Rev. Kinrei Bassis
(This article first appeared in the May-June 1985 Journal of Shasta Abbey)
There is a widespread spiritual delusion which can be described as “Love and Light.” It can be found throughout history and has been, at times, a problem for most religions. A blatant lie is easy to spot; but when lies are intermixed with the truth, it is easy to be misled. The problem does not lie with the specific words “love” and “light,” but whether these words are used in such a way as to point to the Truth.
The mistake of “Love and Light” can vary from being simply an error in emphasis within the teaching, to propounding and practicing extreme forms of delusion. Every teacher uses different expressions, and one cannot judge their validity on a superficial glance at the terms. If one teaches that all beings possess the Divine Light, it can be another way of stating the Buddhist teaching that all beings possess the Buddha Nature. If we say that nothing is outside Divine Love, this does not disagree with the Buddhist teaching that everything is enfolded within the compassion and love of the Cosmic Buddha. However, the question for all of us seeking a spiritual teaching is not just whether the Divine Light exists, but how do we bring our mundane, everyday lives together with the Divine Light of the Eternal? A path that does not lead to its promised end will squander the seekers’ sincere efforts and possibly cause them to despair of ever reaching their true goal.
“Love and Light” teachings are generally very inspirational because they focus on the wonders attainable from spiritual practice. When immersed in a world in which fame, power, wealth, and sensual pleasure are common goals, the simple pointing to something deeper can awaken the inner longing which lies within all of us to find the Truth. It is the darkness. The seeming emptiness and unsatisfactory nature of our lives, that pushes us to search for something deeper.
The problem is not that “Love” and “Light” do not exist; the problem is how to deal with the darkness that we all inevitably face. “Love and Light” tries to escape from the darkness by saying the darkness is not real and, therefore, can be ignored. Buddhism teaches that it is by facing and dealing with the darkness that we can fully realize that there is nothing to fear within life and death. A path which has us avoid the darkness is a path which can never bring us to true freedom and full knowledge of our immaculate Buddha Nature.
It is a normal human desire to want to avoid suffering and the arduous work of spiritual training and to want to dwell purely in the Light. However, no matter what is proclaimed, there is no quick fix that will transform our lives from darkness to light. It may appear to be desirable to go through life thinking and saying, “Everything is wonderful,” “Everything is love,” “I love everyone,” yet this would be self-deception unless we were willing to see the Divine Light and Love in the darkness as well. A fixed smile and a gloss of positivity can be a way of avoiding the difficult aspects of life by pretending not to see them, but will our smiles remain genuine if we find out that our beloved spouse is deserting us, or our newly born baby is crippled and retarded, or the nuclear holocaust has just begun? “Love and Light” will try to escape from the pain by saying it is unreal and an illusion; yet suffering is only compounded by pretending not to see that it is there or by treating it as though it does not matter. The enticement of “Love and Light” lies in that it is offered to a world that often adheres to the opposite, despairing delusion that there is only darkness and the Divine Light does not exist. The key to training is to see both the darkness and the light and to understand that one does not stand against the other.
When we experience the world and do not simultaneously experience the Eternal, we are seeing the world as a meaningless scattering of pieces. The old folk tale of the three blind men and the elephant depicts this condition very well. One feels the elephant’s side and says that the elephant resembles a wall. Another touches the elephant’s legs and states that an elephant is like a pillar. The third blind man feels the trunk and says that an elephant resembles a snake. They were all accurately describing a piece of the elephant, but they had no idea of the whole elephant. Most of us are like blind men, unable to see that everything is bound up into a coherent whole within the Unborn. A blind man cannot get a sense of what an elephant is like without the willingness to examine each part of the elephant. The misery within ourselves and the world is part of the whole, and we can never see the Truth if we are not willing to see every part of it. The gateway to seeing the Buddha is through seeing and accepting the endless, varied forms of our inner and outer world.
The naturally arising koan of Great Master Dogen, that for which he searched for an answer for many years and which impelled him to travel to China, was “If all beings possess the Buddha Nature and original enlightenment, why do all the Buddhas of the three worlds arouse the Buddha-seeking mind and search for enlightenment through practice?” He was asking why the “Love and Light” solution is not the Buddhist way. Great Master Dogen stated his koan and its solution in his Rules for Meditation.
Why are training and enlightenment differentiated, since the Truth is universal? Why study the means of attaining it since the supreme teaching is free? Since Truth is seen to be clearly apart from that which is unclean, why cling to the means of cleansing it? Since Truth is not separate from training, training is unnecessary – the separation will be as that between heaven and earth if even the slightest gap exists FOR, WHEN THE OPPOSITES ARISE, THE BUDDHA MIND IS LOST.1
“The opposites” are living in the world as though heaven and earth, light and darkness were two separate spheres. Training bridges this duality by having us try to live the truth that everything possesses the Buddha Nature. When we show reverence, gratitude, and compassion to all things -including those we dislike – we are bridging the opposites and treating everything as part of the body of the Buddha. It is not enough to say that Divine Light exists; we must treat the darkness as If we are experiencing the Divine Light within it, and then the opposites can become One. Most people want to experience the Buddha Nature without making this effort, but it is precisely this willingness that clears our vision so that we can experience the ever present radiance of the Eternal.
A problem that we all face is not enjoying being in darkness. People who are immersed in the world try to illuminate the darkness with all kinds of worldly lights. When their hearts are cold and empty, the love and affection of others can sometimes fill the void. Those who are frightened by their sense of insignificance can bolster themselves by trying to gain the praise and respect of others. When they feel miserable, they can distract themselves by one of the myriad forms of worldly entertainment. All of these may relieve the pain somewhat; however, the striving to attain these worldly lights will lead away from finding the True Light. The Divine Light is always within the heart. Worldly lights are weak and flickering and can easily be blown out by the endless changes within the world. Death ultimately and inexorably extinguishes them. By making the Eternal our refuge and not allowing the flickering changes of worldly light and darkness to deter us from our goal, we can transcend our fear of darkness and find the Divine Light.
Training is the willingness to experience whatever comes, knowing that nothing is outside the True Light of the Lord. We must learn to take each experience of darkness, each aspect of ourselves that is causing pain and suffering, each aspect of the world’s suffering that we encounter, and openly face it and embrace it. The Unborn is the essence of ourselves and all beings, and it is this Truth that allows us to find the unconquerable Iron Man in the midst of our fears, our bright full heart in the midst of despair. It allows us to see the purity of a drunken derelict and the sincere heart of an outwardly twisted and cruel person. There is nothing that is not within the Divine Light of the Buddha, but we can only see this when we stop cutting the body of the Buddha into pieces with our judgments and opinions. That which converts the darkness into light is the mind of meditation. Meditation is the simple willingness to be still and see clearly. When we see what is right in front of us without the distorting coloration of our opinions and ideas, judgments and preferences, then we see the Eternal Lord. We do not need to do anything special to see the light in the darkness; it comes about by just seeing what is in front of us without pushing it away with fear, hate, or revulsion, or grasping after it with greed and desire. When we gloss over the darkness, we lose the opportunity to see the flow of immaculacy within the situation. Finding the Eternal is that which gives us true freedom, but when we look away from our suffering, fear will then shape our lives. When we do not have faith in Buddha, our suffering is filled with despair, for we are believing that suffering is everything. In the midst of the darkness, if we can look up, with the faith that the light of the Eternal is ever-present, we can always find a glimmer of the True Light and know that the darkness is transient and will eventually be dispelled.
“Love and Light” generally considers the outward show of warmth, intimacy, and affection as signs of deep spirituality. Its adherents exhort us to love more as the solution to all problems, yet they are not pointing to True Love. To experience True Love in Buddhism is to experience the Eternal. We show love to others, not by hugging them, but by accepting them for who they are without judgment. The outward appearance and actions of each of us are different, yet when we “look with the mind of a Buddha, [we] will see the heart of a Buddha.”2 Due to delusion and ignorance, some of us may be clothed in greed and hate, while there are others whose clothes of enlightenment are easier to see because of their spiritual development; yet we must always know that there is not a fundamental difference between the two. In Buddhism, there are not good people and bad people, spiritual people and worldly people; instead there are just different people at varying points on the Way. True Love in Buddhism is shown by not allowing the outward “clothes” of a person to detract from our respect for their Buddha Nature. It is said in Buddhism that we must bow endlessly, and this is our willingness to always show reverence and gratitude to all beings and all things. A heart that bows is a heart that loves, and you cannot have one without the other.
Practitioners of “Love and Light” are not in touch with the greatest and most intimate of gifts, the love of the Eternal, so they fill the void in their heart with the warmth and affection of others. In a world where so many people are cold and uncaring, to encounter a group where people are warm and friendly can lift one’s spirits. Yet this so-called love is extremely frail because it is based on embracing everyone without fully seeing them. It is a problem shared with romantic love, where the desire to love and be loved is so great that it distorts our vision so that we do not see all the dimensions of the other person. If we are loving the good in their hearts, will our love still exist when their selfish qualities are seen? Great Master Tendo Nyojo said, “The Buddhist brotherhood possesses greater intimacy than most people have with themselves.”3 Most people do not know themselves and are afraid of the darkness they may find if they look into the depths of their own heart. What you reject within yourself, you will not want to see within another, and what you cannot love within yourself, will be almost impossible to love in another. Buddhist training frees us from this difficulty by developing within us the willingness to see all things with a compassionate and all-accepting eye. It frees us from fear so that we may clearly see ourselves and others, knowing that there is nothing that is outside the Eternal.
Love in Buddhism is shown through the mind of all-acceptance. This acceptance is based on the knowledge that all beings have the Buddha Nature and are doing the best that they can. It is not because people are innately evil that so much suffering and cruelty are produced in this world, but rather that people are acting out of the blindness of ignorance and delusion. People go in the wrong direction in an attempt to bring happiness and contentment into their lives, Ignorant of the fact that they already possess the Buddha Nature and have everything that they truly need. Meditation and training allow us to see that people may be misguided in their actions without wavering in our respect for their True Self, the Buddha Nature. This acceptance is not just the passive act of seeing that all is within the Eternal, but the willingness to accept our role in the world, which means doing whatever is needed to minimize evil and suffering and doing whatever we can to promote the well-being of all things, including ourselves. Acceptance includes spiritually asking, on the deepest level we know, what is the best action to do in a situation, and then the willingness to do what seems right. A parent may discipline a child who is playing in the road so that the child no longer places his life in peril. Yet the parent is saying harsh words out of love and not hate. If we employ someone who is careless and lazy in the execution of his work, it may be appropriate to fire him. This does not mean we treat him disrespectfully or view him as incapable of changing and becoming a good worker. However, shielding someone from the consequences of his actions is not necessarily a wise action. True Love in Buddhism is shown by living from a place which is deeper than our emotional likes and dislikes. Seeing all beings without judgment is that which allows us to experience and exhibit the truth that we are all part of the body of the Buddha.
Another problem with the worldly love of the “Love and Light” teachings is that it is based on the frail and tenuous grounds of mutual benefit. It is people telling each other how wonderful and significant they are, thus mutually propping up their small selves. The sign of True Love is that it asks for nothing. Spiritually, we all have everything that we truly need, and when we act from this certainty and knowledge, we can give endlessly and still have our hands and hearts filled. Loving others is not a great accomplishment but our natural state when our small selves are not in the way, coloring and distorting our experience of the world.
Great Master Keizan said, “Even should there be a great fire my heart is always safe and calm and filled with angels.”4 This is a true promise: a heart that is always filled and that fears and lacks nothing. However the key question is how do we realize this Truth in the midst of all the difficulties of our daily lives? The key is the continual effort to accept the place we find ourselves. No matter how insurmountable the difficulties appear, no matter how dark we find our lives, no matter how dark and dismal the world appears, the Eternal is always there and can be found. Training is the bringing together of the darkness and the Light. The Buddhist way is the willingness to take the endless interim steps needed in order to experience Nirvana and Samsara as One. Let us all take the next step and the countless next steps, never doubting that our True Heart is “safe and calm and filled with angels.”
1 trans. by Rev. Roshi Jiyu-Kennett in The Liturgy of the Order of Buddist Contemplatives (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1990), pp. 97-98.
2 Rev. P.T.N.H. Jiyu-Kennett, Roshi, How to Grow a Lotus Blossom or How a Zen Buddhist Prepares for Death (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey, 1993), p. 35.
3 See “Shuryo-shingi” [“Trainees’ Hall Rules”], trans. by Rev. Roshi Jiyu-Kennett in Zen is Eternal Life (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1999), p. 109.
4 Denkoroku [Transmission of the Light] ibid., p. 230.