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
My experience too, Koun! You’ve said it so beautifully.
Wise and kind, very subtle but, by no means, arcane. Bless you, sir. As Feralmonk put it, “My experience, too.”
Thirty minutes ago I just hoped this blog would resume its activity – not in a very hopeful way actually: I felt as if it was impossibile, even though it was not. Then I searched and clicked, ready to re-read old words. Instead what I found was an “I love Zen” t-shirt and a new post. And the date was today’s date.
Satori often tastes like a coincidence to me. I keep sitting and I feel my whole body whispering, “Oh, that’s funny, I just needed this”. But then I stand up and I notice it’s still going on. What? It’s all around me, within me and beyond. Always. How can a coincidence be continuous? If it is, does it stop being a coincidence? If it’s not a big deal, does it stop being meaningful? Yet that’s what the present moment is – oh, I needed this; oh, I needed this.
And it’s continuous, but whenever I just notice it, it never comes without a sense of surprise.
So there’s the other side of the tongue – zazen still tastes like an exception, even though it’s continuous; it’s still worth exploring; it’s bottomless. It’s Suzuki’s “Not always so”, and Dogen’s flowers falling and weeds growing. It’s the box containing the universe in which the same box is contained, like cosmic mudras. Still funny. It seems paradoxical for something to be both a continuous phenomenon and a coincidence. I feel as if I should pick one side and stand for it. Instead I pick none and sit for it.
I read your entire blog a year or so ago; no, maybe it was two years – I hadn’t begun reading Dogen yet, I think. I don’t know. Anyway, I discovered your talks last month – starting from a video on YouTube about action -, and I listen and re-listen to them. Sometimes I think zen is so much better expressed in orality: had I not any experience in English, I’d still find your voice meaningful and clear; not an easy fact to face for a writer as I want to be. Yet, as far as I know, I might be an exception for someone, and even if there was just the smallest probability for it to happen, I can’t really think of not trying at all. Your written words reminded me of this. They encouraged me. Thank you.
As I read this blog post and wrote this reply, I listened to this piece of a coincidence and I hope you give it a listen. “Luna” is the moon – it reminds me of the fact we all have the very same cosmic roof above our heads. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pH9bxeJjCq0
A pair of young Italian eyes and ears are reading your words, listening your voice, trying to cook some coincidence.
What a lovely surprise to find a new post from you Koun. I always get so much inspiration from your writing and practice. Keep on truckin’ 🙂
Hurrah so pleased you are back blogging again! Makes me pine for a) my own blog that languishes untended in cyberspace and b) my practice which one way or another has faltered since the birth of my daughter..
Gratitude and rusty gassho N
This was a nice surprise. I so enjoy your posts. They are clear and lucid, and a breath of fresh air in a sea of Zen obfuscation. Please continue to post regularly.
I for one would love to see you start posting here again. This post was great.David Guy
‘ I don’t know what zazen means, either …’ – One of the finest expressions of zazen I have ever come across. And this post. Thanks Koun for these fabulous lines.
Koun, could you please deliver a sermon on compassion?
Wonderful to have you blogging again!
maybe it’s like the dragon gate – – – that many over and over again i love you carries the invisible cover of golden stars