As westerners we often discount the simple wisdom offered by eastern cultures, only because we have been programmed to doubt subtle nuances in human relationship, and the crazy, simple wisdom which informs them.
As Menday Wang points out in Eastern vs. Western Culture, Eastern people live in time, which means that they follow the natural order of time to do things step by step, not wanting to veer from a set schedule, whereas Western people live in space – often following their dreams to do what they desire, but sometimes missing some of the important steps along the way which help to define our paths as human beings living an earthly experience.
One of the most important ‘steps’ along the way is love, but to experience it, we must ‘dream’ it and this is where East meets West.
Zen teaches, or rather points the way, as D.T. Suzuki would say, so that we may learn to love better. In classic Buddhist teachings – informed largely by the sentiment of the East, we learn loving kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and a particular form of equanimity – all forms of love. In the West, we learn by happenstance. We meet someone, we long for them, we fumble, and fall, and hopefully, through experiencing a bruised heart, and a wounded ego we seek other ways to love another more profoundly.
We don’t know how to love correctly. This is the sentiment expressed by one of the most quoted contemporary Zen Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh. The Zen master states that, “To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” What does Hanh mean by this? Essentially, if love is missing one of the four qualities discussed in Buddhism (as well as many other ancient teachings) then it probably isn’t love. It is something we call love, but it is more than likely a projection of our egoic needs. As Zen teacher, D.T. Suzuki once argued, “We are too ego-centered. The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow… We are, however, given many chances to break through this shell, and the first and greatest of them is when we reach adolescence.” Is it not also in this time when we first, as both Westerners and Easterners alike, face our earliest broken hearts and shattered egos?
Zen offers some very salient points once we seek to love better than we have before, whether we arrive at that desire from an Eastern or Western set of societal norms. Here are four of them:
“The teachings on love given by the Buddha are clear, scientific, and applicable… Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
- Maitri, Loving-Kindness – Maitri is derived from Sanskrit, meaning friend. Foremost, we should be-friend all those we wish to love. Consider your romantic relationships. If you merely desire another, with a need to conquer them, you aren’t being their friend. This first precept also encourages us to look at our relationship with ourselves. Are we ‘friendly’ to ourselves? If not, how can we befriend another if we are at war within?
As Guy Finley describes, the way to win the war against yourself is to realize that:
Freedom from what is unwanted by you begins with awakening to what is unseen within you.
Finley further asserts that the ‘enemy’ behind all the problems you face isn’t outside of you, but dwells within your present mind. Without your conscious knowledge, psychological characteristics built up over time and experience, inhibit your inner being, and make choices FOR YOU. Only by learning to uncover that inner silent architect of your life, can you “expose and dismiss these self-compromising characters and reveal the truth about who you really are. The freedom you’ve longed for follows. You’ll learn to align yourself with life’s secret direction, which invites the greatest power in the universe to take your side.”
- Karuna, Compassion – Compassion is defined as an active sympathy or willingness to share the burdens of others. In the Pali language, the word is panna. It means ‘insight’, ‘discernment’, or ‘consciousness’. Truly, if we have not reached a certain level of insight or consciousness, we still see another’s wounds as separate from our own, and have no desire to bear another’s burden. This doesn’t mean that we allow people to walk all over us, as we all must take full responsibility for our own choices, but it does mean that we have compassion for another’s ‘cross to bare’ to use Christian terminology.
When you look into someone’s eyes, do you see your own soul?
Hanh says that “Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.”
- Mudita, Sympathetic Joy – Sharon Salzburg of the Upaya Zen Clinic says that instead of “relishing another’s misfortunes,” we should look at their joyous moments in life as our own. Mudita builds on the previous tenant of Karuna. Salzburg says, “One doorway to sympathetic joy is compassion. Life is so fragile, with its volcanic shifts from pleasure to pain, from ease to difficult confrontations, from getting what we want to watching what we just got begin to fade away. We go up and down, all of us. Vulnerability in the face of constant change is what we share, whatever our present condition. If we remember that even people who have more than we do suffer, we will feel closer to them.”
When someone else is lucky in life, instead of feeling envious, rejoice that they have experienced a fortuitous moment.
- Upeksha, Equanimity – Equanimity is the balanced, calm approach we should take to all things in life, including love. Though romantic love has its roller coaster moments, as can familial love, or even love among friends, all REAL love is balanced in its utmost aspect.
Without upeksha, our love can become possessive. Hanh uses the analogy of trying to put a refreshing summer breeze in a tin can. If it is left to be free, it stays a breeze, in the can, it dies. Love is like the breeze, or a cloud, or a flower. Hanh says that many people rob others of their liberty until they can no longer be themselves. “They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying,” says Hanh.
Upeksha contains samatajñana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as our equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others, states the Zen master.
By developing true equanimity, and staying in balance, we can hold our loves sacred but not hold them so tightly that they begin to wilt.
Love is an ongoing practice, even for the normally ‘pacifist’ Zen master—after all many Samurai warriors were also Zen practitioners, but the attempt at being more loving is noble, according to the Buddha. It’s at least a good start on our way to achieving Nirvana – to love ourselves, and others, more completely.