Photo of Fell End building

Intimacy – Jeremy Ryōkan Sensei, 26th October, 2023 at Fell End, Teisho.

This was a teisho given 26th October, 2023 at Fell End

Thank you for your welcome, it’s such joy to be among you as part of the StoneWater sangha, thank you for the beautiful open heartedness you offered in Daisan, it feels like something of the measure of practice here and says something deeply wonderful about the culture of StoneWater encouraged by Roshi to encounter such wonderful honesty, and vulnerability and openness. Thank you, Roshi. My dharma talk is about intimacy, the intimacy of our practice. We might consider Suigen’s talk yesterday, that encounter between Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu as being about intimacy, not an easy intimacy, but no doubt the reason the story has survived down the generations is because something went in, something passed between Bodhidharma and the Emperor, that had electric in it, the electric of intimacy, and what better definition of intimacy is there than that? It doesn’t exhaust our definitions by any means, and it was a hard intimacy but intimacy it was – and I’d like to say a little more.

Roshi asked me to say something about myself. So let me give you an early memory, not the earliest but sometime between the age of two or three I’d say. Lying in bed with my mother, I’m on my back and she’s nuzzling me and making endearing throaty noises. I feel overwhelmed and push her away, the feeling of that push feels itself down through the years, I wonder why. A line from an old Cream song, the ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ comes to mind… Another baby might have welcomed their mother’s endearments right in, my older brother John certainly did, and she loved him with a devoted tenderness for that.

So there’s this form of intimacy, I’m almost tempted to say, this simple form of intimacy between two people, but it’s not at all simple, is it? We don’t really know ourselves until we are in relationship, do we? And then all sorts of confusions ensue, but these can be clarified, and I’d say as a psychotherapist who’s absorbed Zen through the years, that’s where this practice of Zen fits in. But where’s the bridge between these two domains, between Zen and our lives in relationship, in the world at large, is there one? Well of course. Let’s see – in the precepts, it says in the tenth precept, the last one: Experience the intimacy of things: do not defile the Three Treasures. The three treasures: Buddha, dharma, sangha – that’s called covering all our bases!

Bodhidharma says:
Self-nature is subtle and mysterious.
In the realm of the One,
Not holding dualistic concepts of ordinary beings and Buddhas,
Is called the Precept of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.

Here we are – most deeply and intimately, ordinary beings and Buddhas.

Dōgen Zenji says:
To expound the Dharma with this body
Is the harbour and weir of this world.
This is the most important thing in the world.
Its virtue finds its home in the ocean of essential nature.
It is beyond explanation.
Wholeheartedly revere and serve it.

To repeat:
To expound the Dharma with this body
Is the harbour and weir of this world.

Those lines conjure up a place of safety, and a place where everything is gathered up, a place where the head of a mighty river is slowed, where the might of it, its realisation is caught and slowed, but flows through with definition and power, like this practice we’re engaged in which slows everything down, the head rivers of our life, caught behind a mighty dam, this Zazen breathing into them slowing it all down, so it opens up to being felt, experienced and re-re-experienced, enquired into, insofar as it’s conscious.

And then Dogen goes on:
This is the most important thing in the world.
Its virtue finds its home in the ocean of essential nature.
It is beyond explanation.
Wholeheartedly revere and serve it.

Here is that sense, the inkling, that the river of our life flows into the ocean of essential nature, it’s one with it, entirely one with it. Completely, intimately one with it. Isn’t that beautiful, almost too sublime to grasp, as Dogen often is. But elsewhere he casts further light on this comment:

The way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The dharma-vehicle is free and untrammelled. What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the whole body is far beyond the world’s dust. [And here’s a question – take hold of that phrase, the world’s dust, what does it produce in your heart and mind? We’ll come back to it later for sure.]

But Dogen goes on:
Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one, right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practise? And yet [and here’s the killer line because we sort of live in that “and yet” don’t we?], if there is the slightest discrepancy, the way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion.

If the least like or dislike arises, and I’d say this isn’t just like or dislike at the level of thought, I’d say it’s the much more primitive stuff too, unconscious, repressed, avoided, the stuff we step back from, the pain we would wish to avoid, infantile stuff that sets us on course across a lifetime and is later so difficult to grasp, just like that moment when I pushed my mother away. What hope is there for us?

But here Dogen comes again, clarifying it all:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.

The myriad things – the world’s dust, and much, much more besides. Buddha, dharma sangha – the  invitation is to become intimate with ourselves.

How does this arise, how do we move from our narrow scaredy cat selves to containing worlds? How do we do this?

In Cultivating the Empty Field, The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, he echoes the words of Shitou’s “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage,” and says, “take the backward step and directly reach the middle of the circle from where light issues forth.”

He is the precursor to Dogen and he’s simply saying that, take to your mat, crack your knees: In such moments the mind stills and takes on the qualities of its surroundings, as it melds with what is, without distinction or categorisation, we become the distant temple bell, the wind soughing through the trees, the car passing on the road, the creak of the house – our life lays itself at our feet as we become one with the bell, the light shining out of the flower, we step beyond thinking. That is deep intimacy; becoming one with our body, its aches and pains and desires, its grief, its anger, it’s unknownness which discloses itself to us sometimes oh so painfully, don’t we know this? Thinking of someone facing a trial in their life and the anxiety of that; a first job or a new job; a first child, or a child or aged parent changing in unanticipated ways as they move through a life-cycle transition, the loss of a loved or beloved one – becoming one with the sensations that arise in our body as those challenges close in on us: becoming intimate to your own experience, letting in the experience, without judgement: it is what it is.

In sitting silent illumination, we allow the first thought to pass without settling into it; we allow the second sensation to evanesce without labelling it; we allow images to arise without pursuing them, however enchanting or erotic, we allow an emotion to flourish like smoke to be carried away on the breath without being captured by it; we drop down through our consciousness like a stone settling into the lucent clear sea, if we can, as in that famous koan. Let me remind you of it:

In the sea of Ise,
ten thousand feet down, lies a single stone
I want to pick up that stone
without getting my hands wet.
These are the opening lines of that beautiful koan.
And the question is, whose name is on that stone?

Can you reach with real compassion into depth, into the depths of the Sea of Ise, into the depths of your being, that are in fact so deep, they are depthless, a depth that reaches through into thevery depths of the myriad things, beyond reckoning, into the one you most surely are, not merely a part of, but the whole of you, go to that depth and take hold of that stone, that name, what name is it? It’s your uniqueness, the wonder of you, the pain and anguish and joys of you. The invitation of silent illumination, don’t get your hand wet, let go of all names, labels, categories, recollections, dive deep into freedom. What emerges can be described as concentration, still-pointedness, illumination. And I would say that silent illumination is a way of and unto itself: for some practitioners it is the supreme way to the unfolding of ourselves. For others it delivers us into the place where koans unfold in depth and clarity. We peer into our life as if under the eyebrows of the patriarchs. Let me push this further:

In the Book of Equanimity Case No 20: Jizo’s Not Knowing is the Most Intimate.
Main Case
Attention! Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?”. “I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen. “What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Jizo. “I don’t know,” replied Hogen. “Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Jizo. At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment. As Gerry Shiskin Wick, Abbot of Great Mountain Zen Center, says in his translation and commentary, ‘‘ ‘I don’t know’ could also be translated as ‘not knowing’. Not knowing is most intimate. As soon as we really know something it becomes separate. It becomes a piece of knowledge or understanding that we can manipulate. That doesn’t mean it’s not useful. It’s just not intimate.” (Wick, The Book of Equanimity, case 20). If we can stay in courage and compassion in that place of not knowing, if we can manage to find a place, which an old colleague of mine describes as a place of ‘safe uncertainty’, a place where instead of knowing, curiosity can flourish, then, according to Gerry Shiskin Wick’s interpretation of this koan, what can arise is a place of deep intimacy. In this view of things, knowing, being sure, locking uncertainty out because it’s frightening, or irritating or unthinkable can be replaced – if we can gradually tolerate the negative and all its implications – by safe uncertainty, a place of curiosity where compassion arises. Knowing can also be a form of defensiveness, of not letting the other in, of not letting parts of ourselves be known, parts that annoy or shame us – these are the lovely bad places Jeanette and I go to when we argue. She knows herself better than I do, of course she does, and I know myself better than she does – but hell is that place where you really, really believe that; where there’s not a crack of allowing the other into the marketplace of your heart and mind, where self-knowledge is not held with an open hand, or open heart, but in the middle of a raging argument when my dudgeon’s up, my mind inflamed, I’m in fight mode, and it’s the most basic part of my reptilian brain that’s got the upper hand.

“Ah, sweetheart Ryōkan”, she should say, but I might add what a terrible, most inflammatory moment to remind me, that I’m a Zen teacher, so no doubt best delivered to me in an arch and teasing way, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the body and mind of others drop away. No trace of realization remains and this no trace continues endlessly.”

At this moment I can imagine her rocking back on her feet and laughing uproariously! But seriously, what I’m suggesting here is that intimacy is a place of not judging – taking note that, when we judge ourselves or others, we move away to take stock, to judge; whereas intimacy is a place of greater enlightenment: as my first teacher in India used to say, intimacy, or enlightenment, is that moment of “coming home and gently resting”.

Intimacy is also to let ourselves into the hidden, subjugated, shadow parts of ourselves. The parts we hide from others but also the parts that as very little things we learned to hide from others’ judgment and disapproval and over time, as that became habit, we have hidden those parts even from ourselves. Here I think of the places that koans take us, with their potential to crack open the nut of who we are, what a discovery they have been!

And then there’s anger, that almost forbidden emotion in Buddhism, fronting up the Gatha of Atonement – I think in some way it equates to what Christian contemplatives describe as the Dark Night of the Soul, a place where God is absent, and yet She is longed for, a place of aridness. Anger when it endures seems sometimes to take that place, the joys of Buddha nature are absent. And yet it needs to be embraced with love and compassion, not to be acted out if we can, but so often that’s how it shows itself, and then the need to seek forgiveness and reparation. But there are worlds within anger, don’t be afraid, plunge into its dark depths, know it is part of you, a whole territory to be breathed into with compassion, sat with and allowed to unfold, and often underneath it in the depths, fear, abandonment, loneliness, these are places to know with compassion.

And then there are the precepts and so we come full circle back to Dogen’s comments on the Tenth precept. Kant, the 18th C German philosopher, offered that the categorical imperative, what he considered to be the cornerstone of our moral sensibility, runs something like this: the good is rational, and the rational is good, at the heart of the good is the imperative to harm neither others nor oneself, to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. He famously said something like, even a shepherd boy knows the good, it’s inside us all, intrinsic to our sense of being human. And here we can agree, because as we descend through the layers, as if down through the sea of Ise something profoundly intrinsic to us greater than humanness offers glimpses to us; I might call it Buddha Nature, dharmadhatu, the intrinsic more-than-self, the utterly deeply interconnected nature of reality, the Jizo who cries with the cries of the world and with our own pain and tenderness, which opens us up to the whole – the whole of which we are both the whole of and the tiniest fragment of in the self-same moment. So as I have found, studying the precepts, and taking the precepts is an invitation to freedom.

Thus the precepts are not an outside in experience, like “Thou shalt not…”, but an inside out experience that unfolds within us. As Diane Eshin Rizetto puts it in her beautiful book, Waking Up to What You Do, she interprets one of the precepts: “I vow to meet others on equal ground”. That’s so beautiful – and not just our human others but the whole damn shooting match (and here Dogen shoots across my mind again), the spider in the bath, the grasses in the field, the wood being stacked for the fire – hold the heft of it in your hand, feels its weight, it’s part of you – these are the blessings of intimacy, our tenderness, our sorrows, our joys, the weight of a block of wood in your hand, the onion under your knife, everything opens itself up to you, these are the beautiful intimate blessings of our practice. Thank you for your time.