Cutting Off Love

I remember one day driving in the car through the Japanese countryside. I was in the backseat, someone else was driving, and the abbot of my monastery was in the front. I think we were probably driving between the main monastery and the abbot's home temple in the mountains. I leaned forward and asked the abbot, who would eventually become my teacher, "What's your favorite part about being a monk?"

That's a stupid question, by the way. I think that's kind of like asking someone, "What's your favorite part about being in the Army?" What are they supposed to say? The smell of napalm in the morning? Actually, that's kind of the answer he ended up giving me. His answer was, "Cutting off love."

"What?!" I asked, surprised.

"Shaving your head means cutting off love. So monk means cutting off love." He was smiling and looked genuinely happy when he said this. For the record, this is the exact moment in time when I should have made a 180-degree turn and run in the opposite direction. But I didn't. I kept walking straight into Dogen-Zenji's bizarre kingdom.

In English, the word "love" is kind of vague, and can mean all sorts of things. Especially in a religious or Buddhist context, saying love can invoke ideas of compassion, kindness, and empathy, as well as the more attached kinds of love. But in Japanese, there is no ambiguity about 愛 ("ai"), which means attached love or affection. Ai can be love for your children, your husband, or your pet, but it's a different kind of love than say, Buddha's feelings for all sentient beings, which would be 慈悲 ("jihi"). Jihi translates as something closer to compassion or mercy. At Nisodo, the women's monastery where I ended up training, I only heard the word ai used in a negative way in dharma talks. This kind of love is associated with attachment, obsession, and clinging, all of which the Buddha said cause suffering.

For many years I resisted this uncompromising party line of traditional Buddhist monasticism, the belief that 愛 should be done away with if we are to find relief from suffering. When I first started meditating, I was convinced that my experiences in meditation of seeing into the fluid nature of self was not dissimilar from my experience of falling in love. When I was in love, I saw the parts of myself I always believed were "mine" quickly fall away- my boundaries, my ideas, even my ego, seemed to not be solid at all. And of course, the joyful falling-in-love feeling felt something like a religious experience. So couldn't dharma practice be the same as love? And even if they weren't exactly the same thing, couldn't they at least share space and make room for each other?

Unfortunately, the deeper I went into Asian traditions the more I saw that, at least for monks and nuns, love is always viewed as a hindrance. I really didn't want to acknowledge this for a long time, kind of like how no one really believes they are going to die ("That's not about me, right? That's about some other guy!"). Japan, of course, is a weird anomaly, since most of the Buddhist clergy marry. Many historians trace the roots of this practice to Shinran (1173-1263), who founded the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Shinran not only married a woman but claimed this was a virtue, and claimed that he was "neither monk nor layman."

Dogen lived around the same time as Shinran, and went in a different direction. I've scoured Dogen's writings for any positive view of love, and there's nothing. It's a desert. The most damning passage I've found about love (and there are a lot) in the Shobogenzo is from the Gyoji chapter. This passage keeps coming back to haunt me (this is from the Nishijima translation):
However we treasure the factors and circumstances [that we see] as self and others, they are impossible to hold onto; therefore, if we do not abandon loved ones, it may happen, in word and in deed, that loved ones abandon us. If we have compassion for loved ones, we should be compassionate to loved ones. To be compassionate to loved ones means to abandon loved ones.
What do we do with this? To be compassionate to loved ones means to abandon loved ones? Really?! Sometimes it seems incredible to me that we actually formed a religion around what this guy said. And yet, here we are.

Yesterday, one of the woman on my program asked me, "What about joy? What about love?" This is a question I get a lot these days about my time in the convent. I don't want to give the impression that Zen practice is cold, bleak, and heartless, but on the other hand, joy and love were not big parts of my experience at Nisodo. I told this woman that in the monastery I cultivated strength and spaciousness with my own negative emotions, and from that place of space and strength I can love and work better.

"I love love," I told her. "But there is not really a space for love in Zen practice. Whatever love I have is... kind of a hobby." This got a laugh out of her. But it's true. I've started to view Buddhist practice as the foundation of a house, from which everything else in my life extends. So there are rooms and maybe even whole stories which are about love, but they're extending upward from a foundation of practice. They're not the foundation of the house itself (actually, I should be honest with you. For me, love isn't it's own floor. It's more like a tiny, exquisite, beautifully cared-for altar or cabinet in the second story guest room).

When I think long enough about the problem of "cutting off love," it seems clear to me that the problem is not solved simply by believing that Dogen or Buddha was "right" about this. There seems to be a bigger issue of how to relate to dharma practice itself. The issue is the choice of what do I do with our imperfect selves in the present moment. Do we actually have to change ourselves? Is it enough to notice, or understand, or "be with" our experience? Is it enough to allow everything to exist as it is? Can we go about business as usual and just bring in a special kind of attention, mindset, or attitude? Or is Buddhism actually demanding that we cut off large chunks of our identities and experience? Are there tenets and beliefs that we actually have to follow? Essentially, are we adding or subtracting from ourselves?

I clearly don't have answers to these questions, but a lot hangs on how we answer them. Carl Bielefeldt wrote an essay called "Living with Dogen" in which he compared the unattractive parts of Dogen to the warts on the face of someone we're living with. How do we go about loving someone with warts? Some people chose to ignore the warts and focus on the lovely bits, some chose to love their partner warts and all. Dogen's admonition to "cut off love" and "abandon loved ones" is a pretty big, smelly, oozing wart. But I'm looking at it. If I'm supposed to live with this creature, then I at least owe it to myself to know what I'm dealing with, to be honest, to look this thing straight in the face.


  1. To Claire from Unk: Multiplex the many "you" that exist at different altitudes, different layers of the onion skin, and if you still don't see love as a fundamental law of the universe then try some other method until you become aware of the actual foundation = love; for all that exists and all that doesn't is plainly just love. Love, Unk

  2. this blog post is to completely misunderstand the whole question ! :o(

    it's hard to believe people can waste their time so c o m p l e t e l y ! :o(

  3. I think it's not "love" persay that's cut off, but "romance" which seems to be a western ideal that correlates with the "love of attachment" (Ai).

    But even that may be semantic, depending on how you want to define romance. Some may see compassionate love, giving a partner a good rub after a stressful day, in a romantic context, but that's entirely their mistake to make.

    Thich Nhat Hahn is quoted as saying “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” And I tend to agree. This is "The glass is already broken" territory. People love romantically and desire to possess others or for their love to outlive their lifetimes. I think that all love is best met with the view that it is provisional, and that it will leave. And when it is gone, that too is provisional, and it will arrive.


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