The word “love” doesn’t arise that much in Buddhist practice. We usually speak in terms of compassion, but real compassion is real love. It’s not a love that is bound by feelings, nor is it a love that’s devoid of feelings. Vimalakirti said, “It’s not sentimental,” in the sense that it’s not tethered to or dependent upon feelings. If we can only love when we have the feeling of love then the love is limited by our clinging to desired feelings. If you can only help someone if you like that person, or if the way they look appeals to you, or if their problem is convenient for you, then you won’t be able to help very many people. That’s the tethering aspect of being ruled by the emotions. So what is this love that he speaks about?
In formal training the teacher-student relationship is primary. Although it’s made very clear that the teacher is not one’s parent, in the beginning there is a kind of dynamic where the student approaches the teacher as a parent because the teacher is seen as the holder of the knowledge, and thus of power. One of the things I’ve always really valued about the Zen tradition is that the teacher does not take power from the student, even as the student wants to give it to the teacher. The teacher meets the student knowing that they are fully endowed with enlightened nature. All skillful means in training and practice arise from this.
Caoshan said, “In the moment you encounter Caoshan, the one that you’re seeking will be instantly revealed.” He’s not talking about getting to know him in the conventional sense. He’s talking about knowing him, meeting the Buddha, eyeballto- eyeball, exchanging breaths. This is a deep intimacy. So the teacher is constantly turning the student back upon her own resources, especially in those moments when the student feels she has none. As the student seeks the dharma outside herself, the teacher tirelessly turns the student around so she can return home. It is only here that all of us realize our ultimate responsibility to everyone and everything. This is the birthplace of the bodhisattva.
I remember when I was around six years old and swimming in our neighborhood pool with my parents. I said to my mother, “I want to go home.” She said, “We’re not ready to leave yet.” “I want to go home, I’m going to go home,” I said. She said, “You can’t go home by yourself.” Our house was on the other side of the road and I wasn’t allowed to cross the road by myself. But I told her, “I’m going!” I turned around and went home. And they let me do it, probably following me at a distance. When they got home a little later, my father spanked me. This was the first and only time that he ever did that so it made an impression on me. They had allowed me to make my own choice, they had given me that measure of freedom, and then I had to face the consequences of my action. Even in my little child’s mind I knew there was something important happening. I had some beginning recognition of action and accountability, of taking responsibility.