Intimacy Issues

My mom is sitting a two-month meditation retreat right now at Spirit Rock, the Vipassana Center in Northern California. I got a letter from her asking for the kanji for when Dogen said "To forget the self is to be enlightened by (or intimate with) all beings." She thinks the use of the word intimate is "weird and creepy," and she's asked for the original Japanese several times.

The letter I wrote in response is pasted below.

Dear Mama,
First of all, thank you for the leggings and peanut butter! I’m wearing the leggings right now, and I have eaten most of the peanut butter. I’m printing this out from my blog and sending it to you, because I am too lazy to write it out by hand and then type it up again. I also thought you would get a kick out of receiving a letter from me like this anyway. 

I believe you have asked me for the original Japanese of those lines in Genjo Koan at least 3 or 4 times over the years. Since I’ve been studying Japanese formally for a grand total of a month and a half, I think it’s about time I tried my hand at translating Genjo Koan (hah!). By the way, I don’t understand Japanese grammar all that well yet, and Dogen is using kind of poetic, fancy grammar, so I will just give you the dictionary translations of the kanji like you requested (this is all doable with google and an online dictionary like 

Here it goes:


This is usually translated as, “To study the Buddha-Way is to study the self.” The word for “study” is 習 narau and actually doesn’t mean study. It literally means “learn,” as in “I learn Japanese” or “I learn to cook.” I think people probably translate this as “study” because “to learn the self” sounds awkward in English, or maybe they think “study” is better because it that implies some kind of process. I’m not sure. But anyway, it literally says “learn.” The word for self is 自己, jiko. There are lots of ways to say “self” in Japanese, and lots of ways to say “I,” and this is just one of the many ways to say "self." Aoyama Roshi liked to get really deep about this, and she would say that the “self” you’re studying is the BIG self, whereas the self you’re forgetting is the small self. Got it? No, don’t ask me any more questions about that! I don't understand either!


“Learning the self means forgetting the self.” You asked me before about the word “forget.” The word “forget” in Japanese is 忘 wasureru, and it’s what Dogen uses here. It just means forget. To leave carelessly. To be forgetful of. 


Okay, here’s where we get to your original question about the word “intimacy.” This sentence sometimes gets translated as “To forget the self is to be intimate with ten thousand things.” I think you’re right that “intimacy” is too loaded of a word and not the best one. I remember driving in the car with Roshi once, and asking him a question about “intimacy” in Zen. He had to look up that word on his cell-phone dictionary, and then got bright red in the face and said, “Why are you asking me about this?!” So yeah. Not the best word. 

万 means “one thousand.” You see it all the time in stores, where things are selling for XXthousand yen. It can also mean “myriad,” though. 法 is our good friend “dharma” (!) but in this context it means “thing.” So 万法 means “ten thousand things.” Do they do that in Theravaden Buddhism? Because in Zen, people are always calling things “dharmas.” The sentence Dogen writes is passive. Forgetting the self is to be verified by ten thousand things. The word that gets translated as “intimate with” is 証, and the direct translation is “to verify,” or “to prove.” 

So yeah, it doesn’t really say either “to be enlightened by” or “to be intimate with” ten thousand things. Unfortunately! That sounds fun and sexy though, doesn't it? The literal translation is closer to “be proven by.” The word I learned for "emotional intimacy" or "closeness" in Japanese is actually shitashi 親しい. "親" is the same kanji as "parent." So "intimate" and "parent" are like synonyms (homonyms?) in Japanese. Isn't that sweet? Awww.

But I'm pretty sure when Dogen is writing about our relationship with myriad things, he's not talking about the kind of emotional intimacy you have with your parents. I think he was averse to that kind of intimacy anyway. Just my personal opinion. He's not talking about emotional intimacy.

You’ve gotta sympathize with translators though, you know? Forgetting the self is to be proven by ten thousand things? What does that even mean? Is that any more helpful than “To forget the self means to be intimate with ten thousand things?” I’m not sure. I can imagine that whomever first used the word “intimate” was doing it to imply an interaction between subject and object. One thing is constituting the other; they’re co-creating each other, and so, in that sense, subject and object are very intimate-- like every Rumi poem ever written. 

But now that I write it out, “to be proven by ten thousand things” feels nice, doesn’t it? It feels correct. It implies that we’re not alone, and we need all these other things to establish our existence for us, to prove that we exist. So I think he’s saying something like, “When we see that other people and things are responsible for our existence, and that we are always at every moment constituted by everything else, that is the same thing as forgetting the self.” 

Woops, I just replaced “verified” with “constituted” because I have read too much post-structural feminism! I'm starting to understand now how translators will always add in their own flavor, based on the education and preferences they have. Whoever first used the word "intimate" probably preferred Rumi over Judith Butler. 

Close-readings are fun, but there’s a limit to how useful they can be, I think. I’m your daughter, so I know how your brain works. I do the same thing as you. I think if I can find the exact, perfect translation, then everything will fall into place and make sense. I used to think that Roshi was some treasure chest, and if I cracked him open, if I got him to say the right thing, I would understand and be enlightened. But now I don’t think he is holding back some secret. He’s just going about his life, practicing, trying to do his best and pass on the tradition he inherited. And similarly, with Dogen, I don’t think knowing the exact translation is all too essential, because understanding a vocabulary word won’t change the way I sit and eat and move and talk to people, which is really where Dogen wants my attention to be: on practicing within each moment in daily life. 

Someone at Nisodo told me once about this passage, “It’s not some big, mystical thing. If you see someone in your work group is tired, and you offer to work for her so she can rest, that is forgetting the self.”

But I don't think that natural extension of the self comes from an intellectual understanding of the word "proven" or "constituted." I think it comes from practicing through your body, and following the schedule.

So please follow the schedule. I think there's a way for you to do that and not hurt yourself. The instructions are to be mindful sitting, standing, walking, or lying down, right? And that's what you're doing physically anyway, even when you're not on retreat. Your physical activity on retreat isn't any different from your physical activity in "normal" life. It seems to me that what you're resisting isn't the physical posture of sitting, standing, waking, and lying down, but rather the act of actually following the damn rules. I know this because I'm your daughter and I do the same thing. But I'm pretty sure that the main instruction at Spirit Rock is to be mindful all the time, and so there's no real excuse to not be doing that. There's no excuse for not following the schedule, because you can meditate in any posture. Right? The hard part is not the physicality of the posture, but actually doing something that other people tell you to do, when you would rather be doing something else. Because if you were to let go of the idea, "I'm somebody who can't follow the schedule because I have a bad back," that would mean forgetting yourself, and then all hell would break lose.

Dogen says, "Open your hands. Just let everything go, and see."

I love you,



  1. Thanks, Gesshin. I found your post via my friend James Ford, and I appreciate it a lot. A senior student once mentioned to me that one benefit of sesshin was that the sex afterwards was so great. "Really, why?" I asked, and he stammered, "Well, because of 'the intimacy.'" So the wording (and baggage) of this Dogen koan stuck with me as well, though I am no longer a Zen practitioner. (10 years was about one year too many.)
    Your playfulness -- and helpfulness -- recall the late Maura O'Halloran in "Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint." Thanks again.

  2. Thank you so much for all that you share here. Every post is a gem! I wonder if you would consider choosing a different color scheme to make reading it easier on the eyes? I find white text on dark backgrounds almost impossible to read and it really bums me out because I so enjoy what you write. It really hurts to read it! I hate to be a complainer...but really I mostly just want to be able to read your blog more. Thanks for considering my opinion.

    1. Robyn,
      You're right. I am truly terrible with technology, and I didn't give this layout so much thought when I made it. I'm not sure I will be able to fix it but I will try.

    2. Robyn,

      For now you could try a readability application, like Readability or Evernote Clearly. If it's an issue that matters to you, it will help with other sites too!

  3. Thanks for the literal translation of that passage:

    "Learning the self means forgetting the self. Forgetting the self is to be verified by ten thousand things."

    Kodo Sawaki said, 'If it’s even the slightest bit personalized, it isn’t pure, unadulterated zazen. ...In a word, Buddhism is non-self [muga]. Non-self means that “I” am not a separate subject. When “I” am not a separate subject, then I fill the entire universe. That I fill the entire universe is what’s meant by “all things manifest the truth”.'

    Have you come across the word "ishinashini" in connection with the action of Zen practice?-- Sasaki described the nature of the action for which he was so infamous as "ishinashini", or will-less. Kobun Chino Otogawa said, "you know, sometimes zazen gets up and walks around".

    I write about the connection between Gautama's "extension of the mind of friendliness, the mind of compassion, the mind of sympathetic joy, and the mind of equanimity throughout the four quarters of the world, above and below" with the way "sometimes zazen gets up and walks around", here:

    I think they sit long sittings at Spirit Rock, 50 minutes last I heard. Same as at the Gold Mountain (Chan) Monastery, in S.F. and outside Ukiah in Talmadge. Likewise at Antaiji. I can barely do 40 minutes, myself, most days. Even if a person is allowed to sit anyway they want to, I think 50 minutes is a long sitting; I'm suggesting that if your mom has a bad back, maybe she should consider a different retreat venue.

    Mindfulness is popular now, but what Gautama described as his own practice concerned sixteen mindfulnesses connected with the movement of breath (SN V 326, Pali Text Society trans. volume V pg 289). The part about the long and short of in-breaths and out-breaths usually trips people up right at the start, though; Rujing, Dogen's teacher, actually rejected a long and short of in-breaths and out-breaths (Dogen’s “Eihei Koroku”, vol. 5, #390). What I'm saying is that it doesn't matter which venue you pick, as far as authenticity to the practice in the sutras of the Pali Canon-- they're all a little different from that. Yes, that would be my not-so-humble opinion, thank you!

    Mark Foote

  4. thats a very good post !

    you got linked on the dangerous 'reddit zen' !

  5. My Classical Japanese dictionary tells me that 証 is also another word for 悟り satori. I don't know if Dogen used it in this sense or not. Cf. sense 2 here:証/

    1. Hmm well yes, knowing classical japanese might help with the whole "translating Dogen" thing. ;-)

  6. Hi

    I was introduced to you via Brad Warner's Blog and have been enjoying your blogging since.

    We read books aloud in our local sangha and this recalls one time that we were reading the Dhamapada. We had around 4 versions and took it passage by passage reading all of them and comparing the differences in the translations. Amazing how the differences can be both subtle and profound. When I think about it though if two English speakers were looking at a word in English - in order to get the meaning all of the thesaurus synonyms would have to be considered and then one could only choose one based on context. Translating form another language and an ancient one at that introduces the problem that every word except the most simple have been chosen and then effect the context of the rest of the words. Errors can multiply like crazy.

    I really enjoyed (and learned a lot from) Bart Ehrmans book " Misquoting Jesus" . My take was - the more he got involved in scholarship and translation the less able he was to just believe available translations on faith.

    My process is to try to look at as many translations and interpretations of suttas as possible and ask myself what I think Siddhartha would have said / meant. That means I have to be careful about not making all of my understanding self-serving but . . .

    Fore example - the admonition to "guard" the sense doors - I reinterpret as to "mind" the sense doors. Pay attention to as opposed to blocking. Seems more Buddha like to me.

    I have had more of a Theravadan orientation and don't really know as much about Zen but reading what you wrote I did a bit of re-interpretation in my mind.

    My take - To forget the self is to remember one's connection to all things.

    Best wishes,

    Carson City, Nevada

    p.s. - I hope your mama benefited form her retreat.

  7. [I seem to have had some technical difficulties in posting. If this is a duplicate, delete the response you like least!]

    Hi, C.G. -

    Intimacy is a Chinese Buddhist expression of non-duality.

    Not Knowing is Most Intimate

    This is from the 從容録 / Cōngróng Lù / Shōyō-roku, Case 20:

    Dizang (Jap. Jizo) asked Fayan (Jap. Hogen), "Where are you going?"
    Fayan said, "Around on pilgrimage."
    Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"
    Fayan said, "I don't know."
    Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate."

    You could, for the sake of the squeamish, translate "intimacy" as "nearness", but not without irony - it is closer than near.

    - M


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