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Friday, June 20, 2003

Getting Intimate

In an essay from Everyday Zen entitled "Pandora's Box," Joko Beck talks about how separate we all feel from life -- from our life as experienced moment-to-moment. It's as if we were encaged behind a wall that stands between us and life, between us and our experience. I pointed out to one of my Yoga classes this past week how an obvious wall is the muscular tension we hold in reaction to feeling the sensations of a stretch. The more subtle wall is the mental restriction and aversion behind the physical holding. It's as if the mind says, "What is that?" and then immediately answers, "I don't want to know." Or the answer may be, "Unpleasant sensations," and then the closing off any further inquiry by shutting down.

This is how we are throughout our life. Beng exposed to strange, different and uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and sensations, and immediately shutting down and turning away from them. Partly its the very "strangeness" of whatever it is that is uncomfortable, and in order to resolve the discomfort of not knowing, the mind either shuts it off (behind a wall of denial) or names it and shuts it off behind a wall of (deluded) thinking or knowledge. I read recently how someone was visiting a friend's house and saw a knicknack resting on a coffee table that he had never seen before. After asking, "What is that?" and being given a name for an answer, he turned away intially satisfied with the answer until the realization hit: "I had been given a name, but I still had no idea what in the world the thing was!"

In Korean Zen, continually asking the question, "What is it?" can be a deep and sometimes disturbing practice, but it helps us to stay open with our inquiry. It helps us stay intimate with our life. Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Zen Master reminds us that Zen practice is the study of the self. All sincere and authentic Yoga practice (and Zen is a form of Yoga practice) is the study of the self. Patanjali says that svadyaya ("self-study") is one of the three essential aspects of his Kriya-Yoga. Dogen goes on to point out that to study the self is to lose or forget the self. And to lose or forget the self is to become awakened by, or intimate with, the 10,000 things. The 10,000 things is Zen short-hand for all things, all phenomena. Nothing is left out.

I love the translation that would have it as becoming intimate with the 10,000 things. Among its definitions, "intimacy" is a state of "complete intermixture, fusion, thoroughly interconnected, interrelated, interwoven" and of having "depth of detailed knowledge and understanding and broadness of information from, or as if from, long association, near contact, or thorough study and observation." To forget the wall we place between ourselves and life is to see our complete interbeing with all things, and this direct seeing can only happen through the constant inquiry into all that arises -- all "10,000 things" -- and not walling off those aspects of our life we do not prefer.

So when we maintain vigilance, we grow quicker and quicker in seeing how and when and where we put up walls, and then we poke little holes through the wall and then, gradually bigger and bigger holes, and so we air out our enclosure of self. We "ventilate" the cage of self. And we do this through the agency of our breath. Sensing ourselves cramping up, tightening our mind in reaction to what someone says or does, we let the in-breath poke a little space into the wall and the out-breath airs out the stuffiness created by the mental barriers. And then perhaps rather than turn away from whatever it was we were reacting to, we can turn to face it and ask, "What is it?" And keep asking. Can we grow more comfortable with not-knowing?

Thich Nhat Hanh has said that often knowledge becomes a wall keeping us from touching the truth. He reminds us of the story told by the Buddha about the young widower who lives for, and dotes constantly upon, his five year old son. One day while away on business, bandits come into his house and kidnap his son, and in burning down the house, kill the child's friend whose body is badly burned in the fire. When the father returns he takes the charred corpse to be his own son and, pulling at his hair and rending his clothes, he goes into deep grief and mourning. After organizing a cremation ceremony, he keeps the ashes in a beautiful velvet bag with him at all times, working, sleeping, eating.

After some time, his son escapes from the bandits and finds his way home. Arriving at his father's new cottage at night, he knocks at the door and when his father, still grieving the loss of his son, asks, "Who is it?" the young boy says, "It's me, Papa. Open the door." Now, the father grows agitated at the thought that some mischievous child would taunt him in his grief and the father says, "Go away! My son is dead!" The child continues to bang at the door for awhile, pleading with his father to let him in, but the man continues to cry and scold the boy for taunting him. Finally, the son leaves the door of his father's cottage and never again do father and son see each other. If we stay overly attached and fond of our "knowlege" -- our notions of how life is, we will not be available to see the truth even if it knocks at our door.

Continuing to keep questioning, to keeping the inquiry open, to keep asking, "What is it?" and staying with "don't know mind" is one deep practice that can help us dissove the walls we place between us and life and cultivate true intimacy with all 10,000 things. This can help us remember that NOTHING is excluded from the field of practice. Growing intimate with the 10,000 things also means we do not pick and choose. Lots of "stuff" we are bound to not want anything to do with are most certainly to arise. "What is it?"

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 5:29 PM

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