The Great Love

As well as its famed doctrines of emptiness and nonattachment, the heart of Buddhism is the love and compassion we feel toward all beings.

Lewis Richmond
1 May 2004
Photo by tsoilanc1.

As well as its famed doctrines of emptiness and nonattachment, says Zen teacher Lewis Richmond, the heart of Buddhism is the compassion we feel toward all beings and the love we bring to all our relationships.

If, as the Buddha taught, the nature of the self and of other beings is insubstantial, impermanent and fundamentally “empty of own-being,” then why and how should we love one another? Or to put it more simply, what is the role of love in Buddhism? Vimalakirti, a householder with a wife and children, talks about this in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. He begins by describing to Manjushri, one of the great luminaries, the insubstantiality of beings:

Manjushri, a bodhisattva should regard all living beings as a wise man regards the reflection of the moon in water, or as magicians regard men created by magic. He should regard them as being like a face in a mirror, like the water of a mirage, like the sound of an echo, like a mass of clouds in the sky, like the previous moment of a ball of foam, like the appearance and disappearance of a bubble of water . . . like the track of a bird in the sky . . . like dream visions seen after waking . . . like the perception of color in one blind from birth . . . . Precisely thus, Manjushri, does a bodhisattva who realizes ultimate selflessness consider all beings.

When we first encounter this kind of teaching, it may feel quite maddening: if people are like bubbles of water or balls of foam, why should we care about them? Are Buddhists people who wander through life seeing other people as nothing more than dreams or mirages? What does this mean for us in terms of our daily life and ordinary human relationships? Manjushri helps us frame our questions when he says to Vimalakirti, “Noble sir, if a bodhisattva considers all living beings in such a way, how does he generate the great love toward them?”

Like Manjusri, when we hear Vimalakirti’s description of living beings as balls of foam, a serious question should immediately arise for us. We should ask, “How can this be, that living beings are like clouds or foam? My whole life involves other people. They seem completely real to me. My relationships with them depend on that. So what is Vimalakirti talking about?”

If we fail to ask this question, then we might jump to a nihilistic conclusion: “Well, living beings are quite insignificant after all, like clouds in the sky. I shouldn’t have any particular feeling about them; they’re all just insubstantial.” We may think we shouldn’t care about other people. But, like Manjushri, we know intuitively that compassion is the essence of the dharma. We know that not caring cannot be the right understanding.

Vimalakirti says, in response to Manjushri’s question, How does a bodhisattva generate great love?:

Manjushri, when a bodhisattva considers all living beings in this way, he thinks, “Just as I have realized the dharma, so should I teach it to living beings.” Thereby, he generates the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings.

If we’re alert, we notice the abrupt shift in Vimalakirti’s point of view. He has just finished saying that living beings are as insubstantial as a ball of foam. But when he’s challenged to explain how we could love them, suddenly he begins talking about “living beings” in a much more conventional way. In other words, people are back!

As Kumarajiva, an early translator of this sutra, points out, living beings feel real to themselves—they have “the living-being feeling.” So, as bodhisattvas who want to help them, we immediately inhabit that realm—we go back into that “living-being feeling” too. In Vimalakirti’s words, we generate the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings.

Vimalakirti continues:

Thereby, he generates the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings; the love that is peaceful because free of grasping; the love that is not feverish because free of passions . . . the love that is nondual because it is involved neither with the external nor with the internal; the love that is imperturbable because totally ultimate.

Before, when he was likening living beings to balls of foam, Vimalakirti was talking about the understanding of a bodhisattva. But in this passage, with its description of various kinds of spiritual love, we are clued in to the feeling of a bodhisattva. So this hints to an important terrain of practice that has to do with our emotional life, with establishing a purified sense of radical openness and compassion. In this passage and the one that follows, Vimalakirti evokes how a mature dharma practitioner actually feels.

Thereby, he generates the love that is firm, its high resolve unbreakable, like a diamond; the love that is pure, purified in its intrinsic nature; the love that is even, its aspirations being equal; the Tathagata’s love, that understands reality; the Buddha’s love that causes living beings to awaken from their sleep; the love that is spontaneous because it is fully enlightened spontaneously; the love that is enlightenment because it is unity of experience; the love that has no presumption because it has eliminated attachment and aversion; the love that is great compassion because it infuses the Mahayana with radiance; the love that is never exhausted because it acknowledges voidness and selflessness; the love that is giving because it bestows the gift of dharma free of the tight fist of a bad teacher; the love that is effort because it takes responsibility for all living beings; the love that is wisdom because it causes attainment at the proper time; the love that is without formality because it is pure in motivation.

Each of these phrases represents some commentary or teaching about the emotional transformation of a realized person. They are clues begging us to ask, “What is the quality of our emotional life? What is the quality of our feeling for people?” They also help us recognize what qualities we should be looking for in a teacher.

Now let’s examine just a few of these phrases more closely.

The love that is enlightenment because it is unity of experience; the love that has no presumptions because it has eliminated attachment and aversion.

This provides a clue about how our way of encountering others is transformed through practice. It says that an awakening to the insubstantiality of beings and things—a “unity of experience”—actually opens us up emotionally. We might think it would somehow distance us from living beings, but it actually does the opposite. Or, as Vimalakirti says, we feel the love that has no presumptions because it has eliminated attachment and aversion. In ordinary people, attachment and aversion are constantly confusing us. So when these are cleared up, there is no sense of separation between ourselves and others. In that realized state, at last we can truly love without confusion.

My teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, liked to talk about how Dogen, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master, loved plum blossoms. Dogen would watch the plum blossom budding in early spring. He would gaze at them, appreciating their beauty. An ordinary person might see the plum blossom with “attachment and aversion”—attachment to the plum’s beauty, aversion to its impending fading away. Dogen’s way was “detachment,” Suzuki Roshi said—it was an attitude that has no presumptions.

“Detachment,” Suzuki Roshi continued, “means to live with people the way you see beauty of the plum: if you want to appreciate the living flower—or the living being—you cannot be selfish. Your mind should be instead in a state of selflessness.”

Often I’m asked, “What is this detachment thing in Buddhism? It sounds cold and hard.” Actually, as Suzuki Roshi explains, detachment in Buddhism means just the opposite of cold and hard. The plum flower in spring is opening very slowly and steadily, but at the same time it’s dying. To fully appreciate the plum blossom—to love it—we need to give up our sense of wanting the flower to be beautiful, or wanting it to linger—both of which are involved with our own ideas and desires. We need to appreciate the way the flower actually is. So detachment means love in its true sense—love, as Vimalakirti says, which has eliminated attachment and aversion. We see the plum blossom and tears come to our eyes: it’s beautiful, and it’s dying. We’re completely one with that.

It infuses the Mahayana with radiance.

Usually, love is thought of as being something passionate, something we have to struggle to control. But, as Vimalakirti says, through the realization of emptiness, love is transformed into the love that is great compassion. Why is that? Because it infuses the Mahayana with radiance. A teacher mature in dharma radiates. You can see it, and you can feel it. It’s very much like the radiance of falling in love, but it’s not the ordinary falling in love where we’re still involved in attachment and aversion; it’s a radiance that is imperturbable because totally ultimate.

Earlier in the sutra we learned that Vimalakirti is able to take his consummate wisdom anywhere. He goes to racetracks to enlighten gamblers; he goes to bars to enlighten drunkards. He’s a businessman among businessmen; he participates in government. He goes to schools to educate the children; he goes to hospitals to care for the sick; he goes everywhere. So Vimalakirti embodies that level of practice in which, not only is he imperturbable wherever he goes and whatever he does, but there’s a kind of radiance about him.

Without the radiance, Buddhism can seem rather dry. Manjushri is an example of that: in this passage he comes off as a little dry in his understanding; he’s not completely opened up emotionally. He doesn’t radiate the way Vimalakirti does.

The love that is without formality because it is pure in motivation.

The best teachers teach as the situation presents and requires; they don’t stick to some formal method. I’m reminded of a story that Ed Brown, a fellow student of Shunryu Suzuki, tells in one of his books. There was a beautiful rock in front of the office at Tassajara Zen Monastery—everybody loved it; it was a great rock. Ed didn’t have a stepping-stone for his own cabin, and so getting into his place was often awkward. One day, though, Ed went to his cabin and the beautiful office stone that everybody loved was there, now as a stepping-stone for Ed’s cabin. He asked around and found out that Suzuki Roshi had ordered it moved there.

When Ed asked Suzuki Roshi about it, Roshi said, “Oh, well, you needed a stone.” Ed was embarrassed, and said, “But Roshi, that’s the office stone. Everybody loves that stone.” Suzuki Roshi replied, “Oh, we can get another stone for the office. I wanted you to have this one.”

It’s that quality of noticing. Think how cared for, how loved, Ed must have felt at that moment. The thing that mattered to Suzuki Roshi was taking care of Ed, his relationship to Ed. He was not so concerned about the stone that everybody liked so much. The plum blossom of Ed was right in front of the teacher, and so the teacher acted without formality. It wasn’t as though there was a big ceremony around it; he just moved the stone.

The love that is wisdom because it causes attainment at the proper time.

Is there some proper time for attainment? Let’s take a look at one of the classic Zen koans, the one about wild geese. Ma Tsu and Bai Chang were standing together and some geese flew over. Ma Tsu asked, “What are they?” and Bai Chang said, “They’re wild geese.” Ma Tsu continued, “Where have they gone?” and Bai Chang said, “They’ve flown away.” Ma Tsu reached out, then, grabbed Bai Chang’s nose and twisted it. He said, “They’ve been here from the very first.”

Bai Chang had a spiritual realization at that moment.

This is Bai Chang’s enlightenment story, one of the best known in Zen. It sounds very wonderful, quite spontaneous. But actually, these two people have been intimate, in a teacher-student sense, for a long time. Both of them know each other well. This moment of the geese comes, and it looks like an “opportune time.” But we should not think of this “moment” as a moment in the ordinary sense. The moment that happens between Ma Tsu and Bai Chang is a timeless moment—it has “been there from the very first.” A commentary to this passage in the Vimalakirti Sutra about “attainment at the proper time” says, “It causes attainment at the proper time because it is always the proper time.” Every moment is the proper time, but usually we can’t see it.

There is a term in Buddhism—”self-secret.” It means there aren’t actually any secrets. It’s all completely open to us right now. The problem is, we create the secret through our attachment, through our inability to see through things, our hesitation to open up. So, practically speaking, the dharma appears to be a secret. But it’s a secret only because we make it so.

“Self-secret” is a very accurate term to describe what’s going on in this sutra. We get the sense that when Manjushri questions Vimalakirti about the bodhisattva’s great love, it’s a bit of a self-secret to him. Manjushri doesn’t quite get it because it’s not something you get—it’s something you have to open up to, that you feel.

Children of a certain age like to play a game where they put something over their head and then think they’re invisible. They put a bag on their head and say, “You can’t see me!” Well, actually, we can see them, it’s just that they can’t see us. Self-secret is something like that. We walk around with a bag over our head and we think there’s some secret we have to discover so that we can see. Sometimes we’re desperate to find out that secret. And all that’s required is to take the bag off our head.

The love that is spontaneous because it is fully enlightened spontaneously.

This means “it’s always available.” We can lift the bag off of our head any time. The geese fly over every day, all the time. Any time is a good time for things to open up for Bai Chang. And who is Bai Chang in the story? Bai Chang is you or me.

The moment of opening up is the so-called “opportune moment,” but it is always there. Every day there are geese, every day they are flying by, but how can we really see them just as they are, the way Dogen saw the plum blossom? When we notice the geese afresh we realize, as Ma Tsu says, they’ve been there from the very first.

This passage helps us remember that, in the end, practice really isn’t about getting something we didn’t already have from the very first. We might say to ourselves, “I’ll be different once something big happens to me—I’ll be better, happier, more OK.” This understanding is not wrong, exactly, but it is a little narrow. That way of thinking is still inside the self-secret, some mumbling from inside the bag.

The love that is nondual because it is involved neither with the external nor with the internal.

Once the bag comes off, we’re opened up and can experience the love that is nondual because it is involved with neither the external nor the internal. In an ordinary state of consciousness, our love is conditional—it has presumptions. We think, “I’m here and you’re there.” That’s the sense of “internal and external.” We fall in and out of that kind of love. The love that is nondual, however, doesn’t have a sense of “I’m here and you’re there.” The love that is nondual embraces living beings unconditionally.

From our ordinary point of view, hearing Vimalakirti describe living beings as balls of foam or clouds in the sky may seem like a putdown, but actually it’s the opposite. It’s a celebration of livings beings as they actually are—each of them wonderful and beautiful like Dogen’s plum blossom, opening in the early spring sun, expanding into its fullness as a flower, and starting to wilt and fall even before we know it. Yes, plum blossoms—living beings—are insubstantial and always changing. But that is precisely what makes them beautiful, and why we want to help them. That is why we generate the love that is truly a refuge for them.

Manjushri’s wisdom is good, but until it’s opened up emotionally with the great love—the great metta—that Vimalakirti evokes, there’s something incomplete about it. It’s only when we have this kind of sparkling care for living beings that we can be complete and open in our relationships with other people. And then the dharma comes alive—not as something to understand, but as something to live, wherever we go, whatever we do.

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Zen teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice. His new book is Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity, a Guide for Men.