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"What's Love Got to Do With It?" Zen Priest Gives a Talk About the Emotions

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

Ryumon leads a discussion on Buddhism and emotions during lunch at the Bodman Lounge.

Emotion: a rollercoaster ride that can have you floating through the sky and crumpled into a weeping ball of fear. Local Zen priest Ryumon Sensei recently joined Smith students and community members in the Chapel's Bodman Lounge to discuss dealing with the emotions from a Buddhist perspective. A homemade lunch of lasagna, salad, and cookies rounded out the event.

During introductions, Ryumon requested that students explain their reasons for coming. Some had a strong interest in Buddhism, some were just looking for a little insight into their feelings. One student said, "I like to think I can control my emotions, but I know I can't, and I need to work on accepting that."

The next part of the talk was an experiment: Ryumon rang a bell and asked us to observe our reactions. Many spoke of stillness and calm, a few of tension, but all noticed that their response was as much physical as it was mental. "Emotion is definitely a physiological phenomenon," said Ryumon. Just think about what happens when you're afraid: your heart rate increases. And when you're in love? Your heart rate increases. On the level of the body, there are parallels.

The Buddhists acknowledge this mind-body interplay in emotion. In fact, there is no one word for "emotion" in Pali or Sanskrit, the Buddhist canonical languages. The concept is tied instead to the word vedana, which means "feeling," in the sense of sensation. For Buddhists, however, there are six senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing, and mind. There are wholesome and unwholesome feelings, and our task on earth is to cultivate the wholesome and free ourselves from the unwholesome.

The means to this wholesome cultivation is chiefly meditation, which trains us to notice very precisely what exactly is happening in both body and mind when emotion arises. With this kind of accurate perception, we will more easily recognize the three poisons of jealousy, anger, and delusion, and be better able to avoid them.

Some students wondered how it was possible to love without giving rise to the desire for possession that can so easily lead to jealousy and which is itself a form of suffering. Another member of the audience mentioned that in China, her home country, there are two kinds of love: small love, which is what we usually think of when we say "I love my mother" or "I love my wife," and big love, which is usually felt for all humanity, and is unconditional, no strings attached, and just about loving, with no worry about being loved. Ryumon listened and then exclaimed "You should be the one up here!"

For me, the most useful tip to come out of the discussion was given by Ryumon near the end. "If we don't analyze why [an emotion] is there," she said, "If we just stay with the experience of an emotion rather than creating a story about it, it passes in 90 seconds." During a stressful moment of travel during break, I tried to breathe and forget all the reasons I was feeling anxious, forget even that I could label this emotion "anxiety," and simply feel what I was feeling. I stayed tense for a minute or so, but then the feeling began to dissolve, lacking the continual irritation that my thinking about it provided. I opened my eyes and felt nothing but peace, calm, and joy that I was on a trip.