When a couple sees their relationship as practice, their love is grounded in a deeper knowing of one another. Even if there are tough times, says Norman Fischer, practice brings them back to appreciation and affection.
Most people come to Zen practice not quite knowing what to expect. Popular images of tough Zen masters, rigorous retreats, and hard-won enlightenment experiences may obscure the fact that, when you come down to it, Zen is as much about relationship and interaction as anything else. Think of the koan literature for which Zen is famous. On the surface, these stories flash with enigma and a wonderful patina of the exotic (to Westerners anyway). But scratch the surface and you realize that the stories are basically about encounters between people.
Zen koan literature is essentially dialogic. The typical Zen story involves two or more people, who seem to be on intimate terms with one another, bringing up the teaching in dynamic, even amusing, ways. Because the protagonists know each other so well and share a serious and longstanding commitment to the dharma, they don’t need to stand on ceremony. Their discussions (which are sometimes wordless) are always laconic, rough, and full of affectionate slang and jokiness, and relationship itself—with all its glitches and contradictions—is often the subject matter. So, contrary to expectations, Zen stories may have something fresh to say about the tricky and problematic nature of relationship.
A few stories might illustrate:
Longtan made rice cakes for a living. But when he met the priest Tianhuang, he left home to follow him.
Tianhuang said, “Be my attendant. From now on I will teach you the essential dharma gate.”
After a year, Longtan said, “When I arrived, you said you would teach me. But so far nothing has happened.” Tianhuang said, “Fve been teaching you all along.” Longtan said, “What have you been teaching me?” Tianhuang said, ’’When you greet me, I bow. When I sit, you stand beside me. When you bring tea, I receive it from you.”
One day, while Guishan was lying down, Yang- shan came to see him. Guishan said, “let me tell you about my dream.”
Yangshan leaned forward to listen. Guishan said, “Would you interpret my dream for me? I want to see how you do it.”
Yangshan brought a basin of water and a towel. Guishan washed his face and sat up. then Xiangyan came in.
Guishan said, “Yangshan and I have been sharing miracles. this is no small matter.”
Xiangyan said, “I was next door and heard you.”
Guishan said to him, “Why don’t you try?”
Xiangyan made a bowl of tea and brought it to him.
Guishan praised them, saying, “You two students surpass even shariputra and Maudgal- yayana with your miraculous activity!”
These are wonderful stories about people who know each other so well and whose minds and hearts are in such harmony that they don’t need to explain or discuss. They are so close they can communicate everything with a bowl of water or a bow. Simply appreciating being together, sharing life basically and intimately, they understand one another at a level far beyond ordinary needs and wants and arguments. Of course, not all Zen stories illustrate this perfect accord between practitioners, but those that do are eloquent in just this way; they are saying that simply being together with warmhearted kindness, dropping storylines, and appreciating each other’s profound human presence, is the whole of the teaching. No mention here of meditation insights, esoteric ritual, or fancy Buddhist doctrine. Intimate and caring relationship is the miracle that moves Guishan so much.
Someone said to me recently, “I know your feet.” This is a funny and intimate thing to say. In Zen practice we spend a lot of time in the meditation hall together, doing things in unison—sitting down and getting up, standing, walking, and eating. It is not unusual for us to spend a week together in retreat like this, with no speaking or looking into each other’s faces. But we appreciate and recognize each other’s presence. Some of us wear robes, and our feet are bare. We see each other’s feet and hands, and we acknowledge with a bow each other’s bodies in passing.
In the world at large, we can know someone quite well—they can even be a good friend—but we might not know their feet or their hands or fully take in the sense of their body as they stand near us. Though we know what they look like, we may not really have taken in their face, or their voice, or the way they move when they are deeply connected totheir feelings. Yet what are we if not our feet, hands, face, voice, and the way we move?
Instead of our bodies, what we know of each other in the ordinary world is our stories, our social words and beliefs, our wants and needs and complaints. A relationship operates across the divide of two people’s needs and wants and opinions, which may or may not, at any given moment, harmonize. And when they don’t harmonize, then what? No wonder relationships are so rough!
In contrast, the relationships in these Zen stories are pristine in their clarity and simplicity. Whatever conflict or controversy there may once have been has been worked out through years of mutual practice. Willing, finally, to be present with what is, the protagonists can be perfectly present with one another as they are. Sharing mutual commitment, they can share life. They can know each other with an intimacy that goes beyond the abstraction of storyline and desire. They seem to appreciate each other enough to feel comfortable bringing up life’s most challenging questions.
You are ill and so i lead you away
and put you to bed in the dark room
—you lie breathing softly and i hold your hand feeling the fingertips relax as sleep comes
You will not sleep more than a few hours
and the illness is less serious than my anger or cruelty
and the dark bedroom is like a foretaste of other darknesses to come later which all of us must endure alone
but here i am permitted to be with you
After a while in sleep your fingers clutch tightly
and i know that whatever may be happening
the fear coiled in dreams or the bright trespass of pain there is nothing at all i can do except hold your hand and not go away
From “Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy,” Harbour Publishing, 2000.
New York Times columnist and television commentator David Brooks has written a book called The Social Animal in which he summarizes the plethora of recent studies about the brain and emotion. He quite wisely finds this research germane to his interest in politics and society. Most of what goes on between us, he says, isn’t what we think is going on. Unconscious and unintentional, our interactions are subtle and by and large unknown to us. Our relationships really are as mysterious and resistant to explanation as the Zen masters of old understood they were. We stand in each other’s presence; we drink in each other’s being; we know and influence each other; and we turn each other inside out simply by being in each other’s presence. We are always breathing, sitting, walking, and standing together—the togetherness is just more noticeable in quiet meditation halls.
It’s true that the Zen masters of old lived lives of silence, meditation, ritual, lore, and teaching that created a nonordinary atmosphere in which their needs and desires could be clearly seen and seen through. So over time they could realistically hope to come to a feeling of living at a more basic, visceral level, and, at this level, relationship is heartfelt and clear. You drink in the other’s presence, their hands, feet, face, and voice, and they become a true friend. Then, over years and decades, this friendship ripens and deepens into brotherhood and sisterhood—true kinship of the spirit. You are living the same dream, and you know it. You don’t need to explain or contend.
Recently, I attended a funeral at the San Francisco Zen center for the priest Shuun Mitsuzen, Lou Hartman, who had died at the age of ninety- five. He had been married for sixty-three years to Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who was co-abbot of the center with me a decade ago. To open the ceremony, as is the Zen custom, Blanche carried Lou’s ashes into the buddha hall and placed them on the altar. Though there are probably very few people who appreciate the Buddhist teaching of impermanence as much as Blanche does, she cried quite a bit as she placed the ashes down. So did I.
Lou had been quite famous around the Zen center as a talker, curmudgeon, and great doubter. He was absolutely faithful to daily meditation and ritual practice and he took care of altars and small repairs constantly, but he was outspoken in his scorn for any sort of falseness or cant, was almost incapable of taking anything on faith alone, and didn’t have a pious bone in his body. His manner was gruff and probably a little scary to new students, and in some ways, despite his long marriage, fatherhood, and many years living communally in the temple, he was a loner. So the expressions of love and tender regard for him that were made at the funeral were eloquent testimony that what counts in human interaction isn’t outward sweetness, polite solicitude, or fulfilling others’ needs and expectations. It’s the capacity to show up intimately and honestly, with one’s whole self, for and with each other, over time. It’s not necessary that the people we love be perfect or even overcome what might be serious personal defects. living together for a long time with practice as a backdrop, we can get over our need for others to be as we wish they were, and appreciate them for what they are.
The celibate monks of old China and the married priests of the San Francisco Zen Center may be living in unusual situations, but the basic template of what they have learned from the Zen tradition about relationships is useful for the rest of us. Though we may not be able to replicate their lives, we can, I am quite sure, find a way to capture the essence of the practice that they’ve done, and it can help us with our contemporary relationship problems. There is, of course, some serious effort involved—meditating on one’s own and at group retreats, listening to teachings, and the daily effort of paying attention. But these are efforts that can realistically and successfully be made, if you feel it’s a priority.
The most important thing is coming back to presence every day, back to the breath, to sitting, walking, and standing, and remembering that this is what we are. It’s a practice we can do with as much integrity as Guishan, Longtan, or Lou Hartman. We can remind ourselves that when our passions are aroused, or when we feel our needs are unmet, we can return to presence and just feel whatever we feel, with some forbearance. We don’t need to make it go away and we don’t need to insist that others do what we think we need them to do.
Of course, we can’t expect our lives to go as smoothly as those of the ancient Chinese Zen masters whose stories I have used here (and remember, these are stories, not memoirs). Real life relationships will involve negotiation, push and pull, and, sometimes, a necessary parting of the ways. But it makes a difference if all of this is done with some deeper basis, some deeper knowing and appreciation of one another, rather than simply needs and wants.
I have found over the years that when a couple practices together, there’s a basis or grounding for their relationship. Even if there are tough times, somehow the return to basic human presence— their own and that of others—brings them back to appreciation and affection.
In relationship, as in spiritual practice, commitment is crucial. In both Zen and marriage there’s the practice of vowing, intentionally taking on a path, even if we know we won’t get to the destination. Vowing is liberation from whim and weakness. It creates possibilities that would not occur otherwise, because when you are willing to stick to something, come what may, even if from time to time you don’t feel like sticking to it, a magic arises, and you find yourself feeling and doing noble things you did not know you were capable of.
From the peaks of the eastern mountains
A bright white moon has risen,
And a young girl’s face
Shines round in my mind.
If the one who’s caught my fancy
Would stay with me forever,
It would be like finding
A jewel from the bottom of the sea.
If a mind obsessed as I am with you
Turned to holy religion,
In one lifetime, in this very body,
When the cuckoo flew north from mön,
He brought the sweet dew of a warmer season.
After my lover and i are together,
Body and soul rise languid and at ease.
Don’t care about mountains or valleys
That lie to the east, between here and Gong;
When love has hold of your heart,
Like a stallion, you can go anywhere.
Over the western mountains,
White clouds boil in the sky;
The clouds are fragrant incense smoke,
An offering from the girl who’s won my heart.
Where does the wind rise?
It rises in a far-off country.
The body of my sweet lover
Came to me on the unerring wind.
The ferryboat’s horse-head stands so tall,
Prayer flags flowing out behind it in the wind.
Don’t worry, set your heart at ease,
Our love was destined before we were born.
From “White Crane: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama,” translated by Geoffrey Waters. reprinted with permission from White Pine Press.
Real love can include desire, of course, and desire is touchy and powerful—it can even capsize the boat of a great Zen master! But desire is not the only thing, nor need it define or limit our love. Insofar as loving another is being there for him or her, come what may, we always have to go beyond self-interest and desire, though, paradoxically, love itself, as ultimate selflessness, may be the most personally satisfying experience possible. On the whole, when people get together in intimate relationships with some serious spiritual practice as a common basis, their chances for success as a couple are maximized, and, as with Blanche and Lou Hartman, that success can deepen and be enriched with time.
In our story, Tianhuang says, “When you greet me, I bow.” Bowing is an ancient form for showing reverence and respect. In our culture we have the handshake. Maybe it is more intimate than a bow because we touch one another, warm hand to warm hand. But they say that the origin of the handshake is suspicion and wariness. The handshake is a gesture of peace and harmlessness because it demonstrates that we aren’t holding a weapon in our hands. Our hands are empty of aggression and we show this by offering our hand and taking the hand of another. So the handshake is more intimate than the bow, but the intimacy is predicated on the possibility of aggression. In contrast, by bowing we are acknowledging a friendliness and respect, but also a distance. A bow expresses our love and respect, but the space between us when we bow also expresses that we understand our aloneness, and that we can never assume we understand one another. We meet in the empty space between us. A space charged with openness, silence, and mystery.
A while ago I met two middle-aged people who had recently gotten together as a couple. Each of them had had nothing but troubled relationships their whole lives through, starting in childhood, but they were hopeful this time around. Given their past conditioning, they were understandably nervous and they were seeking help. They’d already ordered several books; they were looking into couples therapy; and they wondered what Zen relationship advice I had for them.
“Practice this every day,” I said. “Do it first thing in the morning (or, preferably, second thing, after meditating together): Sit facing each other and say to one another, ‘I am grateful today that you are in my life.’ Say the words, even if you find it difficult. If you don’t believe them, say so. Say, ‘I just said that I was grateful that you are in my life but I don’t really feel that this morning, although I would like to feel it,’ and then try it again. Try saying it three times, and if you still don’t mean it, you can say so and give up until tomorrow. Then try again the next day, preparing yourself in advance by reminding yourself that you really are lucky to be alive, to be whole and healthy, and to have someone willing to share his or her life with you.”
None of these things are automatic; none of them are permanent. To be alive with others—nothing could be more basic, yet there is no greater spiritual practice.