The Difference Between love and Love

Sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Since becoming what’s known in the Kwan Um School of Zen as a Dharma Teacher in Training by formally taking the second Five Precepts of Buddhism, I’ve come to notice something interesting about myself. I dislike correcting people even more than I dislike being corrected myself. Ours is something of a noodgy practice. There are lots practice forms and rituals, lots of dos and don’ts, and it’s taken me a while to let go of my resentment of being corrected. What’s arisen in its place, however, is hesitancy at correcting those who are new to the practice.

I was acting as Head Dharma Teacher at a recent sitting session, and someone was there who was attending for the first time. There’s generally some sort of brief orientation for newcomers to familiarize them with the Temple Rules, but there’s really no time to cover all the bases. As I’ve mentioned before, this practice is largely a game of follow the leader facilitated by periodic correction by more experienced students. This particular newcomer was the boyfriend of my partner’s friend, and I really wanted him to have a good first impression of the zen center. When his turn came for an interview with the zen master, however, he left the dharma room by walking in front of the cushions of those seated, rather than behind, as is proper. This particular faux pas I could overlook, as practice is a little looser at Open Meadow than it is at the zen centers in Providence and Cambridge. What was completely unforgivable in my mind, though, was that he didn’t bow to the Buddha when passing before the altar. How could anyone be so oblivious and disrespectful?

I elected to chew on the dilemma that this presented in lieu of doing anything resembling mindful meditation. As Head Dharma Teacher, it was up to me to keep everyone in line, and this guy was clearly out of line. I knew that I should correct him, but I didn’t want to sour his zen experience. What if he thinks I’m a jerk? What if he never comes back? (Incidentally, he never did come back. As to whether or not he thinks I’m a jerk, I have no idea.) When I passed him in the hallway between the dharma room and the interview room, I had only a couple of seconds in which to act or remain silent.

“When you pass in front of the altar, please bow to the Buddha,” I whispered as evenly and respectfully as I could. Time precluded any mention of the lesser infraction. He nodded and entered the Dharma Room. An appropriate comment and a spontaneous response. Nothing more. As I related my dislike of correcting others to the zen master, he responded with a remark I’ve heard from his lips many times.

“This practice is not about preferences.”

Although my misguided and selfish concern in this instance was to avoid alienating another, letting go of preferences is essentially the gateway to widening one’s circle of compassion. The living Indian saint Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, has said that there is a difference between “love” and “Love,” that being that we love our family, but not our neighbor’s family. We love our spiritual practice, but not all practices. Hence, we experience “love,” but not the “Love” that is available when we love without discrimination. The purpose of our practice is to make this shift from “love” to “Love,” letting our light shine without preference, like the light of the sun itself as it rises in the morning.

That Doesn’t Sound Like Much Fun


Hindus performing morning ablutions on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India

A guy named Swami Magalananda once invited me to attend a day-long retreat he was leading. He’s a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, or the Hindu path of devotion. The colorful, love-filled gatherings of devotees tend to have very high energy, with lots of music, ecstatic chanting, and dancing in the spirit. Unfortunately, my spiritual dance card was full that weekend, as I’d already registered for a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I told Swami Magalananda a little about our practice; completely silent save for the monotone chanting that’s markedly different from what goes on in the kirtans that he’s used to, a zen retreat consists of numerous sitting sessions punctuated by walking meditation, ritual-style meals, and a work period.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Swami Magalananda remarked.

“No, it kind of isn’t,” I replied after brief reflection. But then again, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spiritual practice that isn’t about me having a good time. It actually has nothing to do with me and my personal preferences, unless I choose to make it about me and my personal preferences. That’s when it gets difficult, because that’s when my ego is threatened.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same. Zen practice has the power to cut through the delusion of “self” and “other” by uniting the sangha in the “together action” of chanting, walking and sitting. When I choose to let my ego get involved, however, I have the power to do exactly the opposite. It’s a strict practice, and although most Temple Rules are outlined our manual of practice guidelines, it’s pretty much a big game of follow the leader. Just show up, watch what senior sangha members are doing, and try to follow suit. This affords tremendous opportunity for mistakes.

I don’t like to be corrected. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t, so there’s nothing special or unique there. The important question is: how do I respond when my practice form is corrected? Do I resent the person who is trying to help me? Do I feel ashamed at having made a mistake? I could spend post after post psychoanalyzing myself, researching my past to locate the root of those feelings, but that’s not entirely useful. As Pema Chodron says, while it can be helpful to look at our lives to see how mental and emotional patterns may have developed, if we consider the possibility of reincarnation, these are likely “ancient wounds.” Lacking the backstory of all those past lives, all we’re left with is moment to moment awareness of those feelings as they arise, and a recognition that we have a choice of how to respond. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to change our karma. As they say in 12 Step Recovery, “if you want what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done.” If you want something else, do something different.

The upshot of all this is that after several years of practicing both Korean Zen and 12 Step Recovery, I’ve come to notice that the work I need to do is always somewhere in between me and the work I think I need to do. My problem is always as immediate as my own mind in this moment. In other words, the problem isn’t that I sounded the wrong number of beats on the moktak at the beginning of a chant; the problem arises as I feed into resentment or shame when someone brings it to my attention. I’m essentially creating division at a point of choice where I could create unity by simply saying “Thank you.” Every human interaction is like that.

A Very Practical Joke

Zen monks at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

Chogyam Turngpa Rinpoche supposedly referred to formal zen practice as “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm.” “But,” he added wryly, “it is a practical joke, very practical.” The forms and rituals that we practice in the Kwan Um School, handed down to us from the Chogye Order of Korean Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn upon his emigration to the United States in 1972, serve a very important function. Like the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous that hold that fellowship together so that individual healing can take place, our school’s forms and rituals create a container to hold the teachings. More than that, however, they are the teachings. True wisdom is not transmitted through words. It’s transmitted through action, as the Buddha transmitted his dharma to the smiling Mahakasyapa by holding a flower in the air atop Vulture Peak. During the time that I’ve been practicing zen, I’ve come to realize that all of the arcane rules and customs that I thought were getting in the way of my spiritual practice are my spiritual practice. They have a way of showing me where I’m stuck in a very real, very tangible way.

A few years ago at Open Meadow Zen, where I practice regularly, sitting sessions were sometimes sparsely attended. One evening, there were only four of us there: me, who acted as Head Dharma Teacher by timing the sitting and leading walking meditation, the moktak master, who lead chanting with a wooden percussion instrument, Zen Master Bon Haeng, and one other guy. When the zen master and that one other guy left the room for koan interview, only two of us remained. The scene during walking meditation looked like this: two grown men in matching grey robes walking really slowly around an empty room. My thought was pervasive and clear… “This is a bizarre way to spend a Monday night.” For the life of me, I couldn’t see how this activity was of benefit to me or anyone else, but I kept walking. For all I knew, the guy behind me was really into it, and I didn’t want to spoil his good time.

When my turn in the interview room came, The zen master asked, as he often does, “Did you bring me anything?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I come with Great Question… What’s the point of all this? We’re supposed to be practicing for the sake of all sentient beings, but instead we’re just wearing robes, chanting in Korean, and walking around in a room by ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense… I don’t see the connection.”

He gave me a swat on the knee with his zen stick, as tends to happen from time to time. It’s a very useful teaching tool.

“Did you feel that?”

“Of course I felt that, you just hit me!”

“In that moment, your experience is pain in knee. When you’re doing walking meditation, your experience is just walking. All of this doubt, this like and dislike, this mind stuff, all of this fantasy of yours, it’s not necessary. It isn’t helpful. If you want to help others, begin by becoming present. We begin to become present when we stop preferring our fantasy to reality.”

That’s pretty big teaching. The greatest thing that I can do for others is to get rid of this idea of “I” and “others,” to stop preferring my fantasy of separation. This “very practical joke” of zen, when approached with awareness, has the power to do that.