One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Monday, February 22, 2021

Intimacy in the Temple Courtyard

Last night my friend Kumar asked me to share what I understood about “intimacy.” I immediately understood him to be talking about more than just a concept, or a feeling, or the interrelationship of the lines and colors in a design, or even an attribute of human love. One might be able to lay the concept of intimacy on feelings, or relationships, or even the elements of design, and still miss the point.

I love Kumar deeply, and know that he is going through a kind of creative crisis as he formulates the final project for his degree at a prestigious design college. My immediate instinct is to help him in any way I can, but know all too well that he is the creative genius and source of his own inspiration. Trying to be helpful might just block him. I might be able to point in a direction or share my own experience, but I cannot cancel the dilemma. 

I mumbled something about my experience of intimacy being connected to my meditation practice. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve heard that meditation is connected. Can you tell me more?” He’s a young man with different sleep needs, so I begged off and said good night.

When I woke up, I found my mind flooded with memories of that period when I was trying to solve my first zen koan in the meditation hall. I can’t count the times that Aitken Roshi would try to soften the blow of my frustration and disappointment of a failed response with his gentle pointer: “Not intimate enough.” It became like my mantra that I would carry back to the meditation hall. If I tried to forge a “est” business-like plan to achieve deeper intimacy, of course that didn’t help, but it didn’t stop me. When I tried to figure out what “Intimacy” really meant linguistically, that was not much help either. Recalling instances of deep intimacy, usually sexual, lead into the deep thicket of regret and failed relationships. A feeling of intimacy, or a memory of that feeling, was not the key I needed. 

I've spent long hours in the meditation hall. Oftentimes it’s felt like a long tough haul with very few rewards. But somehow I was able to keep sitting. When I learned that sometimes, or often, or perhaps all the time, seeking the rewards of discovery actually stands in the way of practice, it helped enormously. The reinforcement of an opening is usually such a surprise, so rare and hard won, it’s almost like an archeological excavation on Mars digging for the lost continent of Atlantis. If handled well, as for example Doris Lessing writing about the Representative of Planet 8, it might bear fruit. But this is not for mere mortals. We have to deal with what we’re given, and eventually I did have a profound insight into what I have been given which perhaps I will talk about at more length another time.

But it’s the exploration of intimacy, with no agenda, that I want to pursue.

Sometimes, actually often, these few words, “Not intimate enough,” kept coming back, a deep refrain in all my meditation. And they still do.

I’ll turn to another koan (Case 37, Mumonkan): “The Chestnut tree in the Temple Courtyard,” “庭前柏樹子.” 

A monk asked: "Compared to what was the intent of the ancestral founder coming from the west?”

Joshu (Zhou) said, "In front of the hall, a cypress tree.”

I was at the Angela Center in Santa Rosa for a long sesshin. I can’t recall if I was having an easy time or experiencing a lot of pain in my meditation, that really doesn’t matter, but I do remember exactly where my seat was, back in the far northeast corner of the hall, far from the offering table with the Buddha’s statue but right next to the main door. I had gone into Tarrant Roshi’s room twice a day, and my response became clearer and clearer. I will not speak of any “correct answer” or give away something about time honored practice, but after I responded, he just nodded and asked if I was ready to move on. Something inside said no, that there was more there for me to experience. A koan can keep lots of mysteries locked up inside.

So I went back to my seat. After dinner on the third or fourth night, we sat another long period of meditation and then the usual closing ritual. In that moment my mind was having a lot of difficulty staying tightly focused, something that I usually enjoy during long periods, I thought, well it’s the end of the day, why don’t I give myself a wide open field?

Suddenly I was back at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor attending the opening of an exhibit that honored a gift of a wonderful collection of illustrated books to the Museum’s collection by Reva and David Logan, parents of my friend Jon Logan. I was wandering through a series of small rooms, every now and then edging my way through to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of a wonderful illustration. The collection was rich. A sampling: 
Joan Miró’s À toute épreuve by Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso’s Le Chant des morts by Pierre Reverdy, El Lissitzky’s Dlia Golosa by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Umbra Vitae by Georg Heym.  But the attention required to make out intricate designs on relatively small book pages induced a kind of narrow, tight focus. 

I rounded a corner and had to look down to pay attention to the few short steps into the main hall, but when I looked up, in front of me, an entire wall of Matisse’s paper cutouts. The onslaught of bright color and form took my breath away. These were not framed posters you bought at Ikea, not the lavish prints that I’d treated myself years ago at MOMA in New York, these were the actual shapes that Matisse himself cut out and arranged on larger pieces of paper when his hands could no longer hold his brushes steadily enough to paint. There he was, an old man, holding his pencil taped on the end of a long stick to etch the lines of leaves, slowly, carefully, but freely, with the skill and care of a practice that traced back hundreds and hundreds of years. I had traced back their root to that legendary tree in the temple courtyard.

It was of course a kind of illusion, what zen meditators call makyō, and usually something to be handled with caution, like dreams. John was just leaving the hall after the service, and I reached out and touched his shoulder. He grabbed my hand, and we returned to his interview room. He asked me what had happened, and I blurted out a bunch of words. Then he asked me to show him the chestnut tree in the temple courtyard, and yes, really, there it was.

Thank you M. Henri Matisse for getting so intimate with your colored paper, your pencil and your scissors. Thank you David and Reva Logan for your generosity. Thank you Bob Aitken for just pointing to where I might find intimacy, Joshu for pointing to the chestnut tree, and John Tarrant for grabbing my hand as I was about to wander off. And thank you Kumar Abhishek for asking me about intimacy and then letting me fall asleep in your arms. May you shape your design faithfully, lightly and freely.

Words cannot describe everything.
The heart's message cannot be delivered in words.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Buddhist Heaven

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen! “It is much more difficult to control one's mind than to control the weather.” --Yeshe Dorje A lonely...