Sharon Salzberg

‘In reality,  love is fluid; it’s a verb, not a noun. Love is a living capacity within us that is always present, even when we don’t sense it. And there are many kinds of love. Sanskrit has different words to describe love for a brother or sister, love for a teacher, love for a partner, love for one’s friends, love of nature, and so on. English only has one word, which leads to never-ending confusion.’ (Real Love)

I noticed, when I typed out the title, that I thought of what might be a typical zen rejoinder to the point she is making: which of these many kinds of love is real love? And of course the answer is: all of them. The working of my mind there was part of an inner voice asking, well, what has this to do with zen practice? It is true that you can scour a lot of zen texts looking for words about love and find them thin on the ground, but I think it is also true that an experienced practitioner (I am not going to say an enlightened practitioner because I think that would add a sense for people that they are excluded from that category) loves everybody, because they see exactly who they are. Suzuki Roshi might not have mentioned love, but people who talk about him felt loved by him because he saw them fully.
I was also remembering, as I typed, one of the few sermons that I sat through in my early life that has stayed with me. One of my headmasters spoke of the Greek words philia, eros and agape, and spoke eloquently of what each of them meant to us as humans; it inspired me to explore more, not God’s love, necessarily, but the idea of a bigger, selfless love.

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Setting Intentions

One of the students I work with comes up with some really great questions. When I was sharing the Genjo Koan with a study group, riffing about the interplay of relative and absolute, he said something along the lines of, “Shundo, this is really great, but how is it going to help me in my life?” which of course gave me pause. Three answers came into my head in the moment: we can become fearless, like the Heart Sutra suggests, when we can find an ease around the true nature of reality and human existence, which I believe a study of Buddhism can imbue us with. We can be like a mirror, reflecting that reality, and simply letting go. And we can be more energy efficient when we have this understanding in our bodies, because reflecting and letting go is a lot less exhausting than holding the amount of stress and anxiety around the past and future that we are used to dealing with.

Recently he asked me to discuss how to deal with ‘life strategy’ issues if our practice is telling us just to be present. I did some reading and some thinking over the holiday period, and here are a couple of passages I thought might illustrate an approach:

‘When we feel conflicted about a particular decision or action, our bodies often hold the answer – if we take the time to stop and tune in. Our minds tend to race ahead into the future or replay the past, but our bodies are always in the present moment. A tightness in the chest or a squeamish sensation in the gut may signal harm, even when reason may suggest that a given choice is perfectly ethical. A feeling of calm or a sense of expansiveness throughout the body sends us a very different message.’ (Sharon Salzberg, Real Love)

‘You may think that if there is no purpose or no goal in our practice, we will not know what to do. But there is a way. The way to practice without having any goal is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in this moment. Instead of having some particular object in mind, you should limit your activity. When your mind is wandering about elsewhere you have no chance to express yourself. But if you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can fully express your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature. This is our way.’ (Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

When we met to discuss the topic, I asked the other participants in the group for their thoughts around life planning before bringing in the passages, it was gratifying that what they shared was pointing to the same perspectives.

Robert White

‘Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness…
After all, feelings are the original motivators. Good and bad feelings are what natural selection used to goad animals into, respectively, approaching things or avoiding things, acquiring things or rejecting things; good feelings were assigned to things like eating and bad feelings to things like being eaten.’ (Why Buddhism Is True)

I was given this book to read, by a practitioner who had read the first chapter and then lost interest in it. Having read both the New Yorker review of the book (which, as the dharma friend I discussed it with and I agreed, seemed to miss so many points), and a (more palatable) rebuttal by the author in the New York TimesI was somewhat curious to read that actual book itself.
And… I found it to be a great exposition on evolutionary psychology, and how that has caused the brain to function in the way that it does, to our benefit and detriment. Alongside this, there is a good sense of how a meditation practice – Vipassana in the case of the author – can work to make ourselves aware of these mental formations and to sidestep or mitigate the less beneficial effects of them.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it much as a manual on Buddhism. There were many times I felt the author got stuck in words, mental constructs and definitions, and found myself wincing at how he characterised ‘illusion’, ‘essence’ and ’emptiness’, and talked of ‘disowning’ or ‘separating’ ourselves from our feelings, as if they were something we could put outside ourselves, when he was encouraging establishing a critical perspective on them. Even speaking of the ‘non-self’ seemed to be mired in intellectual exercise, while all the while pointing to the need for an experiential understanding rather than a mental one.
A typical frustration for me, as Wright discussed Buddha’s various pronouncements on ‘non-self’, was reading a quote from a modern-day Western scholar, introduced to propose a theory of the self, followed by Wright’s line, “Who knows, maybe that was the Buddha’s view of the matter. Maybe he wasn’t really trying to articulate a doctrine, but rather to draw you down a path.” Wright seems to be in thrall to current ‘skilled meditators’, and uses them as a lens to examine the potential inconsistencies of Buddhism as a philosophy, while trying to maintain the stance of an ordinary scientific kind of guy who happens to have noticed some benefits from his years of retreat practice.

I suspect I am not really the target demographic for the book, in that I am not very interested in what scholars have to say about Buddhism. I am certainly interested in how the latest science supports the truth of what Buddha awoke to, and my experience of practice has led me to trust most the accounts of those, in the past, and the present, whose experience has pointed them to the fundamental truth of things.

Pema Chödrön

‘As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms—withdrawal from always thinking that there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.
The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going, because it goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share. When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Joanna Macy

‘The great open secret of gratitude is that it is not dependent on external circumstance. It’s like a setting or channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what’s going on around us. It helps us connect to our basic right to be here, like the breath does. It’s a stance of the soul. In systems theory, each part contains the whole. Gratitude is the kernel that can flower into everything we need to know.

Thankfulness loosens the grip of the industrial growth society by contradicting its predominant message: that we are insufficient and inadequate. The forces of late capitalism continually tell us that we need more—more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound. It infects people with a compulsion to acquire that delivers them into the cruel, humiliating bondage of debt. So gratitude is liberating. It is subversive. It helps us realize that we are sufficient, and that realization frees us. Elders of indigenous cultures have retained this knowledge, and we can learn from their practices.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Sharon Salzberg

‘Real love allows for failure and suffering. All of us have made mistakes, and some of those mistakes were consequential, but you can find a way to relate to them with kindness. No matter what troubles have befallen you or what difficulties you have caused yourself or others, with love for yourself you can change, grow, make amends, and learn. Real love is not about letting yourself off the hook. Real love does not encourage you to ignore your problems or deny your mistakes and imperfections. You see them clearly and still opt to love.’ (Real Love)