The Practice of Becoming Intimate with Self and Other
An Interview with Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara
Photo Credit: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis
In the 1960s, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Pat Enkyo O’Hara discovered Zen. “We were at the crest of all these changes taking place—the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, drug experimentation—and there was an understanding that all of the old, formalized ways of doing things could be broken,” she says. “And that things could become fresh again.” In the 1980s, while teaching media classes at New York University, Enkyo began holding informal meditation groups at her apartment—and, because this was during the AIDS epidemic in New York City, many of those attending were HIV-positive. “I became involved in a kind of activism with a spiritual base,” she says. “That pushed me further into Zen practice and leadership.”
Enkyo’s most recent book is Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges. She spoke with S&H at the Village Zendo in lower Manhattan, where she has been the head teacher since 1986.
What drew you to Zen initially?
Authenticity is one word that comes to mind. It didn’t seem phony. That was something that was very important to a lot of us in the 60s. We grew up during the era of the organization, a 1950s kind of regimentation. Then we were starting to understand that all of the formalized ways of practicing art or religion or politics could be broken, and that then they would be fresh. I also loved the spontaneity—the spatter of ink on a rice paper rather than a perfect circle.
How can you recognize when something is authentic?
Being “authentic” is another way of saying “intimate with self and other.” This is a core Zen understanding. When we are at home with ourselves, then we have no need to create an artificial presentation of ourselves, of our work, or of our art. We can be just as we are—creative, experimental, whimsical—and still be real, our true self.
Your practice is sitting on a cushion and facing the wall. How is this useful to the world at large?
The practice of meditation, for most of us in the Zen tradition, is a way to clear the mind so that the most true aspect of your being comes out, so that you are not so caught up with the sense of: “This is the way I should behave. This is the way things are.” That’s the conditioning, reactivity to received ideas, the ignorance. Or we may be so caught up with our own desires and grasping—got to get more money, got to get ahead, got to do this or that—that we need to sit so that we can be in our body and mind and see what’s really important to us, what we truly value. That is a kind of liberation.
When we do that we recognize, first of all, that we exist in a network of reality. We don’t exist only by ourselves. We are in a family, in a community, in a world. To function in that world and to serve that world is actually what it’s about. That’s how just sitting facing the wall turns into issues of social action and social justice.
As I understand it, Zen is not goal-oriented. This makes it different from other forms of Buddhism, such as Theravada Buddhism, where there are these different levels of realization that one can reach through meditation. From a Zen perspective, however, you are already enlightened, so when you meditate it’s not because you’re trying to get somewhere but rather it’s an expression of your innate wisdom. Do I have that right?
You’re absolutely right. I think a lot of people come to Zen practice because they want to be free of their suffering. They’ve read about Zen enlightenment and want to attain that. So it’s really sad when I have to tell these people, “You know, actually, you have everything you need. You don’t have to get anything. You just have to get clear in yourself, and then you’ll recognize that it’s already there, that there’s nothing to get.”
When I first began meditating, it was about me being free of my own fears. So for the first few years of my practice, I was very much struggling with the question “Who am I?” People nowadays talk about finding calm or finding happiness or something. For me, it was just to be able to be in the world without constantly looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing okay.
But then you start to have some deeper experiences. I call it intimacy because it’s a kind of suddenly feeling really completely so close to yourself and to everything else that the question of fear doesn’t arise. What does arise is a kind of caring, a feeling of stewardship for everything, and trying to find a way to express that in service that makes sense. We’re all different. We have different responsibilities.
So the question becomes: What makes sense for me to offer to my world? What is here now? Rather than creating some idea of action, you see what’s present right now.
In the 80s, you started sitting Zazen with people who had HIV/AIDS in New York City. What did it feel like to practice with the HIV/AIDS group? Did it have a special or different feeling about it because of who was present?
What was really different in the early days was that there really was no cure, and it seemed to be a death sentence for the most part. I mean, there were occasional people who, for whatever reason, had a certain type of the virus where they weren’t dying, but mostly people found out they had the virus and then died within the year. So when we got together to sit, people were practicing very seriously. It’s like in the old sutras it says, “Practice like there’s a fire on your head.” Well, that’s what it’s like when you have a death sentence.
They practiced seriously. And their practice had a profound effect on all of us. There were people in our larger group who weren’t HIV positive, but who were affected by this realization. When there is the repetitive realization that this person is dying, and that person is dying, it changes the tone.
In a way, it sounds like a blessing.
Yes, that was said many times. You kept hearing “Well, in a funny way, I have to thank the virus because through the virus I really became myself. I really saw who I was. I really experienced myself in an authentic way because I knew my death was coming.” And today, people who have cancer or other life-threatening illness often say, “It was a wake-up call. It moved me away from a kind of pretend life to my real life.”
You have a doctorate in media ecology. What is that?
It was a department that was founded at NYU quite a few years ago, by Neil Postman and inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan. It has to do with how we think and how that’s affected by the medium we’re using, and how the knowledge that is respected in any culture or in any society or at any time is affected by the tools we use to get that knowledge, whether it’s a manuscript or printing press or radio or television or the Internet now. It’s how the medium changes what we value as knowledge. It’s the ecology of the different media that you use.
How do you think social media affects what we value? It seems to me that with social media like Facebook or Twitter people want to present their best selves. You want your posts to be the most compelling and to get the most “likes,” you want to post pictures that make it look like you’re living a successful and happy life.
Yes. Well, when we build a self like that, then we feel like we have to be that self, and we can’t be it because the self we’ve built is an idea, a series of fantasies about ourselves—or nightmares, depending on your predilection. You will never live up to that standard. So a sense of failure or loss, I think, is kind of inevitable.
I think that that’s a major downside to using these technologies to elevate the self, because the self is not a thing. The self is a combination of everything that’s happening in the moment. You and I are sitting here and we can hear a truck out on Crosby Street going “bang, bang.” And if we were on a mountaintop, we might be hearing a bird out there. You would be different, and I would be different than we are right now because we’re together and there’s the sound of a truck or a bird. I’m expressing myself with you. Our minds are interacting.
It is really important to recognize that the images of ourselves that we create on social media are impermanent ideas about ourselves. They do not represent the constantly changing, interrelated continuum of being that we are. When we recognize this we can avoid feeling like we have to be the image that we have created.
What do you think people who walk in the doors of the Village Zendo are searching for?
I think at bottom they’re coming in because something is missing. They think something is missing in their life. They’re not appreciating their life. They’re not really intimate with their life, and they want to find something that will give them peace.
Failure is so fraught in our society; it gets mixed up with financial success and fame. This can be tough on creative artists, and there are quite a few here, because of where we are in downtown Manhattan.
What do you suggest that a person do if they’re carrying around a sense of failure?
I see it a lot. As I mentioned, just because of where we’re located physically, there are a lot of people who live around here and who practice with us who are artists. There are certain fields where it’s very clear if you’re a success or a failure, right? If you’re in a gallery and you’re selling your paintings, you’re a success. And if not, you’re a failure.
What a silly way to think about a life. But it’s so easy to think that way because the art world, or the world around you, will tell you that it’s one of the two: you’re a success or you’re a failure.
What I try to help people to see is that it’s not about that at all. It has nothing to do with how you are in your life. It’s one of those notions that, if you sit Zazen long enough, you realize that it’s just a conditioned idea that you’ve inherited from your parents, from grade school, or from society at large. It isn’t about the pleasure you feel when you mix a particular color of paint and put the paint on the canvas.
Failure is an old idea. It has no truth in it at all. It’s a fantasy. It’s a bubble in the stream. Over and over again allow that bubble to burst. I think that’s the way out of that idea of success and failure.
Tell me about the Zen notion of “not-knowing.”
Not-knowing is the deepest truth. It’s like, “Oh, everything is new.” When we’re kids, everything is new and we’re not ashamed that everything is new, so we have a great time discovering and uncovering things. Then we get a little bit older and realize that people who know things are praised. So then we want to know things. We want to know everything. This is different from genuine curiosity. It’s like a grasping for knowledge.
Once people start thinking this way they don’t actually seek out to find new things from the heart anymore. Many people, most people, create a life that’s so safe that they don’t have to go to the unknown.
You have to sit and you have to take time to retreat and to really look carefully at your notions. There’s an important practice of really checking yourself. You can’t let go of that. You can’t get too soft on yourself because the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance are always around. And the antidote to the poisons is to be able to be so intimate with yourself that you can, in fact, see yourself.
Sam Mowe, a frequent contributor to S&H, is attracted to Zen “as a framework for living with the unknowable.”