I've been advocating living passionately lately. As a young monk I was taught that real Buddhist practice involves the extinction of the passions, and I have not abandoned that basic teaching. I admit, though, that when I first began Zen training the notion of "extinguishing the passions" caused me some confusion. I was drawn very powerfully to Zen, and I had a strong yearning for enlightenment, even if I wasn't sure what "enlightenment" meant. I also knew that powerful fears and desires pulled me around by the nose, and this teaching suggested a way out of that. But the phrase "extinguishing the passions" also conjured up a vision of lifelessness, a dead numbness, and that I didn't want. So with a mix of faith and foolhardiness, and suspending judgement, I dove headlong into the practice. Lo and behold, I found out it works. Resting in "Big Mind," the space through which these fears and desires pass, I came to understand "no-self," the difference between recognizing the sensation of anger, and grasping it in the belief that "I am angry." I learned that past conditioning does not inevitably predetermine our actions. The term "nibbuta," used in Pali Buddhist texts to describe those who enter "nibbana" (Sk. nirvana), describes them as being "cooled from the fever of klesa,"(1) which is the word often translated as "passion." Nirvana, then, implies the extinction of fever, and is like a state of good health. As time went on, I found that the fever of passions in me did indeed die down, leading to a much healthier state of mind.
Imagine my surprise one day when I realized, deep down in my gut, that I was profoundly in love. In my years at the monastery I had had infatuations, but this was different. All I had to do was simply sit still within infatuation, and in a short time I would see it was based on very little, really, and it would arise and pass like other sensations. This time, the more I did that, the clearer it became that this arose from a different place entirely. At first it was like realizing that I had a third arm or a tail; it shouldn't be there, but there it was, undeniably a part of me. Then, in time, I discovered she was in love with me too. In this monastery at this point in time, marriage between monks (we used this term for both men and women) was acceptable, but looked upon as a "lesser path," a concession to human frailty. But without doubt, my own life and practice was leading in this direction. It may have appeared as a detour to others, but it was the next step for me. The only way for me to go forward was to take this step. Fortunately, this was also true for Gyokuko, and so in 1982 we took it together.
Right after marrying, we moved to the temple here in Portland. Over the years we have found that marriage can be a wonderful expression of Sangha, and a very fertile ground for practice. We have also worked to establish forms of practice compatible with lay life. The question of how that old phrase "extinguishing the passions" relates to being "passionately engaged" in life comes up a lot. I now think some of the confusion about this arises from a problem in translation. While we are keeping many of the key Buddhist terms which don't translate easily, like"Buddha" and "Dharma," others we usually translate to a close English equivalent. We say "suffering" instead of "dukkha", "passion" instead of "klesa," and "ignorance" instead of "avidya". Words carry a tremendous weight of cultural history, and when translating from one language to another, words may be employed that are very similar in basic usage, yet have deep implications in the new language that were not present in the original. "Passion" used for "klesa" is one of these.
In A Dictionary of Buddhism, the definition given for klesa is "'defilement,' i.e. 'morally defiling passions.'"(2) In common usage, "passion" implies intense emotion, emotion that is dangerous and out of control, and this is close to the meaning of "klesa". But "passion" also means boundless enthusiasm, wholehearted involvement, as when we say something like "art is my passion". This type of passion has nothing to do with "defilement," which is the really important aspect in the term "klesa." What really interests me, though, is that "passion" is derived from "pathos," which means "suffering." The passion of Christ is his suffering on the cross, and com-passion means to "suffer with." So at its root, "passion" is closer to "dukkha" than to "klesa." The first Noble Truth is that all existence is marked by dukkha. It is sometimes formulated as "life is suffering," an expression I have always disliked. But we could just as easily say, "life is passion", so to live passionately and wholeheartedly could imply accepting suffering as it truly is, and fully accepting life.
I think it's important to make a distinction between the various feelings, which are just sensations that arise and pass in the body and mind, and that which is implied by "klesa", or "morally defiling passions." Hunger is just a sensation, one that informs us about a bodily need. Food obsessions and compulsive eating are something else entirely. The old texts would label these as "gluttony," which is a form of greed, the first in the list of"klesa." The truth of dukkha is that all things that exist are transient, so there is no permanent refuge in them. Therefore they are marked by "unsatisfactoriness." More importantly, though, "satisfaction" is transient, a moving target, so the key to dukkha is internal to ourselves. Grasping after things, and trying to solidify the "self," is what the Second Noble Truth, the Truth of Cause, is all about. The intrinsic quality of dukkha, which is a reflection of anicca, or transience, is not abrogated by practice. So Buddhist emancipation involves accepting anicca rather than fighting it. In other words, "passion" as dukkha in the First Noble Truth is just life as it is. Freedom from "defiling passions" comes from relinquishing grasping itself, which is the Second Noble Truth, and this is what practice is all about.
To me, accepting transient sensation is very liberating. Anger can be like lightning flashing though a clear sky. Grief can arise in response to the profound depth of our connection to everything. Equanimity comes from neither grasping nor aversion to these intense feelings. The three fires of self, the three root klesas, are greed, hatred, and delusion. When we get wrapped up in basic desires, identify with them and hold them close to our hearts, they become greed. All the subplots of greed, like torpor, lust, and gluttony arise from simple sensations we then take as defining us. The "I" in "I must have" is what solidifies the ego and wraps it up with the desire. The desire itself, however, is just sensation. It's the same way with anger. Anger can arise from conditioning, so that something completely innocent can set us off, or it can be a pure and truthful reaction that carries great force. Either way, it is just sensation that arises and passes. But when we hold anger close to our hearts, justify it and identify with it, it becomes hatred. Denying anger, stuffing it down inside somewhere, just makes it smolder and burn slowly. It becomes displaced, but controls us nonetheless. Delusions arise in the same way, from a web of entanglement, but with our opinions, experiences, and insights. Once we're wrapped up and identified with them, even the most profound enlightenment experiences become part of the hardened shell of self. All these sensations, opinions and insights are transient, so marked by dukkha. Or, as I like to say these days, they are part of the passionate flow of life. But grasping after them, we go from being real, immediate and intense about life to being wrapped up, identified with, and possessive of them, and we move from passion to real suffering.
I admire people who are wholehearted, passionate about life; to a point. A very young Bob Dylan wrote of his adventure to discover life. When he overhears a woman tell the father of her child that "love is just a four letter word," he is just setting off again on his journey.
In time he realizes how transient life is.
As I listened to those lyrics recently as sung by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan continued on his "never ending tour." All at once he struck me as a tragic figure, caught up in the transience of intense experience, entangled in it, and identified with it; grasping each thing, then tossing it away, missing the depth that comes with stability and sitting still within experience. And I realized that without practice, I could have gone much the same way.
"At the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade,
And I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid,
And I gaze back to street
The sidewalk and the sign,
And I'm one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind."
It was letting go of conditioning, the patterns of old habit energy, and sitting still within desire that allowed me to drop to a place much deeper than that, and to understand the difference between passionate acceptance of life, and the burning attachment to sensation. When I think of aging, burned-out rock stars, or the ones that die young in a great blaze, they strike me as burning with intensity for a while, but leaving a great residue, and scorching those that get too close.
And the Blessed One addressed the monks:
"All things, O monks, are on fire. And what,
O monks, are all these things that are on fire?...
"The ear is on fire; sounds are on fire;...
the nose is on fire; odors are on fire;...
the tongue is on fire; tastes are on fire;...
the body is on fire; things tangible are on fire;...
the mind is on fire; ideas are on fire;...
mind-consciousness is on fire; impressions
received by the mind are on fire;
and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant,
or indifferent, originates in dependence on
impressions received by the mind, that also is on fire.
"And with what are these on fire?
"With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of
hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth,
old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief,
and despair are they on fire."
In this passage from the Buddha's "Fire Sermon" we find a very different state of mind that also arises from profound insight into the futility of grasping anything. This insight leads to renunciation, and I admire renunciates too. After all, I am one myself in many ways. But again, my admiration only goes so far. Too much renunciation leads to coldness, or dried-up mummification. Here's a story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:
As it says in the "Fire Sermon," all things are on fire. But this fire is really just anicca, constant change. So life itself is on fire, marked by dukkha. It is passion. As life is on fire, I've decided that I aspire to burn cleanly; not too hot, not too cold; and to leave as little residue as possible. A "middle way" of burning that is not feverish, just alive.
As married priests, Gyokuko and I love each other deeply and very passionately. We have a Coleman stove we take with us camping. If you turn the valve up too high on one of these stoves, you get a large, yellow, very smoky flame. When the tank has too little air in it, the flame gets weak, and again, very smoky. When it is adjusted just right, the flame burns blue and clean, and leaves very little residue. I believe that our practice together is teaching us to burn more cleanly too, and we are leaving less residue because of it. It's a middle way between the fever of grasping and the coldness of aversion. I realize that I am also very passionate about the Dharma. Sometimes I feel ablaze with it; it surges through me, and I know the Dharma and I are alive and on fire together. It feels absolutely wonderful, and I am deeply satisfied.
1 For a discussion of these terms, see A Dictionary of Buddhism, T.O. Ling, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972, p. 196.
2 Ibid, p. 159.
3 "Love Is Just a Four Letter Word," © 1967, Warner Bros. Music. Performed by Joan Baez on the album "Any Day Now, Songs of Bob Dylan," Joan Baez, 1987, 1968, Vanguard Records, Santa Monica, CA.
4 "One Too Many Mornings," also from the album "Any Day Now, Songs of Bob Dylan."
5 From the Buddha's "Fire Sermon," in The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, E.A. Burtt, 1955, 1982, NAL Penguin Inc, New York, pp. 96-97. Notice that the "passions" listed here are hatred and infatuation, with misery and despair etc. as a subsetof klesa. Birth, old age, and death are karmic consequence.
6 Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps, Doubleday Anchor, no date, p. 10.