THE BLOG

No Delusions Doesn't Mean No Emotions

04/05/2013 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013

In my last blog post I described various misunderstandings about the Buddhist term "emptiness," and included a section on emotional misunderstandings. One I didn't mention, but which is widespread among meditation Buddhists, is the idea that a person who has realized emptiness has transcended all negative emotion such as fear, anger, jealousy or anxiety. In fact, while emotions are transformed in various ways by Buddhist practice, the point is not to eliminate them, but be fully cognizant of them. We welcome each emotion as an opportunity to deepen practice. In fact a rich and full emotional life is needed to fulfill the Bodhisattva vow to liberate beings. Before you can liberate beings, you have to have strong feelings for them.

Six years ago Zen teacher Grace Schireson (Abbess of Empty Nest Zendo and author of "Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters") and I co-founded a Buddhist seminary -- called the Shogaku Zen Institute -- for priests and other Buddhist leaders to learn the leadership and psychological skills necessary to be a balanced and effective spiritual leader. Grace and I had observed that the traditional Zen training both in Japan and America, while focusing on meditation and monastic living was emphasized, was neglecting what in traditional seminaries are called "pastoral skills" -- how to deal with your own and others' emotions, how to relate effectively to others, how to manage conflict, both individually and in groups, and how to express the teaching as an authentic human being. After six years of developing our priest training program -- we named it SPOT -- we are writing a book about what we learned. In the introductory chapter, Grace addresses the issue of emotions as follows:

Most Western practitioners did not enter Buddhist practice through their family or community ... Consequently, we lost a great deal of potential emotional resources when we turned away from family relationships and wisdom. To be sure, all families have their own unpleasant patterns, but in Asian Buddhist families, one learns reliance on common sense and kind relationships in Buddhist practice rather than a flight away from responsibility and feeling. Children get the feeling of devotion from sitting on their grandmother's lap during Buddhist services. They learn to follow principles of honesty and integrity from their parents and grandparents. Their behavior and kindness arises in the context of human emotion and relationship, not in an absence of personal intimacy or in an abstract belief and adherence to "detachment." The promise of future enlightenment written about in books and spoken of by teachers led us away from personal relationships, emotional maturity and individuation.

We are only now seeing some of the costs of an idealized Buddhist practice that has been freed of "all hang-ups."

Grace's point is that most meditation Buddhists in the West did not grow up in the positive emotional surrounding of a Buddhist family, community and culture. Thus we have tended to have a more conceptual and idealized picture of what Buddhism is and what its mature practitioners look and act like.

That said, Buddhist texts themselves, in the absence of a tradition of living practitioners, can come across as somewhat idealized. The Arhat path of the Theravada tradition is described in the Abhidharma as a long process leading to the eventual disappearance of all negative or afflictive emotions. Technical texts for monks are one thing; the vivid reality of the human realm is another. One prominent Western Buddhist has said, "I have met most of the important living Asian teachers and I have never met one who didn't sometimes get angry."

What's more, the Bodhisattva Path of the Mahayana explicitly rejects personal perfection in favor of a vow to help all living beings. In Zen it is said that after even awakening, Bodhidharma (the founder of Zen) and even the Buddha himself continue their practice. In other words, there is always spiritual work to do. In the Mahamudra tradition of Tibetan Buddhism there is a vow "not to give up one's neuroses." In order for the Bodhisattva to maintain "the living being feeling" (a phrase from the Vimalakirti Sutra) he/she honors all emotions, negative and positive. For the Mahayana path, emotions themselves are wisdom gates. In other words, we liberate anger within the midst of anger; we liberate greed while feeling greed. To use a technical term, these afflictive emotions become "self-liberating" -- but only while you experience them!

In his book "Healing Anger," the Dalai Lama goes even further. Acknowledging that there is a place for anger in Buddhism (for example in the face of extreme injustice) he says, "In some cases for a Bodhisattva NOT to get angry is a violation of the precepts." This stands in contrast to the culture in some Buddhist centers where a seemingly calm, emotionless demeanor is seen as a sign of high status and spiritual advancement.

The precepts in Buddhism about how to handle and express emotions are subtle and precise. For example, practicing right or appropriate speech doesn't mean only to say nice things. Even if we are experiencing strong emotion, we make an effort to express it in a way that minimizes harm to others and opens us to the possibility of dialogue leading to resolution. We also have the precept "not to harbor ill-will." This doesn't mean not to have ill-will, or even not to express ill-will, but not to "harbor it" -- that is, not to keep its flame alive, revisiting it over and over. My teacher Suzuki Roshi once said, "Sometimes you may get angry: Raaaagh! Like thunder. But then it is gone. That is not so bad." He did not routinely get angry, but when he did he was like that. A minute later he was laughing and joking -- not harboring.

This business of emotions in Buddhist practice will undoubtedly take us a long time to understand, because its living truth stems from Buddhist family, culture, personal example and oral teaching more than from books and commentaries. We need to be patient with ourselves and others, trying various methods and approaches to see what leads to genuine spiritual growth and what is a blind alley.