The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

Falling in love with this imperfect world Barry Magid February 14th 2009

Saint Valentine's days invites us to invite love, sexuality, and romantic love back into our lives and practice. We can't just repress these basic human needs. We have to find a way to allow that aspect of our lives into our practice and the way we think about practice and what practice is for. Zen teaches non-separation as a model for how to have a good life. But what does that mean in the context of attachment, love, and loss?

Download Talk

Today we celebrate a particularly important holiday in the American Buddhist calendar: St. Valentine’s Day. I think if there’s one thing that particularly characterizes American Buddhism it has been its turn towards psychological mindedness and that turn was occasioned by its having to come to terms with questions of love and sexuality, once Zen came to America. Now, it didn’t always do this voluntarily or without a fair amount of actual trauma. But in fact, having to face issues of sexuality really spurred the greatest innovation and development in what I think is distinctly now American about our Zen practice.

St. Valentine's Day, in a sense, invites us to welcome the notion of love and particularly romantic love back into our lives and our practice, having passed through a generation in which every mention of sexuality was in the context of some scandal or another. Well, if it’s not going to be the source of problems all the time, we have to find a way not to shove it out, because I think when things are repressed or locked into a closet, they grow nasty. And when they come out, they come out in a form that does no one any good. So we have to find a way to allow that aspect of our lives into our practice, to find a way to think about our practice and what practice is for. Even though Buddhism seems to try to break down all sorts of dualisms, nonetheless we get stuck with all kinds of dualisms that are implicit in our practice. We try to dissolve the dualism of mind and body but the way we treat our bodies in practice is usually very one-sided.

In most religious traditions, Christian and Buddhist, the body is seen as the seat of suffering. The body is the visible sign of impermanence, the body is what grows old and dies and the body is the source of desire and craving and attachment. It’s very easy in any kind of religious practice to imagine that what we’re doing is getting in touch with or cultivating something that is pure rather than defiled, unattached rather than attached, God-forbid even permanent rather than impermanent, that we’re going to get in touch with a higher transcendental or something spiritual realm that will free us up from the suffering inherent in this body of desire and decay.

Most of my experience of the body in the early days of Zen practice centered around the body as a source of pain. The way you came to know your body in Zen practice was primarily through your knees. Your knees were the most important bodily organ. And Zen students spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about their knees. Well, the body does have other parts. And when sesshin was over, everybody rushed to exercise them, right? So there was something wrong with this picture.

Part of what we try to reintroduce, I believe, is not just a practice of endurance but a practice that we enjoy, that we don’t practice because we are trying to get somewhere or overcome something or subdue our body or our desire, but we’re trying to get into some kind of harmony with this body-mind in the sense that we not just accept it but enjoy it. Our practice is in effect learning to fall in love again with this imperfect world, the world that is the source of our suffering, the world that goes away and we go away with it. Inevitably in practice there is a sense in which we hate this cause of our suffering and we try to eliminate it. And so often what happens in religious practices is that romantic love or personal relationships are treated as the source of problems.

Joko was very psychologically minded about many things. She was very good about getting students to look at the way relationships fueled their curative fantasies, how they imagined: If only I could find love, If only I could find the right partner, If only I was understood just the way I wanted. And when these “if onlies” that we imposed on a relationship or a partner went awry, which they inevitably did, we ended up hurt or angry and so forth, and she was very good at seeing all the ways we can do that, but she never really bothered talking about what relationships were for other than that. She thought they were a great thing to practice with, but she never made them sound like much fun.

I think in this practice we can get stuck in either end of the spectrum, either as she tended to emphasize, treating relationships or love as some kind of cure-all and thinking If only I could have love, my life would be perfect, and if I don’t have love, my life is worthless. She certainly had no patience for that attitude. I think in her own life she was perfectly happy being alone or being in a community. I remember one of her chapters was Relationships Don’t Work. They don’t work as curative fantasies, right?

But on the other side we can get stuck in the religious picture of selflessness, of: Well, if I won’t pursue personal love, I’ll pursue compassion or social responsibility, or if I can’t get, I will give. And this, I think, breeds a very particular kind of spiritual sickness in which we think we’re going to take care of everybody in the world minus one. And we will somehow not pay attention to our own personal needs, but we will attend to the needs of all mankind. And those people typically burn out or implode after some period of time. So bringing those two things together is really the great challenge of practice. How do you acknowledge that you need to be at the receiving end of attention and desire and compassion, not just be the one who selflessly gives those things? How do you find the right balance in your life between your own needs and the needs of others?

I think that nowadays we have less emphasis on endurance and our dokusan is less filled up with How can I get through the next period without my knees giving out? Less about the management of pain, much more about the management of relationships, both in the sangha and without. We become much more preoccupied with how we’re treated or not treated by other people around us.

We need to come back to something very simple and basic about this practice, something that has to do with making our lives go well, and trying to understand what that can possibly mean in the real world, that is often beyond our control, and will inevitably contain pain and loss. What’s it mean to have a good life in that kind of world? The basic answer is one of non-separation as an alternative to our fantasies of control. Non-separation means really entering into the world of transience, but how do we enter it? Not just by joining with its pain, but allowing ourselves to join with its beauty, with its pleasure. We enjoy it, as it passes, even as we know we can’t hold onto it. But the solution is not to renounce it and have a sour grapes attitude towards the pleasures of life, saying they’re no good anyway and you’ll only lose them so why get attached in the first place?

Non-separation means letting yourself go on that ride, go on the ride of attachment and loss, get on that roller-coaster. Really ride it. Let it whip you around. It’s not a matter of saying Oh, I’m going to get off once and for all and have my safe seat over here and watch all those fools puke their guts out on the roller-coaster. It’s really not what practice should be for. Practice means get on it and enjoy the ride.

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.