Ishin denshin means something like “Communication as if two people have the same mind.” This concept is a big part of my life, and in this post, I’d like to try to explain a bit about it.
How can we become what we are doing more intimately right now? How can we remove the barrier between self and other? Not in any mental kind of way, but simply by throwing ourselves sincerely into what we are doing.
In this post, I am talking about this type of communicating in a Zen teacher-student relationship, though one need not be a Zen student to explore this way of being. It could easily be a master woodworker or a dance or acting teacher or chef or martial arts sensei or basketball coach. But that would be SOME basketball coach!
Working with a great teacher, especially in Zen, one mostly learns by osmosis. Serving them tea or working in the garden with them, being in their presence, and especially going to sanzen (private interview), we begin to soak up who they are. It is as if their consciousness begins to seep into our own. At first, we can’t feel this at all. It has nowhere to land. But soon it is just that when they call, we jump up immediately and go to get them what they need. Over time, somehow we begin to anticipate their needs before they ask them of us. Later, just from this type of osmosis, we know how they would respond to a question just because of this entrainment of our consciousness. We know them as ourselves. It is as if we are channeling them through us all of the time. It is not that we are no longer ourselves, but this is a part of us always, rooting us, deepening our life.
Because of this osmosis, and part of our whole training, in everyday life, we begin to be able to open ourselves up in profound ways to the environment and to others. We now have this tool for communicating with others. A type of nonverbal exchange. Our life begins to take on a type of sophisticated sensing. Where once we were wandering around lost in our heads, our sensory vocabulary refines our experience.
What does this look like? Dogen put it this way:
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
By experiencing our consciousness open up to another person, especially a Roshi, somehow we see that it is permeable to everything. This barrier we imagine between ourselves and others is just a fiction we accidentally create. And through sitting day after day, hour after hour, we realize that unless we open ourselves up, removing this barrier, we cannot go very deep in our sitting.
For instance, after sitting for a couple of days of a retreat, deep into our own process, we often see that we have to open up more to the environment in order to let the energy flow through us. Otherwise it will become stuck in our bodies like a pressure cooker. So we have to become the room we are sitting in. And walking in the forest, after experiencing what it feels like to be open to our environment, we naturally connect to the trees around us. We hear the bird cry, and we cannot tell if the bird crying is in our bodies or in the trees. Over time, this becomes a type of felt sense intuition, otherwise known as being centered. In this process, training people get where they have no interest in other techniques or complicated ideas as they zero in to this way of being. And this way of being is like gravity, compelling them deeper into it.
If we have the right karma, great realizations arise out of this inquiry.
Part of my work these days is to try to share this with others, and to preserve this type of connection. To open up people to a different possibility. Someday I hope to have passed on some of this to a few people looking for answers. Discovering this type of communication gave me a language to navigate my life. It is very precious. And it is not so much about the subject of what we do, as how we are communicating in this deeper way in all that we do.
From a Zen perspective, there may be some new practitioner out there who is wondering about Zen as a possible path to discovery. It may be a good fit. It might not. But I feel a great gratitude to working with a master in this practice, and so I think it is important to say that some of these concepts like “ishin denshin” are a very normal part of Japanese thinking, and not just Zen.
I write this post to state that this type of thing is real and that it happens. I fear that this type of learning is not very common these days. And I fear that some of these terms are lost in translation. Someone might reduce this to some form of quackery or fantastic thinking, when that is the exact opposite of what I am attempting to communicate. So, if this interests you, or somehow rings true for you don’t let anyone tell you it is impossible. I’m thinking of my ten year old self walking through the woods around my home as a child. I’m telling him to go for it. You can do it. Please discover this!