I’m not a fan of defining myself. Well, that’s wrong; I’m a fan of it, just not very good at it. I’ve never met a label that fits just right. I’m guessing a lot of us are like that.
For each yes, there are a hundred nos and vice versa. Honestly, the people close to me would probably do better at describing me than I ever could. This mind is within the storm, dazzled by lights and deafened by thunder. Charmed by silences and awed by clear glimpses at the starry sky above.
You’ll see his name often around these parts, because he’s one of my spirit animals, but Niutou Farong said, “Allow the mind to float and sink.” Whenever we try to do something with the mind, we end up causing trouble.
The mind is an ecosystem with its own resource flow, food chain, and equilibrium. If I start going in there and hunting certain parts of it to extinction and introducing invasive species, who knows what’ll happen? Best for me to let it be.
My mind isn’t what I’d like it to be—there are traits I’d rather do without—but it’s a reflection of emptiness, created in the image of everything it depends on. We can only ever directly work with that dependence, nothing else. One dominant trait in my mind is passion.
There’s a place in practice for passion. I’m a hard-line, “Don’t pick anything up that isn’t already there,” kinda guy. We stumble on practice with particular tools, quirks, and traits that are natural to us, and those are what we use from beginning to end. Acquiring more baggage is the opposite of what this is all about. And there’s no point in rummaging through someone else’s toolbox because we can’t keep those tools.
So, even though I’d like to, I’ll never encourage someone to be passionate if that isn’t natural to them, nor will I ever encourage someone to be serene if that isn’t natural them. Some people are lightning bolts, some are mountain streams. There’s room for everyone, a philosophy and method for everyone and they all lead us down the same path.
Because here’s the thing: if you’re naturally passionate, you’ll find serenity in that passion. If you’re naturally serene, you’ll find passion in that serenity. They’re neither the same nor different.
If you’re passionate, you can use that in practice. You can use everything in practice. The trick is to see that that passion isn’t bound to objects and activities, that it can stand on its own, needing nothing but the mind as a support.
We’re often passionate about things. Whenever you see the word about, that means dependent arising is at work. We can be passionate about music, movies, writing, our jobs (haha), relationships, nature, art, Legos—the list is endless.
But when we tie passion to something, then it becomes unsustainable. If we’re passionate about music, where does that passion go when the song’s over? It bottoms out. That’s the dirty secret of dependent arising: if you want something to last, it can’t depend on something else, can’t be derived from something else.
Detachment (a word that makes most of us wretch and gives Buddhism its aloof reputation), just means seeing that these natural, enlightened qualities aren’t bound by unstable things. The four aspects of Nirvana are joy, self, permanence, and clarity. Those are all ordinary qualities.
The only difference between, say Nirvanic joy and Samsaric joy, is that Nirvanic joy is independent. It doesn’t need to arise, it doesn’t need something else to give it life. Talk of self and permanence sounds like anti-Buddhism, but I assure you it’s totally orthodox. Hint: self = Not-Self.
Passion can be an aspect of joy for certain people, so the loose aim is to free that passion from the world; to no longer be passionate about things, just Passionate. Ikkyu, the famous Zen renegade, was a living example of this unbound passion and intensity. He was like fire and ice, the petal and the thorn.
If you have a lot of passion, and a fellow practitioner chastises you for it, feel free to stick out your tongue at them and turn in a circle. Or just offer a friendly, “Fuck you.” To practice Zen effectively, we have to abandon all of the ideas we have about what Zen looks like, and about what we’d like to look like.
It’s a waste of energy and sanity trying to make a dog purr and a cat bark. It’s each student’s responsibility to take an honest, accepting look at their tools and decide from there which views and methods fit. Without that step, practice is sure to be wrought with false starts, faux awakenings, mental breakdowns, and detours.
Sedation is the main obstacle when it comes to liberating passion. Warmth, comfort, and euphoria can easily sap our drive. Most people don’t feel like sprinting after a three course meal. I’ve found that—if passion is in your toolbox—enduring unpleasantness does a lot to unleash that spirit.
I’m not talking about sleeping on a bed of nails, fasting for weeks or anything like that. Buddha specifically warned about harsh ascetic practices. But there’s something to walking outside without your shirt on to greet a 25°F morning that gets the blood pumping. There’s something about sitting through the aches and pains of a meditation session without flinching that gives the flame a little more light.
Whether passion is part of your practice or not, learning to endure unpleasantness is an invaluable skill. Life is mostly unpleasant because everything pleasant ends. That’s the First and Second Noble Truths. It’s a harsh view, but it’s realistic and motivating. Buddhism starts with pessimism and moves toward optimism, because most of are pessimists when we start practicing Buddhism—wouldn’t need it if we weren’t.
A part of practice involves accepting and enduring those first two Truths. For people with an easy disposition, this unlocks equanimity. For those with some rough edges, it can expose that cheerful fire.
When we see images of those sparse, rough Linji monasteries with their bare-knuckle teachers, that wasn’t for shits and giggles. It was to teach endurance, to hit home those first two Truths so that people could move past them to second pair: the Path and the end of suffering.
I wouldn’t be alive today if I didn’t expect to suffer in life, if I didn’t expect to lose people and things, to be in pain, and to get older and get sick. I also wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t trust that there’s another way, a Middle Way that cuts to the quick through all the bullshit. These are the only expectations worth keeping along for the ride in practice. Once self-interest has dropped off, then those expectations can go as well.
All of this allows a gentle ferocity to shine if you’re passionate, and a vibrant serenity to to shine if you lean serene. In both cases, the threat is forgetting that we and all that we love are not yet beyond the clutches of time. in both cases, the Way demands our full attention, it demands to be indistinguishable from our day-to-day lives.
There’s no precise method to unbind passion. It’s a natural aspect of a view, practice, and ethics that fit with the tools we bring to the trade. When that equation is right, these enlightened qualities will begin to shine by their own light without having to borrow it from elsewhere.