Jane Hirshfield What Is the Emotional Life of a Buddha?
Within this tree another tree inhabits the same body; within this storne another stone rests, in many shades of grey the same, its identical surface and weight. And within my body, another body, whose history, waiting, sings: there ist no other body, it sings, there is no other world.1 In SOTO ZEN, though there is no formal koan study, practitioners are often encouraged to work with a question that arises out of their own experience. Some years ago I realized that a new one had emerged for me - „What ist the emotional life of a Buddha?“ The question made visible certain preconceptions I had been holding about awakened being, and the fact that preconceptions on this matter quietly shape every Buddhist community and tradition. Yet both in the literature and, all to often, even in the ongoing conversation that is communal practice life, these ideas exist more as implicit assumptions than as the subject of direct examination. For me, it became important to bring this area of Dharma-life to the surface – to consider it, experience it, and question it more fully within the mind of practice. I wanted to sort through the subliminal ideas I was carrying about the emotions and awakened mind, to bring them up into the moment-by-moment experience of my own heart and mind and see what I found. Let me begin at Tassajara, the Soto Zen monastery inland from Big Sur where I lived for three years in the mid-1970s. There, a stone Buddha of great beauty and and concentration sits on the 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 this reminder of my own Buddhanature quite helpful. Without such equanimity, how could I sit without moving amid the many hours of thoughts, feelings, memories, physical pain, even the joys, that are an inevitable Part of Zen practice? Without such equanimity, how could I learn that it´s possible to feel strongly without necessarily acting upon those feelings, without reifying or identifying with them, fearing or desiring them? And yet, 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 fifteenth-century Zen master and poet Ikkyu once described literature as a path of intimacy with the 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 fraught with the possibility for error, but it is also a path of inclusion, not exclusion, and one that begins in the moment-by-moment experience of one´s own life rather than some outer concept of goal. Where had the idea of excluding the emotions come from? Surely not just from a statue. Some Buddhists teachings I encountered as a beginning student spoke of all thoughts and emotions as manifestations of Maya, the symbolic embodiment of illusion (and, no doubt not coincidentally, female). 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. Still others used a language of self-control and will, of „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 the emotions. Also, within a mostly unarticulated community agreement, certain kinds of emotional behavior were valued as signs of mature practice, while others were regarded as lapses – X´s temper vs. Y´s evenness, A´s emotionality vs. B´s solidity. Stories and poems on the subject of the emotions from various Buddhist traditions point in every direction. An interesting one, for many reasons, 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 withered 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.2 Suzuki Roshi, the Soto Zen priest who founded Tassajara, mused in a lecture he gave at 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. Ther 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 overinsistent, 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 monk is shown denying desire and the body; the old woman, as insisting on their inclusion – significantly, not in of for herself, but simply as a test of valid practice. Her response to his failure is no dried-out statement of practice philsophy but an immediate, vivid, and full-bodied application of the Bodhisattva Manjushri´s sword of compassion. In this reading, the story can be seen as a call to include all aspects of life in Buddhist experience. In Zen, there is no emotional life apart from the one that exists this moent. 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 awakened heart-mind a state of detachment or a state of non-attachment? Between those two words and comcepts 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 feeling 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 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 name of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara means, literally, „the one who hears the cries of the world and responds.“ 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 looks from the point of view where anything – the idea of compassion, the idea of a Buddha – is given entrance, all the rest comes flooding in. The experience of 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 and 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, oil tankers and subways, and cats in heat who wake us, furious or smiling, in the middle of the brief summer night?
1 A version of this essay appeared under the title „Being intimate with Demons“ in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Spring 1995, pp. 56-57. Reprinted by permission of the author. 2 „6. No Loving-Kindness“, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, n.d.), p. 10.