No Big Deal

I love my wife. And I tell her “I love you”—a lot. When we wake up, when one of us leaves, when we text, when we meet up again, when we go to bed. When she’s tired and uses Japanese grammar for English and sounds hilarious. When our kids are adorable. I just say it. If you were to read a transcript of our daily conversations, you’d probably determine that “I love you,” for me, no longer has any meaning or serves any purpose.

Here’s the beautiful thing: you’d be right. In the beginning, of course, it meant a lot. And it did a lot. I no longer remember the details of the first time I told her (or anyone) “I love you,” but I know I planned for it. I was nervous. Guaranteed, I thought it would change things—my own sense of commitment, the atmosphere between us, how she saw me. It meant things were going to the next level.

And for a long time after, those little stories continued. I really did love her, but “I love you” was transactional. I’d say it in hopes of making her feel good, or of making me feel like a good person. Or I’d say it as a way of smoothing something over, as a reminder that everything’s OK. Or because I thought, well, this is something we do now. If I didn’t say it one day, I’d think that I’d failed. I’d dropped the ball.

But now? I don’t expect anything from “I love you”—no magic, no reward, no orchestra. It doesn’t make my wife weak in the knees; it’s more like a sound I make, or like breathing. She says it too, of course. We pass the phrase back and forth, and the actual words don’t seem to matter much.

When I say I love you, I don’t think I mean “I love you” anymore, not really. I don’t consider “I” or “you.” I’ve been saying this constantly for about fifteen years—now, it’s shorthand for something too big and too complicated to say in words. It includes my entire sense of commitment; it’s my past, and it’s my direction. It’s code. I like to think I also express it in lots of other, nonverbal, ways as well. But “I love you” is the most direct. It’s honest. I just don’t know exactly what it means anymore.

I don’t know what zazen means, either, but I used to think I did. I knew what I wanted from it and what it meant about me. And I thought it was something I did—there was a subject and an object. But after twenty-five years of it, more than anything, it just feels honest. There’s something we recognize in that posture—we know it when we see it, and we know it when we do it. There’s peace and power and poise of a kind we intuitively grasp, and that all adds up to—something. Something I want to express. And the best way I know is to simply do it.

At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of doing something—anything, but especially zazen—for its own sake. Not for gain, not as preparation for something else, but as a complete activity.

I mention this idea when I first give instructions in zazen, but just to plant a seed. I don’t expect anyone to sit in that way on the first day or the first year, or really even in the first decade. We want something from this practice. That’s natural. We want enlightenment or clarity or calm, or maybe we just want to be the kind of person who does Buddhist things. We want to do it right. We want a gold star. Or total liberation, but at least a gold star.

But just because it’s hard to bring a non-seeking mind to zazen doesn’t mean we don’t know what that is. We do, if we look. We know about doing something for its own sake.

This is my simple understanding of practice—to do something over and over, until finally it just means what it is. I love you. It’s not a big deal, but it’s something I need to say.

I moved to Halifax from Japan more than two years ago, and since then, much of my energy has gone into Zen Nova Scotia. Things I might otherwise have written down turned into talks—nearly a hundred of them can be found here. I’m humbled by the continued life of this blog; I want to spend more time here. And I’m grateful for the correspondences and connections that it’s provided me along the way. Thank you. -koun