Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zen Lingo: Intimacy

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.


The word 'intimacy' gets throw around a lot at the Zen Center, and at first it's a bit of a surprise. Intimacy has long been relegated to a euphemism for sexual intimacy; but, for the most part, that's not what we're talking about. Nope, it's just good old fashioned closeness, deep familiarity, the feeling of family.

A lot of time when we use the word intimacy in colloquial speech we're using it to highlight the lack of intimacy implicit in a brief or sudden relationship: "Those two used to be intimate, now they don't get along so well." Or, "I heard Sam and Max had an intimate encounter after leaving the bar." Usually these are followed with chuckles, maybe a little eye rolling and preparations are made for dealing with the fallout of the two parties actually developing some intimacy only to find out that they really don't want it.

Decades Together

When relationships start to stretch out longer than a few hours, the intimacy that develops starts to really highlight the delicate nature of our connection to each other. Those first few days and weeks set the tone for the months and years to follow, the first steps should be careful and mindful if we intend to build something that lasts. And as the years add up the depth of the connection grows, and we can see the strength of it as well. This is easy to understand when thinking about the intimacy that can develop between bonded partners over time, which, I hear, can be really nice.

Now, look at the issue in the context of developing stable relationships with an entire community, and we have a real challenge on our hands. All human communities deal with this one way or another, and spiritual communities have the even greater challenge of integrating people who show up looking for refuge from their lives and sometimes themselves. Nobody signs up for this because their life is going great (or maybe they do, but I haven't run into any of them yet), people come to spiritual community because they want to make themselves better, and they realize that it takes committed long term relationships to do that.

San Francisco Zen Center has had a regular residential population since before the monastery at Tassajara opened in 1967. Some dedicated students rented apartments across the street from Sokoji before the group moved into City Center in 1969. That's more than 45 years living together as a community, which creates a level of intimacy that it's hard to understand from the outside. A year in I'm only beginning to see the vague outlines of what it means to practice with a group of people for that long. Maintaing a stable community over that length of time also requires a lot of stewardship, and thankfully the annals of Zen are full of accounts of monks being ejected from the temple, so there is ample precedent for doing so. Even the Abbots aren't immune.

They Come and They Go

The first hurdle to clear is just showing up more than a few times, a lot of people come and go: Lay practitioners will drop in for a practice period, Green Gulch hosts farm and garden interns for part of the year, there is a guest student program running at Green Gulch and City Center for people who are interested in engaging in the practice for a week or longer. Many come for the experience in organic farming and gardening, stay for the duration of their internship and are never heard from again.

I introduced myself to one of the Priests In Training at the farm, who I'd seen on and off for more than six months but had never talked to, and had my suspicion confirmed in the following chat: for the long term residents, building relationships with new arrivals who'll be gone in six months is a bit of a loosing proposition. They come, they sit, they leave. Not all of them, a few stick around, either for extended internships, the following practice period or possibly a work apprentice post.

Managing this influx and out flux of people is tricky, and intimacy issues crop up quickly. In a community of more than 55 people there are bound to be people you don't see eye to eye with, people that are attractive, people that trigger aversion, and on and on. There are some interesting guidelines, guest students in particular agree to the following:

"guest students are asked to refrain from drug or alcohol use and from initiating new sexual relationships during their guest student stay"

This might seem a bit heavy handed at first, but having had some experience with community when I was younger, I have to say that it's not a bad idea at all. And if you dig into the Ten Essential Precepts you'll notice something interesting, the 3rd get's more coverage than any of the others. Clearly there are still Shoes Outside the Door in many people's minds around here.

So intimacy is a big deal, both the euphemistic kind and the day to day living with over decades kind. Just a year in and I'm starting to feel like part of the community, getting to know some of the quirks, personalities and stories that come with even just occasionally intersecting with the residents once or twice a week.

Face to Face Transmission

Getting back to the Sandokai, there is another form of intimacy around here that's critically important. The transmission of the lineage requires deep intimacy between teacher and student, it's a level of face to face engagement that we seldom get in life. Some people have it with their therapist but that relationship is focused on the patient, but what goes on in dokusan is (or should be) very different.

The goal of the teacher is to push the student towards their awakening, and to give confirmation when they reach it. This process of transmission requires that the teacher and student are able to see into each other in a way that is impossible without decades of intimacy. Understanding is only part of the process, there must also be decades of practice and devotion to the process of pouring oneself into the behavioral mold of the Buddha. The conventional wisdom is that it takes a decade to get it, and another to figure out how to teach it.

This is the true intimacy at the heart of practice, it's what we get up at 4:30 in the morning to experience. Sitting and breathing together, in silence, then chanting and bowing together, is it's own intimacy. Learning about each other and ourselves as we go through the forms, each deviating in their own way, the community coming together to show us our rough edges. It's this intimacy that allows us to get beyond the facades we present, to see ourselves reflected in the community, to get feedback from people who are trying their best to simply be helpful. For the benefit of all beings.