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Love and Forgiveness

This year we've been studying and practicing the teachings on Bodhicitta—the luminous heart of the Dharma, the awakened heart-mind—according to the Seven Points of Mind Training of Atisha. What I want to talk about tonight is a subject we don't hear much about in Buddhist circles. It is the real meaning of Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is said to have two sides: the conventional side—selfless or unselfish altruism, aspiration to relieve the suffering of all, compassion, services, and so on—and the ultimate side, which is wisdom itself, sunyata, appreciation of the infinite openness. Still, if we bring all that together, if we talk about it in English today, if we really think about what it all means, I think it is all about love. We hear the word compassion a lot these days; it's become a buzzword. But I think it is about what we used to call in English before we heard about Buddhism, love.

The Christian notion of love means unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, openness, oneness with all, treating others as you yourself would be treated. But let's go deeper and look into what it really means to love, to learn to love. What comes up for us when we first hear the word love. Do we think of Prince Charming or Princess Charming? Do we think of our child, our parents, our pet? What? Do we think of nature, our garden, the lake we live near? What do we think of when we think of love? Our ex-wife or ex-husband? Maybe not!

When we talk about Dharma or truth or love, it all really comes down to the same thing: an appreciation of something, someone, or a certain moment in life. An appreciation of something that is perhaps beautiful or at least beautiful to us. Like the quality of our relationship. That's really what we love, isn't it? How we feel in that moment. We might say we love the other person, but if we really look into it, what are we really loving? We probably love how we feel with them.

So if we look more deeply into what this Bodhicitta, this luminous heart of the spirituality, is, I think it comes down to love. And love really is more a matter of openness, which includes things like acceptance and forgiveness. It's almost like an equanimity that appreciates things now matter how they fluctuate, rather than an attachment like "I love how I feel when I'm with you—most of the time." So what does that mean? That you don't love the person when they don't give you a good buzz. Or, "I love my work, but I can't wait until I retire." Love is not an expedient to get to retirement. Love is much deeper than that. It is where we come from, not just what we are going towards. It's like how we are when we were children. That child-like quality of wonder and appreciation that is open to everything. That's why I called it equanimity. It is appreciating everything, because everything is new. We perceive things with fresh eyes and ears. Everything is new and therefore miraculous, marvelous. We love it.

So how can we take off the veils, the obscurations that tarnish our eyes and ears and heart and mind? How can we learn to love, to be open to things as they are, which is truth according to Buddha's definition: things as they are. How can we learn to love not just our mate or ourselves or our work? How can we learn to appreciate all beings, to appreciate everything as it is? To being open to learning to love through whatever experience we have? That would be a spiritual life, a way of awakening; not just a religious thing, but a way of awakening, to learn from everything that happens. That would be to love life and to love the world. I think that is the luminous heart of the Dharma, beyond Buddhism, beyond Dharma, beyond heart and mind or body or even soul.

When we talk about love we are talking about something that is very soulful, not very abstract. Not just, "Ah, emptiness! The infinite!" Do we love ourselves well enough to give us space to be? We are all involved in all kinds of self-improvement programs. Is that love for ourselves or not? Are we doing the best by ourselves as we are trying to change for the better? Or is that just one more symptom of self-hate, of low self-esteem, or non-self-acceptance? If we don't love ourselves, how can we love others and love our life?

When we enter into the heart of the Dharma, I think it comes down to some sort of love, to speak English. It is something we can really explore and actualize, to bring out from within. Not just find love, seek love. But practice loving, be open to love. Receive love. We hear about radiating love and loving-kindness. But what about receiving it? Are we open to receiving it? How open are each of us to receiving it? We all like the idea of it, but when it comes, doesn't it make us a little nervous? Isn't it a little scary? "What does this mean? Does she really love me? Does he love me for my good looks? What does she want? Can I love equally well in return?" So many neurotic thoughts.We all have these same thoughts. We are all just junior Woody Allens. As Woody likes to say, "I am two with everything."

Even when we practice loving-kindness meditation, I feel like sometimes we are focusing on loving, fixing, solving something, but not on appreciating everything, on opening, on forgiveness. We don't hear much about forgiveness in Buddhist circles, do we? Has anybody heard any Buddhist teacher talking about forgiveness? How is that possible? And yet, it is a fact.

Forgiveness is a big part of acceptance. Can we accept, can we forgive? Not just forgiving others, but can we forgive ourselves? Aren't we all carrying around some neurosis, some guilt, some inadequacy, some feeling of failure from something in our life? I think that from the point of view of Bodhicitta, we should think about working on forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves. And notice what that brings up. Last time I said this I was in Jerusalem. You can imagine what an earful I got, about the people that we shouldn't forgive. But think about that. Who is hurting whom by carrying this unforgivingness around all the time? How much does it cost oneself? Rabbi Kushner said that if after two days you still haven't forgiven something, now it has become your problem. You are paying everyday. If you can't let go of it in two days, you should really take care. And he was talking about the most grievous things, not just about that someone cutting you off in traffic or something.

So I would like you to think about forgiveness. Forgiveness of others and forgiveness of yourself. Even of those who wronged us, abused us, victimized us. But we are still carrying all that. Let's see if we can loosen some of that burden. It doesn't mean to exonerate the others. Actually, it is their karma, whatever they did. But after two days it becomes our karma if we are still carrying it, if we haven't let it go. Then we are victimizing ourselves. In a way, life is about learning to love, to love others, to love ourselves, and to love life itself; to dance with it, to play with it, to be one with it, even with those you hate and those you think are unforgiveable.

There is a way we can recognize that we abhor someone's actions, but we don't abhor the person. We judge the action, not the person. Then we can drop some of our burden, which is just weighing ourself down. The burden of anger, of bitterness, of resentment, perhaps towards our parents. But when you become a parent, it changes your perspective on parents, doesn't it, as you see what happens to your kids and what you inflict on them, no matter how hard you try to be a great parent. You realize that your own parents are just human too, poor things! It's a circle. We are all being recycled continuously.

I myself have been looking into this a lot, feeling that I have been suffering from those things. And feeling that these Bodhicitta teachings have helped me to lighten my heart about that. I think it is a very important practice when things are difficult. We talked about the practice of tonglen, of putting yourself in the other's shoes, exchanging self and others. That's a great practice for when things are difficult. To stay in there, not to reject, not to run away, not to withdraw. To be with it a little longer, to learn from it. And sense it holistically, not just the part that's pushing your buttons. What about the rest of it? There's a lot more to any person than that action that pushes your button. I want to recommend a book by Ani Pema Chodron: It's called When Things Fall Apart. She's an expert on the subject. Check it out if you like to read books.

And do consider forgiveness and equanimity and putting down that burden. And when you reflect on this in your own time, notice what comes up in your mind, in your heart, in your psyche. Who or what comes up. It might be illuminating to see what one is still harboring. What grudges, what vendetta, what prejudices we are still carrying. It doesn't mean we have to feel guilty about those things. The bogeymen go away in the light of awareness. Let's give them a good look. What stays unconscious still drives us and afflicts us.

Does anyone have any questions or anything they want to say tonight?

My Christian heritage asks me to love my neighbor, to love a total stranger, to love unconditionally, but in my life I see that love turn to hatred so quickly. It seems like such an all-consuming emotion. Now I just want to respect and accept and be compassionate in a less overwhelming way towards those I encounter.

That's a good strategy. But I don't think anything is really all-consuming. You might see what isn't consumed by those things we are so afraid of being consumed by. Anger is a great fire, it burns us, but there is still something remaining. So maybe we don't have to be so afraid of being consumed by it. Maybe we can even look at it in another way and say "May it consume us." Then only the immutable will remain. Maybe it will consume all the dross. That is more of a tantric approach, rather than avoiding it or trying to tamp it all down so you don't get so passionate about it.

But yes, love turns to hatred very quickly. They are very connected. There is also a lot of fear around love, isn't there, just as there is fear around the negative emotions like anger and hatred. Fear of getting consumed by love, giving yourself away, losing yourself, being vulnerable. There is a great book called Love Is Letting Go of Fear. It goes into how much love we are and we have and how we are afraid to express it. That we might put ourselves out too much, too nakedly, get burned and I don't know what. We don't know what, but we're afraid. So fear is a big barrier to love. Let's see what we are afraid of. We are afraid of being seen as we are, so we put up a persona, false behavior; we tell stories about ourselves and to ourselves. That comes out of fear.

If we love ourselves, we can afford to be who we are. What's the problem? We're OK. Who cares? We are old enough. Who are we kidding at this point? No more report cards. Let's not make Dharma or karma into one more report-card situation.

I read something by Dogen about dropping your body and mind and also dropping the body and mind of others.

So drop it.

It is easy for me to see the transparency of my own thoughts and energy, but it is very difficult to see the transparency of other people's thoughts and energy.

What's the difference between yours and theirs? The difference is ego-involvement. More ego-involvement on one side than the other. Once we even that out, things change. That's why the practice of putting yourself in the other's shoes evens things out. Yes Dogen said drop body and mind, but that's a pretty big statement. That's like saying die to yourself. Who can do that just by saying it. It doesn't mean to kill yourself. It means die to yourself, let go totally, lose yourself and find your true being.

Really check into your relationships, to whomever you are close to: What is really the difference between your thoughts and theirs? When you are close, aren't you really on the same team? They don't want to be sick any more than you do. And if you really love them, you don't want them to be sick, in almost exactly the same amount that you don't want you to be sick. Some people love someone so much-maybe their child-that they would rather themselves be sick than have their child sick. So there is something to learn there about love. And not just from Dogen who lived a thousand years ago.

Do you know how Dogen first had that realization? When he first dropped off body and mind? Do you remember the story? I think it was when his parents died when he was a kid. It was at the funeral. Isn't that the story? He was about nine or ten years old at his parents funeral. I don't know. I'll just tell the story. Who knows if is true.

His parents both died together or maybe it was the funeral of his last surviving parent. Dogen was a kid. And he saw the incense burning at the head of the coffin as the priests did their blessings. The incense burned down but the ash was still standing. Then the ash fell over and Dogen's body and mind dropped off. It had to do with the intense love, the loss of a parent. It comes back to something very human in a way. It had his total attention. His loss of a parent is connected to his first awakening.

So maybe some loss or letting go can cause something to shift. So it is an interesting place to be. It comes back to the tantric principle: Why avoid the passionate thing? Get in the place where that life and death cusp is, where things can shift. Where you are really consumed enough that POW! something can shift.

I'm glad you mentioned forgiveness, because it seems to me that it is one way to transition from our normal restricted, focused kind of love to a much more liberating, understanding love. I read today about this new rage in Japan: virtual pets. You can buy (for lots of money) a little computer-based 3D display of a "pet" that you wear on your wrist. And this pet needs to be fed and given water. You feed it by pushing buttons. And if the pet is not fed and given water every day, it "dies." And these things are amazingly popular in Japan; they can't keep them in the stores. I guess this shows the strong innate need we all have to love, to nurture.

Maybe we could have virtual mates or lovers! Virtual children. You get to love and nurture them, but they don't talk back or ever leave us! But can we handle real love, where things aren't so predictable? Where things can turn out bad.

You talked about focused, restricted love, sometimes called attached love. It seems that that is the tip of the iceberg of the bigger love, divine love, universal love. But its being the tip of the iceberg means that it is ice, it is true love. It is not something different. If we can push it to the point of absurdity and say love all beings, it can become very abstract. So actually we don't even feel that warm, losing yourself love ever because it is so dispersed. Like a virtual pet. All beings becomes like a virtual being. So we need to keep the human element, the tantric teaching that includes the sacred and the profane and includes our bodies and our feelings and realizes the spiritual through that. That's all love and it functions on a personal level. Like nuns who never married and never had children. They love Baby Jesus. Isn't that a pretty human kind of divine love? It's using the human tendency, which is part of the iceberg. The human feeling-including the negative feeling-is part of the iceberg. It is the tip of the divine. And it is the way in for us.

In practices like compassion and loving-kindness meditation-and this is where I think Buddhism has its genius, because it contains exercises that can actually make it happen-you start generating this feeling with the person or thing you love the most. It could be anything. It could be a pet or a dead person or an image. Then you expand it to the thing you love the next most. So it's not that hard to jump all the way from someone you love to your hated enemy next to you. But we don't start by trying to love all our enemies. It sounds good, but it's very diffuse. So we start with someone we love the most and go out from that. You broaden it. Then you start to do it with people you are indifferent to. Then to your enemies or someone who plays the role of enemy. They did something to you. They abused you maybe or insulted you. See if we can send out love and good wishes to them, honestly. That's how we expand to the whole iceberg, to the whole salty sea. It is a challenge. It is the work of life.

But let's not idealize that we are a failure until we get to the whole salty sea. That's another way of hating ourselves. It's aggressive and it's delusional. "Oh I'm not good enough. I don't really love until I love like God loves." Who loves like God loves?

I think one of the dangers in the spiritual life is totalizing things. Love all beings! Impartial love! Christ-like love! Unconditional love! Love everybody like you love your child! It is very idealistic. Maybe too idealistic. It disempowers us. It makes us feel like we are not good enough. It's putting ourselves down. It's inverted ego. Instead of putting ourselves up, we put ourselves down. It's ego. It's separateness. It's delusional.

I have a question about consort practice. I read an article recently by June Campbell, who was a translator for Kalu Rinpoche. She wrote that she had a sexual relationship with Kalu Rinpoche at the time he was ostensibly a celibate monk. And she was sworn to secrecy. She was told by attendants not to reveal the relationship. If she did, there would be dire karmic consequences. So my question is, can consort practice be sexual abuse?

If it's abusive, then it's not consort practice; it's just sex. It's not practice and it's not a consort. 

Could you comment on this particular case?

What do you care about that, actually? What's your real question?

I have a lot of trouble with the kind of faith and devotion that is required for Guru Yoga. And it seems like incidents like this are not isolated.

Right. There are plenty. Too many. So why do we put people on pedestals and hand ourselves over so easily? That's our responsibility.

There are examples in the church and in the Dharma, in politics and in all kinds of positions of power. It is something we should be very aware of in our own minds, so we don't perpetrate that ourselves.

But Guru Yoga, like consort practice, is a different matter. Devotion is a very powerful way of going beyond yourself. If you are a devoted type, it can be useful. If you have an authentic relationship with a guru, it can be liberating. But not everybody is in a practice path that uses devotion or gurus. There's the do-it-yourself path. There are plenty of other ways if you don't think you're into devotion and the guru path.

Authentic Buddhism comes from one place and one place only: From the experience of enlightenment. That's the touchstone. Buddhism comes from Buddha's enlightenment under the tree. Our Dharma practice comes out of our relation to the actual lived experience of something. We participate in that. That's authentic Buddhism.

The Vajrayana has its approach, the Theravada has its approach, and other schools have their approaches. It is important to find something that is compelling for you, that is authentic spiritual life. And we should keep our eyes peeled. Not disempower ourselves and give ourselves away too soon.

Cambridge, January 27, 1997

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