I love you.

I mention this reluctantly because it really means something. A wonderful thing to say and a wonderful thing to hear, but to say and hear what it really means may not be so easy. I love you. It really means something, but what it means cannot be said. It is, for those of us who practice Zen, a koan, an insoluble riddle. Perhaps a particularly tricky koan.

I love you.

It is hard to build something in an era that seems to fill the mind with so much tearing down. Saying “I love you” sometimes feels like building, cementing, or creating something. But it isn’t easy. It is easier to see the flaws in man and his institutions, calling each hypocritical or manipulative. It’s a tricky matter building something, trusting something, when what is built turns to ashes overnight. When fifty percent of the marriages end in divorce; when the Pentagon spends $400 for a hammer; when workmen and executives alike avoid responsibility for shoddy material or products; when leaders of ethical institutions are routinely caught crossing their own boundaries; when clean, well-spoken young people translate self-reliance into self-absorption; when those intellectually-inclined confuse information with intelligence; when fantasies of sex and power no longer play an integral, secondary role but insead seem to lead a phantasmagoric, coked-out parade; when “self” has no meaning outside the words that others contrive; and when those who claim to penetrate the haze of hypocrisy, manipulation, and confusion only lead followers further astray . . . it is hard to build where the soil is sandy. And still the books are printed and the records pressed . . . and they say “I love you” and there are those who listen and are moved.

I love you.

In a state of confusion, it is hard to say what is “good” and what is “bad.” Some, these days, see the possibilities in great array and are made humble, often to the point of humiliation and helplessness. For many of these, heroes come from another realm, another dimension. Perhaps the hero is spiritual or perhaps he/she/it comes from outer space — a being so powerful as to make one weep for joy (here is someone/something powerful enough to make it all better, compassionate enough to love even me) or cringe in abject, total-surrender fear. Others, of course, are completely unavailable to the blandishments of gurus, E.T., or The Alien. They have closed out the possibilities and banished the very notion of humility. These are the young vigilantes, the “right” ones who elevate their own judgements into law, often with the help of like-minded friends and equally often sporting lavish, “moral” disguises. Still others stand between these two extremes, hoping to find and do “good,” yet sensing vaguely that what is “good” today may be quite the opposite tomorrow.

I love you.

If there is confusion in all of this, there is also longing for something good, something certain, something creative, lasting, solid, and secure. Daily, weekly, and monthly advertisements in the “personals” columns speak brief, convincing words like “love,” “affection,” “warmth,” “sincerity,” and “integrity.” These are words of longing. The difficulty is that between longing and reality, between fantasy and fact, between wish and fulfillment, there is a large void. The list of ads never grows shorter. The fast track, it seems, is pocked with some very realistic potholes. So, if you examine it, is the slow track. Making dreams come true is a strange if persistent wish.

I love you.

“I love you.” The line excites the mind like a steel ball in a pinball machine — bing! bang! bong! ching-ching-ching! — racketing from one delightful association to the next, one fantasy to the next, one needy cavity to the next, one satisfaction to the next . . . from subtle to blindingly obvious, echoing off mountains of desire, into ravines of fear, over pinnacles of hope and longing, across hidden pools of jealousy or mirth or anger or loneliness or aspiration or joy or anguish . . . all of it so dizzyingly fast and mostly unnoticed that the whole action-reaction may express itself in as small a word as “Yes” or “No.” What a miraculous creation, this mind! It skitters from one thing to the next like a running dog attempting a quick turn on slick linoleum. It sniffs, lifts its leg, pees to mark the spot, and moves on self-satisfied and relieved, unable, in general, even to consider the notion that it might be missing the point entirely. It knows so much — how could it possibly miss anything? It even lays claim to knowing that it is vain and foolish — perhaps the ultimate vanity. In the New York Times a while back, various social scientists were reported to have been tracking “love.” They broke it down into “passion,” “commitment,” and “intimacy,” each aspect waxing and waning at different times. The mind longs to control and explain, but in the marrow of the bones I think there is a longing for understanding and peace. Understanding and peace control nothing.

It is attention that helps separate fact from fantasy. There may be many people today who wish to “transcend” or escape their difficulties, but without attention, transcendence, escape, and even love become only more fantasies in an already-overstuffed bag.

I love you.

In a loving setting there is nothing in particular. Only with loss or the fear of loss does the matter become urgent. In Zen practice it is the same: something seems to be missing, so the search is in earnest. Usually it is when the unexpected occurs that there is a sharpening of attention and an increased, if reluctant, willingness to credit change, to admit the transience and translation of all things. Death, disease, drugs, or divorce are often good attention-getters. It is this attention, this noticing of what went unnoticed before, that forms the basis for our practice and our love. With attention comes understanding. But when attention is missing, when one day seems as “boring” as the one that went before . . . this is the climate in which fantasies grow strong, delusion takes root, loneliness and anger settle in the roof trees of the mind, and the possibility of remorseless, literal war comes close.

I love you.

It is attention that helps separate fact from fantasy. There may be many people today who wish to “transcend” or escape their difficulties, but without attention, transcendence, escape, and even love become only more fantasies in an already-overstuffed bag.

I love you.

Zen practice is not about escape. It is about clarity and compassion. To clarify pain, it is necessary to go toward it. This means to pay attention to it. Going toward pain is the opposite of what is usually done, but what is usually done does not clarify or ease pain. So watch carefully. Don’t piss and run — watch. Watching calls on us to go eyeball to eyeball with what is most our own. No judgement or opinion is required. Watching — attention — is required. With watching we realize that the devil is, after all, really God’s creation, and that flowers grow best in the moist, murky muck.

I love you.

For Zen students, “I love you” may form a great question or koan. For others it may be a simple statement. But not all questions have question marks any more than all statements have periods. Sometimes a question is a statement; sometimes a statement is a question. In approaching this koan, “I love you,” we may remember other, more familiar and traditional ones: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “What was my face before my parents were born?” These koans are stated as questions. But sometimes koans are formulated as statements, like Joshu’s response to the question, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Joshu, a great Zen teacher, replied, “Mu!” which means “No!” or “Not!” Since all things have Buddha nature or essential nature, the question, formulated as a statement (Mu!), is then reformulated as a question, “What is Mu?” You should recall when probing this koan that Joshu was asked the same question at another time and responded with a “Yes!” So the difference between negative and positive, between question and answer, is not so important in Zen practice. It is more important to discover what, exactly, is being talked about. A question may be a statement or it may be a question. Or maybe neither or maybe both. The same is true for a statement. But if you stick with the form, you may miss the reality. If the reality is clear, the form matters little, but if you think you understand the reality, I urge you to reconsider.

I love you.

At the begining of our practice, our attention, everything seems to hurl questions at us. Endless numbers of things, once so ordinary and explainable, cry out for clarification. A car speeds by, headed somewhere. An ordinary sight. Yet when we begin practice, the ordinary becomes not so ordinary. Where, at another time, we might have said glibly, “I know” or “I understand,” now there is a question: What is this? The question does not call for intellectual pretense, the naming of names. It does not mean to piss and run. Names don’t last. Speeding cars don’t last. So what is it that lasts? What is this? What is this without the names? What is this really? For those of us who practice, the question quickly enough dissolves into the question-statement, “This!” A great koan; a koan that lets you know that there is no thing that cannot be a koan, no thing that does not offer up its clarity and compassion at all times, no thing that is without essential nature.

I love you.

Koans are impossible to answer or explain. They ask for the essential or real point of view. Before we open our mouths to answer, the “this” we are about to name has vanished, changed forever. By the time we say the word “now,” for example, reality has created a “then.” It is our job to find out how to live in reality.

I love you.

In reality, “I love you” implies separation: “I” separated from “you” by “love.” The desire may be for unity, but the actuality is one of separation. This is exactly the way many of us begin our spiritual practice: somehow we are separated from our imagined goal — enlightenment or God or love or whatever it is. We hope to attain something that we cannot honestly define. In some way, of course, we know what we’re after, but we are stuck with second-class tools to help us make real what is only a dream: we have yet to actualize what the words and names allude to so unsatisfyingly. So we need a tool that will help us clarify the situation — a first-class tool that cuts through the confusion, doesn’t create more of the same. In Zen, that tool is called zazen, a word that can be roughly translated as “seated meditation.” We sit still and silent facing a blank wall, legs crossed in full- or half-lotus posture. In this position, we express our completeness and responsibility. Here there is no separation. Of course, it may seem odd at first, counting exhalations from one to ten over and over again in a world full of woe; pretty strange suffering leg pain in silence and trying to penetrate an insoluble riddle while children die of malnutrition. And then the teacher yells, “Don’t move!” or “Just do your practice! Deep! Go deep!” or “Never mind the pain and sleepiness — just do zazen!” Moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year. And along the way enormous feelings of failure to taunt and ridicule: what a phony! what a fake! what a crock of shit! Everyone else is doing so well and here I sit having a first-class sex fantasy or wishing I had a Big Mac with fries! What a jerk!

I love you.

Feeling like a fool, we do zazen. Feeling like a saint, we do zazen. Zazen. Zazen. Zazen. Breath after breath — attention! Sometimes we feel good. Sometimes we feel lousy. Just like love. Just like not-love too. Even so we do zazen. Everyone feels like an imposter or a saint once in a while. Yet who is this imposter/saint, the one who imitates others and has no words of his own? Who is this charlatan/holy one whose thoughts, words, and actions do not conform to one another; this one who claims to understand/not-understand; this one who ducks responsibility, tells lies, cannot love, and blames others and then wakes up shaking in the night? Who is this? Find out for sure. And do not doubt: it is in order to assert that which is not false that the false is asserted. But some medium, some practice, is necessary in order to penetrate to the core, in order co clear away the undergrowth of confusion and names and socially-acceptable magic. In Zen, that medium is zazen.

I love you.

In our practice, our life, we breathe in and out over and over again. Yet one day, one of these exhalations will be the last. One last time in and one last time out. How can this be? It is fine to live in this body; it is hard to imagine no longer doing so. Yet that is the reality. One last time in and one last time out. It is with the last-breath mind that we do zazen. Pay attention with a last-breath mind. Do not be afraid. Just pay close attention. Some people fear death as the worst possible calamity. But I think this attitude may be worse than the reality. In Zen practice we pay attention to death, we pay attention to birth, we pay attention to life. Moment after moment there is birth; moment after moment there is death; moment after moment there is life. This is how things really are, isn’t it? When we pay attention to everything we take responsibility for everything. When we take responsibility for everything, there is no difficulty with birth and death.

I love you.

Forsaking the restrictions of birth and death, worry and fear, joy and sorrow, success and failure and all the rest requires courage, patience and a cheerful willingness. Moment after moment that which cannot be missing expresses itself. Floor, table, sky, anger, peanut butter, sneeze, smile, zebra, breath, button, flounder . . . this moment is always fresh. Call it fresh and miss the freshness . . . the birth, the death, the life. Moment after moment a great enduring freshness. Not so difficult. Maybe this is religion at its most reliable — not something to shield the wounded or support the judgemental or separate holy from unholy, but simply raising up its examples moment after moment after moment after moment — showing, dying, birthing, ever-new. It’s just the way things are, isn’t it?

I love you.

Please remember one thing: the way of the Buddhas is not fancy or miraculous. It is not a way to gain unity at the expense of separation. It is not a way to escape. It is only real. There are those who may say how wonderful our practice is, how it cures one thing and strengthens another, but I hope you won’t be taken in by this. Our practice is wonderful, but this is just reality. You are wonderful. But this is just reality. In reality everything is praising everything always, expressing Buddha nature. This is wonderful, but if we hold to the wonder we are likely to be faced over and over again by the not-so-wonderful and it will be painful. If, however, we can greet the wonderful and the not-so-wonderful and enter each portal in its time, then the wonderful can really assert itself. No more faking: you really are a human being. Whole, inseparable, complete. Wonderful!

I love you.

To practice our practice means to gather yourself carefully. Gather your whole life in the palms of your own two hands. It doesn’t matter if you are tall or short, man or woman, smart or stupid. Just gather your own life with your own attention. Don’t rush. Gather carefully. This is for you alone. When you finally decide who “you” is, the aloneness will be gone forever. If you continue this practice, one day, even though you speak of spiritual practice you will not go wrong — there really is practice; even though you speak of love, there really is love; and though you speak of “you” and “I,” there really are you and I. No more separation. No more unity. Just something: I love you. Like the stars and the wind and the sunshine through the leaves: I love you.