most intimate: zen lessons from roshi enkyo – book review

Pat Enkyo O’Hara roshi is the Abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City, a frequent visiting teacher at Upaya Zen Center, and traveller into the Himalayas on medical missions. Now she offers her teachings on Zen in Most Intimate: A Zen approach to life’s challenges (Shambhala Publications).

The book begins with the greatest challenge we encounter on this path of practice: intimacy with ourselves. It widens the circle of inclusion then to relationships and then all the sticky, icky stuff that gums up being with self and others. Sex, suffering, anger, work, death & dying. Joy and peace, too. Like any practice period though, it’s the journey through the sticky stuff that opens us into healing and making peace with who and how we are. Enkyo roshi brings all this to the cushion and mat with a light touch for both the joy and woe of being human.

Zen is a way of being in touch with our wholeness – our self without the overlay of what may have crept through in our history, without the stories we make about our life, without the defensiveness or delusions that we have built up to protect ourselves. Too often what we consciously or unconsciously use as “protection” can become a frame through which we view all of life; it is a distorted frame – a prison actually.

We are very familiar with that prison. Despite its constraints and filtering of our view, we often prefer to lie in it spinning imaginings of a life both unlived and unlivable. Yet what we think is so safe is only an illusion and what we guard against so stridently is the very intimacy that can set us free.  “(I)ntimacy with ourselves…with our lovers, partners, and close friends. (Enkyo talks about) intimacy with the work we do and the colleagues with whom we work, intimacy with our community and with the great earth – intimacy with everyone.”

Chapter by chapter she walks us down these paths we work so hard to avoid. And at every step of the way she shows us her own human side and the Bodhisattva vow that keeps us committed to continually entering into places that are frightening.

A long time ago in China, a Zen student asked if any sages had ever fallen into hell. His teacher answered that they are the first to go there! The shocked student asked, “But if they are enlightened, why would they fall into hell?” The teacher looked at the student and with a smile said, “If I didn’t fall into hell, how could I help you?”

Whether we are facing our suffering or joy, Enkyo reminds us that this is our intention: to willingly fall into hell so we can help each other. She points out that we resist our pain (and therefore our joy) out of habits of mind and by doing so we miss the opportunity to become intimate with what is our life in that very instant. Paradoxically, when we cultivate that open-hearted equanimity, we also are available for the surprise of joy which comes “when we least expect it.”

Through stories of her own experiences, Zen teaching tales, question and answer sections and, most important, clearly described practice sections, Enkyo gives us a map and guide to traverse the most challenging terrain in our lives.

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[This book was made available electronically for review through Shambhala Publication’s NetGalley account.]

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