, learn how to do what is required without becoming caught in the politics and drama of the organization.  These strategies are designed to conserve our role, our territory, and our power.  Although necessary and useful, especially in abusive situations, we remain at the level of rules and protocols of work-related distress.  When we focus on the literal nature of what we do and identify ourselves by these criteria, we risk falling into a separated state, isolating one aspect of our way of being from another.  Defined by the organization or by a narrow vision of who we are, we are held in the thrall of values and expectations that are not always congruent with who we are or want to be.  As we see in the story of Sen-jo and in Maslach’s concept of burnout (Maslach, 1982/2003), choices and questions that are formulated as dualistic ignore the boundless and seamless nature of how we relate to self, family and colleagues, home and work environment, and what represents the transcendental to us.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012

something left behind


The koan of Senjo and her soul being separated (Mumokan, case #35) describes and explores the paradox of living our passion and meeting our obligations.  The story of Sen-jo and her soul is a Chinese folk tale (Aitken, 1991; Shibayama, 2000) about a young woman who decides to leave her parents and an arranged marriage in order to be with the man she loves.  Stricken with homesickness and guilt, she and her husband return only to find her parents confused when she claims to be their daughter.  As far as they know, Sen-jo has been in their home all these years, lying in her bed unable to engage with her filial duties or her life.  Which is the real Sen-jo?

The question posed by Zen teachers of their students is not about re-uniting her with her soul but an inquiry into which is the real Senjo, an issue of dualistic identity (Arnold, 2004).  Inherent in the question is the implication that the split is real and that resolving the conundrum requires determining what is real.   This overlooks the story material that wraps around the koan and it fails to appreciate that the paradox in the story is imposed by our own separation from reality (Hori, 2006; R. Sasaki quoted in Loori, 2006).  Current interventions to resolve the suffering of burnout continue to seek resolution without recognizing that the dualism between work and personal lives is an illusion, albeit a sometimes inspirational illusion.  The real question therefore is not which is real Senjo but rather how does Senjo’s work become a pilgrimage of identity (Whyte, 2001) so she can exist fully and in alignment with each of her roles.

….Conventionally, work and personal lives are viewed as separate and much energy is expended holding the boundaries between them. When difficulties arise in one domain, we are expected to keep the emotional turmoil from interfering with our performance in the other.  When conflicting schedule or expectations arise, our choices of home over work or vice versa can bring on criticism, often regardless of which we choose.  The koan of Sen-jo and her soul being separated offers insight to this putative divide between the two realms.  A literal reading of the narrative describes Sen-jo as unable to sustain the inconsistency between two values: her love for her parents and her love for her beloved.  She runs away with her beloved and creates a life for herself.  In current societal terms, this is appropriate individuation and establishment of one’s identity (albeit somewhat unskillful).  However, in cultural terms, the cost is the abandonment of a different set of values: honour her parents, enter a marriage that would bring support and care for herself and her parents.  To stay would mean being caught in a set of values that are not in alignment with her desire or passion for her own way of life and choice of life partner.  To leave would be to defy the rules of family and community, to violate expectations of her as daughter, wife, and future mother.

She is caught at the extremes of avoiding evil and doing good, aware that her actions have deep consequences for herself and her family.  It also exposes her internal values conflict and is metaphoric of choices we make when confronted by two apparently irreconcilable systems of belief.  We try to leave one behind while pursuing another, believing the two to be easily dismembered.  And, the denouement of the story suggests that is not possible, that there is a larger, deeper, and very different reality.  While we may believe we have walked away with all that is essential to us, there is something left behind.

from Burnout and Spiritual Incongruence, Lynette Monteiro, ©2012