Intimate Friendship: “When You Sing, I Respond; When I Sing, You Clap Hands”

Intimate Friendship: “When You Sing, I Respond; When I Sing, You Clap Hands” April 6, 2023

Intimate friendship is such an important aspect of the Zen Way. In the dharma context, an intimate friend (知音, J. “chi-on”) is someone who really gets your music – and vice versa. Such a person can be a peer or a teacher.
For more about intimate friends, see Going Through the Mystery’s One Hundred Questions, especially Questions 26, 43, and 60, but the whole book is really about the intimate friendship of Wànsōng and Yuántōng.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to experience it personally. My first book, Keep Me In Your Heart A While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri, was largely about my first such experience.
Although reading about such intimate friendships and being involved in such are not the same thing, the references in Zen literature to intimate friendship can be an important source of inspiration and direction – especially these days when so many people are hungry for connection.
Meanwhile, I recently asked a student who is a college professor what young people call each other these days. “Dude,” for example, seems so gendered and dated, I was curious about any new forms of address. “Most young people I work with,” he said, “don’t talk to each other, they text. So I don’t know what they call each other.”
And not only young people, of course – so many folks are spending so much of their time staring at their phones, thumbs whirling, trying to satisfy their hunger for connection while practicing alienation. This is much like the old Zen saying about having the intention to go north while (blindly and habitually) heading south.
So in this post, I will share a couple examples of Zen intimate friendships. Both involve the great Cáodòng (J. Sōtō) master Hóngzhì (1091-1157), a shining exemplar of his lineage wind. The older I get, the fonder I grow of his dharma expression. There is a deep quality of intimacy to it all as well as the same friendly luminosity I’ve felt so clearly and powerfully expressed in Keizan’s The Record of the Transmission of Luminosity (Denkōroku).
In addition to Hóngzhì, the first example also includes Dàhuì (1089-1163), a contemporary of Hóngzhì and a shining exemplar of the Línjì lineage wind. Despite Dàhuì’s biting criticism of some forms of the Cáodòng teaching common in his day, particularly silent illumination, turns out that Dàhuì and Hóngzhì were close buds, especially late in life.
Here’s a passage by one of Hóngzhì’s biographers that speaks to the closeness of their relationship:
“Hóngzhì deeply admired Dàhuì. They talked and discussed freely. The master held Dàhuìi’s hand, saying, ‘Both of us are getting old. Only we two can respond spontaneously to each other, when you sing, I respond, and, when I sing, you clap your hands. Whichever one of us passes away first, the one who still lives would be in charge of the other’s funeral.’ Later, when [the master] passed away, he left a verse to bid his farewell. [Dàhuì] indeed hosted his funeral ceremony, and he did not betray their promise to each other. [The pair] could be really be called ‘the southern mountain and the fall scene, in that both of them were high [in their essence].’ Such could be witnessed in these two monks.”(1)
As an admirer of both Hóngzhì and Dàhuì, I so enjoy the image of them sitting and holding hands. Such a wonderful expression of intimate friendship!
The second example of intimate friendship comes through the verse and capping phrases that I’ll share below. The verse is by Hóngzhì from Record of Going Easy, “Case 70: Jìnshān Asks About Nature,” and the capping phrases (J. jakugo) are by Wànsōng (1166–1246). These are indented and italicized. Notice how Wànsōng claps along with old Hóngzhì’s tune.


Open, dropped off, reliance extinguished
Bam! The donkey-tethering stake is yanked out
Lofty, at ease, unfettered
Snapping the golden chain
Home and country at peace – those who reach this are rare
The settled place is underfoot
A teeny tiny difference in power separates the stages [of the path]
Divisions in the life force
Vast vast bodymind cuts off right and wrong
See strange as not strange
Cuts off yes and no
Its strangeness self-destructs
The world stands alone, the traceless trace
Peace and security are not taboo – what place is not lovable?
If you are in intimate friends relationship, how can these examples inform your process? If you aren’t in an relationship with an intimate friend, may these examples inspire you to be open to such a thing and to do the work to make such real. I’ve found intimate friendships to be among the most meaningful and rewarding experiences this precious human life has to offer.
If you are interested in exploring a Zen teacher-student relationship with me and Tetsugan Sensei, check out our Vine of Obstacles Zen, and start by coming to a Sunday dharma talk.
(1) From “The Poetic Practices of Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157): Gong’an Commentarial Verses on Old Cases and Verses on Old Cases and Verses for Lay Literati,” by Yu-Chen Tsui.

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Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Sensei, with Vine of Obstacles Zen, an online training group. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans, was published in 2021 (Shambhala). His third book, Going Through the Mystery’s One Hundred Questions, is now available. Click here to support the teaching practice of Dōshō Rōshi.

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