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claude anshin thomas on moving beyond or concepts of love

Question: What place does love have in your Zen practice?

Response: In truth I think that the whole notion of love, as we commonly conceive of it, is dangerous. There are so many ideas about what love is and so much harm created in the name of love. Love seems to be a word that is used to express a powerful emotional reaction to someone or something, and this strong emotional reaction might not really have anything to do with love.

What I have personally discovered through my Zen practice, and what I understand from the Buddhist teachings that I have studied, is that when we deal with words like “love,” there must also exist its opposite. So, wherever there is love, there also must be hate. The two cannot exist independently from one another. Too often we only want to see love without its counterpart. When its counterpart shows up, we are shocked, or we pretend it is not there because it does not match with our ideas of what we want to be happening.

In Buddhist practice, and in Zen practice in particular, the focus of our intention is to come to a place of understanding beyond the intellect. Through Zen practice I have become able to recognize that in me exists both love and hate.

I’m often asked about love during public talks and retreats, and I often turn to the standard examples of what “great love” is. The story of Romeo and Juliet is a classic example of how Western culture defines love. But how did that story end? Both died. Is this great love or something else? Obsession? Grasping?

How many times in our personal lives have we met our “great love”? Usually more than once. When a new “great love” doesn’t fulfill our expectations, we usually ignore what the world is communicating to us. We simply go off again in search of “the one.” But always we are driven by the press to fulfill our ideas of love, those ideas that have been programed into our being through our family lineages and our culture.

In exploring the concept of love, I often point to my own childhood. Every time I was physically punished by my parents--after I was pushed, slapped, hit, beaten--my parents would tell me that the punishment that I received was because they loved me. This violence and humiliation was presented to me as a form of love. My story is not unique. It was then only natural that, as a young man, I felt that out of love for my country I must be willing to fight and give up my life. In any conversation about love, we need to be willing to see how we have been conditioned to construct our ideas of it, and we must become willing to look at where these ideas have led us.

Extract of an Interview with Claude AnShin Thomas by Barbara Voedisch

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