The National Teacher called to his attendant three times, and the attendant answered three times. The National Teacher said, “I thought I had transgressed against you, but you too had transgressed against me.”
Whenever I study this koan I think of intimacy, of which there are varying kinds and degrees. Today I will talk mostly about the intimacy of students and teachers, but I believe that what I say applies to any relationship.
A student can travel far to listen to or sit with a teacher, and then come home. Conversely, a teacher can travel far to give teachings or lead retreats. Whenever I travel to teach, I feel like a big success. People take care of me as soon as I arrive in the airport; they’re grateful and pay me well. By the same token, my own students are often telling me how moved and excited they are by sitting with and listening to teachers who are far away. This is one form of intimacy. It’s important, and at the same time it’s a lot like visiting family on Thanksgiving or Christmas. People are happy to see you, they’re on their best behavior, and you eat great food.
It’s like the start of another famous koan about intimacy:
Attention! Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?” “I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen. “What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Jizo. “I don’t know,” replied Hogen. “Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Jizo. At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.
Hogen, too, liked to go on pilgrimage from one monastery to another and listen to different teachers. In fact, that was customary. But as the appreciatory verse says:
The matter of thirty years pilgrimage--
a clear transgression against one’s pair of eyebrows.
Going on the road is great; it’s when you get home that the tsures start. Driving back from the airport you find out what happened when you weren’t here, who argued with whom, what worked out and what didn’t, and all the work that’s waiting to be done. Another kind of intimacy is awaiting you, the intimacy of being with your local dharma family, the complicated one.
Where do we find intimacy? Just look at how we function. If someone asks me if I wish to go to Hawaii for a holiday, I’ll probably say I have to talk to my husband. Why? Because I take him into account in my vacation plans. And if we had children I’d look into whether the vacation works for them, too. Obviously, we don’t go around thinking in that way, we simply function like that naturally. We live out of a consciousness of the couple rather than of just me, or of the family rather than of just me, or of the sangha rather than of just me. So one way of looking at intimacy is how we manifest our unity with others. These mundane relationships, in which nothing stands out as special, are intimate precisely because nothing stands out as special.
And now we get to the intimacy between the teacher and the attendant. In a monastery the attendant was one of the top students who’d already finished or was about to finish formal training, someone who would probably receive dharma transmission and even take over as abbot. He was with the teacher day and night. Why? To become intimate, so intimate that there’s nothing special anymore. To live with her so intimately there’s no reason to even call out. After all, if you live with someone in the house and they’re sitting right by you, you don’t call them by name. When my husband and I sit together over breakfast, the talk could go something like this:
The rain’s not stopping.
Are you taking the dogs out?
Did you see that email by so-and-so?
We don’t bother calling to each other, we certainly don’t call each other’s name. Why should we, when we’re both there? In the words of the appreciatory verse, it’s like living with one’s own eyebrows. When do I call my husband by name? When I’m not sure he’s there, or when I’m not sure I have his attention. At that point I experience him as a separate being. And even then the sense of oneness persists. It doesn’t preclude disagreement. In that context of oneness, of intimacy, there are still the differences, and we often have to work them out. But the general consciousness—or even better—the lack of consciousness of oneness, persists.
There’s also intimacy with yourself. Each of us has many different aspects, but when we experience ourselves as whole and integrated nothing stands out, nothing’s special. One minute you’re preparing a talk, the next you’re doing the laundry. Each is equally special and not special. If my knee hurts I’ll massage it or take a bath, but in some way that’s no problem, either. I don’t have to call it by name or mull over it or fuss or get frustrated. The less it stands out, the greater the intimacy. Life unfolds naturally and spontaneously in all its manifestations.
I have mourned deeply after people who’ve died. There was the usual pattern of deep loss and grief, the waking up day after day to the absence of someone who was very important to me. I think of them, picture them in my mind, I miss them. But that’s not the deepest intimacy. The deepest intimacy comes years later, long after they’ve stopped haunting my thoughts and dreams, long after I stop thinking about them. I occasionally may gaze at a photo and remember them in the form I knew them, and feel love and appreciation, but basically they’ve disappeared. And for me, that’s the greatest intimacy.
 Shibayama, Zenkei. Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. Harper & Row, New York, NY, 1974, p. 128.
 Wick, Gerry Shishin, The Book of Equanimity. Wisdom Publication, Boston, MA, 2005, p. 63.