MYSTERIES OF THE INTIMATE WAY: A Buddhist Meditation on Valentine’s Day

MYSTERIES OF THE INTIMATE WAY: A Buddhist Meditation on Valentine’s Day February 13, 2021



The Zen Priest’s Buddhist Meditation for Valentine’s Day

James Ishmael Ford

Empty Moon Zen

Tomorrow, you may have noticed, is Valentine’s Day.

It is well known that this festival is largely the creation of a conspiracy amongst the greeting card association, the national confectioners association, and the national alliance of floral associations. I’m pretty sure we have a solid paper trail on this one, including hotel bills and photographs of smoke-filled rooms.

Yes, this holiday does have some connection to a Christian saint of that name, although which one precisely is not at all clear. And as some of my professional Christian friends are quick to note, it ain’t really a Christian holiday.

All that acknowledged this day has become a moment within our culture to celebrate romantic love. And that’s a worthy thing, I believe; even if it does at the same time play into the nefarious hands of the greeting card manufacturers, candy makers, and florists.

I think this holiday may be particularly valuable for us who are Zen Buddhists. You may have noticed how within Buddhism write large, romantic love gets short shrift. The general bias is toward the monastic. And that has been so since the beginning, it runs a ragged line down to this moment within the Buddhisms of Asia.

But here in the West, where new forms of the Buddhist community are arising, and significantly, with new emphasizes on the focus of our practice. While a number of us may have a monastic experience, our lived practice is for the vast majority of us, within the world as householders. We seek our liberation among of our families and within our communities.

So, with that, what about romantic love and the intimate practice we call Zen?

Love is, as you may have heard, a many splendored thing. In fact, romantic love is just one, a very important one, but still one among many aspects of a larger mystery that is key, I believe, to our humanity. And in practice, to our awakening.

Within Buddhism there are four terms that convey angles on what we call love. Maitri, which is sometimes translated as kindness or benevolence, karuna, which is usually translated as compassion, mudita, which is translated as happiness or perhaps joy, and upeksha, which is often translated as equanimity, or freedom, or as I find most helpful, boundlessness. I believe having a sense of these is terribly important as we seek to understand our hearts and our lives. This also shows up a problem with our English word love. Each of these terms could be translated as love.

In fact love is so comprehensive a word there are more meanings layering in. For instance, the Ancient Greeks also had four terms for aspects of love. Theirs are eros, erotic or romantic love, and agape, what we usually think of as Divine love. Given less attention are storge, affection or familial love, and philia, or friendship. All these are also love.

The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote a delightful if occasionally eccentric study of these titled the Four Loves, which if you’ve not read it, I commend to you. One of his theses in that book is that these loves each inform the other. Me, as I consider the four types of Buddhist love, I find I am really taken with that. I believe we can look at one kind of love, any of these eight if we include those ancient Greeks as having angles worth noting. And then we might notice how they are aspects, each one as we attend to it, is illuminated and illuminates the whole of the dynamic of our human experience of intimacy.

And, you know, that’s what it’s all about. Another word, actually, for love is intimacy.

And our way is the intimate way. Zen is the way of the box and its lid. It is about finding our place in this mysteries and dynamic and sad and beautiful world. So, I suggest in the last analysis our Zen Buddhism is the way of love.

That said I find myself particularly drawn to an aspect of love that has gotten pretty mixed up of late. Rather than focus specifically on romantic love, as important as that project can be, today I would like to reflect a little on the nature of philia, of friendship. Looking at it, I believe, can illuminate the whole project of intimacy, of love, complicated, messy, and ultimately necessary.

A dear friend once gave me a slightly wicked, but really helpful definition of friendship. He said a “friend” is someone who will help you move. Being of a somewhat jaundiced nature he immediately added how a “real friend” will help you move a body. I’ve noticed we have cheapened the word friend in our contemporary language. Or, maybe the harshness isn’t quite right. But all too often when we say friend, say on Facebook, we’re actually talking about a different category of relationship. Think acquaintance. A sturdy and useful term that sadly has fallen out of common use.

It feels like we’re afraid of insulting someone by calling them an acquaintance, so we say friend. But, really, within most of our relationships we’re not talking about moving, furniture or bodies. So, Philia.

Philia. Friendship is in fact a much more complicated thing than helping us move – whatever.

With that let’s turn back to Buddhism. There’s a story from the Upaddha Sutta, one of the Buddhist scriptures that goes right to the heart. Here’s my paraphrase of the text.

One day while walking quietly together, out of the silence the Buddha’s attendant Ananda declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realize that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life. They proceeded along quietly for a while more, before out of that silence the Holy One responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

It’s complicated. And like romantic love, it can even seem contradictory to the Buddhist disciplines which seem to call us to solitary practice, seeking our own awakening. But that’s not how it actually works.

Love is a many splendored thing. Intimacy is a many splendored thing. Robert Hardies, a UU minister, in one of his sermons wrote how “There’s an old Talmudic story about a rabbi who is on death’s threshold. In Jewish thinking he has become a goses, which is Hebrew for a soul that is trapped between life and death.

“The rabbi is ready to relinquish his hold on life, but he can’t die because his students are kneeling around his bed, praying fervently for him to live. (My own aside. I’ve personally witnessed this sort of thing as people come to the end.) Finally, a sensible woman climbs up on the rabbi’s roof; she takes a clay jug and throws (it) crashing to the ground. The noise disrupts the students just long enough for their master’s soul to slip quickly into heaven.”

Robert then adds the midrash, the commentary. “Because she helped the students let go, the Talmud notes, the woman will have a place in heaven, too.” Friendship, the real kind, is passing strange. Like all forms of love it involves passion. And it involves risk. Hence the joke about moving a body.

And it must also, to find its completeness, include our willingness to let go, to hold, and hold tight, but also to let be, and within the mystery, to let go. The intimate way.

Mary Oliver sings it best, I feel. “To live in this world/you must be able to do three things/to love what is mortal;/to hold it/against your bones knowing/your own life depends on it;/and, when the time comes to let it go,/to let it go.” This is critical to the nature of love in all its forms. Holding passionately, but also with open arms, with open hands.

This is, I believe, the secret of the intimate way, of our Zen way. This is especially true for us in our newer Householder emphasized Buddhism. Here our binding up with everyone and everything else becomes the field of our practice.

This is why we pay attention to questions of relationship, of privilege, of the poor and the left behind. This is why such things as racism are important for us to attend to. This is why our practice extends out to the farthest reaches of this world.

The Buddha tells us friendship is in fact the whole of the spiritual life. And, you want to know something? The Buddha was right. It is all bound up together. We are all bound up together.

And so we can ask ourselves what does this intimate way look like?

The four perspectives of classic Buddhism can help: kindness, compassion, happiness, and boundlessness. As can those Greek four loves especially in their aggregate demonstrating how dynamic it all is. Agape, divine love, or as I see it our individual experience of the whole, can’t be understood without experiencing in some degree each of the other three. Or, seven. Or, if we add in that Jewish story, eight. The four Buddhist, the four Greek, and that one powerful, compelling, ninth from Judaism: Letting go. Here, we find some of how all the loves inform one another. Some examples. Erotic love without a sense of affection inevitably becomes abusive. Familial love that doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the house is narrow and tribal. And sadly, so sadly, we know what evils follow narrow, tribal loves.

Any friendship that isn’t informed by all these aspects, all the dynamic variations of affection, misses its real value. We live in a multi-causal universe, and nowhere is this truth more obviously so than in how we engage and must engage our friendships.


It’s that important. And it’s that complicated. Love has many faces, is complex. And there are no real lists of how one can do this. Boundaries are part of it. As is abandon. Getting the mix right is hard. And I’ve experienced getting it wrong a lot. But to have a worthwhile life, to live a life worth living the mysteries of love becomes a dance we must give ourselves to, even if it means stepping on a toe now and again, or having our own foot trod on.

We learn by doing.

So, as we come to Valentine’s Day, one word of advice.

Take a chance. Be a friend.

The healing of your own heart is deeply connected to it, as is within the mystery of intimacy, of true love, the healing of this world.

Nothing less.

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