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When You Greet Me, I Bow

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 09/01/2011
In Topics: Everyday Zen

Most people come to Zen practice not quite knowing what to expect. Popular images of tough Zen masters, rigorous retreats, and hardwon enlightenment experiences may obscure the fact that, when you come down to it, Zen is as much about relationship and interaction as anything else.

When You Greet Me, I Bow

Most people come to Zen practice not
quite knowing what to expect. Popular images of
tough Zen masters, rigorous retreats, and hardwon
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, “I’ve 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.”

And another:
One day, while Guishan was lying down, Yangshan
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
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 Maudgalyayana
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 to
their 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.

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 ninetyfive.
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.

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. ♦