Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges
by Roshi Pat Enkyo
Shambala Publications, 2014, 140 pages
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara earned a devoted following from the PBA community from annual weekend retreats that she led for our sangha during the 1990’s and 2000’s. For many of us, she was the first or only Zen teacher we had met. Her solid teachings and charismatic presence were eagerly awaited. A number of people, including the writers of this review, made regular trips to New York to learn and practice at the Village Zendo, where she is founder and abbot. For those of us who know her, it is hard not to hear her voice while reading her book, Most Intimate: a Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges.
Many people come to Buddhism in the hope of relief from suffering, looking to meditation as a means to help them escape from the problems of life. Some express concern that they are incapable of meditation due to recurrent thoughts, and even disturbing or painful thoughts, which arise during the practice. Enkyo Roshi dispels that notion, showing us that the benefit of practice is not to escape our thoughts and feelings, but to become intimate with them. This book gives us the tools to do this.
“Intimacy” is at the center of all Zen practice. It is an aspect of the experience of Oneness, Emptiness, Insight, Awareness, “It,” or “enlightenment.” Dogen said that ‘awakening is intimacy with all things.’ Not many Western writers point to it specifically or use the term, “intimacy.” In this book, Enkyo Roshi digs into it. She describes its experience, its development through meditation practice, and application in our lives.
What is this “intimacy” that she is pointing to? Experientially, it can be the sense that the usual veil that seems to separate us from our full experience has lifted (a bit) or it may be that things and others seem closer, or are more clearly known.
Beginners in meditation will get a great deal from this book. Enkyo Roshi’s well known gift for accessible teaching shines in making this rather esoteric experience available to us all, even beginners: meditation instruction appears throughout the chapters and is concentrated in the Appendix, complete with lists of the Precepts. Each chapter has simple, but powerful, exercises for becoming more intimate with ourselves and others in areas where we often suffer. These are the topics of the 10 chapters: Intimacy with oneself, Relationships, Sex, Suffering in the world, Anger, Healing, Work, Death, Loss, and Joy.
More advanced practitioners will also benefit from these explorations of intimate experience and its application. Don’t poohpooh the exercises. They are effective. And there is an extra treat in Roshi’s take on the threads of intimacy in old Zen stories.
We are extremely fortunate in having this book. It distills a crucial aspect of Zen practice in a Zen way that is immediately available to every reader. And while this frame is Zen, the intimate experience of clearer knowing and sensing is highly valued in all Buddhist traditions. We recommend that readers in all practices visit with Enkyo Roshi in this book. They will benefit from it as they have from her wonderful retreats with us.