Intimacy With All Things

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Jack Kornfield


Our capacity for intimacy is built on deep respect, a presence that allows what is true to express itself, to be discovered. Intimacy can arise in any moment; it is an act of surrender, a gift that excludes nothing. In Buddhist marriage ceremonies, I speak about this quality of intimacy and how it grows as we learn to stay connected with ourselves and respectful of those around us. I teach new couples the mantra of intimacy.

No matter what they hoped to get from one another, how they imagined it should be, what they did not expect to encounter, the mantra has only one teaching, “This too, this too.”

To learn intimacy is not an easy thing. Growing up in a divided culture, marked by our wounds and longing, it is hard to be present, hard to be respectful. Like following the breath or walking in meditation step by step, it is learned again and again as we relinquish the fears and conditions that keep us from one another. These barriers and fears, the memories of our past sufferings arise when we come close to one another, when we come close to the mystery of the moment. Many times we will feel our hesitation and tentativeness, a holding back. Yet this, too, can be touched with our intimate attention. And then in a moment we can let go of ourselves, be open and be here, awake and wholly present. Over and over when the world offers itself to us for our awakening, all we have to do is meet it.

As Rumi says:

Today is like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Whenever we stop to kiss the earth, we recognize how unique is each man and woman and each day before us. Never again will we see it in this way. In intimacy we discover a beauty and grace that makes all things worthwhile. Because life is so tentative, it becomes precious. Again Rumi reminds us not to sit with sorrow alone.

When you go to a garden, do you look at thorns or flowers?
Spend more time with roses and jasmine.

As the capacity for presence grows in us we discover an ease of the heart with all things.

One great teacher in India would remind his students of this with each of the difficulties they would report to him, difficulties in meditation, difficulties in work or relationship. He would listen very kindly and then smile at them and say, “I hope you’re enjoying them.” In this same spirit, “There are two ways to navigate through this world,” wrote E. B. White. “One is to improve life and the other is to enjoy life.” It is a paradox, for both enjoyment and improvement are necessary. Often enjoyment is forgotten in our quest for spiritual awakening. To find true joy we must have passed through our sorrows and come to accept the whole of life into our hearts. Then a deep and genuine joy arises.

Andre Gide writes of this:

Know that joy is rarer, more difficult and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.

When we become intimate with all things, we discover rest, well-being, and wholeness in this very body. We recognize that we, and all life around us, are supposed to be here, that we belong here as much as the trees and the sun and the turning earth. There comes a healing, an opening, and a grace. The harmony of all things arises for us like the wisdom of Dame Julian of Norwich, who so beautifully declared, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” In intimacy we discover a profound sense of belonging and wholeness that allows us to touch all that we encounter.

When I first practiced as a monk in the forests of Thailand, nearly twenty-five years ago, we were trained to bow three times upon entering and leaving the temple. Bowing was a new experience for me. Then I was instructed to bow when I entered and exited the dining hall, the teachers’ quarters, my own hut. Finally I was taught it is proper for a monk to kneel and bow three times when he encounters a monk who is senior to him. Being newly ordained, this meant bowing to every monk I met. At first this was difficult. There were monks I respected and honored who were easy to bow to, but at other times I found myself kneeling and bowing to monks I thought ignorant, proud, or unworthy. To bow to some of these fellows simply because they had been ordained a month or two before me rubbed my pride the wrong way. However, I continued to bow in the temple, in my hut, and to all of the monks who presented themselves to me. After some time I felt the pain of my own criticism and how it kept me separate from them. I began to look for something which was beautiful or noble or worthy in each person I met. Then I began to enjoy bowing. I would bow to every monk, to the temples, to all my brothers and sisters, to the trees, and to the rocks. Bowing became a beautiful way of being.

When we have become intimate with ourselves, we are able to bow and to bless all that surrounds us. Yeats as a poet struggled for years with his art, with unrequited love. Then at age fifty, sitting in a coffee shop in London, there came a great illumination in which he found that all that matters is that we can bless and be blessed.

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
in a crowded London shop,
An open book, on empty cup on the marble tabletop.
While on the shop and street I gazed.
My body of a sudden blazed!
And twenty minutes more or less it seemed so great, my happiness.
That I was blessed—and could bless.

photo By THE ZEN DIARY by David Fischer

photo By THE ZEN DIARY by David Fischer

To discover the capacity to bless whatever is in front of us, this is the enlightenment that is intimate with all things. It is a freedom and happiness with no cause, a gift we bring to each moment and each encounter. Once when Kalu Rinpoche, an eighty-year-old Tibetan master, visited in Boston, he was taken to the  New England Aquarium, which is filled with colorful sea creatures. Kalu Rinpoche enjoyed seeing all these wonderful forms of life, and before he left each tank, he would tap very softly on the glass because he could not read the sign in English that told him not to. Then he would recite a sacred mantra, “Om, Mani Padme Hum,” and peer into the tank for one last time before moving on to the next tank of creatures. After some time a student asked him, “What are you doing, Rinpoche, when you tap on the tanks like that?” and he smiled and said, “I’m trying to get the attention of the beings within, and then I bless them that they, too, may be liberated.”

What a splendid way to move through the world, to bring our blessings to all that we touch. To learn how to bless, to honor, to listen with respect, to welcome with the heart, is a great art indeed. It is never done in grand or monumental ways but in this moment, in the most immediate and intimate way.

In the last year of his life another great Tibetan teacher, Karmapa, met with some American guests in a royal receiving room of his palace-like temple in Sikkim. Karmapa was a spiritual guide for a community of hundreds of thousands. He was also ill, yet he graciously made time to receive as many visitors as he could. My friends who visited him found him tremendously warm and receptive. He spoke with them, encouraged them, and blessed them. They felt wonderful. When they left, one remarked, “I felt like I just had a conversation with my closest friend.” For Karmapa each visitor was his best friend, and in each moment there was nothing else to do but care for and bless that which was in front of him.

It is in the intimacy of each moment that all of spiritual life is fulfilled. Do not seek the Buddha somewhere else. One Hasidic rabbi said, “I did not go to my master to learn his words of wisdom, but to see how he tied and untied his shoes.”

My wife, two journalist friends, and I interviewed the Dalai Lama for National Public Radio several years ago. Like Karmapa, he was enormously busy as a spiritual leader and as the head of the Tibetan government in exile, but he greeted us graciously and served us tea himself. He patiently answered all of our questions, especially focusing on the teachings about spirituality and social responsibility. Then he asked if there was anything further he could do for us. “No,” we answered. “Don’t you want to take my picture?” he inquired. “Yes!” We all remembered. We had brought several cameras with us, but in the excitement of recording our interview, we had forgotten. The Dalai Lama then suggested that we give our cameras to his attendant so that we all could be in the picture together. He stood up and put his arms around us, two on each side. We were all grinning from ear to ear while the pictures were taken. Then when the photography was done, he grasped my hand and turned to me. Since he knows that I am a Buddhist teacher and had visited and lectured at one of our centers in Massachusetts, I expected him to ask how the teaching was going, you know, “How’s business?” because, after all, we work for the same company. But he didn’t. Instead, he squeezed my hand and looked at me carefully and said, “You’re so skinny. You should eat more!” This was the blessing of the Dalai Lama.

To live a path with heart, a life committed to awakening, we too must care for whatever we encounter, however difficult or beautiful, and bring to it our presence, our heart, in a great intimacy. We will encounter many marvels in seeking our true way. Then, like the great bodhisattva of Zen who ventured into the forest to find the missing ox and in the process discovered his own true nature, we can return, as it’s said, to enter the world with bliss-
bestowing hands. “I enter the marketplace with my wine bottle and staff. I enter the shops and crowds, and all whom I look upon become enlightened.”

I hope that this book and the practice of wakefulness, compassion, and intimacy in it will bring blessings to your life, that you will have silence as a blessing, understanding as a blessing, forgiveness as a blessing. And that you,too will bring your heart and your hands to bless all around you.

A Zen poet Basho reminds us:

The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.

photo by Taikyo Gillman, MRO

photo by Taikyo Gilman, MRO


Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, and India, is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Center, a clinical psychotherapist, husband, father, and author.

From A Path With Heart, Published by Bantam Books, Copyright ©1993 by Jack Kornfield. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Books.

NextShuso's Letter Spring Ango 2018