Our teacher Tony Patchell shared with us tonight a famous koan or Zen teaching story.
Teacher Dizang asked the student Fayan, “What is your journey?”
Fayan said, “I’m going on pilgrimmage.”
Dizang said, “What do you expect from pilgrimmage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Tony explained that words in these stories are always multi-layered. Here, “journey” is not only literal. It can also refer to Fayan’s Zen practice. Or he could be asking, “What does life mean? Why is it a mystery?”
In Zen, “intimacy” is often used in place of the words “enlightenment” or “realization.” Many of us come to practice originally hoping for a sudden shift, an awakening, a moment of clarity that will change everything – something more akin to the Japanese word “satori.”
Tony said he prefers the word “intimacy” because it has less baggage. We slowly get closer to our Zen selves; it rarely happens like a stroke of lightening. Suzuki-roshi famously described it as walking in the fog – you eventually get wet without realizing it.
In the same way, we become intimate without fully understanding how that takes place. Tony said when we know something, we tend to lock ourselves into it. It’s like the military axiom – we’re always fighting the last war. When we don’t know things, we are open to new experiences, and ready to see people and circumstances differently.
In my own life, I immediately thought of my experiences with trauma. As a child and young adult, I learned to respond to dangerous, unhealthy situations in a certain way. At that time, they were the only options I had, and although they did not keep me entirely safe, they at least allowed me to function at some level.
I am no longer in those situations. Yet, my first impulse is often to respond in the same old ways. Such is the nature of trauma. My mind and my body yell out: “I know!” and set themselves into rigid patterns of behavior and response. It requires great courage to say, “I don’t know.” And intimacy. Because the moment I say, “I don’t know,” I have to actually look at the person in front of me as a unique individual, instead of as a representative of a class or group. I have to open myself up, and look into his or her eyes. It is a very intimate act.
Perhaps that is not exactly what Dizang meant when he spoke those words. But they certainly resonate for me.