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.]

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.