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.


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

enter the rhino

We’re back with the rhinoceros-horn fan.  The fan in the picture is special; it is dyed peacock feathers and was my grandmother’s.  That’s the story anyway though I have serious doubts about the material.  The feathers are lush and I recall drawing the tip of the fan over my face, relishing the soft tingle.  In my grandmother’s hands, the fan was a material expression of her moods.  By turns, it would project coyness, affect joy, arrogantly dismiss, or capriciously summon.  The fan was special and she believed that by extension she was too.  I, as a child on the other hand, only worried about the butt-naked peacocks running around in the jungles.

One of the learned men in Yen Kuan’s presence, upon hearing Yen Kuan’s call for the rhino, said, “The rhino is still there.”

Hsueh Tou’s prodding is fascinating; he reminds us that the rhino is right there in the room.  The horn, cut away from the animal, is no less a rhino than the beast itself intact with horn.  But we are so very willing to cleave things off and pretend that cutting away generates a whole new thing, separate and unique to itself.  In fact, it’s this very willingness to cleave off things we deem as special that has resulted in the extinction of the Northern white rhino and the Western black rhino.  Soon I suspect we can add polar bears, frogs, sharks, seals, elephants, bears, lions and tigers – oh my!

It happens in relationships too.  I enshrine those parts of my relationships that I declare special.  By that I mean those parts that declare ME special.  Like my grandmother’s peacock fan, these disembodied chunks of interactions serve to draw people closer, hold them in some purgatory, or (and?) dismiss them with a flick of a wrist.  And it’s all enabled by a deeper delusion that these portions of my relationship have nothing to do with the flesh-and-blood, heart-and-soul sentient being in whose true presence they were born.

I wonder what would happen if the rhino entered the room.  What might happen if we were able to see the whole being, the entire gnarly, smelly, grumbly beast?  The whole body crevassed by skin, hair spiking out of pores, stinking of  life and death.  Would Yen Kuan look into the eye of the rhino and see the unreality of his fan?  If we bring the whole smelly mess of our lives into the room and look into its eyes, would we too see the uselessness of the bits and pieces we hacked off to prove our worthiness?

Roshi Enkyo said in dokusan that shikantaza is the most difficult practice.  I took away the understanding that it is an unrelenting awareness of the entirety of my life moment-by-moment, not just those moments on the cushion.  It is the whole rhino lumbering kinhin through the halls and rooms of my being, leaving behind it a trail of poop and pee.

Not a comfortable thought.  But it beats visions of all those butt-naked peacocks in the jungle.

bring me the rhino virus

Yen Kuan called to his attendant, “Bring me my rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”

Yen Kuan said, “If the fan is broken, bring the rhinoceros back to me.”

The attendant had no reply.

I brought you back the rhinoceros from Rohatsu.  Interesting creature, isn’t he?  As you know, I’m a koan study drop-out however, lately, these little blithers keep creeping into my field of practice.  This one became quite the insistent bug during Rohatsu, likely riding in on the back of the other bug – the flu.

But first, let’s look at Yen Kuan and his fan.   In the various renditions of this koan, he sounds to varying degrees, insistent, petulant, dismissing.  Perhaps my experience was coloured by the air burbling up into my snot-filled nostrils because to me, he seemed to be testing his poor attendant as much as all the various practices of trying to sit Rohatsu with a cold and fever were testing mine.  Yen Kuan seems to be asking his attendant: Well?  What have you created that is refined and special out of all this practice with me?  Show me!  Bring it here!

I felt like that in dokusan.  What is your practice, Genju?   How is your practice going, Genju?  Questions like that get me focused on the cushion-life of practice.  That’s the jewel for most of us, I think.  The hours spent following the breath, letting thoughts come and go.  Butt to zafu is surely proof of our dedication to this path!  It certainly can be and it is so much more heightened in times like a sesshin when we are called upon to exert all that physical presence for hours and hours.  And I have.  Until this one where the chills, low-grade fever, sprained knee and other aches and pains brought me face-to-face to a very quiet phobia I’ve nursed all my life.

The attendant says the fan is broken.  What is he saying?  I’ve tried to shape a practice, master, but it hasn’t worked?  That thing you think is special just isn’t.  It doesn’t always work; it isn’t always of service to me or to the numberless creations I am trying to free.  I’m lost.  I don’t get it.  But Yen Kuan is merciless.  None of this backing out and running away, whining and whingeing about your problems!  Get back to the raw materials.  Bring me back the rhinoceros.   We’ll start over with the raw materials of your life.

The days were exhausting, not only because my system was struggling with several challenges but there was no way to replenish.  I watched hot oatmeal served into the Buddha bowl during oryoki congeal into a cool mass as we waited for the entire hall to be served and then bowed and chanted before eating.  It was vaguely manageable until I watched the hot polenta with cheese harden to a sticky mess that only reluctantly gave way to the edge of my spoon.  Then the fan broke.

I have no fear of dying.  In fact, my life has been so rich being filled with the gifts of so many beloved ones that should I drop right now on the next keystroke, I would be just fine with it.  Being ill, however, is altogether another issue.  Ill, alone, isolated from all that sustains me.  That’s a brokenness, the fear of which, I have never been able to bear in thought or action.  For years, I watched my grandmother – and now my mother – deteriorate in their health, dying neuron by neuron.  My father, over eight years, succumbed to one cancerous virus after another.  Ironically, in Burma all three lived in terror of contracting and dying from even a simple cold.  I was imbued with a psycho-genetic anxiety of getting sick and I thought I had overcome it with all my practice on the impermanence of life.  Yet, there I was, feeling broken and facing the choice of giving up or giving in.

In dokusan, Roshi Joan said, rest deeply.  Roshi Enkyo encouraged me to dive into the cold because I was the only one who could truly experience it completely.  To me, they were asking: what have you crafted from this life of practice that sustains you?  I struggled with the confusion of knowing this was not fatal, that nothing was permanent and wanting this fatiguing series of hacking coughs and snotty-sounding blowing of my nose to go away.  What was I missing in my practice that this situation had become so complicated in my mind?  I watched myself rise at 5 o’clock every morning.  Wash.  Dress.  Walk to the genkan and prepare to sound the han.  Despite the foggy thinking and the open door facing a brutal North wind, I managed to keep steady the pace and rhythm of the striker on the wood slab for the 15 minutes of gathering everyone into the zendo.  No two rounds were the same and the weak strikes, I realized, were like the brush strokes of the enso, irretrievably broken.

And suddenly, I realized my health insofar as I ever believed I had health, has always been broken.  Chicken pox, measles, colds, flu, fevers, sprains, and a myriad of arrows have struck this body.  Fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue have all cracked and fissured this panel I thought I was keeping whole and unblemished.  I didn’t have to worry that the fan might break; it already was broken.  Perhaps Yen Kuan’s attendant had this realization too.  It is the nature of fans to break.  (I think that rascal Yen Kuan knew this all along and was messing with our minds!)  

Yet, despite its brokenness, we have found some usefulness in it.  Or we might have begun again and again with the raw materials of our life to craft another and another.  And those too have broken because that is the nature of all things.  So I said to my fear-filled attendant, Bring me the rhino virus!  We will work with it, craft another practice of fearlessness from it!

But there’s more than just an individual process pointed to in this koan.  Yen Kuan says, Then bring me back the rhinoceros.  He didn’t say, Well, go out and get another beast and start over!  Asking his attendant to bring him back the rhinoceros might suggest they will work on it together.  Koans, after all, are relational; they point to what transpires in the space between you and me, all the roshis and their students, Yen Kuan and his attendant.  Between me and all the 10, 000-armed bodhisattvas who held and carried me through the week.

You can fit a nice-sized rhino in that space.

Later this week:  Another take on the rhino

no idea

In my commonplace book of shodo, where I script kanji characters, their variations, and anything else that might be a germ of inspiration is listed the eight practices of the Noble Path.  They curl in Burmese stacked in a column with the penmanship of a first-grader.  I received them years ago from a Burmese gentleman who single-handedly manned a website of Theravadin scriptures.  Through our brief correspondence I developed enough trust to ask him to visit my sole-surviving aunt in Rangoon when he was there on one of his regular trips.  I didn’t know if she knew her favourite brother, my father, had died; I sent pictures, money, and my land address.  Not only did he find her in a tiny apartment, cramped with her daughters and their families, he left them with food, medicine, and sent me a picture of Aunty Maggie.  She looked sad and worn, making no effort to steer away from the weight of being Burmese in this time and place, even for a stranger from the UK who came with gifts.  I’m not sure why I expected something different.

The characters in the scroll on the left are “mu” and “idea.”  “Idea” is made up of the script for “now” and “heart/mind.” Put together, it conveys what we practice as Right View, the first on the Buddha’s list of practices in the Eightfold Path.  Our stance is one of emptiness of what is in the heart/mind in this moment.  I tend to shy away from the word “emptiness” simply because it evokes too many unrelated meanings.  Another way of understanding emptiness is as interdependence, in other words as a relational process.  That makes it a bit more manageable in my head:

Right View as a process of being with that ever-unfolding relationship between what is happening now in my heart/mind and environment.

I’ve appreciated Helmut’s and Barry’s comments last week on the exploration of the Four Noble Truths as an open system.  They were by turns cautionary about getting caught in ideas and about practice being as simple as “How is it now?”  And here it is.  Practice of seeing clearly (Right View) is very much one of holding no fixed concept of what is happening now.  At the same time, there is a leaning into what feels “right.”  I’m starting to understand that this is more about discernment than seeking support for my opinion about something.  This is the space in which the presence of the “heart/mind” arises.

Yet sometimes, leaning to what feels “right” is not always apparent.  When I’m in pain, leaning into it certainly doesn’t feel “right.”  Nor does it feel “right” to lean into sorrow, loss, or anxiety.  Not surprisingly, looking at the JPG of Aunty Maggie leaning into her sorrow, I lean away.  Yet, because it always seems “right” to lean into joy and happiness, I begin to wonder how to get past the preferential mind and cultivate Right View.

Parallel to these readings on the Eightfold Path, I’ve been enjoying the Tricycle online retreat with Roshi Enkyo of the Village Zendo.  Roshi Enkyo has been teaching on Ease and Joy in Your Practice and Life.  In the second talk, she described how we can take a skillful stance to being with suffering by “turning into the skid.” Rather than evading the suffering by distracting myself or numbing the impact of it, I move deeper into what is happening now in my heart.  It’s counter-intuitive.  It requires letting go of preconceived notions of how things should be or unfold.  It certainly challenges me to be open to possibilities as I change my relationship to how it is now.

Thank you for practising,


rohatsu reflections

It’s always difficult to put words into an experience like a silent retreat.  Well, it is now for me.  Used to be, I could come home and blather on about this, that, and all those people, places and things that collided during the days (often seemingly interminable days).  So far, I’ve been to two sesshins – silent retreats complete with oryoki (formal eating from three bowls and confusing utensils while sitting perched on my cushion trying not to spill anything on the zendo floor).  It’s actually fun.  And that being the case, I think I’ve been missing the point of sesshins.

Rohatsu is different, I told myself.  First of all, it has this exotic title and it’s a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Second, we practice not just to commemorate the event of his Awakening but it’s a chance to get there ourselves!  In other words, it can be categorized and there is a likely outcome!  Ingredients I tend to like in a mix.

Of course, this is supposed to be the ingredients of any sitting.  That I-am-too-friggin’-tired-to-sit-this-morning sitting, the why-do I-always-leave-it-for-the-evening-when I’m-too-friggin’-tired sitting, the Oh-good-we’re-in-sangha-so-I-can-just-look-like-I’m-sitting sitting.  All of these are opportunities to awaken.  But somehow, putting a name like Rohatsu and making it a festivity just seems to sweeten the deal which made Rohatsu a longed-for experience for many years.

I have to admit, I was a little anxious heading to Upaya this go around.  I’ve been in deep discussions with Roshi and Maia about issues of Chaplaincy and my thoughts about going into the second year.  Much of it is related to time but also to my categorical mind which cannot discern between Chaplaincy and Psychology.  But before we get into that, let me share a few memories of Rohatsu – which turned out to be a fascinating mix of sleep and waking.

Day 1: It’s like Homecoming!  Met up with all my buddha-buddies. My seat assignment is perfect!  I’m surrounded by my dharma pals, Andrew, Maria, and a few more.  It’s like being in a little dewdrop!

Day 2: This isn’t a picture of roshi.  It’s a picture my mind made of roshi when I met with her to continue our discussions face-to-face.  She asks, “What is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?”  I blather.  She says, “Thank you for your practice.”  But it’s that Bodhidharma look my mind registers.  A new koan: what is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?

Day 3: I’m into the oryoki.  Brought my own set too.  Bamboo bowls.  Laminated bamboo bowls. Somewhere from the depths of samadhi – or dozing, I can’t tell the difference – I recall the instructions: do not soak bowls in water.  The server fills the bowl with tomato soup.  It’s not water, I say, reassuringly.  It’ll be fine.  We chant the food offering and hold up the Buddha bowl (that’s the first and largest bowl).  In my case, it’s filled with hot tomato soup.  For a while anyway.  It seems hot liquid in a laminated bamboo is the perfect condition for liberation of tomato soup.

Day 4: It’s been 4 days and 12 oryoki meals.  I’m sure I’m transcending because my dharma sister and Chaplaincy classmate Susan’s red painted toes with a gold ring on one of them are looking like the path to nirvana.  Or maybe it’s just Pavolvian.  Susan serves larger quantities than that other server with the blank toenails.  I wonder if I will now drool every time I see red painted toes.

The temple assistant had asked us to take off all our jewellery on the first day.  I didn’t think my rings and earrings were “jewellery” since I wear them everyday.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Not thinking.

I brought chocolate-covered almonds (code CCA) to get me through the rough patches and drop one on the floor of my room.  “TWO-SECOND RULE!!!” my mind screams (it does that just to get attention and  to hear itself speak).  Germs in the zen center, germs int he zendo… And I begin to wonder about the germs in my oryoki set (they only get washed out with hot tea at the end of each meal).  But then, germs are beings too and they probably are sitting Rohatsu along with us…

Day 5:  I’m taken by Enkyo roshi.  Something about the way her mouth and eyes dance when she’s scanning the room.  Like we’re mala beads and she’s reciting a mantra.  I’m hoping it has something to do with getting my enso submissions into the Sweetcake Enso art show at the Village Zendo. Oh… craving, clinging, ego, eggo, eggs for breakfast, hmmm, have to ask Sandra about that raw cashew fig cream thingie…

Roshi Joan, Beate Stolte sensei, and Kaz Tanahashi sensei all give talks along with Enkyo roshi.  The theme is “Buddha and all the buddhas”.  Kaz sensei talks about upper case Buddhas – and he gives an amazing historical perspective of the Big B-Buddha.  He’s not in favour of capitalizing Buddha because it’s all about the lower case buddhas.  Changing the English language, he says.  But not when we have to write Buddhism or Buddhists because in the face of all the other religions who get to capitalize themselves, we Buddhists should not “lower our case.”

Sensei Beate can’t stop laughing because Sensei Kaz says that in German all nouns are capitalized so Buddha has to become a verb.  I thought I heard Kaz say “ich bin buddhaen” but Beate is laughing to hard for me to figure it out.  She reads from Camus’ The Stranger.  I’m caught by the words: tender indifference of the universe.

Sensei Al had talked the day before about brains swinging in harmony and Enkyo gets into the groove with Zen Master Duke Ellington’s teachings: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.  Dowa, do wa, do what?

“Transcend the koans!” Roshi Joan says.

Day 6: We all go out in the early morning to watch the morning star.  At home, once when I sat Rohatsu, I stayed up through the night.  That was last year.  This year I’m too old to do silly things like that.  We walked out into the parking lot and huddled together.  That’s the brightest I’ve ever seen Venus shine.  Enkyo roshi had talked about the invisible buddhas who point out the obvious next thing we have to do.  Just after being slapped by Linchi for his impertinent question, Elder Ting bows when told to by an unnamed monk.  He awakens.  Body and mind come together in that instant.

Bodhi and mind.

Day 7: Svaha!  Loosely translated as “Yahoo!”

My roomie and I hit the trails to the Tea House for chocolate chai and pie.  Coming back to the ZC, I get a sloppy lip-smacking lick by Lucy the Wonder Dog.

And wake up.

And wake up again at 3AM the next day which lead into a 24 hour travel day with flight delays in Chicago.  Maybe I’m not too old to do that overnight zazen.

Thank you for practising,