Tesshin opened his talk this week by quoting Dogen Zenji who is the founder of the Soto school of Zen.
“Enlightenment is the intimacy with all things”
What is Zen? Dogen would say that Zen is everything. There is nothing outside of Zen. Intimacy is a deep connection with absolutely everything. Can we actually achieve this? If not, why not?
Tesshin suggested that we may not have this connection because we are always thinking about other things. Take something like a sunset – can we be intimate with this one or are we comparing it to every other sunset we have experienced? Are we too busy posting the sunset to Instagram rather than actually experiencing it? Zen talks about absolute experience. The practice asks us to experience something BEFORE the ego puts it in a box or deals with it in some other way.
There is a famous parable in Zen. A Buddhist professor meets a Zen master. As the intellectual starts talking about the history, theories, and precepts of Zen, the master starts to pour him a cup of tea. The cup starts out empty, then quarter full, then half, then almost full, then full. The master keeps pouring and the professor keeps talking. Pretty soon the table is covered with hot tea which starts to drip onto the talkative professor. Only when the hot tea touches the professor does he stop pontificating and asks, “What are you doing? I am getting wet!” The master states that it is impossible to fill a cup which is already so full! Tesshin noted that WE are the professor! We bring so much “knowledge” to every situation that there is no room to authentically experience anything. Zen is like the hot tea startling us awake – if only for a few moments.
Tesshin next wanted to drill into the emotional aspect of intimacy which is so much more relevant in this time of Covid. He mentioned that it is easy to build intimacy and trust within a group when we meet in a sacred space like the Zendo. In the sacred space, we set out cushions for each other, serve tea to each other, and we clean up after each other. Tesshin likened this to what people experience during a Sesshin. There is no talking – just a group intensively practicing together. At the end of the Sesshin, there is incredible closeness as you have been practicing with these people 24 X 7 for an entire week! Tesshin noted that most of the time people know nothing about the other participants – not even their name. However, in another sense, they know everything about the others as they have been in such close contact. The Sesshin generates a very special type of intimacy.
Tesshin then asked, what about in a Zoom meeting? Can we approximate the same atmosphere? Does the technology create a distance? It may be possible, but it appears that the technology also tends to put distance and separation between people. People joke that on a Zoom meeting you don’t know if anyone is wearing paints. While this makes us chuckle – it points out the separation the technology introduces. So how do we overcome this distance and generate intimacy? Tesshin reminded us that we all the same “thing.” We have all felt pain in our past which has put a scar on our heart.
Many people come to spirituality in order to learn how to face this pain courageously. While we may want to go back and resolve the conflict with the individuals who caused us pain in our past, it probably would not work. Those individuals may no longer be alive or may not be able to rise to the occasion to resolve the conflict. However, we can look deeply into what happened and learn from the incident. Much of our suffering is due to our own attachments and expectations. We may now find that we lack intimacy for all because we have been scared by situations in our past. Can we transcend this? This is what Dogen is pointing to. Can we look deeply in our past and our present and generate compassion? Not just for the person who hurt us but for ourselves as well? Our practice allows us to understand why we do the things we do. Tesshin exhorted us not to cheat ourselves from the intimacy we deserve.