At Tassajara, the Soto Zen monastery inland from Big Sur, where I lived for three years in the mid-seventies, a stone Buddha of great beauty and concentration sits on an altar. From his lotus throne he radiates both serenity and acceptance, the traditional half-smile on his face greeting whatever is brought into the room. In many ways, I found such a reminder of one’s own Buddha-nature quite helpful. Without such equanimity, how could one sit without moving amid the many hours of thoughts, feelings, memories, physical pain, or even the joys, that are an inevitable part of Zen practice? Without such equanimity, how could one learn that it is possible to feel strongly without necessarily acting upon those feelings, without reifying or identifying with them, fearing or desiring them?

And yet, the experiences of my heart and mind continually failed to live up to this serene and imperturbable image. Some part of me believed that to experience the full range of emotions was a mark of ignorance and unripeness, and yet at some point I realized that a practice that required turning away from parts of my experience also didn’t seem right. The Japanese Zen master and poet Ikkyu once described literature as a path of intimacy with demons—this, I realized, was closer. To be intimate with demons, to hold passion and feeling as fully a part of the field of Buddha’s robe, might be a path of inclusion, not exclusion, and one that began from the moment by moment experience of my own life rather than some outer conception or goal.

I don’t mean to imply that the particular teaching tradition in which I have studied caused my dilemma, and yet the issue was there. Where did the idea of exclusion come from? Some Buddhist teachings I encountered as a beginning student spoke of all thoughts and emotions as manifestations of illusion; others proposed the attitude “Offer your emotion a cup of tea, but you don’t have to ask it to stay”; others suggested that thought-formations and sensory feelings be allowed to come and go as freely as the reflections of clouds in a lake; and still others used a language of self-control and will, and “uprooting” and “burning away” the impurities of anger, pride, sensuality. None of this was particularly well sorted through in my mind, and the result was a number of clashing, coexistent prescriptions for dealing with emotions. Also, within a mostly unarticulated community agreement, certain kinds of emotional behavior were valued as signs of mature practice, others regarded as lapses—X’s temper versus Y’s evenness, A’s emotionality versus B’s solidity.

Stories and poems on the subject from various Buddhist traditions point in every direction. An interesting one is the Chinese Zen tale of an old woman who has supported a monk for twenty years. One day, she sends a beautiful young girl to deliver his meal in her place—in some versions, her daughter. She instructs the girl to embrace the monk and see his response. He stands stock still, and when asked afterward what it was like, replies, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the woman throws him out and burns down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud!”

Paul Reps, in his book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones frames this story as a failure of compassion, a lack of loving-kindness on the part of the monk toward the girl. Suzuki Roshi, the Soto Zen priest who founded Tassajara, mused in a lecture he gave in Reed College in 1971, “Maybe a true Zen master should not be like a wall or a tree or a stone; maybe he should be human even though he practices zazen.” He then went on to add the opinion of the great thirteenth-century Japanese teacher Dogen, that all three showed good, steadfast practice: “The monk was great, the daughter was great, and the old lady was also great, they were all great teachers.” While I have no example of a tantric teacher’s response, it seems to me one might say that the point of awakening is not the utter cessation of desire that the monk seems to show (or for that matter of anger, fear, or any other emotion), but that in awakened consciousness such arising energies are seen as transient and without self, but not without power or usefulness.

There are also more Western ways of looking at this story. One might be through the psychological theory of the shadow, which says that if we cut ourselves off from our feelings through suppression, negation, or willed dissociation, they will come back to haunt us in increasingly destructive ways. The monk’s words ring over-insistent, and we have seen enough recent examples of sexuality seemingly run amok in spiritual leaders both Eastern and Judeo-Christian to be aware of the dangers of a simplistic denial. If we attempt to exclude the emotions from spiritual practice, this reading says, they will reappear in a form demanding that we face them: we will be thrown out of the hut.

Another Western perspective is to look at the gender roles. The male is shown denying desire and the body, the old woman insisting on their inclusion—significantly, not in or for herself, but simply as a test of valid practice. Her reponse to his failure is no dried-out statement of practice philosophy but an immediate, vivid, and full-bodied application of the bodhisattva Manjusri’s sword of compassion. In this reading, the story can be seen as a call to include all sides of our life in Buddhist experience.

Abandoned faceless Buddha, Chris Rainier, Ayuthaya, Thailand. Courtesy Chris Rainier.
Abandoned faceless Buddha, Chris Rainier, Ayuthaya, Thailand. Courtesy Chris Rainier.

In Zen, there is no emotional life outside of the one that exists this moment. The question becomes not “What is the emotional life of a Buddha?” but “What is my own emotional life in its true nature?” In the moment of experiencing emptiness, what is my emotional life? What is it in the moment of experiencing loss? Is the spaciousness of the awakened heart/mind a state of detachment or a state of non-attachment? Between those two words and conceptions lie worlds of difference. One, detachment, says that the passions and emotions will either be cut off, or, in a slightly different description, will fall away of their own accord with increasing ripeness of practice. The other, non-attachment, says that so long as we dwell in this human realm, we will continue to feel anger, grief, joy, sensuality, passion, but that when these emotions exist free of a limited idea of self, we will neither suffer nor cause suffering in fueling them.

While it is not so simple a model to ponder as the unchanging figure on the altar, I have come to imagine a buddha who feels the full range of emotions, yet feels them in a way not in the service of the self but in the service of everything. Perhaps such a buddha encounters each thing that arises including limitless suffering, including the end of limitless suffering—as simply what is: not standing back from this moment’s particular nature, but entering it more and more deeply, with awareness and compassionate intention. Compassion means to “feel with,” after all; the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is the one who hears the cries of the world and comes. If one looks only with the eyes of the Absolute, there is nothing and no one to be saved, nothing in which to take refuge, no eyes, no ears, no tongue, no body, no mind, no heart. But if one speaks from the point of view where anything—the idea of compassion, the idea of the Buddha—is given entrance, all of it comes flooding in.

The experience of the practice itself teaches us that any conception or ideal of awakened being can only be a hindrance—neither practice nor awakening is about our ideas or images. And yet, however limited the finger-pointing at the moon, still we point, we turn to one another for direction. So I have come to think that if the bodhisattva’s task is to continue to practice until every pebble, every blade of grass, awakens, surely the passions, difficult or blissful, can also be included in that vow. And if awakening is also already present, inescapably and everywhere present from the beginning, how can the emotions not be part of that singing life of grasses and fish and oil tankers and subways and cats in heat who wake us, furious and smiling, in the middle of the brief summer night?

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