“Zuisei, you just have to love them,” Hogen said, looking at me pointedly from under those Bodhidharma eyebrows of his. Caught off guard, I didn’t immediately reply. Love them? What was that supposed to mean? Hogen smiled at me and walked away before I could say anything. After a moment, I returned to my office grumbling under my breath. What did love have to do with anything?

It was the middle of the afternoon and I’d been heading to the kitchen for a snack when I overheard the tail end of a conversation between Hogen (now Hogen Sensei) and another monastery resident. As a senior monastic at Zen Mountain Monastery and the director of Dharma Communications (the monastery’s outreach arm), Hogen often gave advice to the mostly young and earnest residents, and his approach was like a football coach’s—gruff, practical, and caring: This is how you get into trouble. This is how you avoid it. I don’t remember what exactly he was telling that resident, but I knew I’d heard it before—many times before. So with more than a tinge of impatience, I’d asked him if he wasn’t tired of repeating himself. Love them, he’d said in response.

“Are you all right?” my officemate asked. I’d been staring out the window, trying to determine why I was so annoyed at Hogen’s comment. Love was too soft, too vague a teaching, it seemed to me—not to mention too impractical to actually address the suffering in the world.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I answered, though my annoyance hadn’t diminished one bit. I wasn’t about to lose sleep over it, though. I did a quick mental shrug and with it dismissed Hogen’s teaching. But his words must have remained tucked away in some deep recess of my mind, because about a decade later, they resurfaced exactly when I needed them.

Sun streamed through the window of the Buddha Hall, making my right eye water where it caught the glare off the oak floor. I thought of getting up to close the curtains but decided against it. My friend and I had offered incense at the altar before settling down on our cushions, and we now sat a few feet apart, facing each other, both of us solemn. She was about to tell me all the ways I’d hurt her over the last few months. My job was to sit quietly and listen.

A year earlier I’d taken on Hogen’s old job as director of operations, but because the monastery was short-staffed at the time, for a while I doubled as the creative director—a role I’d had for a few years. At first I was excited by the challenge. I didn’t have any business experience but was eager to learn, and I’ve always thought there’s no better way to learn than by doing. But I hadn’t counted on the challenge of having to run a business on roughly 20 hours of work a week with an all-volunteer staff who also had little or no business experience. And while in the past a mistake on my part had meant little more than a missed deadline, now each of my gaffes showed clearly in the quarterly reports. In the days before and after each board meeting I walked around with a knot in my stomach.

It wasn’t long before I felt completely overworked and undertrained, and although I could have responded to the stress in any number of ways, despite my years of practice I resorted to the oldest cover-up for insecurity: domination.

“You’re imperious,” the web director said to me one day after a particularly tense exchange between us. But I was too unsure about my ability to do the work to actually take in what she was saying, too afraid to stop and reflect on whether there might be a better way of working and leading.

My friend and I sat facing each other, both of us solemn. She was about to tell me all the ways I’d hurt her over the last few months.

I’ll be damned if I let this ship go down under my watch, I thought, as I put my head down and pushed even harder. Running on stubborn, manic energy, I worked through meals, breaks, and weekends. I even worked during zazen, plotting marketing campaigns and running cost and benefit scenarios in my head. After a few weeks of this, I got sick, and then I got sick again. But I just ignored the signs and kept going, truly believing that the only solution was to work harder. Yet the more overworked I felt, the more I unconsciously took out my distress on anyone who dared to cross me. So it wasn’t surprising that I’d finally been called out on my harshness and impatience.

The graphic designer, whom I considered a good friend, had complained to the abbot about our interactions, which had culminated in a disagreement about the store catalog. My friend, who was meticulous to a fault and very hardworking, simply didn’t share my need to work herself to the ground to meet an arbitrary deadline. In other words, she had her priorities straight. She knew she’d gone to the monastery to do Zen training, and she understood that work was only one aspect of it.

“I’ll have the catalog ready in a day, two at most,” she said to me. “It’s not a problem.”

She was right, of course. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a problem at all. But I was too caught up in my own agenda to see the larger picture. All I could think of was the lost revenue those extra days would translate into. So I yelled at her, and now the two of us were sitting in the Buddha Hall.

Abashed, I waited quietly as she pulled out two legal-sized sheets of paper covered with tiny lettering. “I took some notes,” she said, and started reading from a list of grievances. At one point, as she flipped a page to look for a particular point, I noticed that she’d run out of room but had kept on writing in a loop in even smaller letters along the margin.

It was that cramped visual catalog of my wrongdoings that finally jolted me out of my daze. You have to do better, I thought. Then I remembered Hogen’s advice to me.

metta and burnout
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

It’s said that one day, when the Buddha was staying at Savatthi, five hundred monks came to see him and asked for instruction. With great skill, the Buddha offered each of them meditation techniques suited to their particular temperament and capacity, and afterward the monks set off toward the Himalayan foothills in search of a place where they could do an intensive retreat. After wandering for some time, they found a beautiful hill bordered by a forest grove with a clear spring running through it and nearby, a town with a large marketplace. Delighted at having found such a perfect spot, the monks decided to spend the night in the forest.

The next morning they headed into town to beg for their food, and the villagers, happy to have such devoted practitioners among them, fed the monks generously and asked them to stay in the grove. Over the following weeks, the villagers built a small hut for each monk and furnished it with a cot, a stool, and a couple of pots. The monks settled in, and everyone was very pleased with the arrangement. But neither group knew that in that forest lived a band of tree-dwelling devas who, out of respect for the five hundred mendicants, didn’t want to remain in the trees while the group practiced meditation below them. So the divine beings left their homes and retired to the edge of the forest, where they waited patiently for the monks to finish their retreat. But as the weeks went by and it became clear that the wanderers were not leaving, the devas got together and decided that the only thing to do was to scare them away. Using their supernatural powers, they transformed themselves into wrathful demons and went around the grove shrieking and moaning, while all around them wafted a stench so awful that even the trees began to wither.

Scared out of their wits and utterly disgusted by the smell, the monks rushed from the grove and traveled en masse to Jetta’s Grove to plead with the Buddha to find a new place for them to practice. But the Buddha said, “Monks, go back to the same spot! Only by striving there will you attain the liberation you’re seeking. Don’t be afraid,” he added. “Take this sutra with you. Use it as the object of your meditation and also as a tool for protection.” Then he taught them the Karaniya Metta Sutta, “The Discourse on Loving-kindness” (quoted here from the Amavati Sangha translation). It begins:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace.

Only 42 lines long, the sutra paints a portrait of someone for whom loving-kindness is a beacon. It describes a person who has chosen to be free rather than to be right—one of the most difficult and most profound shifts any of us will ever make. It was precisely the shift I needed, I finally realized, if I was going to fulfill the vows I’d made as a monastic. I hadn’t gone to the monastery to run a business, after all. I’d gone there to train because I wanted to wake up, and I’d made a vow to help others wake up too. But reading the sutra, I could very clearly see the gap between reality and my aspiration.

Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways. Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.

Since taking on my new job, I’d most definitely been proud, demanding, and easily dissatisfied. I hadn’t felt peaceful or calm, and I certainly hadn’t been wise or skillful. I could be frugal, yes, but I couldn’t in all honesty call myself contented—especially since most of the time I did feel burdened. As for humility, well, let’s just say I had a long way to go. So even though I now had a way to understand and put into practice Hogen’s teaching, I wasn’t sure I was actually up to the task.

One evening I was walking up to my cabin and turning all this over in my mind when I passed an old sprawling oak at the top of the hill that led to the monastery’s cemetery. I remember stopping to stare at the oak’s thick, gnarled branches and saying under my breath, like an invocation, Let me love them. And immediately I felt in my body the response: fear. That’s when I realized I wasn’t actually skeptical of Hogen’s advice; I was afraid of it. I was afraid to get that close. Yet I also knew that choosing my boundaries was not an option. The same fear that kept me separate from others kept me separate from myself. So if I was going to love anyone, I had to begin with me. I had to be kind to the many beings in my mind: the perfectionist, the bully, the critic, and the cynic. The dictator, the judge, and the executioner. The fearful one, the vulnerable one, the insecure, and the ill at ease. I had to love all the many beings I knew well and the many others that I kept hidden. The ones I shunned or felt embarrassed by, those I tried to control, and those I pushed away.

Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, The great or the mighty, medium,
short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!

I had to gently look at the mighty criticisms I slung my way when things weren’t working the way I wanted, the middling arguments I constantly had with myself, the tiny but frequent putdowns that filled my ongoing monologue. These were the unacknowledged thoughts and feelings that spilled over as anger, judgment, and impatience toward others. I had practiced long enough to know that the way I was treating others was the way I was treating myself—that one couldn’t change without the other.

Standing under the oak silhouetted against the darkening sky, I heard in my mind the Buddha’s response to the frightened monks: “Go back to your place of practice! It is only there that you’ll find liberation.” There, in the places that scare you. There, in the midst of your suffering, your aversion, your discomfort. There, in your fear, your anxiety, your confusion. There, in your frailty and your humanity.

“Zuisei, you just have to love yourself,” Hogen could have said to me. “That, too, is how you love them.”

The Buddha once said that those who truly love themselves will never hurt others. He said that if we were to wander through the whole world, we wouldn’t find anyone dearer to us than ourselves. But since others feel the same way, we should love the most loveable “other.” Then again, we could love them knowing that ultimately there’s no self and no other—there’s simply interbeing.

If ignorance keeps the wheel of samsara turning, wisdom shows us that love is the true fuel of creation, the universe’s prime mover.

It was the fourth day of sesshin, and I’d gone through my usual gamut of emotions. As the days went by, I swung from excitement to annoyance to calm to exhaustion in a pattern I’d come to recognize over years spent doing monthly silent retreats.

Now, just past the halfway point, I felt crushingly tired. The bell had just rung to start the second nightly period of zazen, the lowest of low points for me. My body usually went on strike around eight o’clock, protesting the fact that it had been up since three in the morning. And my mind, helpless to engage in anything even remotely resembling concentration, floated in a gray haze which no amount of yoga, green tea, or fasting had helped to dissipate over the years. So at a certain point I’d given in and decided that in the evenings I’d just sit as still and silent as I could, letting the waves of fatigue wash over me. At least I could rely on the fact that soon I’d be able to go to bed and get a blessed five or six hours of sleep.

Almost dizzy with exhaustion, I sat unmoving on my cushion, willing myself to stay upright. But then, about halfway through the period, something shifted. One moment I was so deep in the fog I barely knew where I was; the next thing I knew, my mind was bright, clear, and as far as I could tell, completely empty of thought. Instead, what filled me to the brim was a slow-spreading feeling of love. Like a drop of ink released into a bowl of water, the feeling started in my chest and gradually extended outward until it completely suffused my body and mind. Then it kept growing. It filled the zendo, enveloping the hundred or so sitters around me doing zazen in neat rows, quiet as trees. It encompassed the building, the snow-covered field that surrounded it, and the mountain rising in the distance. It grew and grew until I felt myself to be a dot in an ocean of love so vast, and at once so gentle and so fierce, that it was overwhelming. It did overwhelm me. It overwhelmed me until I couldn’t find myself anymore.

The bell rang to mark the end of the period, and I felt everyone stir around me. A woman cleared her throat and a few others echoed her. My neighbor sat with his knees drawn up to his chin and carefully massaged his legs while rotating one foot in circles. I stood up slowly, and as the instrumentalist began to ring the bell for the bows, I realized with a start that we were done for the day. I’d sat through walking meditation and the last zazen period without noticing. I didn’t even feel tired anymore.

That was the first time I thought of love as the ground of being, the first time I clearly felt that emptiness is not empty at all, but is filled with love. You just have to love them was the simplest, most direct instruction Hogen could have given me. It was also the truest. If ignorance keeps the wheel of samsara turning, wisdom shows us that love is the true fuel of creation, the universe’s prime mover.

Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

When the monks had learned the Karaniya Metta Sutta from the Buddha, they returned to their grove and did as their teacher had instructed. Day and night they chanted its words and reflected on their meaning, and when the tree-dwelling devas heard the sutra, their hearts were suffused with love. They asked the monks to sit at the base of the trees and assured them that from that moment on, the devas themselves would protect them.

“No harm can ever befall a person who follows the path of metta,” says Acharya Buddharakkhita in his commentary to the sutra. This is love as protection.

Don’t worry, the Buddha said. Love the weak or strong. Love the great or the small, the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away. Love them as you love yourself. Love them unconditionally, whether you think you’re capable of it or not. This kind of love has nothing to do with ability. It has nothing to do with anything other than itself.

To me, this teaching said: Forget about things done or left to do. Forget about deadlines and milestones, profits and quotas. Those will be taken care of—they always are. So don’t worry. Whenever a being appears in front of you, just love them. That is your focus. That’s where the real work lies.

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