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The metaphor of host and guest has value for exploring the practice and role identity of nurses on inpatient mental health units. Two complementary texts, one from the ancient Zen record of Lin-chi, and the other from the contemporary hermeneutic philosopher Richard Kearney, are used to elaborate meanings of host and guest that can be applied to the situation of mental health nurses. In a doctoral study with a hermeneutic design, I addressed the topic of nurse–patient relationship using an interpretive framework that included sources from Buddhist thought. The positions of host and guest emerged from interviews with nurses as one interpretive theme to open up new understanding of the topic. The two texts, originally distant in era and culture, both employ the host and guest metaphor. They are applied to extracts from interviews to open up discussions of hierarchy, status, patients' perspectives, otherness and resistances as features of nurses' complex experience. These provide insights into understanding practice and suggest implications for how institutional environments shape practice. An intercultural reading of texts can provide a source of new understanding of nurse–patient relationships.