"Moon (#296)" © Louise LeBourgeois, Courtesy of Lyonsweir Gallery
“Moon (#296)” © Louise LeBourgeois, Courtesy of Lyonsweir Gallery

In early winter’s rain
I’m pleased when up at the peak
Clouds spread open
To show me the moon I longed to see:
A storm that knows compassion.
                      —Saigyō

There comes a moment in everyone’s practice when our fixed ideas of what is spiritual, and what’s not, collapse in a paradoxical heap before our very eyes. We’re troubled, mystified, frequently angered by these intrusions of too—messy life into the glass house of our idealized self; we’re left to wonder, very often, where desire parts ways with wisdom.

I was eating spaghetti one Sunday morning at a bucolic Zen monastery when such a riddle confronted me in the form of a tattooed, cigarette-smoking priest zooming by in a broken-down golf cart. A quarter of an hour before, I’d been prostrating before this very roshi as he held forth from the zendo altar. Now here he was playing zoom-zoom and puffing, cracking jokes and winking at girls without a hint of decorum or care.

New to practice, I could not reconcile this glaring [apparent] contradiction between what I took to be “Buddhist” behavior—some notion of cool-blooded detachment—and freewheeling, sensual life. How could so-called lower nature coexist fluently with higher yearning? There seemed to be a challenge here, and in the many years since that morning, I’ve come to learn that this built-in riddle tests every Buddhist I’ve ever known: How to make peace with the force of desire [for sex, money, status, you-name-it] while also practicing to be free. How can we learn to enjoy our desires without being tyrannized by them? Can we navigate the Middle Path? Or is it advisable, not being masters, to work on cooling our inner flames?

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