Tugging at the red thread in monistic practice: based on a Teisho given at the Spring Sesshin 1993, Gorricks Run Zendo

Subhana Barzaghi gave a wonderful talk on the delicate subject of love, passion and sex in Zen practice, and, given my own experience, I would like to reflect on, and perhaps comment on, her teaching. She starts by describing the way that being (particularly a female) ‘wild child’ (something I can identify with) in a culture that disapproves of, censures and otherwise attempts to repress the urge to express and explore sexual energy, can be deeply damaging, psychologically. All the guilt, depression and, of course, inevitably, abusive situations one gets into (and the consequent rage and fear) just add to an already extremely volatile situation. Religions do not ‘do’ sex, on the whole, do they? Even buddhism, and Zen practice, doesn’t really allow for sexual self-expression to be a part of, integrated with, the experience of practice-realisation. This is the problem. What can we do?

Subhana begins by recalling the Red Thread Zen of Ikkyu, who was also known as Crazy Cloud, whose complete embracing of non-dualism meant that every practice, every moment, mindfully experienced, was an expression of the lit mind.

I love the sound of Ikkyu, and the stories of his sake-soaked sesshin, his ‘this very body is the lotus of the true law, linking human beings to birth and death by the red thread of passion.’ He wrote:

From the world of passions returning to the world of passions:
There is a moment’s pause.
If it rains, let it rain; if the wind blows, let it blow.

Yet he also recognised that it’s possible to honour and embrace even this sexually charged experience without becoming decadent, or lazy, and Ikkyu, like Rinzai, was a strict disciplinarian. He demanded that his students sit in meditation, and maintain an awareness throughout all activity, as well as making sure that they realised that even sexual expression is not mere indulgence but, like the careful steps taken in a walking meditation, or an intricate dance, requires total concentrated effort. When a practitioner of Zen (or yoga) is passionately attracted to another practitioner of Zen (or yoga), it is no use simply acting on that passion. However hard, you have to consider the whole nature of all the relationships affected, all you are involved in, and this may well mean that restraint and withholding is the order of the day. This is a koan, though, because Zen, as radical non-dualism, is deeply rooted in physical passion. Not only may it be inappropriate to act, but paying close attention to the ringing demands of an authentic recognition of one’s own intimate capacity for love, reflected in another, is the strongest, most difficult of sensations to reconcile.

So far, the only practice that allows any relief is allowing myself to sit with the intensity of the emotions until eventually – and eventually, eventually, it will – something shifts. Then different possibilities may open up (these may still involve the possibility of an intimate relationship with whoever has tugged the red thread) but, when considered with mindful, compassionate attention, these possibilities are more likely to take into account, as Thich Naht Hanh recognises, an awareness of the suffering caused by lack of attention to the existing interrelationships.

Central to this practice is the work to cultivate responsibility for, and responsiveness to, all my relationships. And yet I will not shut off feeling. It’s a fine line, as Subhana Barzaghi says. Having become more open, I am much more appreciative at a deep and intimate level of the work undertaken by those who practice the Way. When that rare occasion arises in which I have a full, loving, passionate understanding of the work someone is undertaking, it is very hard not to want to take the final, logical step, of union.

Of course, there are some very obvious restrictions on acting on such realisation: in a professional relationship (for example, in teaching), there are strict norms, legal and ‘ethical’ (though I’m not convinced by the latter, I think the former are perfectly correct: there’s too much room for abuse when a relationship becomes sexually intimate between teacher and student.) Like Subhana Barzaghi, however, once or twice, I’ve fallen instantly and passionately in love with the whole mind-body, with the buddha nature shining. And it leaves me breathless and unsteady, uncomfortably caught between joy and resistance.

My understanding of myself as an embodiment, as a biophysical system one of whose major compulsions is the drive to sexual union, is something I completely accept and, on the whole, enjoy. If I have to stifle it at just the one rare opportunity to open completely, I have to endure waves of resistance, building and subsiding, and the deep pain of an unanswered call. When we experience the other as none other but our very self, there is an overwhelming tendency to want to melt all boundaries.

Subhana Barzaghi finishes her dharma talk with a line from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s hardly a resolution, but it has the solace of beauty:

Isn’t the secret intent of this great Earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?

(these thoughts are in response to a Teisho given at the Spring Sesshin 1993, Gorricks Run Zendo by Subhana Barzaghi)


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